Free Speech, Heil Hitler, and the End of the Year Assembly

The Hitlergruss at the Munich Olympics in 1936. (Wikipedia)

“So we were just walking down the Rambles in Barcelona.  Hans, Jan, and I were speaking in German when this old guy comes out of nowhere and yells, Heil Hitler!”  Peter put his hand in the air to act out the moment.   “So what else could we do?  I put up my arm and yelled, Heil Franco!”  Again Peter raised his arm and proudly reenacted the story in front of the whole student body at the end of the year assembly.

My first reaction was laughter.  That was pretty funny.  And then I felt a bit proud.  Those boys had been listening to our lectures on the Spanish Civil War.  But then it hits me.  What this boy just did was illegal in Germany.  This was a criminal offense; no one can give the Hitlergruss in public.

The German teachers were furious.  Why wasn’t someone stopping this side-show?!   Most of the non-German audience had no idea that this was a bad thing to do in Germany.  And even the perpetrators of the crime did not understand the reasons for their teachers to be so filled with anger towards them.

Later on in the day I went into a room where I had stored some files.  Because I am leaving this school in July to go to a new school, I had some packing to do.  Luckily my colleague didn’t have a problem with me rustling around in the background of her Higher Level German lesson.  I did my best to eaves drop, but they were speaking pretty fast in German.  I could tell Mrs. S was reading them the riot act about their actions during the assembly.  And the boys were equally angry that they were being accused of wrong doing.

At some point she turned to me and said “Well?  What do you think Frau Ralf?”  Hmm.  That was a hard one.  What did I think?  I mean, what they did was against the law.  There were grandchildren of Holocaust survivors in the audience.  There were 6th graders who sat there laughing and who had no idea why they were laughing.  And those were the kids who were going to go home and tell their parents about this, and it wasn’t going to pretty.  “Mom, guess what happened in the Assembly today?  It was so funny when….”  “The boy did WHAT?!!!”

I explained that I came from a country that has a unique view about free speech.   I explained that there are groups that protect our right to say and do things that are unpopular, offensive, and possibly hurtful. The example I gave was a case where the ACLU defended a Neo-Nazi group wanting to have a parade in a predominantly Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois.   I told them that I don’t condone Hate Speech, but at the same time, I come from a country that has taught me to believe in the right to free speech, even when it is uncomfortable.

I then stated that what happened in the Assembly was not illegal in my country, but we’re not in my country.  I told them that they broke the law, and they should have known better.  They could have told the same story without the hand motions.  But the students’ reaction to my mini-lecture was typical of righteous teens, they continued to argue that they were right, and we, the adults, were wrong.

At this time of year, I usually reflect on what my forefathers accomplished.  These men had the courage to “go Rogue” on England knowing they had no resources, training, or concrete plans for this new country’s future.  They created a Constitution that outlasted their expectations.  They created something they could all agree on, they created a framework that could grow with the country’s future, and they created a Bill of Rights that secures for us our basic freedoms.  The First Amendment (freedom of speech, assembly, and religion) I think, is what defines us most as Americans.

And this is not to say that Germany is not a free country.  In fact I find it to be very free, in some respects, more free than the US.   But it is understandable that a country which endured so much at the hands of a totalitarian regime would be careful to restrict their people’s ability to resurrect the views and deeds of Adolf Hitler.  Germany has been very careful to erase his presence yet not forget his actions.    His bunker is unmarked, his summer home was destroyed, his name is not allowed to be given to a newborn child, and no one is allowed to give the Hitlergruss.

Regardless of the stupidity of the actions of this student, the lesson was a powerful one for all of us.  It got kids to engage in serious conversations about their history and engage in serious conversations about the consequences of their actions and words.  And some day…. maybe, they too will sit in an audience and be offended and upset, and they will again have to rethink what they believe to be right and wrong in the name of freedom.

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6 replies

  1. Kathleen,
    This was a very strong piece. There is a fine line between hate speech and free speech, and its a conversation that should be discussed with today’s youth,
    Le Clown

    • Danke! I love having these conversations with kids. Challenging them with the hard stuff is why I love teaching. Thanks for taking the time to visit me over here in my Werkstatt.

  2. I think your reaction was really good, and well-measured, however, as a German I often feel a little bit offended when Americans utter their shtick about free speech. You see, when you Americans say, as you tend to do, that you come from a country that values free speech, it always sounds like you have to fight hard to suppress “….unlike this uncivilized place here!”.
    I wasn’t there when you made your remarks and in your blogpost you show that you realize that we have free speech in Germany as well, with some restrictions regarding glorifications of the Third Reich. So, while I don’t know if you actually made your utterances in the way you are writing here, if you did so, I would have wished for a little bit more differentiation. Something like: “I come from a country that takes special pride in its right to free speech for all its citizens.” At least this way it does not sound like you tend to think that the US is the only country in the world that has free speech.

    Sorry, if this sounds like a nagging frumpy German, especially since this is my first post. Please believe me that I am in no way against Americans, In fact, I love America and its ideals quite a bit (right now I love its ideals a bit more than the actual country). But this supposed exclusivity that Americans abroad seem to claim on the right to free speech is something that really tends to bother me.

    Keep up the good work. I just discovered your blog today and I have to say I really like your writing.

    • Thank you for your praise and honest critique. This post was also a response to our 4th of July celebrations in the states. So it was maybe a bit more focused on the ideals that Americans prescribe to. But you seem to get the exact gist of what I was trying to get across. Americans think they have a monopoly on free speech, it is an ideal we scream from the highest rooftops. Yet if you really look at America, we don’t really have free speech, we can’t assemble where ever we want, and at times our freedom of religion does not include the freedom to not have one. I endeavor here in this blog to reflect on the struggle of how our cultures German and American bump up against each other, and how those two cultures bump up against the varying other cultures that sit along side them in my classroom. As far as my students’ response to what I said, no offense was taken. I have known many of these students for over 4 years. I am one of their history teachers, and they know I am equally critical of my own country as I am of the actions of other countries when discussing historical conflicts. The main point that I wanted the students to understand, and I think they did due to the whining that ensued, was that regardless of how they felt about their actions, what they did was wrong under German law.

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