Saturday, August 12, 2017

Charlottesville, Democracy and Nazi Germany

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.


  1. How about this parallel to Nazi Germany: the absence of condemnation from the White House of the values the white supremacists advocate? Sure, supremacists have a right to hold those views and even to spout them publicly. But the president has a RESPONSIBILITY to condemn them as contrary to what we as a country hold dear.

  2. this would have been all over by now if the antifa allowed them to protest peacefully instead of confronting them with violence.

  3. Hi Harald, I agree with you. I'm not following this so closely as I've been on vacation in India, but I'm surprised that there has not been an expression of support for the right of people to march, no matter how repugnant their position. I have always held the ACLU in high esteem precisely because they supported the rights of a neo-Nazi group to walk through Skokie, IL in the late 70s, even though I'm vehemently opposed to their position.

  4. Harald, Are you claiming that the governor's criticism of alt-right groups (via the statement that such groups are "unwelcome") violates the first-amendment rights of such groups? So vile speech is protected, but criticism of vile speech is wrong? You also neglected to mention that many in the alt-right protest showed up in military fatigues, body armour, and semi-automatic weapons. This was not true of the counter-protesters. The bearing of arms for the purpose of intimidating others is illegal in most states (though enforcement is lax). Ultimately, I think you've mis-framed this issue, reducing it to legalese about who had permits, etc. The right to protest should not be equated with the right to protest free of criticism or counter-protest. Violence occurred on both sides, but with one group heavily armed and armed with violent ideology they were in no way equivalent.

    1. Roger, hi! Thank you for your comment. Of course, the governor has the freedom to say what he said. It is also his job to uphold the constitution, and that constitution permits free speech. He clearly is not speaking as a private citizen, but as a representative of the government. His statement is then truly unfortunate. As for what people brought or wore to the events: I presume the law sets limits, and I am certainly in favor of enforcing the laws. It is news to me that wearing military fatigues is unlawful, though: where did you find that? Do you now seriously want the government to provide permits for the type of clothing citizens are allowed to wear? If your answer is that you personally should have the freedom to choose, but not others, then I hope you realize you are going down a truly treacherous path. Semi-automatics is another matter, of course, but I do not know the legal situation there. Finally on the "vile speech": I tried to find precise reports on that, or that it was a widespread issue at that rally. It may have been, but it is also possible that the public discussion assumed that the rally participants were engaging broadly in vile speech rather than merely protesting the removal of symbols. Furthermore, my guess is that even vile speech is protected by the constitution. I am concerned that much of the debate is driven by what is assumed about the rally participants rather than by what actually happened. Just out of curiosity: have the Saturday rally organizers been sued? With so much public posturing, where are the legal proceedings? Too many questions. Too many assumptions. I am no friend of these rally participants, and strongly disagree with their views. Which is why I defend their right to peacefully demonstrate.