To see or not to see

This morning on the train on my way to work, I came across an article about a new documentary called “Forbidden Films” which asks the question whether the Nazi propaganda films should be un-banned or not. This is a topic that has come up in my mind for 25 years now and I do not have the answer!

One of my first jobs was in a small library situated in my father’s office in Germany. The library focussed on religion (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) and history of religion and there was of course also a whole section on World War II.


Part of that library section was called “Der Giftschrank” (“The poison shelf”) where  some Nazi propaganda material was kept, like for instance Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” or some copies of the notorious Nazi propaganda paper “Der Stürmer”. That section was locked and was only allowed to be opened, and the materials in it perused, by permission from the boss himself (my dad). The Giftschrank was there for study purposes.

I have always learned that censorship is bad and that freedom of speech is essential in a free world. Yet here we are, forbidding these Nazi propaganda films to be seen and the literature to be read. On the other hand (due to having been allowed to leaf through some Giftschrank materials) I know how sickening this material is and it is unthinkable that there are people out there who might want to re-use some of it for their own twisted purposes! This stuff is so toxic, it would create a stir and get attention that you maybe don’t want it to have. On the other hand, how are we to really learn from history if we keep the evil locked away? Or should everything be open, but with comments explaining what it helped do? Or should there be no explanations and should these texts and films just speak for themselves?

Triumph des Willens - Leni Riefenstahl

Still from Nazi propaganda film “Triumph des Willens” made by Leni Riefenstahl

I have no answers to all these questions. My first reaction is that everything that is so discriminatory and racist and sets people up against each other should be forbidden. Yet – those materials offer opinions and points of view and shouldn’t we at least be open to what others think (or thought) even if we absolutely hate what they think? It’s the same with all these “Je suis Charlie” cartoons. I find many of the anti-Islamic cartoons to be extremely offensive and racist and it sets up people against each other. I realize it is also a reaction to extremist Islamic ideology (which I also absolutely hate – I hate any extremist ideology, period). But even with those cartoons I wonder: how far can we allow these opinions to be aired? Where is the line and should there be a line?

The whole recent Cybersmile brouhaha, with freedom of speech and censorship essentially at the heart of it all, has made me think about this and now the article I read this morning throws it into a larger arena – what can or can’t we say, what can or can’t we write and what may be read or watched and what should be forbidden?

I’m very curious to see this “Forbidden Films” documentary, I wonder to what conclusions I would come. I don’t expect answers because I don’t think there really are definitive answers but I am throwing this out there in the universe to ponder over…


16 thoughts on “To see or not to see

  1. That was still true when I was in grad school in Göttingen in the late 1990s. There were a lot of things in the “Giftschrank” and you couldn’t see them without filling out an application explaining why. That said, at the time you could find a copy of Mein Kampf in every other flea market, which was illegal but people got big donations of old books, I think, and didn’t bother to look at them in detail.

    My position on this has usually been that Germany (East and West) probably had a reasonable interest in banning this stuff for a particular period of time, say twenty or twenty five years. At that point, however, the fact that it was forbidden turned it into a bone of contention for any politically dissatisfied right leaning minority in the society. And also for pranksters. I remember a teenager saying to me around 1997 or so that anytime they were sick of math, someone drew a swastika on the board during the pause and it guaranteed that the lesson would stop.

    On the whole I am for very few boundaries on free speech (no shouting fire in a crowded theater is usually my limit), but that position apparently now pushes me into the minority.


    • Yes, on the whole I am for few boundaries as well. With this Nazi propaganda stuff I tend towards the “enough time has gone by, it should be available now” mode. And yet – do I really believe that anything may be said? No, I don’t think I do. My gut tells me what is acceptable or not acceptable to me personally, but can that be generalized? I don’t think so either…


  2. Hast Du “Mein Kampf” irgendwann gelesen? Ich weiss nicht wie es geschrieben ist, ob es mitreisst oder eher abschreckt von der Sprache her…. Eigentlich denke ich man sollte das aufarbeiten, mit den Schülern lesen und durchdiskutieren, offen angehen. Wird es weggeschlossen, dann wird es von den Fanatikern glorifiziert. Mit den Parodien hast Du recht, mir sind einige davon zu heftig, sie schießen über das Ziel hinaus……


    • Nein, ich habe es nie gelesen. Ich wollte es, aber beim Gedanken wurde mir damals schon schlecht. Jetzt. wo ich älter bin, würde ich es doch lesen. Ich habe aber einige “Der Stürmer” Artikel gelesen und die waren unglaublich schlecht… “evil” würde ich auf Englisch sagen, “really evil”.
      Ja, ich glaube auch, das so etwas aufarbeitet werden soll – und allein schon deswegen sollte es zugänglich sein. Es werden aber trotzdem immer welche sein die diese Sachen glorifizieren…
      Die Parodien – die gab’s im “Stürmer” auch und manchmal wenn ich Islam-Parodien sehe, muss ich an diese “Stürmer” Parodien denken. Dann wird mir immer kalt ums Herz…


  3. Hiya,

    I have thought about little else since Richard’s blogpost and the tidal wave of our responses and responses to our responses that are flooding cyberland in these last few days. I would NEVER wish to hurt no one with my “critical” words and yet it seems every time I say anything “contrary”, I am putting out hate vibes. The issue of censorship and freedom of speech are potentially as serious a topic as bullying is, and it is one that I feel needs to be discussed respectfully and in depth. When we bring things to the light, it is because they no longer remain hidden that we can confront them and decide how best to handle them if need be. The backlash of people who have yet again stood up in Richard’s defence, as if the rest of us who spoke one way or another, do not have the same respect and admiration for the man, quite frankly scares me. Why can he have an opinion and extend it to all of us (which is greatly appreciated) and we can’t express ours, despite the fact that comments and feedback were welcome by Cyberfoundation in the first place? I can understand “My bar, my rules”, indeed I am of the same mind. If you don’t like what I put on my blog or my twitter feed, please leave, you are free to do so as you came here of your own accord, but exchanging our views on a site which discusses these very deep, relevant and serious issues is a different thing altogether and it should be treated and respected as such.


    • Yes, I agree that discussion of this should always be possible! And criticism does NOT equal hatred or incitement to hatred just as agreement does not mean that people are un-critical (is that a word?) and have no mind of their own. Respecting the other – that’s how it should be in my eyes.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. A fascinating piece to me, because I am so seldom privy to the Nazis’ emotional effect on individuals living in or from Germany. Is there writing so potentially explosive it must be banned for decades? I’m not quite sure what I think about that, but as an American who was born in the latter part of the 20th century, I tend to chafe under the idea of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a very touchy subject and for 12 years this was the main ideology that many young people were brought up with in Germany. I understand the bans after the war in attempts to desensitze that. And the stuff really was nasty. I do believe there should be enough distance in history… however the stuff is evil…


  5. When I started reading your blog post, I immediately also thought of the current discussions within a particular fandom *coughs*. I felt slightly bad, even, because I had let on to be one of the “suppressors” of discourse. But reading your post has brought back discussions I have had about exactly this topic with my hubster, an active, outspoken left-wing man. My opinion had been – let them all read it, because the contents and the form is so bad, so ridiculous, so OTT, so plain insane, it will disqualify itself. He argued against it, pointing out that keeping it openly accessible would be perpetuating the ideas.
    My current opinion lies somewhere in the middle. A ban invariably makes the forbidden material irresistible. And because there are always ways and means of getting access to it, it will flourish in the underground and maybe become “legendary” and bigger than it is. So my suggestion would be to make it accessible IN PARTS. Not the individual pieces of material as a whole, but some parts of it. To illustrate the insanity of it, and to make clear that we *do* want to have discourse on it, we *do* want to learn from the past, but we also acknowledge that it is dangerous stuff that needs sensitive handling.
    But well, maybe that is just and literally a half-baked idea…
    To get back to the fandom discussions – freedom of speech, definitely. Because I do not think for one minute that any of the ideas expressed by critics are incitement of hatred. If anything, some of the criticisms have shown that there is a *need* to point out alternative interpretations of individual points.


    • But I guess the next argument would be: which parts would be made accessible and which wouldn’t? I think it probably makes sense to make it all or nothing. Maybe it just needs a warning like on a pack of cigarettes, saying something like: “These texts have helped to murder millions of people. Reading this may cause damage to your mental health.” 😉
      And I agree on the fandom freedom of speech thing! By they way, I don’t think you suppressed discussion, you just chose not to engage. And that is freedom as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Good point – all or nothing. I suppose I am really, really conflicted on this issue. The decades of brainwashing and beating-in of self-criticism have really worked on me and my generation. Maybe it’s time to leave that behind. It is now 70 years since the end of WW2, more distance to evaluate and deal with the historical facts.


  6. I guess it’s the American in me, but…what Servetus said.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I feel mostly like what Servetus said “On the whole I am for very few boundaries on free speech (no shouting fire in a crowded theater is usually my limit)…” There are things I neither want to read or hear but the problem for me in drawing lines is this: Who gets to decide when and where the lines are drawn? The potential for abuse of that power is enormous.


    • Yes, that is what is scary… but the hatred is scary too… Then again, I guess the most important thing is to learn to be critical and you can only do that if you have access to all the info…

      Liked by 1 person

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