Satire and Freedom of Expression

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Satire and Freedom of Expression
by Gisela Vetter-Liebenow

Finding caricature and satire at the heart of controversy is nothing new, as they have been accompanied by suspicion, criticism and outright rejection since time immemorial. But the attack on the editorial office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamic terrorists on January 7 of this year was unprecedented, prompting a heated public and media debate about the limits of freedom of speech and press.

Freedom of thought is a central prerequisite for caricature and satire. Yet whether in the past or the present, those who take the liberty to express critical, rebellious, even seemingly heretical thoughts must expect some sort of backlash, sometimes significant. And they may be reminded of a German folk song whose passionate plea for freedom of thought is rooted in ancient traditions. It was not by coincidence that Tomi Ungerer chose the first line of this song as the title for his memoirs about a childhood spent in German-occupied Alsace during the National Socialist era:

“Thoughts are free,
Who can guess them?
They fly by

Like nocturnal shadows.
No man can know them,

No hunter can shoot them
And so it will always be:

Thoughts are free!”

The Thinkers Club (Der Denker-Club)















Caricaturists have been addressing this issue time and again: for example, in the first half of the 19th century, when Reactionism triumphed over Revolution at the Congress of Vienna and liberal ideas were repressed, by force when necessary, as in the so-called ‘Demagogenverfolgung’, the persecution of demagogues. An anonymous artist captured this spirit in a folio from ca. 1819: A group of scholars is gathered around a table, all wearing their prescribed muzzles in order to avoid the temptation of speaking their minds and having any nonconforming discussions about the question that looms on the agenda above their heads: "How much longer will we be allowed to think?”

Ronald Searle, the great English caricaturist of the 20th century, was also very preoccupied with the topic of freedom of thought, as well as with his self-concept as a satirical artist. In 1977, he drew “The Thinker” for Amnesty International, a scrawny man going limp in the stranglehold of a hulking monster who sports a faceless globe for a head. The man is dropping his papers, the ink from his pen is splashed all over the ground as a symbol of the futility of his efforts. It is a pessimistic view, which Searle kept trying to refute with his own work: his reportage drawings, such as the ones he drew on the occasion of the Adolf Eichmann trial, or his political cartoons for the French daily Le Monde. In 1991, he put “The Caricaturist” in the spotlight of one of his folios. It shows him as an artist who chastises the world for all its injustices, abuses and hypocrisies. For this purpose, he dons the guise of a fool, as indicated by the figure on the bottom left of the image. Searle thus describes the fundamental mission of caricaturists: to point out contradictions, identify weak spots in society and in politics, and hit nerves, again and again - with wit, sarcasm and humor as their weapons.

Searle’s cartoon is currently displayed on the facade of the Wilhelm Busch Museum as an advertisement for its permanent collection. Yet it is also, and chiefly, the museum’s way to take a strong stance following the Paris attacks: Caricature and satire are expression and barometer of an enlightened, liberal society. To defend them in these difficult times also means to defend freedom of thought.

But aren’t we, aren’t artists and the media, intimidated by attacks such as the one in Paris? Haven’t we already begun to build self-censorship into our minds? Wouldn’t we rather shut out the unpleasant and be "politically correct" instead of taking risks? There are no simple answers to these questions, as public debate in recent weeks has shown. At the same time, these debates are not new. They just re-ignite in moments of serious crisis or in the face of suspected and “perceived” provocation.

I do not have to look very far: Wilhelm Busch had his own experiences with public opinion and authority. His story about the rascals Max and Moritz initially sparked fierce insults. The publisher of his picture story Saint Anthony of Padua was sued for “debasement of religion and inciting public nuisance through indecent writings.”

“What is satire allowed to do? Anything,” Kurt Tucholsky declared. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said about satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: “Whatever Lichtenberg makes a joke about is certainly concealing a problem.”

Lichtenberg was fascinated by the potential of pictorial satire to encapsulate complex contents succinctly yet pointedly, to use “shortcuts” to shed light on truths, “which could not be expressed in any other way, in the quickest and the most familiar manner, yet at the same with humor and wit”. Truth per se is no predetermined value for Lichtenberg. It is generated by the joint discourse of connected people - and to achieve it, one must be willing to think for oneself: “Have the courage to think, to take charge of your situation,” he noted in his Sudelbücher (muck books).

When it comes to controversial issues such as caricature and religion, this “courage to think” in Lichtenberg's sense can become dangerous. This is true not only when it comes to Islam, as illustrated by the controversy over Mohammed caricatures in 2006 or the attack on the editorial office of Charlie Hebdo. In 2002, Austrian caricaturist Gerhard Haderer made headlines for months with his book The Life of Jesus. He was fiercely attacked, especially in Austria, and even sued and sentenced to six months in jail in Greece, although he was later acquitted. He commented: “I targeted the Church, not Jesus! ... It has to be possible to make fun of the ‘ground crew’ if they mess up – just like with anyone else”.

As Andreas Platthaus put it in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “What’s frivolous is not laughing at religion, it is the bigotry of the religious. What’s frivolous are utterances by people who dislike someone else’s irreverence and then wish some trouble on them to make them aware of the risks of their actions and more “responsible” – in other words, that people would muzzle themselves. These people may not think in terms of actual blades or bullets, which would really make them the biblical ‘poor in spirit’.”

Caricatures as such are provocation; if they don’t provoke, they are toothless and thus useless. Gerhard Haderer is one of those artists who does not back down in the face of the “political correctness” that coats society like mildew, but who instead takes a stance and will not allow society to deceive itself about its own state. “Irreverence,” says Haderer, “is the basis of caricature and satirical expression, in whatever form. It would be a dire development indeed if we had only conformist and respectful caricaturists who cater to expectations sanctioned by mainstream tastes.”

An open society should be capable of differentiated debate. By no means do you have to agree with every caricature, you don’t have to approve of them, you have the right to be annoyed by them - but the right to free speech must be defended at all cost.

In an interview with newspaper Die Zeit on January 29, Art Spiegelman made it clear: “You just have to adore Charlie Hebdo as an ‘equal opportunity offender’ that dishes out insults in every direction. I think that's the only position that somehow makes sense. Once you start being cautious and considerate towards one group and not towards others, freedom of expression has already gone down the drain. My formula for this is: If you do not defend the perimeter, there can be no center.” Just a month later, he summarized his comments in a comic which was published exclusively by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on February 21. Andreas Platthaus translated it into German, along with the commentary: “The first panel of the comic goes far back. It shows a 1908 ad for a school that trains cartoonists. Departing from this, Spiegelman criticizes art that yields to rationality, addressing both the dialectic of enlightenment by caricature and the cowardice of Western society.”

Together with caricature institutions in Kassel, Frankfurt and Basel, and with the support of Antenne Metropole in Lower Saxony, we have created an online presentation about Charlie Hebdo, its artists and its cultural environment. You can visit this page at - as over 60,000 other users have already done since it first went online.

The website gives an overview of the artists and presents a selection of caricatures whose titles have been translated into German, with short commentaries wherever helpful. Georges Wolinski, who was slain on January 7, summarized the leitmotif of many Charlie Hebdo cartoons as follows: “Humor means that no subject is taboo. We cannot shy away from anything. Except viciousness. We are cruel, but not evil.”

I would like to close with the two last panels from Spiegelman's comic strip, at the point where the artist sheds his mouse mask: “I have NO interest in baiting psychopaths, but I must show respect to the foolhardy and brave Charlie Hebdo artists.” And he reveals a head with a turban, drawn in a blurry outline, wishing readers “a nice day.”


Gisela Vetter-Liebenow studied art history, history, and contemporary German literary history at the universities of Constance, Stuttgart and Freiburg. She received her MA in 1986 from the University of Freiburg, and her doctorate in 2001 from the University of Hamburg. She has worked at the Wilhelm Busch Museum of Caricature and Graphic Arts since 1987, and assumed the position of director of the museum in 2012.