We have been following the rapid decline of free speech rights in Europe and Canada. Germany has long been the subject of criticism from the free speech movement. The country has long criminalized speech dealing with World War II and the Nazis. While the real benefit of those laws has been questioned given the long existence of a neo-Nazi groups in the country, prosecutors continue to bring troubling charges against those who voice unpopular or obnoxious beliefs in prohibited areas. The latest is Ursula Haverbeck, an 87-year-old German Neo-Nazi grandmother who has been sentenced to 10 months in prison after being found guilty of denying the Holocaust. She does not believe that the Holocaust was real but, rather than leaving the matter to open debate, the Germans are imprisoning her for either not changing her mind or not staying silent about her views.
Haverbeck was charged earlier this year after giving an interview outside the trial of former SS Sgt. Oskar Groening claiming Auschwitz wasn’t a death camp. She challenged the presiding judge in Hamburg to prove that Auschwitz was a death camp. However, the judge responded that he said he wouldn’t debate someone who “can’t accept any facts.” Magistrate Bjoern Joensson added “Neither do I have to prove to you the world is round,”That would seem a fine response and the matter should have been closed.
However, the government then proceeded to arrest her. I have little sympathy for Haverbeck who appears and ardent Nazi. However, free speech often requires us to fight for the rights of people who we dislike or even despise.
While I am certainly sympathetic to the Germans in seeking to end the scourge of fascism, I have long been a critic of the German laws prohibiting certain symbols and phrases, I view it as not just a violation of free speech but a futile effort to stamp but extremism by barring certain symbols. Instead, extremists have rallied around an underground culture and embraced symbols that closely resemble those banned by the government. I fail to see how arresting a man for a Hitler ringtone or forcing companies to remove the number “88” from products is achieving a meaningful level of deterrence, even if you ignore the free speech implications. What it does do is given people like Haverbeck the status of victims. It allows Holocaust deniers to argue that the government will not allow people to utter what they claim is the “truth.” History can take care of itself as can free speech. The criminalization of unpopular views only fuels the ignorance and claims of persecution by this small minority.
Judge Joensson said in the most recent case “It is deplorable that this woman, who is still so active given her age, uses her energy to spread such hair-raising nonsense . . . She is a lost cause.” It is nonsense but the government has made it a serious matter by criminalizing views deemed nonsensical. That is more than nonsense it is dangerous. It is free speech that seems the lost cause in Germany.