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.

12 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Death-Penalty Polls

  1. I’m glad, every political party in Germany is against the death penalty, so this topic will never be discussed in the media. Hence the poll results are reasonable: If you never thougt or read about a topic you also don’t have an clear opinion–the polls are worthless.

    And why I’m glad? Because I strongy oppose the capital punishment. It’s barbaric, against my religion, against human rights and I don’t want people playing god.


  2. @Andrew:
    I think you are right on the fact that
    people’s attitudes are not so far away from
    each other on this point in Europe and Northern

    There are also more recent polls which support that.
    However, I think acceptance of or desire for capital punishment is overrated by poll results:
    Namely, the polled people know that whatever they
    say, it will not change anything.
    This feels different for topics where change
    is possible (although nobody listens to the man in the street).
    So the interviewees have the opportunity of a statement without commitment.
    This tempts to take a more extreme and
    provocative stand.


  3. This proof is unbeatable. If we in Germany and Yerp only had a true democracy like in the US we’d turn out to be the scum we really are and like in the US would practice what we really wanted: killing prisoners! And since scum doesn’t criticize scum all yerpean objections to the US killing practice would disapear.

    This is hard to stand. I am really ashamed of myself. Not only do I secretly long for killing convicts (at least to about 60%) I also am not democratic enough to practice these secret desires like true democrats do in the home of the brave. It is truely hard to learn the truth about the inner self … 😦

    Ashes on my head, heap of ashes. Would it help if I promised embetterment?


  4. “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.”

    Where exactly are those “pockets of support”? If there really is support for it, why isn’t it brought forward publicly? What would stop those supporting the death penalty forming interest groups, political movements or parties? Nowhere in Europe, except for Poland maybe, one has noticed anything similar to a rally of supporters of capital punishment in the last 30 years. Can you find any support groups if you google “pro-Todesstrafe” in any European language? It is thus not only the political leaders that are against death penalty, also none of the opposition parties advocate for it.


  5. What Norbert said.
    And just to add to it, the topic normally (unless asked after a particularly hideous murder) doesn´t seem to be a high priority for most Germans. If it were, some politicians would try to use it.

    I also do have a slight problem with polls ending in 1980. Are there no newer data?

    And poll 2 seems to include an assumption.
    “Would you be in favor when a murderer is punished by death when no mitigating circumstances (keine mildernde Umstaende) apply to his case?”

    The question implies that the convicted is without doubt guilty. I wonder how the results would have been if poll 2 had asked that question, followed by a statement that errors are possible and sooner or later an innocent gets executed?


  6. First, the pockets of support I referred to are in Western Europe. We don’t need to talk about pockets of support in Eastern Europe, because the majority of Eastern Europeans favors capital punishment outright. The ‘pockets of support’ I mentioned in Western Europe refer to the fact, which I’ve provided plenty of proof for, that if you phrase poll questions to refer to particularly serious murders, ordinary Western Europeans who claim to oppose capital punishment in general will change their mind and support it when asked about the kinds of crimes it’s used for in countries like Japan and the U.S. (i.e., particularly serious murders). There’s nothing special about this; in fact, capital punishment is popular all over the world. And as for newer data, I linked to a 1996 poll in the original post.

    As for your questions, Norbert and Detlef, you aren’t looking hard enough for the pockets of political support for capital punishment. They’re all over Western Europe. Politicians definitely “do try to use” the death penalty in Western Europe. The NPD and the DVU party in Germany both openly support capital punishment, and Christian Riesen published a book not long ago called Todesstrafe muss sein. Over 40 French parliamentarians introducted a bill to permit execution of terrorists in 2004. I could cite you many more examples, actually — they’re all there, if you look hard enough. The reason most Europeans haven’t heard of these pockets of support is that the mainstream press enforces a boycott on news about support for capital punishment in Western Europe. Whether you find that appropriate or not, it’s a fact.

    Now, I grant you that these manifestations of political will in favor of capital punishment are generally limited to right-wing parties. But they certainly exist, and some of these right-wing parties or groups command a significant fraction of the electorate — often larger than the Green Party, whose positions receive incomparably more publicity. That was the point of my main post.


  7. Andrew, your initial point was that despite pockets of political support within the electorate for capital punishment the political leaders in Western Europe keep the topic off the political radar. Now, to underline that point, you make reference, among others, to two German parties from the far right who advocate reinstating the death penalty. I deduct from the word “despite” that your line of argument is the following: because these right-wing parties (whose success is, fortunately, so far limited to regional elections) make the case for capital punishment, the “ordinary” parties and in particular those in the government should put capital punishment on their political radar. And the fact that they don’t shows that they’re deliberately hiding away something that a large proportion of the electorate would want to see discussed. (The role of the press in this is another issue, although I grant you that it is certainly related).

    From my perspective, the death penalty isn’t on the agenda of any of the democratic political parties (no, DVU and NPD aren’t democratic parties in my view but that’s of course debatable as well). The reason for this is, I strongly believe, not that they want to hide something away from the discussion, but rather the conviction that the right to live is an absolutely inalienable right, which is why the abolishment of the death penalty is enshrined in the constitution. Whether that conviction is indeed shared by the majority of the electorate is of course far from certain. Personally, I am happy that the other political parties do not put into question the inalienability of the right to live and find it normal that it isn’t on their agenda. Anyone who feels that it should be on the agenda can give their support for the parties you cited, or found a new party, or try to start the discussion within the existing parties. That they will find undue resistance from the press simply reflects the point of view of the majority of journalists.


  8. Andrew,

    Thanks for the reply.

    As for your questions, Norbert and Detlef, you aren’t looking hard enough for the pockets of political support for capital punishment. They’re all over Western Europe. Politicians definitely “do try to use” the death penalty in Western Europe. The NPD and the DVU party in Germany both openly support capital punishment, and Christian Riesen published a book not long ago called Todesstrafe muss sein.

    Heh, I am interested in history and politics. And I like a good debate. 🙂

    However, I would like to point out that both the NPD and DVU in Germany couldn´t get over the 5% border for German federal elections. Citing them to support your allegation of widespread German public support for the death penalty is somewhat unfair.
    As in shrieking, that´s your “pockets of political support for capital punishment”?

    Yes, there is “some” public support for the death penalty here in Germany. H*ll, reading about a particularly hideous crime, even I´m thinking about it.
    But that´s all I do. Thinking about it for a moment.

    Because I realize that once we reintroduce the death penalty, nobody can guarantee that we´ll only convict the guilty. Indeed, probability laws and human errors will practically guarantee that sooner or later we´ll execute an innocent.

    Americans might discuss the value of deterrence. As in, one execution might deter x future murders. A few American friends I talked about that topic even suggested that we should disregard the eventual execution of an innocent. I won´t do that.

    And if your pockets of political support in Germany only include the far-right (and very minority) NPD and the DVU…

    How about we discuss the probability of a “Green party” president in the USA next?


  9. The EU claims to speak for “Europeans” on this subject on the world stage. Many European countries have clear majorities which support the death penalty, and rightly so. The EU keeps the death penalty abolished against public opinion.

    The EU also thinks that abolishing the death penalty automatically makes you more “civilized” than countries which hane’t. So by their logic, the one party dictatorship of Turkmenistan is more civilized than Japan purely because the former has abolished the death penalty.

    If the EU had the American system, countries which wanted it could have it, countries which didn’t wouldn’t. But the EU will not allow debate.


  10. Europeans are not clumsy in their disgust with over the death penalty. The reason why there is talk about the US still having this form of punishment, with less focus on punishment is due to one thing: USA and Wester’n Europe have very similar cultures compared to the rest of the world and together make up the Wester’n Civilization. I would love for you to elaborate on why you think the death penalty got to stay there and was abolished here.

    Furthermore, China? Really? I would like to think that a country as the US would be more inclined to end this form of inhumane punishment then a country notorious for their lack of respect for human rights. Yes, the death penalty should be abolished everywhere. But the US is the one place it surprises people that is not.


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