How far can you go with satire? After the Paris attacks, organizers of Germany's Rose Monday parades have been asking themselves this very question. In Cologne, they've chosen their theme for 2015: "Je suis Charlie."
"They were brave," says Jacques Tilly, a Carnival float builder from Düsseldorf, referring to the cartoonists at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo who were killed in the Paris terrorist attacks. Above his desk, he's pinned a newspaper clipping with one of their drawings, along with photos of the victims. Next to that are designs for his Rose Monday float.
"When I heard about the attacks, I sat down and thought about what this meant for Europe, and what it meant for satire and humor for us here with Carnival. This attack has hit very close to our work," he says.
Tilly and his team have been thinking about how to best express this attack on freedom of expression in the Carnival parade - but the result will remain top secret until Rose Monday on February 16.
Variations on 'Charlie'
Cologne is quite an open, accepting city. Since time immemorial, the Cologne Carnival Festival Committee has called on citizens to suggest parade themes both of the moment and provocative. Some of these suggestions end up represented by cardboard cutouts on parade floats.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks on January 7, the committee launched a contest to choose its float theme. Fourteen designs, all variations on the "Je suis Charlie" theme, were shortlisted and posted on Facebook. The winning design (seen at top), chosen by more than 2,500 people in an online vote, shows a cartoonist with a red clown nose, shoving a pencil into the barrel of an assassin's gun.
The design fits right in with the Cologne Carnival spirit, says parade leader Christoph Kuckelkorn, adding that the point of the Rose Monday parade is to expose political and social ills. "The exemplary float design chosen on Facebook shows that this is possible, without attacking specific people or their religion," he says.
Cologne carnival-goers don't aim to offend people or religions. Of course, those who are dragged through the mud can still end up feeling hurt. "Religion is the work of man, and the work of man is fallible. Therefore, it's a natural target for satire - no exceptions are made," says Tilly.
No fear - but caution
Nevertheless, the organizers of the big Carnival parades in Cologne, Mainz and Düsseldorf agree: It's about criticizing people and their mistakes, not religions in general. "For me, that means targeting the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, or the way Islam treats women," says Tilly.
There was, for example, his float featuring the burqa women. It showed four women, progressively covered by headscarves and burqas, until the last disappeared completely in a sack. But, says Tilly, he would never build a float featuring the Prophet Muhammad, or God.
"We would never show Muhammad, no matter what. We don't want to attack the foundations of religion, but rather the failings of the individual," he says.
Even so, this hasn't always been without trouble. "I've received quite a few angry emails," says Tilly. "I must say, the strongest reactions have actually come from Christians - on the subject of abortion." Nevertheless, Tilly doesn't plan to be silenced. "I am a humanist, I am a radical advocate of the idea of human rights and especially the idea of self-determination," he says. "Of course, that has political implications, in that I defend freedom of expression and freedom of the press."
Christians often more critical than Muslims
Even in Mainz, freedom of expression is important for Carnival. Nevertheless, organizers had long discussions over how to address the attacks, and whether terror in general was a suitable topic for a Rose Monday parade.
In the end, you have a certain responsibility, says Richard Wagner, head of the Mainz Carnival Association. "It's a public event, and unfortunately we don't know anything about these ideological people." The parade audience needs to be protected, he says. "If you criticize the church and religion, you need to have tolerance, but with them there is only hate."
In Mainz, parade organizers have previously taken on Pope Benedict XVI. Here, he's seen driving into a mosque with his popemobile
Wagner speaks from experience. Years ago, float builder Dieter Wenger criticized Catholic priests and their vow of celibacy. His float featured a blonde woman sitting in a bathtub with a priest, and was entitled "Zöli-Bad" ("celi-bath-y"). It drew heavy criticism, with a group of Catholics determined to prevent his float from taking part - at any price.
Wenger took part in the Rose Monday parade anyway, with heavy police protection. At the end of the parade route, his bathing couple were pelted with Molotov cocktails, and the float driver had to be rescued from the burning wreck.
"It's interesting," says Wenger. "When it comes to the pope, I can do what I want. But when I target Catholics themselves, it's then that they get upset."
When the court jester speaks…
Wenger has rarely targeted Muslims. A few years ago, when a clash between the pope and Islam was in the news, he decided to show Pope Benedict XVI ramming his popemobile into a mosque's minaret, equally targeting both religions. No criticism came from the side of Islam.
As for the attacks in Paris, which targeted not only people, but also freedom of the press and religion, Wenger plans to comment on the issues without making a specific reference to Paris.
"Here, everything is in order," he says. "We have freedom of speech, a free press and freedom of religion, and that's what we're trying to represent."
The Mainz Carnival is represented by a symbolic figure, the Bajazz. With his lantern in hand, he embodies the carnival's court jester. "He seeks truth and justice," says Carnival chairman Richard Wagner.
Forty years ago, the jester spoke of himself in the third person - words that still apply to the Mainz Carnival today: "He will never be swayed, he will never become a tool. He will touch the hot iron, even if it burns his fingers."