"Thoughts are free," the Pirates say, echoing
the old German freedom song. But they are finding that
it's not quite as simple as that
FOR A POLITICAL PARTY claiming to embody the spirit of a new, hip generation, Germany’s Pirates just can't seem to steer out of the wake of their egregiously unhip and downright criminal great-grandparents. It was bad enough when party manager Marina Weisband left her post last January after receiving a flood of 1920s-style anti-Semitic hate mail. What's more, the young Jewish politician’s departure “for health reasons” only highlighted the dearth of women in Germany’s nerd party, which has opened the group up to charges of systemic sexism, just as the established parties are starting to make good on the idea of female quotas in their leadership.
Who are these latter-day buccaneers with their distinctly pre-modern ballast? The Pirates (whom I have written about frequently on my blog) form part of the international Pirate Party movement, which is focused on the deregulation of the Internet, government transparency, an end to surveillance, the abolition of copyright laws, free education, free public transport, and the decriminalization of drugs. The youthful and aggressively unconventional party has won seats in numerous German municipalities and fields deputies in the state parliaments of Berlin and the Saarland. The latest opinion polls have the Pirates at 13% on the national level, putting them far ahead of the Free Democrats and the Left Party and on a more or less equal footing with the Greens.
Ex-Pirate leader Marina Weisband.
The sudden departure of the party's only Jewish
leader also highlighted the dearth of women members.
But you’d be smart not to raise the white flag just yet, because the Pirates are running aground on the most shallow of German political sandbanks – the Third Reich itself. It all started back in May of 2008, when Pirate member Bodo Thiesen wrote on an Internet newsletter that
until a few months ago I thought that those who “deny Auschwitz” were merely adolescent loonies. But back then I hadn’t yet read [notorious Holocaust denier] Germar Rudolf. Sorry, but the book makes an impression – at least when you approach it objectively.
By mentioning Rudolf, Thiesen had raised a whopping big red flag above his jolly roger, because the right-wing chemist had fled Germany in 1995 after being sentenced to fourteen months in jail for publicly denying that any Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. ("Holocause denial" is a major criminal offense in Germany.)
In the same message, Thiesen claimed that Germany was justified in attacking Poland in September of 1939 since the Poles mobilized first, which Hitler interpreted as a declaration of war.
These statements shocked many party members, who have been fearing an influx of politically homeless neo-Nazis into this amorphous group, now that the sinister National Democrats are facing a possible nationwide ban, and they generated terrible publicity for the upwardly mobile Pirates as a whole. The party leadership issued a warning to Thiesen (who publicly denies entertaining any right-wing or fascist sentiments) and in July 2009 it formally filed a request to have him excluded. Earlier this week, the party’s own arbitration panel turned down the request on formal grounds, although it did opine that Thiesen’s statements were protected by his constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech. This position clearly collides with the popular consensus in Germany that free speech ends where any threat to the democratic constitutional order begins.
Now you might think the party had taken on enough water already, but this week the party’s chairman for the state of Berlin, Hartmut Semken, decided to keep on scuttling. On the Internet – the web-savvy party’s preferred communication medium – Semken stated that in his view the party’s problem wasn’t “the Bodos” (i.e. individual members with rightist tendencies) but rather those people who want to persecute members holding a different opinion. The last party who had “a giant success” with this policy, he said, was the Nazi Party, who “had a scapegoat for everything.”
Soon to walk the plank?
Berlin Pirate chief Hartmut Semken
The outcry was swift and devastating. Was the man really claiming that right-wing Pirates are victims of Nazi-like oppression - i.e. that they're “the new Jews,” as a banker recently complained about the way the Occupy movement is talking about the financial sector? “You are totally out of your depth,” a member wrote on one of the party's blogs. Semken is now writing online that “I honor those who fight against neo-Nazism in our ranks,” but that has been too little, too late: Now the Berlin organization wants to keel-haul him. This time, they may get their wish.
The Pirates’ regrettable and seemingly counterintuitive “Auschwitzgate” (as I’m calling it for the purposes of this article) may actually have been inevitable. After all, the affair shows what happens when a party demanding absolute transparency and unrestricted freedom of expression slams into a wall of carefully polished political correctness, after sideswiping a vast forest of “things you can’t say.” This fundamental incompatibility doesn’t only apply to Nazi-related issues, but also to other web-based taboos, such as child pornography – one of the party’s charter members was the pedophile politician Jörg Tauss,
who finally walked the plank in 2010.
As if this weren't trouble enough, the Pirates received more bad news just yesterday, when the Playmobil company formally objected to the party's use of its toy pirate figures for advertising purposes. This a minor setback, to be sure, but it does deny the troubled party its cleverest mascot.
"Not a political toy"?
The Playmobil pirate set, modified
for campaigning purposes
We’ll just have to wait and see how the Pirates navigate the mine-infested waters of twenty-first century European politics. “Freedom is always freedom for those who think differently,” communist party founder Rosa Luxemburg once wrote. Perhaps, but I suspect there are more than a few Pirates sailing the web with a little less canvas than usual tonight, erasing their cookies as they go.
Photo credits: www.piraten.de, wiki