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A Brief History of the Outdated Law That Makes Satire Punishable in Germany

From Popes to Shahs, there's a long story behind the law that might see German satirist Jan Böhmermann prosecuted for insulting Turkey's president.

by Matern Boeselager
Apr 16 2016, 2:50pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

German satirist Jan Böhmermann is deeply immersed in some proverbial hot water. The German state granted the Turkish government's demand to potentially prosecute the comedian for reading his insulting poem about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on German public TV—and the international scandal known as the "Böhmermann affair" has entered its second round.

We don't know what the outcome will be for Böhmermann, but the irreverent joker—whose poem said Erdoğan likes to "fuck goats and suppress minorities, kick Kurds, hit Christians, and watch child pornography"—may have set in motion a process that will ultimately grant him and everyone else in Germany greater freedom of speech. Towards the end of her statement on Böhmermann, German chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the government considers the law under which the comedian is to be prosecuted "superfluous," and will abolish it by 2018.

The history of the law in question, which centers on insults hurled at representatives of foreign governments and requires the German state to grant a foreign nation's request for prosecution, goes back almost 150 years. It originated in the offense of lèse-majesté—meaning an insult to the dignity of a reigning sovereign—which was included in the penal code of the German Reich at its foundation in 1871. It wasn't actually illegal to insult anyone but a foreign king or queen, so Germans were free to lay into Prime Minister Gladstone, as long as they kept their mouths shut about Queen Vicky.

After World War II, the law's scope was expanded to include all foreign heads of state. But the first time that paragraph 103 of the penal code was invoked, it was still about royal dignity: the British occupying force forbade the publication of German magazine Der Spiegel for a week in 1949 after it had reported on Dutch Queen Juliana's accession to the throne "in a generally insulting tone."

The paragraph only really became well known to Germans in the 1960s, when it was nicknamed "the Shah paragraph" because the Shah of Iran just couldn't stop feeling offended during his visits to Germany and kept demanding criminal prosecution under the law. In 1964, for example, a Cologne newspaper published a photo montage that depicted the Shah selling his wife to the Saudi king.

When a mightily offended Shah demanded justice, the German government agreed to prosecute and the newspaper editors were ordered to pay fines. But the Persian autocrat kept getting his royal knickers in a twist so often that the German government couldn't be bothered to investigate every single case. When, in a show of solidarity, thousands of Germans reported themselves for "insulting the Shah," the courts were overwhelmed and had to drop most of the charges.

After that, the archaic law wasn't invoked for a while, until people almost forgot it existed. It was only in 1975, when protesters displayed a banner outside the Chilean embassy calling the government of dictator Pinochet a "gang of murderers," that the law was applied again. The protesters didn't face charges, but the banner had to be taken down.

Since then, the law has largely been gathering dust. Every so often, German authorities dig it back up, to threaten people who went so far as to call George W. Bush "obviously insane" and "bloodthirsty," or those who condemned Chinese president Li as a "murderer." But since the foreign politicians never actually complained, the paragraph didn't apply.

The last time in German history the law was discussed—which now may well turn out to be the final time—was in 2006. Munich police officers stopped a float at the Christopher Street Day parade that showed an image of a grinning Pope Benedict XVI holding up a condom and sporting rainbow streaks in his hair. Investigations came to a halt pretty quickly, one of the reasons being that the image was obviously intended as satirical criticism of the pope's views on condoms.

As this little summary of its history shows, the law has never been particularly useful. It's also rather obvious that it has mostly been used against people who criticize autocrats and dictators at a time when the German government is trying to make nice with them. In that sense, Jan Böhmermann is in good historical company. Though he's likely to be the only case in history whose name is associated with the word "goatfucker."