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World

The Limits Of Free Speech In Germany

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm Rachel Martin in Berlin, Germany, where we are broadcasting live this morning from above the plaza right next to the Brandenburg Gate. Voters here are set to go to the polls on Sunday to choose their next leader.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And their next leader, it sounds like, Rachel, is going to be their current leader. I mean, Chancellor Angela Merkel is going to - is going to stay put, right?

MARTIN: Right. Exactly. So she's positioned well right now. And her party, the CDU - they're expected to win. But there is something that is changing here, David. There's a relatively new political party. They've been around for a few years - but gaining a lot of traction recently. They're called the AfD. This is a right-wing party that is expected to win seats in Parliament.

GREENE: And a party that has really taken a hard line against the chancellor and her open immigration policies, it sounds like.

MARTIN: Yeah, exactly. This is what is the primary motivating issue for this party. They've got ads around Berlin right now. They're very provocative. One of them shows this white woman giving birth with the caption, we can make our own Germans. Another campaign poster shows women's - women in bikinis. And it reads, burqas? No. We prefer bikinis. Dare to vote for the AfD.

GREENE: Wow. Provocative and offensive to plenty of people. I mean, has the party faced pushback for this?

MARTIN: Yeah, a lot from some corners you might expect - from liberals and people who are considered moderates in this moment but whom have spoken out against this. But also, there have been critiques from people you might not expect, like a guy we met named Shahak Shapira. He's an Israeli-German. He is a comedian and a bit of a self-loathing comedian at that.

SHAHAK SHAPIRA: Nobody's funny in Germany.

MARTIN: Now, David, I've got to tell you he swears. He swears a lot. So be warned. There you go. We met him at this cafe in Kreuzberg, which is a neighborhood full of a lot of other bearded hipsters on bikes. His family immigrated to Germany from Israel 15 years ago. They moved to a small conservative town in the east.

SHAPIRA: It was kind of a [expletive]. Oh, wait. I'm not allowed to say - are you going to beep that? Awesome. I love it. I love when you guys beep things.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRA: I used to watch Jerry Springfield on TV.

MARTIN: Springer?

SHAPIRA: Springer, whatever. And people would - they would bleep out, like, a whole sentence. And you would just try to imagine what - how many combos would they make of horrible words?

MARTIN: There are a lot of things Shahak would like to bleep out of this election, especially from the far-right party, the AfD. The closest he could get was trolling the party. He and his partners broke into a Facebook page for AfD supporters, and they posted bogus headlines. He knew he was going to suffer some kind of consequence for this, but they ended up being more serious than he had anticipated.

SHAPIRA: Ever since, I've been getting some death threats. And yesterday, somebody sent me an email with old addresses of myself, of my parents and an old phone number. And they said they're going to publish it on the internet. That's a problem, yes.

MARTIN: But you know what I found interesting, David? Is that I'm here talking to this guy Shahak Shapira about free speech in Germany and how that's playing out in this election. And he turns the focus to the U.S. He watched the neo-Nazi demonstrations unfold in Charlottesville, and he was just dumbfounded.

SHAPIRA: Anything in America. On the streets you can go - you can run with a Nazi flag or walk around with that. You can say, Jews will not replace us. But you can't say [expletive] on American TV. Isn't it weird? Don't you guys think that you're - you have your priorities all wrong in this thing? It's kind of weird. In Germany, it's the opposite. You can curse on German TV, but you can't say, heil Hitler. You can't say you want to kill all Jews. You can't say you want to send all homosexuals to Auschwitz. I mean, you can say anything you want, but there will be consequences.

GREENE: So, Rachel, is this a comedian who loves to swear but actually doesn't mind or even likes limits on free speech?

MARTIN: Yeah, right. When it comes to politics, when it comes to right-wing parties and their rhetoric, yes. But at the same time, he likes - he enjoys pushing the boundaries of what is comfortable and acceptable. He intentionally tries to provoke in his comedy to make his audience uncomfortable with jokes and stories that skate right up to the line and maybe even cross it. Take for example the story he told us about when he Googled the town Buchenwald, as in the site of the Nazi death camp.

SHAPIRA: There are over 15 - I think 17 people, when I checked, that actually thought it was a good idea to write a review and give a concentration camp five stars on Yelp (laughter). And - but Auschwitz had only four and a half, which was - so I looked at the reviews. I wanted to find out why Auschwitz has only four and a half. And I found the most amazing reviews not only on Yelp but on Trip Advisor. You know, people writing stuff like not disabled-friendly. And you go, yeah, no [expletive], Sherlock. That's kind of the deal.

MARTIN: And, David, the interesting thing when I was talking to him is that he really represents this emotional tension that a lot of people feel here. Germany's history is ever present. When a political party starts talking about genetics and racial purity - or its supporters do - it brings that history to the present moment. And at the same time, this younger generation of Germans - they not only want to move on. They want to be able to contend with the past in a way that makes sense for them. And for someone like Shapira, that means jokes.

GREENE: I mean, he likes telling jokes. It sounds like you can hear that. But he sounded serious when he was mentioning getting death threats. I mean, that's no small thing. Where is he in his mind?

MARTIN: Which you would.

GREENE: Has he thought about leaving Germany?

MARTIN: Yeah. So I asked him this. And instead of paraphrasing, I'll just play what he said.

SHAPIRA: It's basically the opposite of, Jews will not replace us. I will replace you if I want to. You know what I mean? It's real. We are replacing everyone (laughter). Be afraid. But I don't want to be pushed away by people like that. I want to push them away.

MARTIN: That's some of my conversation with German-Israelian comedian Shahak Shapira.

I want to bring in now NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She is in the studios with us here in Berlin. And, Soraya, we heard Shapira there. He says he's getting death threats after trolling a Facebook page for AfD supporters - the right-wing party here in Germany. I also spoke with this bookstore owner in Berlin who had his car burned down and his store vandalized because he was speaking out against the AfD. Has this political party tried to distance itself from the actions of some of its supporters?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, they definitely say that they have nothing to do with it. They don't condemn it, though. And they, in fact, complain about Germany being too politically correct and would like to get rid of some of that. But they also are very aggressive about going after people who use inflammatory language.

MARTIN: And they strike back as hard as others strike him - is what you're saying.

NELSON: Yes.

MARTIN: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reporting in Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.