Merkel’s Road to Moral Surrender

Germany’s recklessly humanitarian leader betrays her country’s liberal values.

By Bret Stephens

How does European humanitarianism become a road to moral surrender? In Germany, they’re beginning to find out.

Jan Böhmermann is a German political satirist—think of a younger version of Jon Stewart—who, on his TV show last month, read aloud a lewd poem about Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The verse was replete with mocking references to the Turkish president’s anatomy, his alleged relations with farm animals, and his mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities.

Was it funny? My wife, who’s German, puts it in the category of “so puerile you laugh.” But Mr. Böhmermann had a serious point, explicitly framing his poem as an example of Schmähkritik, or abusive criticism, and therefore not necessarily protected by German law. His larger aim was to test the limits of free speech, much as the American comedian George Carlin did in the 1970s with his notorious “seven words you can’t say on TV.”

The ploy succeeded too well. The Turkish foreign ministry made a formal request of the German government to prosecute Mr. Böhmermann under a Wilhelmine-era law (known as Section 103 and previously used by the Shah of Iran and Augusto Pinochet of Chile) forbidding insults against foreign leaders. Mr. Erdogan has also filed a private suit against the comedian, who is now under police protection in consideration of the recent fates of European satirists who ran afoul of Muslim sensitivities.

None of this is surprising: The Turkish government is pursuing nearly 2,000 criminal cases against Turkish citizens accused of insulting Mr. Erdogan, some of which involve school-age children who posted material on Facebook. FB -2.54 % Mr. Erdogan’s bodyguards also recently roughed up some demonstrators protesting him in Washington, D.C. It’s in the nature of political thuggery to recognize no boundaries, moral or territorial.

It’s also in the nature of the liberal West constantly to seek an accommodation with the thugs.

ZDF, the German public broadcaster that carries Mr. Böhmermann’s show, immediately pulled the offending clip from its website, though it promises to foot his legal bills. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that she found the poem “deliberately hurtful,” a comment her spokesman went out of his way to disclose.

More damagingly, the chancellor allowed the criminal case to go forward when she had the legal authority to stop it, claiming the judiciary is where the matter rightly belongs while promising to repeal the law under which the suit was brought. This is supposed to be the height of pragmatism, a way of mollifying Mr. Erdogan even as it’s unlikely that a German court will impose much of a penalty on Mr. Böhmermann.

But hiding behind judicial skirts does nothing to disguise Mrs. Merkel’s more craven calculation, which is her need to placate Mr. Erdogan after he agreed last month to keep refugees from flooding Europe through Turkey in exchange for billions in financial aid and visa-free travel for Turks in Europe. A deal is supposed to be a deal, but the Turkish president is not the sort to stay (politically) bribed. Hence the need to appease him in the coin of a comedian’s prosecution.

What begins in small concessions of principle generally leads to greater concessions. Germany might soon repeal Section 103 and Mr. Böhmermann may well be vindicated in court. But by now Mr. Erdogan knows that nothing is so morally flexible as a Western politician desperate to avoid a tough choice, so expect him to find new avenues to impose his will, and his values, on a pliable Europe.

That goes especially for Mrs. Merkel, who spent much of 2015 riding a wave of liberal congratulation (capped by being named Time’s Person of the Year) for her willingness to accept a million Mideastern refugees, no questions asked. Now those refugees, some of them ill-behaved, are provoking a political backlash of a sort that stirs uneasy German memories, and the chancellor needs the political easy way out from the consequences of her reckless humanitarianism. That turns out to mean a betrayal of the very liberal values she claims to champion.

The larger question is how far Mrs. Merkel and other European leaders are willing to bend to the likes of Mr. Erdogan and other autocrats. The deal with Turkey, Der Spiegel noted this week, “is more than just a piece of paper to Merkel—it’s proof that the refugee crisis can be solved with means other than barbed wire.” But what does it say about Mrs. Merkel’s fitness as a political leader that she would sooner risk the free-speech rights of German citizens than tend to the necessary if sometimes ugly business of national self-preservation?

To their credit, Germany’s left-leaning Social Democrats, who are in a coalition government with Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, have opposed her capitulation to Mr. Erdogan. In France, too, it is the Socialist Party of François Hollande and Manuel Valls that has been most clear-eyed about the need to stand firm for the core values of a secular state. In today’s Europe, that’s the key test of leadership, one that Mrs. Merkel is failing.

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