I’m doing research on Germans’ views on criminal justice at the moment, and I thought I’d share a few interesting facts. You sometimes hear Germans say things like "we Germans" are against the death penalty or that "Germany" is against the death penalty. And, in fact about 50-55% of Germans currently say they are are opposed to the death penalty when they are given the abstract question "Are you for or against the death penalty?" About 25-35% state that they are in favor, according to most recent polls.
However, as with all polling questions, the specific phrasing is critical, as are the "national mood" and press coverge just before the poll. An example: on page 9 of this paper, a criminologist from the University of Kiel relates a 1996 poll which featured the following three questions:
Are you basically for or against the death penalty?
Are you for the death penalty for someone who commits the sexual murder of a child, or are you against the death penalty in all cases?
Are you for the death penalty when someone abducts and murders another person, or are you against the death penalty in all cases?
The answers were:
For the death penalty in general: 37%
For the death penalty for sexual murders of children: 60%
For the death penalty for murder after abduction: 50%
This is not surprising; ncreased support for the death penalty when survey respondents are asked about a horrible kind of crime is always higher than support for the death penalty in the abstract. The late 1990s saw a large increase in punitive sentiment in German society (including a 13-point rise in support for capital punishment). Support for capital punishemnt has gone down since then, but nevertheless, a 2007 survey reveals that 86% of Germans would like to see those convicted of molesting children locked up for life (G).
I suspect that ordinary Germans have ideas about criminal justice that are not that far removed from citizens in other countries. There is a dramatic difference in support for the death penalty between Germany and some of its neighbors to the East. However, that difference in support would probably be reduced if you asked questions about specific kinds of very serious crimes, as was done in the 1996 poll. Put another way, 35% of Germans and 70% of Poles might say they favor the death penalty in the abstract, because the average German probably associates capital punishment with George W. Bush or China. But when you focus their attention on the latest Lustmord that dominated headlines in their neighborhood newspaper, average Germans and Poles will probably begin to think a bit more alike.
Oh, and one other interesting fact. According to the 1998-2002 Allensbacher Institute public-opinion research yearbook, (p.677), the political party whose members are most likely to support capital punishmment are…the post-Communist PDS (42%). Go figure.