Out Of Germany: Judges add note of irony to performance over taboos

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Berlin - One should, it seems, never underestimate the power of self-imposed taboos.

A performance called I am the People recently opened at the Berliner Ensemble theatre, in east Berlin. The series of sketches is politically correct to an exhausting degree - trying hard, if unconvincingly, to suggest that the entire German establishmentis in league with neo-Nazi skinheads. After two and a half hours, in spite of occasional flashes of humour, it all gets a little wearing. But it was not the performance that has caused the problems. It was the poster.

The designer had created images that dripped with provocative irony. Each poster glorified one group, while attacking another. There was a lunatic quality to the series, whose message was clear: all slogans of hate are grotesquely pointless, not least because the hater can also be the victim of hate.

The Berlin transport authorities took offence at the slogans, despite the obviously anti-racist intent. The posters were banned from public view, because they might stir up racial hatred.

The poster controversy was just the latest example of "stay-on-the-safe-side" censorship. Last year, the Munich city museum organised an exhibition about Hitler's personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann. The exhibition explored the use of photography asMedium for the Fuhrer Myth. Critics agreed the exhibition was revealing, educational and powerful.

The exhibition was due to transfer from Munich to Berlin and Saarbrucken. But the transfer never happened. The Berlin museum emphasised the excellence of the exhibition, but pulled out. Saarbrucken then got cold feet, too. The horror had to be the main theme, not used as a self-evident backdrop.

There was similar well-meaning censorship with a documentary, Profession: Neo-Nazi, a portrait of a "yuppie Nazi", Ewald Althans. The film-maker crafted his film so that few viewers could have felt sympathy for Althans and his empty rhetoric. Even so, the film was banned from public viewing, in case it might be misunderstood. (More logically, Althans himself was subsequently also charged.)

Thus it was, too, with a schoolbook which told the history of the Nazi era in comic-strip form. Teachers were enthusiastic about the cartoon and its ability to help children understand the horror that Hitler unleashed. Again, however, there were just-in-case worries and it was removed from the recommended list.

Self-censorship in Germany has turned through 180 degrees. For years after the war, Nazi crimes were almost taboo. Many who had lived through the Nazi era and had allowed the crimes to happen were unwilling to confront their own responsibility. When a new generation came of age, the day of reckoning came. The rebellions of 1968 brought demands for a clear acknowledgement of what had happened.

A decade later, the showing of the American soap opera Holocaust proved another watershed, where the human implications of the Holocaust were brought home for the first time. The impact was enormous. What was once taboo became the starting point for every discussion of the country's past. Six million Germans went to see Schindler's List last year.

The current taboos - in effect, don't mention the name of Hitler, unless it is followed by the disclaimer, "who was an evil man" - betray a continuing nervousness, which should be out of place.

Thus, an extraordinary court judgment last year took a soft line in sentencing Gunter Deckert, a far-right leader who denied the reality of the Holocaust. But at the same time, the national outcry - followed by a contemptuously critical ruling from a higher court, which demanded a tougher approach - emphasised that Germany now lives in a different world. Thirty years ago, there would have been little outcry.

The judges may even succeed in permitting irony to get a toehold. Last month's ruling by the Berlin transport authorities, banning the I am the People posters, was finally overturned - by the judges' command.