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Freedom of speech under attack in Germany? Hardly.

Autorenbild Benjamin Restle
Benjamin Restle
December 2, 2019

Some conservative commentators claim that anyone expressing non-mainstream opinions in Germany today risks being shunned. They argue that free speech is in jeopardy. But the opposite is the case, writes Benjamin Restle.

Deutschland Anti-Rassismus-Demo
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Marks

In recent times, conservative-leaning commentators in Germany have claimed that open debate is increasingly being stifled. They argue that we're no longer permitted to openly discuss a whole host of taboo subjects, and that freedom of speech is under attack.

Freedom of speech is thriving

But that's not true. On the contrary, the rise and electoral success of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party — which promotes economic liberalism and social conservatism, yet also panders to the far-right — means we now have a broad spectrum of opinions represented in public discourse.

DW's Benjamin Restle
DW's Benjamin Restle Image: DW/B. Geilert

The AfD gives a voice to those favoring free markets and traditional societal values, feeding these views into the political process and the media. The party's rise began with its fierce criticism of the euro and political efforts to rescue the currency. Today, it holds seats in Germany's national parliament, the Bundestag, and all 16 of Germany's state-level legislatures. The AfD rejects a ban on old diesel cars, and dismisses talk of global warming as "climate hysteria."

No other political party in Germany propagates such views. And while surveys show that such views are shared only by a minority of Germans today, they certainly deserve their place in public discourse. It is thanks to the AfD that this is the case. The party has, therefore, broadened the scope of opinions present in public and political discourse today. Freedom of speech, in short, is thriving.

There must be a limit, too

At the same time, there must be a limit to what we can consider acceptable opinions. Far-right figures in the AfD, after all, have been doing their utmost to normalize right-wing extremist views in recent years. Party co-leader Alexander Gauland, for example, downplayed Germany's Nazi past and the Holocaust as a "speck of bird poop" in German history.

Read more: Opinion: The clear line between hate speech and free speech

The leader of Thuringia's AfD parliamentary group, Björn Höcke, dismissed Berlin's Holocaust memorial as "a monument of shame," and stoked racist prejudices when he described African asylum-seekers as inherently prone to procreate. AfD lawmaker Markus Frohnmaier, meanwhile, engaged in blatant xenophobic scaremongering when he proclaimed on Twitter that Germans had a duty to face down "lethal knife-wielding migrants.”

Statements like these trivialize Germany's dark past and propagate racist sentiments. And they encourage anyone with a latent or firmly held far-right worldview to openly express it. This is a highly dangerous state of affairs and no longer has anything to do with a healthy, democratic exchange of diverse opinions.

Let's all take a deep breath

That said, we could do with a more laid-back approach when it comes to opinions we personally disagree with — provided, of course, they don't violate Germany's constitution by, say, stoking xenophobia.

Silencing anyone whose views we disapprove of does not mean they will cease holding them. Doing so could even backfire, allowing them to cast themselves as a mistreated minority silenced by the mainstream. Instead, we should engage in rational, fact-based debate. And let the better argument win.

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