Hate speech and hate crime in Germany: what can best explain their rise?

Essays | Turana Aliyeva | 5-11-2019, 00:00


Hate speech is defined as a speech intending to insult, offend or intimidate a group on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. However, from a legal perspective, most countries do not maintain a clear definition of hate speech.  European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) defines hate crime as referring to hate speech taking the form of a conduct that is in itself a criminal offence, which means that there are causal links between hate speech and hate crime. Generally, hate crime is defined as an action, usually violent, motivated by prejudice, bias based on race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity.


Since the past decade, the world has been witnessing a global increase in the occurrence of hate speech in mass media, public and political discourse, in statements made by public officials, politicians and ordinary citizens. The significant increase of racist, nationalist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, antisemitic attitudes Europe has witnessed in the recent years, makes us suggest that Europe’s democracies are somehow losing their immunity towards hate speech. These attitudes are not limited to hostile rhetoric- they also lead to actual crimes against groups and individuals.

Although Europe’s hate speech laws have been tightened over the past two decades, much due to the increase in the number of hate speech incidents, liberals are concerned about the repeated occurrence of human rights violations and introduction of the laws restricting freedom of expression, in some allegedly democratic countries. The rise of hate crime in Europe is extremely alarming. Germany’s Interior Ministry reports that xenophobic and Anti-Semitic hate crime in Germany rose by almost 20% in 2018 compared to the last year.


In 2018, the Anti-Defamation League set up that there is a stepping stool of damage, with numerous degrees, starting from demonstrations of predisposition and separation, hate speech, climbing towards inspired savagery, for example, murder, assault, attack or fear-based oppression. According to the comparative report provided by the eMORE Project, among the root causes of hate speech and crime in most European countries are the increase in the number of immigrants and refugees as well as overall sense of disillusionment with socio-economic prospect. The observations of social scientists show that there is a clear correlation between the trends in online hate speech and acts of violence. A correlation between anti-refugee Facebook posts by the far-right alternative for Germany party and attacks on refugees was observed by scholars Karsten Muller and Carlo Schwarz in Germany.

Hate speech and hate crime would not have raised so many concerns if they had not had real implications. However, European history teaches us to be aware of serious risks arising once hate speech becomes a norm.


In order to understand better the key reasons provoking hate incidents in Europe, one should take a holistic approach and analyze not only a correlation between hate speech online and hate crime, but also find the causes of hate speech, investigate the preventive measures taken by governments and find out whether the hate speech is a top-down process or bottom-up.

Thus, to achieve the above-mentioned objectives, I will give general overview of the status of hate speech and socio-cultural context and analyze the legal framework for addressing hate speech in the case of Germany.




Legal Framework


The term “hate crime” in the German context describes politically motivated criminal acts. From the practical point of view, German criminologists hate crimes into 3 groups in accordance with their primary motives:

<!L  Left-wing motivated crimes, which mainly include crimes driven by ideologies by extremist of communism or anarchism;

<!-- Right-wing-motivated crimes (racism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, national socialism, social Darwinism, anti-Gypsyism);

<!-- Bias-motivated crimes, committed usually by foreigners (e.g. the Kurdish PKK, Jihadi Salafis).


The Criminal Code subdivides this category into two groups: “bias-motivated crimes” (Voruteilsdelikte) and “symbolic crimes” (Botschaftsverbrechen). There is a clear distinction between a crime against the State and a crime against a person based on political views, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Hate speech in Germany is not considered as a crime per se, however it is viewed in the context of closely related criminal acts such as libel, offence or defamation. The primary bit of criminal legislation restricting ‘hate’ in Germany is the Criminal Code, which contains relevant provisions against the most severe forms of ‘hate speech’ and hate crimes.


When it comes to bias-motivated crimes, the 2nd paragraph of the Section 46 of the Criminal Code states that “racist, xenophobic, and other inhumane or contemptuous motives are an aggravating circumstance to be considered when establishing the grounds for sentencing for any crime under the Criminal Code”. The above-mentioned provisions were introduced into the Criminal Code following a series of murders and bombings by the National Socialist Underground (NSU) – a far-right German terrorist group which was uncovered in 2011. ‘Politically motivated crimes’ are the ones that target “the political attitude, nationality, ethnicity, race, skin color, religion, worldview, origin, sexual orientation, disability, external appearance or social status” of the victim. As for ‘symbolic’ crimes, they include the following:

• Incitement to hatred: Section 130 of the Criminal Code prohibits incitement to hatred, incitement to violence, and incitement to arbitrary measures “against a national, racial, religious group or a group defined by their ethnic origins;”

• Attempt to cause the commission of offences by means of publication, which is prohibited in Section 130a;

• Dissemination of propaganda material of unconstitutional organizations, as prohibited in Section 86;

• Using symbols of unconstitutional organizations, as prohibited in Section 86a of the Criminal Code.75

While assessing these provisions, we should consider related specific features. First of all, the terms ‘hatred’ and ‘propaganda’ are not well-defined in the Criminal Code. And this gap may lead to misinterpretation of provisions. Apart from that, the provision which prohibits incitement against “a national, racial, religious group or a group defined by their ethnic origins, against the segments of the population or individuals because of their belonging to one of the aforementioned groups or to segments of the population” is vague. The wording “a segment of the population” is too broad and, in practice, covers grounds that are not explicitly mentioned, such as disability or gender and sexual orientation. The wording “national, racial, religious group or a group defined by their ethnic origins” was added by the March 2011 Amendment to the Criminal Code. It was introduced to implement the EU Framework decision on racism and the Additional Protocol to the Cybercrime Convention of the Council of Europe.

The above-mentioned gaps in Criminal Code are just few examples of flaws in the existing legal framework.


Even though incitement to hatred can serve as a solid ground for imprisonment, according to the German constitution “there shall be no censorship”. So, marches by Islamophobic and anti-immigrant movements such as Pegida end up protected by police Such inconsistencies which arise not only from the legal framework but the social context as well, may impede the process of hate speech silencing.


Current picture


According to the latest German Interior Ministry data, anti-Semitic and Xenophobic hate crime in Germany rose by almost 20 percent last year. Most of hate crime committed in Germany can be easily classified as right-wing motivated crimes.

According to the statistical data provided by German government to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), in 2014-15, the amount of right-wing motivated crimes had significantly increased. Social scientists link this increase with the refugee crisis, as specifically xenophobic offences rose by 79.6% during that year, while acts of anti-Semitism were the second most rising category. Moreover, 16 direct attacks on refugee centers were registered in 2014 and 83- in 2015. The country report provides that the number of injuries inflicted on left-wing supporters had increased by 81.3%.

At the same time, the number of left-wing motivated crimes increased by 27% of general offences, specifically violent acts (+61.6%). Left-wing motivated crimes are mainly committed against right-wing supporters, state and institutions. Hate crimes based on social and confessional differences are among the main motives.


Although in 2015 the rate of bias motivated crime committed by foreigners dropped by 24.3 compared to the previous year, cases of property damage, arson and attacks against churches, mosques and synagogues got more frequent. According to the data provided by the German government within the framework of the eMORE Project, religious intolerance and anti-Semitism are now the main motives of hate crime committed by foreigners. Since the police is the only source of data, this data does not guarantee a full picture, and obviously, there is a huge number of unreported hate crime cases.



Understanding hate speech and hate crime through social identity theory


Given the statistical data which explicitly shows that immigration and the so-called refugee crisis are among the key reasons of hate speech and hate crime in Germany, we can now go deeper and try to understand why the growing number of immigrants would irritate locals so much.

The report prepared by the Leibniz Center for European Economic Research, a nonprofit institute based in Mannheim, shows that there is a correlation between the amount of experience local people share with immigrants and the number of hate crimes in the country. The number of attacks is "higher in regions with a previously low proportion of foreigners than in regions with an already high proportion of foreigners," said Horst Entorf and Martin Lange, as reported by Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA).The above-mentioned statement gives a key to understanding the real reason behind hate speech and hate crime. Having less experience with foreigners, means being less informed and thus, considering that group as an “out-group” and as a potential source of threat is natural.

To get a deeper insight into the root causes of hate speech, I will try to explain the situation using social identity theory. The data provided above shows that hate crime and hate speech are mostly being practiced towards the members of out-group, and both are related to the rate of immigration. According to the social identity theory (H. Tajfel & J. Turner 1970), in-group members may experience identity threats when they feel that their group status is threatened by a growing out-group. Also, the findings of Colussi et al. (2016) show that a higher salience of minority groups increases the likelihood of hate crimes So this might be the case in Europe, particularly in Germany, where the flow of immigrants came widely to be seen as a threat to in-group status. Thus, the members of an in-group turn their defensive mechanism on, which then makes them unconsciously resort to offensive actions. In-group members’ desire to preserve their status creates an urgent need called positive-distinctiveness. Thus, people try to show their superiority through pointing to negative features of out-group members, which leads to hate speech, which in turn provokes hate crime.



Is increase of hate speech and hate crime a top-down or bottom-up process?


After getting a deep insight into the key reasons of the increase in hate speech and hate crime incidents, we can finally ask this question: Is this trend a top-down or bottom-up process?


 In order to at least partially answer this complex question, let’s investigate the link between hate speech online by particular political parties and hate crime. If hate speech spread online can lead to real-life hate crime, then one can guess that this process is a top-down process led by certain political parties and leaders.

Hate speech is primarily spread via social media platforms. As social media is the main news source among young people between 18 and 25 in Germany, they can play a significant role in the propagation of hate crime. And if social media platforms are capable of reinforcing anti-refugee sentiments and triggering hate crime, then it can easily be used by certain actors to reach their goals.


In order to test this hypothesis let’s use the case of the “Alternative fur Deutschland” (Alternative for Germany (AfD)) party. AfD is a right-wing party, that became the third largest party in Germany following the federal election in 2017. The AfD has a distinctly anti-refugee and anti-immigration agenda; currently with more than 491,000 followers, their Facebook page has the broadest reach among other German parties. It’s worth noting that AfD is the only party that does not explicitly outline rules of conduct by threatening to delete hateful posts or comments. Consequently, the AfD Facebook page has more posts and comments than other parties’ pages. So, one would guess that the incidence of anti-refugee hate crimes should increase in municipalities where AfD users show higher Facebook engagement. And this would mean that social media can have a propagating effect on the number of violent incidents.

Muller and Schwarz (2018) show that social media act as a propagating tool for hateful sentiments. According to the results of a research conducted by Karsten Muller and Carlo Schwarz, the number of hate crimes rises during the periods when the refugee issuesrise in salience, while in municipalities experiencing an internet outage this effect disappears. So, as the lack of internet access can be certainly traced to be correlated with lower figures of anti-refugee crimes, we can claim the existence of a direct influence of social media on their occurrence. Research shows that “volatile, short-lived bursts in sentiment within a given location have substantial effects on people’s behavior and that social media may play a role in their propagation.” (Muller and Schwartz, 2018).


Now given the fact that social media can serve as a propagating mechanism, which can be used by certain actors, we can look back at the AfD case, where Facebook is being used as a propagating tool for hateful anti-refugee sentiments. The results of Muller’s and Schwartz’s research show that anti-refugee incidents increase in times of high refugee salience on the AfD page.  Muller and Schwartz take the number of posts on the Facebook page of AfD that contain the word “Fluchtling” (refugee) as a measure of anti-refugee hate speech salience on social media. Scholars construct a measure of the AfD Facebook Usage per Capita, by Municipality and Anti-Refugee Incidents per Asylum Seekers, by Municipality.


 Hate speech and hate crime in Germany: what can best explain their rise?



 Figure (a) shows that during the weeks when more anti-refugee posts were published the anti-refugee events tend to be higher.




 Hate speech and hate crime in Germany: what can best explain their rise?


As indicated in figure (b) municipalities with AfD users are three times as likely to experience an attack during the observation period. In a sample used in Muller’s and Schwartz’s research out of the total 3,335 attacks on refugees, 3,171 occurred in municipalities with AfD Facebook page users. The correlations shown in this section suggest that there is a strong statistical link between anti-refugee posts on social media and hate crimes.

Now we know that social media is just a mediator and the number of hate crimes can increase if certain actors like AfD “order” it. So this could be enough to claim that increase of hate speech and hate crime is mostly a top-down process.




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<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[1]<!--[endif]--> https://www.emoreproject.eu/about-project/

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Turana Aliyeva

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