"Furthermore, Germany’s legal ban comes at a cost. Limits on speech are a blunt instrument. Though it seems a legitimate and necessary act of respect toward Holocaust victims and their descendants to outlaw the denial of the Nazi atrocities, the American way of dealing with Nazism and its symbols always seemed to me the more mature way of handling threats to liberal democracy.
When in 1994, the Constitutional Court decided that denying the Holocaust was not covered by the constitutional right of freedom of expression, historians like Eberhard Jäckel argued that a truly liberal democracy should be able to allow for ‘stupidity’ in its public debates. Germany’s ban on the swastika seems like a permanent declaration of distrust in itself, and more important, to argument and to education. It feels like a hasty surrender.
In a way, it is pointless to compare political cultures. Each is unique and deeply rooted in each country’s history. We won’t be able to copy America’s unique liberalism, and the United States probably won’t adopt our legalistic approach. However, there may be some convergence.
Very cautiously, Germany is allowing itself to confront Nazi thought. For decades, Hitler’s infamous book ‘Mein Kampf’ was banned in Germany. But in 2016, when the copyrights owned by the Bavarian government ran out, it appeared in a critical edition for the first time, and it is now sold freely in bookstores.
In the wake of Charlottesville and Mr. Trump’s comments, I’ve heard some Americans bemoan the lack of strict anti-hate laws akin to Germany’s. And indeed, the episode is a reminder that an open and educated discourse cannot be taken for granted, anywhere. But it has also demonstrated the resilience of America’s civil society — for now.
Steffen Kailitz, an associate professor at the Technical University of Dresden’s Hannah Arendt Institute who studies extremism, authoritarianism and failing democracies, said he found the reaction to Mr. Trump’s statement about Charlottesville encouraging, because the broad backlash showed that in the United States, the taboos against racism and extremism remain intact.
But, he added, frequent breaches of that taboo may slowly shift the boundaries between politically legitimate and illegitimate public expressions. Consider the number of Mr. Trump’s supporters who approve of his position; many may not agree with white supremacy, but they are now less willing to condemn it because they are following the president’s lead.
In recent days, people in my Twitter feed have passed around a passage from the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s 1945 book, ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies,’ that in essence says that tolerance toward the intolerant cannot be infinite, or the tolerant risk eradication. That’s Germany’s militant democracy in a nutshell. And there may come a day when the United States must embrace it as well. But for now, I have faith in a democratic public’s ability to police itself. I wish Germany did.
Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer."