FACT CHECK: Are foreign language protests really forbidden in Germany?

Paul Krantz
Paul Krantz - [email protected]
FACT CHECK: Are foreign language protests really forbidden in Germany?
“Free Palestine from German guilt” is written on a banner held at a demonstration in front of the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

After a group of Irish protestors were told by Berlin police to stop singing songs in Gaelic while they held a pro-Palestine event, The Local looks at whether foreign language protests are really outlawed in Germany's capital.


Around 40 Irish activists and Berlin residents were attending a ‘conversation circle’ in solidarity with Palestine on Friday last week – in which songs and conversations were had in Irish (Gaelic) language – when police arrived and told them to stop and disperse, according to the Irish Independent.

Police on the scene explained that only German, English and sometimes Arabic language could be used in protest. They cited concerns that banned speech, such as speeches or chants glorifying violence, could be used in foreign languages and noted that they didn’t have an Irish translator.

An Instagram post by a group called Irish Bloc Berlin, which describes itself as a “Berlin-based platform for solidarity with Palestine”, called the move unjust and unconstitutional.

On the platform they also posted select speeches made at the demonstration with English subtitles: “Myself and my friends from Ireland are here today to show our solidarity with Palestine and stand against genocide…” began a comment by a protestor identified as Aodhán. He added: “We also stand against the brutal and shameful repression of the Palestine Solidarity movement by the police.”

Ireland is known to be home to a relatively high number of people who express sympathy for Palestine, partly because many Irish people see similarities between the British colonisation of Ireland and Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine.

The Irish protest came a week after German authorities shut down the co-called “Palestine Congress”, just an hour after it began. The event was planned to be a three day event in support of Palestine held in front of the Bundestag.

An Irish woman named Caoimhe McAllister, who attended the protest, told the Irish Independent the action was intended “to highlight what we see as a really worrying human rights concern”. 

McAllister added that she had witnessed police cracking down on Arabic speakers during protests, including at least one arrest. Her group wanted to show how unfair it is to outlaw a particular language for use of protest: “We just had to highlight this by speaking in Irish”.


Are language bans legal in Germany?

Asked for clarification on whether foreign language protests were allowed in Germany, a Berlin police spokesperson told The Local that they "decide on restrictions for assemblies on a case-by-case basis".

The Irish protest took place within a protest camp which has been stationed in the sculpture park west of Heinrich-von-Gagern-Straße since April 8th. This particular camp is subject to the restriction that speeches can only be given in German and English and, at certain times, in Arabic, according to the Berlin Police.

The police spokesperson added: "In addition to this restriction, the assembly leader was informed on the occasion of the rally on April 19th that no exclamations or chants in Hebrew or Gaelic may take place. This decision is based on the Berlin Freedom of Assembly Act."

In this case, the Berlin Police say that their own risk forecast suggested that "the assembly could lead to speeches or chants glorifying violence with potentially criminal content", and therefore police officers on the scene needed the ability to hear what was being said so that they could enforce restrictions imposed on banned speech, like speech that incites violence, for example.

"For some languages, this is only possible with an interpreter. As there was no interpreter available for Hebrew and Gaelic in this case, it was only possible to act in advance with appropriate restrictions," the police said.


Police powers are devolved in Germany, meaning that law enforcement is constitutionally vested solely with the states, so the way foreign language protests are treated may be different in other parts of the country.

Following the reconstruction, after WWII, Germany has gained a largely positive reputation for its commitment to protect freedom of speech and the right to protest. 

A key exception to this is banned speech, which in Germany includes: speech that incites hatred against people based on their racial, national, religious or ethnic background and insults that assault people based on those same factors.

But following Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7th, 2023, and the steady rise of pro-Palestine activism in response to Israel’s war of retaliation that has killed more than 30,000 civilians, activists and civil rights organisations alike are beginning to question if Germany’s speech restrictions are being applied fairly.

PODCAST: Germany's cannabis law explained and Berlinale backlash


Civil rights in decline in Germany?

In a recent report by global civil society alliance CIVICUS, the state of civic space in Germany was downgraded. 

CIVICUS Monitor researchers documented German authorities breaking up pro-Palestinian protests in late 2023 with excessive force -- deploying pepper spray and water cannons and arresting hundreds.

The CIVICUS notes that German authorities have also used disproportionate measures against the Last Generation climate movement, including raids on homes, seizing bank accounts and blocking websites in response to non-violent civil disobedience.

"Germany used to be one of the most free countries in Europe…" said Tara Petrović, CIVICUS Monitor's Europe and Central Asia researcher.

"Germany's downgrade should be a wake-up call for the country and continent to change course."

The CIVICUS report notes Berlin and Frankfurt specifically, as places where authorities banned pro-Palestinian protests.

"The German authorities' actions against activists exercising legitimate rights to association and peaceful assembly are not conducive to a democratic state," said Petrović. 


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also