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Erdogan and Satire in Germany – A Comment by Media Critic Oliver Kalkofe

The so-called Böhmermann Affair, orchestrated by public statements of both President Erdogan of Turkey (who claims to be the victim of lese majesty by virtue of an insulting poem) and German Chancellor Merkel, has made waves recently due to its implications for freedom of the press and freedom of speech in one of the more liberal countries of this day and age.

This past Sunday, media critic Oliver Kalkofe took to the German airwaves to help explain and interpret the case. Below you find his comments in translation.

“A few interpreting words on possibly the most absurd case of real-life satire in German history.

#Böhmermann – Erdogan – Goatf’cker – Question mark

[The affair is] already now part of the annals of history as the first satire that became a state-affair because important people didn’t get the joke at the wrong time.

Just to be on the safe side – and as it repeatedly becomes the centre of discussion – the poem (German: Schmähgedicht – inflammatory poem) as such is not what the discussion is about.

Similarly, the questions:

  • Is this poem still satire or already an insult?
  • Is it funny or not, was it a spark of genius or the opposite?
  • Is it allowed to call the Turkish President a goat copulator?

have to be answered in the same way every time:


To each his own, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. However, the intended satire never was the entirely irrelevant poem itself, but the presentation of the very same. The poem itself is simple, crass, and insulting – in doing so, it is, mind you, over-exaggerated to the level of a kindergarten-bully, so that it was to be expected that any self-assured adult would understand the cartoonesque and brazenly stupid nature of it.

Böhmermann or any other sane comic would never have put him or herself in front of a camera and read this poem in earnest. Ever. The satirical point of the whole event – independent from whether it was done well or not – was just the one: to provide a provoking comment on the foaming anger of Rumpelstiltskin from Bosporus that had already been caused by a comparatively tame Erdogan song by their colleagues at [the statirical tv show] Extra 3. This Erdoganian outrage included repeated summons of the German Ambassador and the dickish demand of the insulted head of the Turks for the German government to step in and regulate.

Böhmermann consciously dialled this up to eleven and in his show explained the differences between freedom of speech, satire and vile, inflammatory critique by way of the ‘inflammatory poem’ only to distance himself from it.

Alright, sure, this was meant to be provoking, no question about it, we stupid.

However, the provocation was the satire [and the satirical context of the ‘explanation’], not the poem itself! And exactly that kind of provocation is the job of satire.

The point made here was to give the (far outstretched) middle finger to a raging despot, who is actively abusing the right to free speech in his own country, and to declare in righteous indignation: Listen up, angry old imp, luckily we live in a country in which humour is yet to be forbidden, in which we can speak freely. And if we are smart about it, we can annoy you even more without really insulting you. Because that is the whole point of satire and the freedom of speech! And [that’s] its power. Ha!

Sadly, this play on a meta-level was set too high for too many people.

The heedless and premature reaction by [GER public broadcaster] ZDF and most importantly the Chancellor, who wanted protect the fragile deal with Turkey in a case of pre-emptive obedience to prevent the indignation of the angered Mussulman, was only the first step of everything that should follow.

Additionally, any attempts to create one’s own opinion of the piece in its intended context are prevented by the premature deletion of the piece from the ZDF-Mediathek [online and streaming platform of ZDF].

Sadly, cowardly.

And shameful for a public broadcaster.

[Similarly] Important for the overall assessment: Never before in the history of the Federal Republic has a head of state provided an un-asked-for critique of humour on a piece of TV-satire.

Why would they?

Only the official interpretation of the poem by the chancellor, not as a private person but in her role as head of state – and in disregard of its original context – led to this satirical bit becoming an affair of state.

What followed was a whirlwind of insanity and absurdities which could have been stopped, standing tall and with a steady hand, by making the following statement: Yes, we do have a separation of powers – this question is not to be decided by the legislative, but by the judicative. And that it will in the case of a lawsuit on the basis of personal defamation by President Erdogan. However, the exaggerated demand for a lawsuit on the basis of ‘lese majesty’ will not be accepted as it is not in line with our understanding of the freedom of speech. This happens as a sign of our sovereignty with regards to the freedom of satire and the press.

Sadly, this didn’t happen.

Chancellor Merkel has allowed investigations, and thus a lawsuit, based on the much-harder-to-interpret case of ‘lese majesty’ – while at the same time announcing to get rid of the out-dated law soon as possible.

Regretfully, this tells us citizens and other countries:

Also in our case, the freedom of speech and right to satire are (theoretically) a given, they end, however, at the very point at which the subject of a joke doesn’t get it.

Even-though the admittance of the lawsuit is legally possible and explainable, the state of law would have been paid enough deference to by a personal lawsuit of Mr Erdogan. The courts would have decided, far away from politics.

As it should be.

Admitting the suit as an absurdist ‘lese majesty’ was thus neither needed, nor necessary. Legally it was correct and politically possible – as a signal to our country and the world it was fatal. This was no sign of strength, none of courage or determination.

And even if it wasn’t meant as such or the following statement is maybe wrong or exaggerated: This decision will likely stand tall as a spineless cave in and betrayal of the values of our country and liberty as such, that is being criticized even by the head of the Turkish community in Germany. They as well would have wished for an affirmation of the freedom of speech.

This decision, however, helps no-one.

And, fatally, it will be used by the wrong and radical forces [in our society] for their own goals. All those who have thus far – and without justification – accused Mrs Merkel to be a traitor of her own people, have now gotten proof for their statement and the opportunity to join in on a comfortable, if wrong-headed, string of argumentation. Doing so, I fear that the boomerang that was so weakly and feebly thrown by our chancellor will forcefully hit her in the neck [before long].

It is a sad day for our country and our freedom of speech. A small, if worthy of discussion, satirical bit was turned into an affair of state, a fart into a tsunami.

By virtue of a bizarre succession of bad decisions, the attempt to showcase freedom of satire with its own means was turned into a political showcase of how not to treat it.

Chances are, this decision was not the death of the freedom of satire, but in the very least it was a solid kick into its balls.

Balls, that our government just demonstrated not to have.

If it weren’t so sad, we would have to laugh about it.”

The translation of the above text was done by GPPW Co-Director Moritz Borchardt in coordination with other members of the GPPW staff, the original German text can be found here, the translation was made following the meaning of the text over the exact wording of it.

We share the text here because we think it is a worthwhile contribution to the discussion surrounding the referenced poem and the freedom of speech and because we think Mr Kalkofe’s interpretation deserves to be heard and read as well outside the sphere of German language.

Beyond that, we genuinely hope that in the future jokes will be understood as such and that rights such as ‘lese majesty’ will soon be part of the history books alone.

Cover image via


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