'Political Correctness' in Germany
The Social Danger of Stifling Free Expression
Political Correctness, derived from an essentially well-intentioned "Code of Conduct," has become an instrument of moralistic terror in Germany. The self-appointed "politically correct" think of themselves as the sole possessors of the truth, and refuse anyone else the right to differ. As [German writer] Martin Walser has pointed out, this applies particularly to the best-known German taboos: Germany's National Socialist history, women and foreigners. When one attempts to deal with any of these themes, even in the most open-minded way, one is beaten down unmercifully with the "fascism club," a term coined by political scientist Helmut Knütter. Whenever, by means of this deadly method of argument, someone is successfully labeled a racist, fascist or sexist, he is degraded to the status of a leper, with no further opportunity to present his view.
The unfortunate thing about Political Correctness is that, as a result, disputations or discussions often either do not take place at all, or only in the form of a campaign of defamation or a show trial. This prescribed thought control has led to a stunting of intellectual freedom in the former "land of thinkers." Political Correctness reveals itself as the instrument of intellectual coordination, and, in modern cultural history, sets an extraordinary precedent for censorial manipulation of the process of building public political consensus. (note 1)
Assault on Differentiation
Some telling examples will illustrate this manipulation: For some time now in Germany, presumably motivated by a rejection of discrimination, it is no longer proper to speak of Gypsies [Zigeuner]. In German now the politically correct term is "Roma and Sinti." But this term is actually incorrect because these are merely the two main Gypsy branches or tribes. In reality, the generalized term "Roma and Sinti" is itself racist, inasmuch as it ignores, and thereby discriminates against, the smaller Gypsy branches, such as the Lallers, the Manusch, the Joneschti, the Polatschia, the Sikligars, the Boschi or the Calé.
In the Spring of 1996, officials of the Lutheran missionary organization Evangelische Missionswerk, in their journal Eine Welt ["One World"], advocated human rights for apes! They based this demand on the fact that humans and chimpanzees are genetically very similar. On this basis the theologian Martin Brückner concluded that there is an "incredible similarity," and contended in all seriousness that the denial of human rights to apes was essentially no different than racism or the denigration of women. Today no idea seems too absurd to be considered as a new and generally valid guide to behavior. The price we pay for this is absurdity and undermining of a sense of self-worth.
The direct consequence of enforcing politically correct modes of behavior, which can be observed daily in much of the German media, is the creation of a sexless, inexpressive and uniform mode of speech, one driven by political calculation. In this way those who were once referred to as alien workers [Fremdarbeiter] became guest workers [Gastarbeiter], and then as foreign employees and foreign fellow citizens, and are now regarded as immigrants. In the course of socialist equalization, the apprentice [Lehrling] became a trainee [Auszubildender], a term that quickly atrophied into the infantile "Azubi." The cleaning woman [Putzfrau] has become a virtual "shooting star," rising to room cultivator [Raumpflegerin] and then to parquet beautician. She no longer cleans, but rather devotes herself to the care of inner architectural beauty.
Fighting Against Thought Control
Today it is especially important to fight against restrictions of free thought in scholarship, research and education. Especially in these fields Political Correctness often impedes serious work by tabooizing from the outset certain research projects and problem areas, thereby putting them off-limits to investigation.
Politically correct or "anti-fascist" publications are by no means the only ones to denounce "political incorrectness." The self-appointed guardians of morality have succeeded in extending their influence to high-level government agencies and positions. Not surprisingly, the Office for Defense of the Constitution [Amt für Verfassungsschutz] succumbs to this jargon. In its questionable view, those who "defend against Political Correctness seek to immunize themselves from criticism of their own extremist viewpoints." (note 2) This denunciatory statement sweepingly categorizes as extremist not only political opponents and critical scholars, but every unprejudiced contemporary who seeks to make use of his right to freedom of information and expression. Imposing such a stigma extinguishes a free exchange of views.
Certainly the "Historian's Dispute" [Historikerstreit] of the mid-1980s showed that for some time scholarship had been divided into political spheres of influence. What Ernst Nolte and other prominent historians demanded was nothing less than the beginning of a revisionist view of history. (note 3) This does not mean anything disreputable or offensive. The critical re-examination of previous research is essential to all scholarship. The word "revision" is derived from the Latin word "revidere," meaning "to look at again." To examine the facts is the foremost and most natural task of any scholar. Historians as well are thus obliged continually to reevaluate and, if necessary, correct the writing of history on the basis of new insights, discoveries and research. This is the one and only tool of serious scholarship.
Revisionism in the Physical Sciences
At this point it seems appropriate to comment in a basic way about revisionism, because this is the target par excellence of the Politically Correct. One may perhaps still recall one of the many "historical facts" of this century that needed revising. Until rather recently millions of God-fearing pilgrims admired Christ's "Shroud of Turin" -- until laboratory tests established that it dated from the Middle Ages. To my knowledge the Pope did not excommunicate the scientists -- revisionists! -- who conducted the tests, nor were they accused of dishonest methods.
Almost daily new insights are gained, not only in the political and social sciences, but even more in the physical sciences and in technical fields. Here is a representative example from paleontology: most readers of these lines probably believe that the largest and earliest carnivorous prehistoric reptile was Tyrannosaurus rex. In September 1995, however, Argentine paleontologists uncovered in northern Patagonia the petrified remains of a previously unknown kind of dinosaur (Giganotosaurus carolinii), which was larger than Tyrannosaurus rex and lived 70 million years ago in the Cretaceous period. Yet those who then thought they were in possession of "the truth," that Giganotosaurus was the largest carnivorous reptile, learned better in May 1996 when, in Morocco, scientists discovered a creature 20 million years older and even larger, Carcharodontosaurus saharicus, a discovery that of course entailed inevitable revisionist consequences. What is valid for paleontologists, genetic scientists or nuclear physicists is naturally also valid for social science scholars. When he begins his scholarly work, the historian questions or reexamines the starting premises, the previous findings and the current state of research. Today, however, if he proceeds to conduct research on this basis, he is already suspect in the eyes of the politically correct. But scholarly research cannot be conducted except by investigating existing premises and by not assuming existing conclusions to be correct. Otherwise we would still be thinking that the earth is flat.
Barriers to Thought Instead of Discussion
Defaming revisionists out-of-hand as right-wing extremists has nothing to do either with an objective appraisal of their work nor with the necessary critical discussions within scholarship and research. In my opinion it is, instead, politically motivated. The operating motto is as simple as it is effective: "Make your political opponents contemptible instead of respecting them with counter-arguments, and thereby establish your position in a broad spectrum as the single force to be taken seriously." What is left laying on the ground, of course, is the often-praised "democratic basic order," which guarantees a free development of political opinion. Horst Mahler, who was once the defense attorney of the Red Army Faction terrorists, said recently: "In France it is estimated that today in Germany there are more political prisoners than there were in the DDR [Communist East Germany] in the year before it collapsed." (note 4) This is a shocking indicator of freedom of expression as it is practiced in this country.
Political Correctness sets up rigid barriers to thought that block an open discussion aimed at solving problems, and thus impedes further intellectual development. (note 5) Freedom of research must not be restricted by any power that prescribes in advance what may be considered true. Otherwise research threatens to become the ideological instrument of an opinion cartel, and thus of a power cartel, and in so doing to lose its standing as a precondition of intellectually robust and creative people. Political Correctness is a threat to a politically free state, because ultimately it will produce a state of like-minded conformity and ideological uniformity. As the writer Reiner Kunze has put it, political correctness is nourished by the merciless ideological refashioning of intellectual life in Germany. Steffen Heitmann, Saxony's Minister of Justice, regards this as the symptom of a spiritually sick people. One need not be a psychoanalyst to recognize in this the source of German self-alienation.
1. Ethnologist Hans Peter Duerr regards Political Correctness as a flight from reality. Its exponents, he writes, create "a dualistic view of the world, an infantile Disney fantasy of good and evil people." Source: "Ein Lügengespinst," Der Spiegel, No. 28/ 1994, p. 162. In the book Die Diktatur der Guten: Political Correctness (Munich: 1996, p. 9), Klaus J. Groth writes that "Political Correctness means, in fact, incorrectness, and comes close to being a liturgy of inhuman thought and struggle stereotyping, of leftist pressure for conformity, and finally, of censorship."
2. See the interview with Ernst Nolte, professor emeritus of contemporary history (Free University of Berlin), in the Jan.-Feb. 1994 Journal, pp. 15-22, and, in the same issue, the review of his 1993 book Streitpunkte (pp. 37-41). See also Nolte's remarks about Auschwitz in history in the March-April 1999 Journal, p. 36.
3. Source cited: Verfassungsschutzbericht Nordrhein-Westfalen 1995. This is the 1995 annual report of the "constitutional protection" agency of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
According to the Verfassungsschutzbericht Baden-Württemberg '96, (p. 113), "The goal of 'revisionism,' which has become one of the most important areas of agitation for right-wing extremists, is the rehabilitation of National Socialism by making it once again socially acceptable."
Revisionism, according to the Verfassungsschutzbericht Brandenburg '97, p. 137, is a "detestable expression of right-wing extremism."
From The Journal of Historical Review, July/August 1999 (Vol. 18, No. 4), page 36.
About the author:
Claus Nordbruch is the author of two books on freedom of expression in today's Germany: Sind Gedanken noch frei? Zensur in Deutschland ("Still Free to Think?: Censorship in Germany"), published in 1998 by Universitas (Munich), and Der Vefassungsschutz: Organisation, Spitzel, Skandale (Tübingen: Hohenrain, 1999). Dr. Nordbruch lives in Pretoria, South Africa. This essay is translated from the text that appeared in the prestigious Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, June 12, 1999, under the title "Die selbsternannten Tugendwächter im Visier: Schaltet Political Correctness das einstige Volk der Denker gleich?" A lengthier version of this essay, with footnotes, appeared in the quarterly journal Deutschland in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Postfach 1629, 72006 Tübingen, Germany), June 1999, pp. 12-15.