A Tale of Two Death-Penalty Polls

European leaders often speak of Europe as a "death-penalty free zone."  Correct, from a legal perspective.

However, claims that "Europeans" themselves oppose the death penalty, or that "Europe has turned against" the death penalty or that it’s inconsistent with "European values" — whatever those statements may mean — are less plausible.  For one thing, the death penalty continues to be quite popular among ordinary citizens in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.  Also, the opposition of ordinary Western Europeans to capital punishment in general or on principle cohabits with solid support for executing people who commit specific kinds of especially heinous murders.  (Obviously inconsistent responses to poll questions are pretty common, which is something to think about whenever you read a poll.)  As I pointed out recently, as late as 1996, 60% of Germans favored executing people who raped and murdered children.

Now some more grist for this mill.  First, here is a poll asking Germans whether they support capital punishment:


As you can see, the number of Germans who favor capital punishment (Dafuer) ranges between 26 and 45%.  Now to another poll on the same subject:


This poll seems to register much greater support for the death penalty.  For instance, in 1976, an average of 35% of Germans favored the death penalty in Poll #1, yet 57% favored it in Poll # 2.  What explains this consistent +/- 20-point difference? 

The question. Poll #1, which was administered by the Allensbacher Institute for public-opinion research, asked voters "Are you for or against the death penalty in general (grundsaetzlich)?"  Poll number two, run by the EMNID Institute, asked "Would you be in favor when a murderer is punished by death when no mitigating circumstances (keine mildernde Umstaende) apply to his case?"*

Again, we see that if the question points the respondent’s attention to particularly heinous kinds of murder, over half of Germans — including many who stated they were opposed to capital punishment in general — have no problem with executions.  It’s possible that this 20-point gap might have narrowed in the intervening 30 years since these polls were done, but I don’t immediately see why that would be the case.

Why am I pointing this out?  Because I came across it during my research and thought it was pretty interesting.  But also because I find the moralizing of European political elites about capital punishment frequently clumsy and misdirected, and I’m not alone

Instead of pretending that "Europe" has somehow collectively turned against capital punishment, European political leaders might think about recognizing openly that they abolished the death penalty despite popular support, and have kept it off the political radar screen despite pockets of support for it even in Western Europe.  Many of these European leaders believe something similar is possible in the United States, and express impatience that it hasn’t happened yet.  But very few of them understand the significant differences in political culture that make the European approache difficult to implement in the States. 

But wait, isn’t there another country that practices executions?  One in which the political leadership (unlike in the U.S.) can implement dramatic changes in public policy without worrying about electoral accountability?  One in which some aspects of the European strategy might therefore have a better (although still extremely slim) chance of success?  Hmmm…

* My source is Karl-Heinz Reuband, "Sanktionsverlangen im Wandel", Koelner Zeitshcrift fuer Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, Vol. 32, 1980, 508-34.  Reuband makes clear that the overall trend in public opinion in Germany since the end of World War II has clearly been toward less punitive public attitudes.