Vice Detective Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) in Babylon Berlin.
The first season of Babylon Berlin follows a detective’s struggle to navigate the political landscape of 1929 Germany, a country torn apart by shell-shock, communist uprising, and a decaying republic. The villains of the first season are all Russian agitators, but characters can be overheard whispering about a new threat. “These people aren’t like the others,” the councillor’s aide mutters to him. “They hate the republic. They hate the Jews.” Suddenly, young men in brown shirts are harassing passengers on a train platform and a shady organization pressures a young maid to hide a bomb in the Jewish councillor’s desk.
Babylon Berlin is produced by ARD, Germany’s largest mass media consortium and the world’s largest public broadcaster. It is the most expensive non-English-language production ever filmed, topping out at over 40 million euros (46 million USD). And it features Nazis as its prominent villains.
For Americans, this is not earthshaking news, but Germany has long held the policy that giving Nazis any mention whatsoever in media amounts to free advertising. The Nazi party is banned in Germany and propagating its symbols is punishable by up to three years in prison according to the German Criminal Code. Swastikas, outside academic use, are banned in media, and only on Aug. 9 of this year did the USK, the German agency which rates video games, lift the total ban, agreeing to judge media case-by-case.
For a comparable example, the video game Wolfenstein: The New Colossus – a game that encourages its players to show Nazis the same kindness a wood chipper shows tree branches – contains a scene that features Adolf Hitler. The scene is not exactly lionizing; Hitler, in this universe, has become a doddering old man who sees Jews everywhere, cannot control his bodily fluids, and shoots an actor who may be alternate-universe Ronald Reagan. The German version, however, stars a mustache-less German commander who is referred to as “mein Kanzler” (“my chancellor”) not “mein Führer.” All swastikas, Iron Crosses, and Reich eagles have been replaced with vague totalitarian logos, and all Nazis with generic techno-fascist goons.
The law is not absolute, and foreign distributors are allowed exemptions – The Man in the High Castle, for instance, produced and distributed by Amazon, can be streamed unchanged despite its relatively sympathetic portrayal of the Reich – but for years, the policy on Nazi imagery in German media has been a hard no.
So what has changed? The modern European political landscape.
The rise of far right or “alt-right” groups is already a well-documented phenomenon in Europe. Economic downturn and the Syrian refugee crisis – which, statistics show, has barely affected European demographics at all – have provoked ultranationalist backlash from Scandinavia to the Balkans. Lega (“Legion”) in Italy, Golden Dawn in Greece, Fidesz in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, FPO in Austria – all these groups emphasize European ethnic purity, demand the “defense” of Europe’s Christian heritage, and vilify Muslims as freeloaders, rapists, and terrorists.
And Germany’s censorship policies have not spared it. Alternative for Germany (AFD), the German nationalist party, has become the third-largest party in parliament, and even worse, Udo Voigt has become the neo-fascist National Democratic Party’s first representative to the European parliament. On Aug. 30, accusations that an Iraqi and a Syrian immigrant had been involved in the stabbing of a German man sparked an angry mob that took over the city of Chemnitz. Over 8,000 demonstrators chased suspected refugees, some hailing Nazi salutes, others chanting “We are the German people!”
What does any of this have to do with Nazis on German TV?
The laws banning swastikas, Mein Kampf, and Holocaust denial were initially put into place by Allied armies after World War II as they attempted to stamp out the “lost cause.” Over time, however, the suppression became a way of hiding a national shame. Only as the 68’ers (European baby boomers) came of age did a national debate break out regarding just how Germany could ever look its past in the face. The results: German public schools now include mandatory courses on the Holocaust, the sides of houses are peppered with plaques honoring Jews evicted from their homes, and the German government has attempted to make reparations to every still-living Holocaust survivor and their families.
It is easy to see why the German government believes that even unsympathetic portrayal of Nazism is akin to free advertising for their personal devil, but the political terrain shows how thoroughly censorship has failed. In this, Babylon Berlin represents a positive trend, a turn away from silence. Painful or not, Germany must be willing to confront its cruelest hour; otherwise, it cannot confront those who would relive it.
Stollhaus is an International Politics Senior and Local Spotlight Editor.
PC: Netflix/Sky 1/Everett