Volksverhetzung: ’Applicable law partly too narrowly and partly misleadingly formulated’

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Elisa Hoven Photo: Maya Claussen
Elisa Hoven Photo: Maya Claussen

Against the backdrop of reactions in this country to Hamas’ terror in Israel, Felix Klein, the German government’s anti-Semitism commissioner, has called for tougher criminal law in cases of incitement to hatred. The push stems from a proposal formulated by Elisa Hoven, a criminal law professor at the University of Leipzig, together with a colleague. In their research project "Digital Hate," they found that "the current law is in part too narrow and in part misleadingly worded," as the law professor reports in a brief interview.

The anti-Semitism commissioner of the German government, Felix Klein, calls for a tightening of criminal law in cases of incitement of the people. In view of the reactions in Germany to the terror of Hamas in Israel, the police and judiciary must be put in an even better position to react to threats from the Islamist environment, Klein told the newspapers of the Funke Mediengruppe (Monday editions). What do you think of the initiative?

The push goes back to a proposal I formulated together with my co-worker Alexandra Witting and discussed with the anti-Semitism commissioner. As part of the research project on digital hate, we evaluated press reports on criminal proceedings for anti-Semitic incitement and more than 300 proceedings conducted between 2016 and 2021 in various public prosecutor’s offices in Germany for incitement of the people. In the process, we found that the current law is in part too narrowly and in part misleadingly formulated. In practice, this often leads to proceedings being dropped, the results of which are hardly comprehensible.

Can you give an example?

The criminal offense requires, for example, a "disturbance of the public peace. This implies that the statement must be directed against a group living in Germany. In some cases, public prosecutors then discontinue proceedings on the grounds that a hate message is not directed against Germans, but against Jews living in Israel. Another frequent occurrence is that anti-Semitic codes and ciphers are overlooked. Statements are then classified as permissible criticism of Israel, although in reality they are clearly anti-Semitic and inflammatory.

To what extent do you derive a need for legal action from your findings?

The criminal offense of incitement to hatred urgently needs to be reformed. Anyone who publicly spreads anti-Semitic incitement must be punished. Amending the provision would also have the positive effect of bringing this into the focus of public prosecutors and the courts. We need even greater awareness here of the manifestations of modern anti-Semitism - and consistent punishment in court.

Carsten Heckmann