A nation of free thinkers

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12 Jan, 2011 Updated Wed 12 Jan 2011 17:19 CEST
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Germans love free thinkers, but they're apparently not so hot on free speech. The reactions to the Giffords shooting in Arizona have revived the spectre of anti-Americanism in Germany, argues Malte Lehming from Der Tagesspiegel.


Ask a German to sing a traditional German song and they'll hum and haw a bit, then their faces will alternate from pale to red and back again, until finally the embarrassment is cut short by these lines:

Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten?

Sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.

Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger erschießen, es bleibet dabei.

Die Gedanken sind frei!

Thoughts are free, who can guess them?

They fly by like nocturnal shadows.

No one can know them, no hunter can shoot them, and so it will always be.

Thoughts are free!

It's an old song, with a long and moving history, that expresses the yearning for freedom. The Pirate Party adopted it as their campaign anthem in 2009, and older Berliners might remember September 9, 1948, when Ernst Reuter, West Berlin's post-war mayor, stood before the ruins of the Reichstag at the height of the Soviet Union's blockade and called on the "people of the world" not to abandon the city.

After the speech, the song "Thoughts are free" sprang spontaneously from the crowd. Yes, Germans certainly love freedom of thought, and if they could turn those thoughts into actions, the country would have become a foreigner-free zone a long time ago.

But Germans are not so keen on freedom of speech, which is why they limit it with all kinds of laws. And they welcome any opportunity to plead for more restrictions and regulations.

The latest of these opportunities is the horrific attack in Tucson, Arizona on US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The shooting has been used as a chance to crow about the "climate of hate" in the United States, regardless of the question of what exactly motivated a man to kill six people and wound 14 others.

This satisfies two German urges at once. Firstly, it gives them a chance to exercise their wonted anti-Americanism, which has been stifled since the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Now it can run riot again, not with the despised and derided George W. Bush, but by targeting Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement.

The German pressure cooker, long bubbling with accusations of Yankee gun-loving, the death penalty, evangelical Christianity, and rabid anti-government rhetoric, has finally found a way to blow off steam. Apparently the revival of "Evil America" has been bursting to get out quite some time. Any longer, and the "Good German" might have come down with a bad case of prejudicial-dyspepsia.

Secondly, the assertions of a "climate of hate" in the United States have fed the conviction that freedom of speech can be a little too free – in other words, that the rigid German model is superior to the libertarian American approach.

This assertion is good for German self-satisfaction. It pacifies them. But not a single connection has been made between the political climate in the United States and the bloody killings in Tucson – exposing those who insinuate as much as modern Joe McCarthy. Just as the now discredited Senator Joseph McCarthy pursued alleged communists in the 1950s, today's German witch hunters are hunting the likes of Palin and the Tea Party for causing the tragedy in Tucson.

Don't misunderstand me – following the attack by an apparently psychologically-disturbed 22-year-old, the "climate of hate" has been criticized in the United States too. But we shouldn't lose any sleep about America. The freedom of speech is enshrined in the US Constitution, and it is anchored as an ideal deep in the consciousness of American society.

And it’s not just zealous US civil rights lawyers who would probably even defend sending Adolf Hitler on a reading tour of Mein Kampf across America. There are plenty of average US citizens who are equally convinced that a public discourse about wrong ideas is preferable to the suppression of free speech.

We should be more worried about Germany (and Europe). Here, freedom is still a luxury. One can almost feel the subliminal desire to use the Tucson attack to finally ban public appearances by Thilo Sarrazin.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.



2011/01/12 17:19

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