In any other country, the recent announcement would have been greeted with shrugs: British publisher Peter McGee wants to sell excerpts of Adolf Hitler’s racist tome Mein Kampf in Germany.
Of course, there’s a reason the Bavarian state government, which holds the copyright to Mein Kampf, has fought McGee’s plans and even received a court injunction this week blocking them.
It’s the same reason anti-Semitic speech is illegal in Germany, as is the open display of the swastika or holocaust denial – and it’s why publishing Mein Kampf would incense so many.
This is where Hitler began his campaign to exterminate Jews, socialists, homosexuals and Roma, among countless others. Germany can never let this tragic Nazi history repeat itself. So the country has put in place some of the toughest laws regulating “hate speech” in the western world.
But, nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, banning free speech in Germany is doing nothing to prevent far-right hatred. In fact, it mystifies it, making extremist propaganda more appealing to those yearning for primary source information.
Worst of all, attempting to censor hate speech suggests that the German people have learned nothing from their dark past.
It implies the country is inherently racist, that young Germans share guilt for the Holocaust, that without patronising rules they will inevitably repeat the awful sins of their grandfathers.
Of course, there’s the clear and present danger posed by the country’s extreme right-wing scene. But sceptical young people don’t take kindly to being told something is evil without being able to examine it in all its unvarnished horror (technically Nazi propaganda can be reproduced for educational purposes, but it often comes heavily censored or with invasive commentary).
We know from the recent past – especially the revelations of neo-Nazi killers among us – that the most extreme elements of the far-right underground are bolder than we thought and thriving out of sight of mainstream society.
But we don’t know how strong they really are. Because they are forced into the shadows we must rely on reports from the government and activist organisations to gauge their danger – and these groups have their own agenda to push. In an environment where it’s preferable to censor speech rather than counter it, young people can get sucked into the world of right-wing extremism without being exposed to differing perspectives. In an increasingly interconnected world, it’s foolish to think that society’s restrictions will prevent them from encountering extremism in the first place.
The entire point of banning speech in Germany is being defeated every day on the internet.
The solution is simple: Allow every perspective to be heard freely. Let the neo-Nazis spout their hate. Let them wave their flags. Let Mein Kampf be read freely by the masses. But let’s make sure we shout them down and educate the next generation to think critically and reject their evil propaganda.
Germany knows its painful history and Germans want to confront it. We’re well past laws that stifle even odious speech.
Rather than fretting that the publication of Mein Kampf will somehow damage society, we should view it for what it is: A first chance to directly confront those who hate.