This is dangerous territory for me. I wish to comment on the recent events in Charlottesville. Comparisons with Nazi Germany come up. I am German. So let me speak up. The comparisons strike me as misguided, in important ways.
I do not know all the details. Without attaching labels, it seems to be this, though. From what I understand, the state and the city decided to remove a statue and a bunch of symbols. Some people didn’t like that. So they asked for and were granted the permission to hold a rally on Saturday: so they did. Let me state my first point, and it should be patently obvious. Holding a peaceful rally to protest the removal of symbols and a statue should definitely be allowed in a country that thinks of itself a democracy, that values the freedom of opinion. Let me state my second point, and it should be patently obvious as well. I strongly disagree with these people and I strongly and passionately disagree with their views. Precisely because I do, I defend their right to express their opinion. “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently” (Rosa Luxemburg). I was waiting for leaders that hold strong and passionate opinions against white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan to voice this fundamental principle of democracy. I didn’t hear it. That makes me deeply sad: read on, why.
There was a rally of some of these people on Friday on the UVA campus. No permission had been granted, I believe: so, illegal and it should have been prevented more forcefully by the police. On Saturday, there was a counter-rally to the legally scheduled rally by the symbol-removal protesters. No permission had been granted, I believe: so, illegal and it should have been prevented more forcefully by the police. A fist fight between both sides ensued. This is violence, and this should have been prevented even more forcefully by the police. Apparently, many peaceful protesters tried on their own, and my congratulations to them. It would not have happened, if the illegal counter-rally had been broken up in the first place. Finally, a car crashes into the counter-rally, kills one, injures others. Obviously horrible, and my heart goes out to the victims. The justice system will deal with the perpetrator in the appropriate manner, I assume.
Now, here is where the comparison with Nazi Germany is wrong … and eerily right, but in ways that people do not seem to see. The problem, when Hitler rose to power, was not, that people spoke their minds. There were people on the far right, on the far left and everything in between. The problem was that democratic values were not firmly established, and that not enough people stood up for them. The problem was that violence was used to suppress the right of others to voice their opinion, however repugnant. The problem was that people tried to sort out who was right and who was wrong, rather than speaking up for freedom. They tried to figure out, which views should be condemned, and not whose actions should be condemned.
If there is a parallel then, I see it there. The fist fights. The condemnation of what the protesters, the White Supremacists, said. A governor who does not grant them the right to peaceful protest within the law, but condemns it. There is a fine difference between condemning their views (count me in there!) and condemning their right to voice it, by telling them they are not “welcome”. That strikes me as deeply wrong. This and the similar reaction by many commentators on these events is what makes me so sad. These people should be welcome to speak and to hold a legal really, precisely because I disagree with them. This is what freedom, what a strong democracy is all about. Then, schedule another legal demonstration of peaceful counter-protestors later, who speak up against their repugnant views. Let these peaceful counter-protesters show that they have the better arguments, and the larger crowd. Not emphasizing and seeking that route is the truly dangerous parallel to Nazi Germany.