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Clear line between hate speech, free speech

IDZ-Direktor  Dr. Matthias Quent
Matthias Quent
November 24, 2019

From a legal perspective, hate speech can also be covered by freedom of expression. But we cannot tolerate such vitriol, as it attacks the core values of our democracy, writes Matthias Quent.

Deutschland Syxmbolbild Hass im Netz
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rumpenhorst

Earlier in June, local politician Walter Lübcke of Kassel was assassinated by a neo-Nazi extremist. Once again, Germany began debating the interrelation of right-wing vitriol and violence. 

Lawmakers on all levels — the local, state and federal — have received threats. It is not uncommon for mayors of small municipalities to be among those threatened. So when individuals or a vocal minority create a climate of fear, fewer and fewer people are willing to take on such roles and serve their communities.

Intimidation damages our democratic culture

This can have fatal consequences for our democratic culture. Who, apart from those who are deeply ideological, will volunteer to take on a political mandate if the price is to live in fear or reap contempt? The state must be better at protecting all those who are threatened and subjected to violence And society — regardless of party affiliations — must openly support individuals who volunteer to serve their communities.

IDZ-Direktor  Dr. Matthias Quent
Guest columnist Matthias QuentImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Schackow

But this hatred did not come out of nowhere. For years, German lawmakers have turned a blind eye to this vile undercurrent, letting it fester. The state did nothing when German neo-Nazis gunned down migrants, homeless people and left-wing sympathizers. Few, if any, condemned the murder of punks, foreigners and gay people by the extreme right — most likely because they felt no connection to them. Since 1990, 198 people were killed by right-wing extremists in Germany, according to the Amadeu Antonio Foundation. The number of sitting politicians? One. 

It seems that only now, after the death of lawmaker Walter Lübcke, Germany's government and police have woken up to the lethal danger posed by German neo-Nazis. Germany's federal states, or Länder, must strengthen the police and judiciary to this end so that they can more effectively prosecute radicals and protect those who are subjected to hatred and violence.

The funeral service of Walter Lübcke
The funeral service for Walter Lübcke, head of the Kassel regional government, on 13 June. Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pförtner

Internet promotes hate speech

The internet allows people to hurl abuse and insults at others — and even send death threats. This new reality shines a light on human depravity. Online, those spreading vitriols do not even have to look their victims in the eye.

Hateful statements, from a legal perspective, can be classified as opinions. Freedom of speech is an important principle, yet also one with ambivalent consequences: it permits anyone to make derogatory and aggressive statements as long as they do not violent German lawl. But it also enables anyone to take a courageous stand against such views and counter anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and other such ideologies of inequality.

Right now, there is a heated debate within Germany on whether countering discriminating and disparaging comments — which until recently went largely unchallenged until society became more aware of this — constitutes a breach of freedom of speech. After all, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is systematically violating people's human dignity and we must persistently confront the party about this. The party breaches the basic principles of our constitution and whinges that its freedom of speech is being curtailed when it gets challenged on this. The AfD, after all, is more than happy to cast itself as an unfairly treated victim.

Freedom of speech is thriving

In reality, freedom of speech is thriving in Germany. The voices of those who were previously ignored, overlooked or suppressed are now being heard. Journalist Christian Bangel's hashtag #Baseballschlägerjahre (German for #baseballbatyears), for instance, has provided a platform for all those who have been attacked by far-right radicals across Germany.

Read more: Germany's Angela Merkel vows to fight right-wing extremist terrorism

I am among this group of people. And I know all too well what it means to feel hated — and experience violence and fear. 

Those who have emancipated themselves, who have been ostracized and discriminated against must speak up. They must dispel the ignorance and indifference that for decades has existed, and challenge the cultural dominance of those who, for decades, have kept the experiences of the suppressed out of the public sphere.

Now, finally, people in Germany are coming to realize that the far-right is attacking the very core of our democracy. Every hate-filled comment targeting refugees, women, Jewish people, and others is an attack on the liberal democratic order we inhabit.

That is why the majority of German society should show genuine solitary and respect for the "other." For we have learned from German history that there may be a time when there is no-one who could intervene if this hatred continued to fester and grow.

German politician killing

Dr. Matthias Quent is a sociologist and the director of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society (IDZ) in Jena, Thuringia. He authored the German book "Far-right Germany. How the radical right is vying for power and how we can stop them."