WORLD NEWS
04/19/2018 02:37 pm ET

German Theater Gives Free Hitler Play Tickets To People Wearing Swastikas

Prosecutors declined to investigate, saying the giveaway is protected as artistic expression.
Theatre director Serdar Somuncu speaks during a press conference Wednesday after local prosecutors began looking into th
FELIX KASTLE via Getty Images
Theatre director Serdar Somuncu speaks during a press conference Wednesday after local prosecutors began looking into the theater's offer of free tickets if patrons wear a swastika.

Prosecutors declined to investigate a theater in Germany that’s offering free tickets to patrons who wear swastikas to a satirical play about Hitler’s youth.

Authorities in the southern city of Konstanz determined that the production is protected under artistic expression, rejecting criticism that the offer of free tickets violated German laws banning the production, distribution and display of Nazi symbols. The laws date back to 1945, when Allied forces in power after World War II banned the swastika. Even denying the Holocaust is punishable in Germany.

A representative of the public prosecutor’s office told The New York Times that, although they received many complaints and launched an initial probe, the office declined to investigate further since the situation was “clearly covered” and protected under artistic expression laws.

The theater will go ahead with its production of the farce “Mein Kampf,” written by Hungarian dramatist George Tabori in 1987, as planned on Friday ― Hitler’s birthday. Directed by well-known political satirist Serdar Somuncu, the show “begins with the ticket purchase,” according to the production’s website. Those who pay full price have the option to wear a Star of David “as a sign of solidarity with the victims of National Socialist tyranny.”

Those who opt for a free ticket must wear an armband with a swastika during the performance. The armbands will be given out at the entrance to the auditorium and must be returned after the show. 

Daniel Morgenroth, spokesman for the theater, said in an interview that the ticket offer was meant to show the fragility of people’s convictions.

“This artistic impulse seeks to show how easily people are corrupted and can be made to wear the symbol of millionfold suffering for saving a few euros,” Morgenroth said. 

“Art, if it wants to be relevant, has to be controversial sometimes,” he added.

Members of the Jewish Community of Konstanz argued the show is misusing Nazi symbols to prompt a political discussion, when such conversations could easily start without using the swastika. Group members also are offended the play is planned for Hitler’s birthday. The group has called for a boycott of the show, and asks that the Nazi symbols be removed and that the director engage in talks with the local Jewish community.

“We don’t believe the play or the theater or Serdar Somuncu are anti-Semitic. We just think what they did was not thought through thoroughly,” Arthur Bondarev, vice chairman of the Jewish Community of Konstanz, said in an interview. ″The people who this play concerns were not involved. Holocaust survivors, or at least the Jewish community, were not involved at all.”

The satire on Hitler’s attempts to make it as a young artist in Vienna has been in production since the late 1980s. No previous presentation of the play has included the use of swastika armbands or Stars of David. 

“Now, no one is interested in the play, they are only concentrating on the ticket sale gimmick,” Bondarev said. “The only picture that will live on from the production will be of people wearing swastikas.”

The play occurs as anti-Semitism is growing in Germany and other parts of Europe. “Even though they didn’t intend it, they enhance these anti-Semitic structures when they misuse the symbol in this way,” Bondarev said.

Leaders in post-World War II Germany enacted laws banning Nazism and its corresponding symbols. The country also passed measures to safeguard  freedoms that the dictator undermined, particularly artistic expression. 

In addition to the well-documented Holocaust that is the hallmark of World War II, the Nazis confiscated roughly 16,000 pieces of what they deemed “degenerate art.” In July 1937, the party hosted two art shows in Munich ― one to exhibit art Hitler found acceptable, and another to show the works he deemed immoral. Many of the “degenerate” works were modern and abstract pieces. Works by Jewish artists were also considered “degenerate,” and many of the pieces from the show were burned.

Today, freedom of artistic expression is highly protected in Germany, while symbols of the Nazi era are strictly prohibited. 

Still, critics argue that in spite of the legalities, using Nazi symbols in art is unjustified. 

“It was always a taboo to use Nazi symbols in an artistic way,” Bondarev said. “Now, the production, of course, kind of broke this taboo. It’s kind of an irony ... but you always had the mutual understanding that you don’t misuse these symbols for artistic reasons ― without further discussion or showing the idea behind it.”

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