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From child abuse to censorship, Germany pushes troubling new laws

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck. Credit: Getty

May 24, 2024 - 7:00am

“Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad” has become something of a worn-out trope, but it comes to mind when observing the current state of Germany. Berlin’s self-destructive energy policy has received plenty of attention, but now the madness is spreading to other sectors.

Take the recently passed “Self-Determination Act”, which allows an individual to change their gender simply by declaring it at a civil registration office. Such a change, however, can become null and void in the case of war and the introduction of mandatory military service, a condition under which a person’s biological male sex would determine whether they serve in the army, regardless of any previous legal recognition as a woman.

The changes don’t stop there. Last week, a law was approved that would downgrade the possession of child sexual abuse material from a felony crime to a misdemeanour. Supposedly, this was done to “respond appropriately and with the necessary flexibility to the large proportion of juvenile offenders”, but it remains unclear why German lawmakers did not simply address this issue separately, instead opting for future leniency towards all offenders regardless of age.

At least as concerning is a proposed legal reform involving an overhaul of the disciplinary law for public servants, with steps taken to remove those deemed “extremists” or engage in activities which are “hostile towards the constitution”.

What makes this law so worrying is that there is no clear definition of what kind of behaviour would fall under the cited categories, with much room left for interpretation. Essentially, this now grants the government the power to punish anyone who dissents, a tendency clearly present in the current administration. That’s because members of the coalition government, including Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, have shown how thin-skinned they are through numerous lawsuits under the existing legal framework against those who have engaged in humorous or satirical depictions of current ministers.

One case involved an impersonation of Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, while another featured a German who rented billboards which poked fun at Green ministers. For now, the courts have sided with freedom of expression, but there is a growing tendency to move power from the courts to the bureaucracy.

Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser appears to have an especially troubled relationship with freedom of expression. After calling for “hard reactions” by the state against those who dare to mock the government, she is now pushing for this law reform that would allow “extremist” civil servants to be removed from office.

What might seem like a good idea on the surface becomes more problematic when one looks closer at the ambiguous definition of “extremism” being employed. Is it extreme to support or be a member of a legal political party such as Alternative for Germany (AfD) — which was yesterday expelled from the Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament — or should this already be grounds for getting sacked from the civil service? Federal Envoy for the Police Uli Groetsch certainly thinks so, saying: “It is highly problematic if police officers are members of the AfD.”

Another law the government is pushing for would alter the process for appointing judges at the constitutional court, in an attempt to ensure that no matter how many people vote for the AfD, the party would never have a say in the way key institutions are staffed. What makes this sudden need for a legal change even more suspicious is the very low number of disciplinary proceedings. Out of 190.000 public servants in Germany, 0.2% have been subject to disciplinary proceedings, not a number that indicates that the bureaucracy is a hotbed of extremists planning to overthrow the government. So why is there this sudden urgency to address a problem that, judging by the numbers, barely exists?

Although it is not stated directly, this appears to be a first step towards a two-class legal system in Germany, where right-of-centre voters and civil servants would be treated differently by the law and — where possible — excluded from public service. The government claims this is done in the name of defending democracy, but these practices are characteristic of the exact opposite.

All of this is designed to create a chilling effect, where either private citizens or public servants are discouraged from using their constitutional rights out of fear of being dragged through the courts. The state has deep pockets — so even if someone wins the case, the process itself can be the punishment in terms of time and money. Tyranny is usually capricious, and creating laws that are deliberately ambiguous in order to intimidate people is unworthy of a democracy.

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Graham Stull
Graham Stull
1 month ago

The man who has the best blow-by-blow commentary of these issues is Eugyppius, a Bavarian academic who writes an excellent Substack.
I would encourage anyone to check him out: eugyppius.com

Jo Jo
Jo Jo
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Agree, it’s excellent.

Danny D
Danny D
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

I went and read an article out of curiosity. Wow, what low-effort trash. I share his sentiment but this is just some guy ranting without providing any value or information. Very surprised this recommendation is getting so much approval on here.

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago
Reply to  Danny D

You read one article?

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
29 days ago
Reply to  Danny D

I’d encourage you to look again. His insights into the pandemic were among the best of anyone writing. And his careful reading of the German news means he can follow Germany’s descent into illiberalism, and write about it in excellent, witty English, in a way I think is unique.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Arguably much of the Western world has been on this path (marching through the institutions too) for some time. It is so difficult to argue with ‘good intentions’… but here we are. Perhaps ‘populism’ is the resistance to this slow slide into madness.
You would have thought that Germany would have been inoculated against this social disease, but perhaps ‘events’ have slipped living memory.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  AC Harper

It’s hard to imagine what good intentions would be behind downgrading possession of child sexual abuse materials by adults, or suing journalists for critiquing those in power. It’s time we stopped taking these people at their own valuation.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

If you believe (kid yourself) that pictures of child sexual abuse material are the right of an oppressed minority’s tastes, or that criticising those in power is an unwelcome delay on the road to Utopia, you can convince yourself of your good intentions.
Rubbish, of course, but it is never set out so uncompromisingly at first, and then the madness ratchets up, slowly.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The Right has to stop being on the defensive, and stop engaging the Progressive Left on their own ground. What is being proposed here is not “kind”, “tolerant”, “democratic” or “inclusive” and does not come with good intentions. Arguments cannot be won if they are allowed to be framed in a deceptive way.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Agreed. But the Progressives have chosen their words carefully for maximum support for their views. The Right find it very difficult to argue with the Progressives using the Progressives’ reframed words. It’s a trap! Completely ignore accusations of racism, fascism etc. Responding directly to these accusations leaves the argument in the Progressives half of the pitch and they are practiced in blunting such debates.
If the Reactionaries(?) want to have a good argument then they have to pick their own words.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Ultimately, is there just something in the Teutonic DNA that tends towards this type of authoritarianism? It’s like a genetic expression that’s managed to skip a generation or two.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

No…it has always been there just not as overt as now…

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
1 month ago
Reply to  AC Harper

You are too kind. Turns out, power always wins over conscience.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
30 days ago

Those who seek power almost always defeat those who want to just be left alone. Same as it ever was…

Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
1 month ago
Reply to  AC Harper

But these aren’t good intentions…

AC Harper
AC Harper
28 days ago
Reply to  Mangle Tangle

Quite so. But you are looking on from ‘outside’. The view is entirely different from ‘inside’.
Ask a gang member why they killed a rival gang member and they will tell you they did it to protect their gang’s ‘honour’.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 month ago

The decay and the decline continues in the ‘West’
Who will stop this shitshow? Certainly not Socialism!

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago

Certainly not “the West”… but it will be…

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago

Unfortunately, however sick we are of the fake Conservative government, this is the sort of thing we can expect to face from a Starmer government.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago

Not sure how the proposed new law sits in relation to the German constitutional requirement for citizens to not to be “discriminated against or favoured because of one’s sex, descent, race, language, homeland and origin, faith, religious or political views”. 

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 month ago

And it’s not just Germany.

Sophy T
Sophy T
1 month ago

Is that it extreme to support or be a member of a legal political party such as Alternative for Germany (AfD) — which was yesterday expelled from the Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament — or should this already be grounds for getting sacked from the civil service?
Would membership of a far left party be grounds for getting sacked from the civil service?
Almost certainly not.

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
1 month ago

Democracy is another word that has gradually shifted its meaning. When these people say they are “protecting democracy”, by saying “democracy” they are not referring to one particular a system of government characterized by certain principles in general, but to the the specific current power structure that has resulted from democratic processes in the past. That is what they want to protect. So the word “democracy”, via the process of pars pro toto, becomes a metonym, simply meaning “the status quo (from which we benefit)”

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

Bleak. Scratch the surface and the authoritarian Prussian ethos rears it head again. Germans are embarrassing themselves.

rob clark
rob clark
1 month ago

The West is sleepwalking towards a new autocracy fully advocated by “progressives.” For they employ quite the argument in favor of ever-increasing restrictions against dissent, “defending democracy!”