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As images of armed militias and others waving and wearing swastikas made their way across the globe, many of my European friends and family messaged me to ask why the government was allowing this to happen. After all, events would not have unfolded as they did if Charlottesville were in my native country, or for that matter, in any European country. Europeans reject and criminalize certain types of expression they define as hate speech. Much of the speech that we witnessed in Charlottesville would have qualified as such.
This trans-Atlantic difference is largely the product of Europe’s own history with Nazism. Many Europeans share complicated histories of Nazism that current generations are still grappling with.
As a result, freedom of expression can be restricted proportionally when it serves to “spread, incite, promote or justify hatred based on intolerance.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international human rights treaty, reflects similar principles. This balancing of free speech against other values led Germany to ban parties with Nazi ideologies and recently, to prosecute Chinese tourists who performed a Hitler salute in front of the Reichstag. It led France to outlaw the sale of Nazi paraphernalia on eBay, led Austria to jail a discredited historian who denies the holocaust, and caused the Netherlands to criminalize the selling of Mein Kampf. It is for this same reason that many Europeans could not believe the open display of swastika flags in Charlottesville.
America today is different from Europe in the 1940s. But Europe’s history raises the question: Can we count on the market of ideas to succeed? Is it possible for white supremacy and related ideologies to spread beyond the relatively small number of Unite-the-Right fanatics and their brethren? Some suggest that Donald Trump’s election is one piece of evidence that’s it’s already happened.