Free speech is protected in Germany, but it’s not a free-for-all. It’s well-known that it’s illegal to openly praise Hitler, deny the Holocaust, or display Third Reich insignia. You’d also do well to think before you insult somebody in public. Some insults are protected as legitimate opinions, but other, particularly grave insults can get you hauled before a court for engaging in "vilification" that interferes with another’s "personality rights" to dignity and honor.
The Frankfurt Regional Court recently decided an interesting case involving these issues. Here’s the cast of characters.
The defendant: Henryk M. Broder, is an unmistakable figure on the German press landscape. He’s a Jew, a journalist, and generally supportive of Israeli policy. I once saw him on a TV chat show strongly defending the war in Iraq. You could say Broder doesn’t run from controversy. In fact, you could say Broder runs toward it. Very fast.
The plaintiffs: Abraham Melzer and Hajo Mayer, both Jews, and Mayer a concentration-camp survivor. Melzer published Mayer’s book "The End of Jewishness," which strongly attacked Israeli policy. Indeed, Mayer even compared Israeli policy to that of the Third Reich. They came to Leipzig to promote the book.
As the FAZ reports here (German), Broder was not amused. On his website, he ran a piece under the title "How two Jews ‘made the Adolf’ for the Leipzigers," and accused the two of being (very approximate translation) "capacitors for applied Jew-phobia." The published and author were, in turn, also not at all pleased, and went to court to obtain a court order forbidding Broder, in turn, to accuse them of "making the Adolf" and being accomplices to anti-Semtisim.
Broder appealed, citing his freedom to express his opinions, and there was a trial:
The visibly irritated presiding judge had to listen to a presentation on how Jews can also be anti-semites. The philosopher Theodore Lessing analyzed this phenomenon in his 1930 classic "Jewish Self-Hatred" and described it using various examples, including the Vienna philosopher Otto Weininger. … "Anti-semitism is a disease that can befall anyone," Broder lectured the judge and audience.
The publisher Melzer then took the stand.
Melzer, who was born in Uzbekistan, nevertheless grew up in Israel, where part of his family lives. From his perspective, he sees in the anti-semitism accusation an outrageous vilification, indeed, the gravest insult one can inflict on a Jew. "To be compared with Hiter is a catastrophe for every Jew." He himself, he maintains, is a proud Jew who loves Israel, but not its policies.
The verdict: Broder’s use of the phrase "making the Adolf" or "doing the Adolf" (no, I’m not exactly sure what Broder meant by that either) can’t be forbidden, because it’s just a statement of opinion. However, he is still forbidden from insinuating that Melzer and Mayer are somehow accomplices to anti-Semitism.
The dispute goes even further, thanks to the magic of the Internet. Here, on Broder’s homepage, you can read him accusing Melzer of not paying him fees for something he once wrote, and then reprinting a letter from Melzer (not quite sure where it comes from) accusing Broder of generally being "not clever, not charming, not funny, not entertaining, and not even a good businessman" who can’t get his "written excrement" published anywhere and must therefore do it himself.
Perhaps there will be a Round 2 of the court proceedings? I can’t wait…