Don’t Make Germans Like They Used To

Perhaps it is untoward to quote oneself, but in this case my tweet of a few days ago has to be revised and extended in light of further information.

Aldi
In particular, I put there “after complaints,” but in that I was just being faithful to the original article out of De Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper.

Aldi received at the beginning of last week the first complaints. One customer asked them not to use anymore the mosque, a religious symbol, on the label. Then a discussion arose on the Internet, after which Aldi pulled the soap from the shelves.

Now another version of events has arisen, this time from an actual German source:

AldiSeife
According to this, it wasn’t “complaints”; it was one complaint about that mosque on the soap-label, from one guy on Facebook. This is backed up by this report from the local newspaper from the area where this Aldi store is located (North Rhine-Westphalia).

Shitstorm

The customer argued that the mosque and minaret of the Muslims were to be observed with respect and dignity. “And it is precisely for this reason that I do not find it suitable that one should put this illustration, so full of meaning, on just any consumer product.”

That was all that it took: off of the shelves those bottles of liquid soap flew! But in that last tweet you’ll perhaps have notice a recent addition to German public vocabulary: “shitstorm.” That is what ensued: Aldi promptly came under fire for its action (although I’m unaware that that has caused them to reverse it and start selling the soap with those labels again).

But that was last week – the first full week after the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. This week saw something similar, in fact even more alarming. The usual Monday-evening march of the new, anti-immigrant PEGIDA movement in Dresden was canceled by the authorities – and of course the counter-demonstrations that had been planned for that evening as well – because of a threat that had been received against Lutz Bachman, one of the movement’s leaders until, just two days ago, he resigned after pictures of him posing as Adolph Hitler became public.

That’s right: a demonstration, which to that point had been attracting thousands of participants every Monday night (as had the accompanying counter-demonstrations), was canceled due to one threat. Then a further article from the Abendzeitung, out of Munich put the nature of that threat into sharper focus:

According to information gained by the police, assassins were called upon to mingle with the PEGIDA demonstrators, “in order to commit a murder from close-up of a particular person on the organizational team.” This call resembled one sent on a Twitter-account which designated the PEGIDA demonstrators, in Arabic, as “enemies of Islam.”

Once again, there was not much to that “threat”: one call to mingle with the demonstrators and then murder – medium unknown – and then a tweet in Arabic. Yet, the police went ahead and withdrew permission for that Monday evening demonstration (although other marches sympathetic to the PEGIDA movement scheduled for that same Monday evening in other German cities went ahead).

While Aldi’s capitulation in front of one irate customer was bad, this prohibition on demonstrating was much worse. Now, the very idea of regularly holding marches on Monday evenings is something PEGIDA appropriated from the ever-growing marches in Leipzig, and Dresden, and other cities of the former East Germany of the Fall of 1989 which in short order let to the collapse of that Communist regime. So is one of their favorite chants: Wir sind das Volk! – “We are the People!”

A Softer Generation Than Their DDR Parents?

We can agree that the PEGIDA movement is hardly the heir of those 1989 marchers, that their misuse of that iconography is illegitimate. But it is still useful to compare their marches with those on East German streets back then, in the sense that in 1989 they certainly had no “permission” to march, from the police or anyone else. Indeed, from what we know now, in Leipzig at least (where these October 1989 marches were the largest), the Honecker regime was seriously considering calling in the army and ordering them and the police to fire, in a Tiananmien Square-type scenario (which itself had occurred only four months previously).

Yet now, in 2015, the local police, acting only on a couple of minor, laughable threats, call off the PEGIDA Dresden demonstration (and, of course, the scheduled counter-demonstration). One thing one needs to remember is that such pubic demonstrations, by their very nature, are never things that are welcomed by the authorities – i.e. they are events that authorities would be glad to simply forbid, if they could. (The glaring exceptions that prove the rule were the many routine public demonstrations in the Communist lands at the height of their powers, always seemingly expressing support for government-sponsored ideals and projects, attended almost exclusively by people who did not want to be there but feared the consequences if they were not.)

Perhaps it is not surprising that the PEGIDA leaders simply accepted this prohibition. They did get to do their march just two days later on Wednesday and, in the final analysis, they are German, after all, conditioned to obey – although those thousands, those millions marching in the streets of Leipzig and East Berlin twenty-five years ago were also Germans. Still, one way to tell a truly free society is from the realization from the government – as demanded by the society it serves – that when people want to organize a demonstration on city streets, the question is not whether but rather How can I help you?, i.e. how to minimize the disturbance to the general public. And one way to tell a society confident of itself in the face of the forces threatening it is when neither its merchants nor its police authorities let themselves be panicked by lone madmen spouting threats.

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