Strafgesetzbuch section 86a
The German Strafgesetzbuch (StGB; English: Criminal Code) in section § 86a outlaws "use of symbols of unconstitutional organizations" outside the contexts of "art or science, research or teaching". The law does not name the individual symbols to be outlawed, and there is no official exhaustive list. However, the law has primarily been used to outlaw Fascist, Nazi, communist, Islamic extremist and Russian militarist symbols. The law was adopted during the Cold War and notably affected the Communist Party of Germany, which was banned as unconstitutional in 1956, the Socialist Reich Party (banned in 1952) and several small far-right parties.
The law prohibits the distribution or public use of symbols of unconstitutional groups—in particular, flags, insignia, uniforms, slogans and forms of greeting.
The relevant excerpt of the German criminal code reads:
§ 86 StGB Dissemination of Means of Propaganda of Unconstitutional Organizations
- Whoever domestically disseminates or produces, stocks, imports or exports or makes publicly accessible through data storage media for dissemination domestically or abroad, means of propaganda:shall be punished with imprisonment for not more than three years or a fine.
- of a party which has been declared to be unconstitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court or a party or organization, as to which it has been determined, no longer subject to appeal, that it is a substitute organization of such a party;
- of an organization, which has been banned, no longer subject to appeal, because it is directed against the constitutional order or against the idea of international understanding, or as to which it has been determined, no longer subject to appeal, that it is a substitute organization of such a banned organization;
- of a government, organization or institution outside of the territorial area of application of this law which is active in pursuing the objectives of one of the parties or organizations indicated in numbers 1 and 2; or
- means of propaganda, the contents of which are intended to further the aims of a former National Socialist organization,
- Subsection (1) shall not be applicable if the means of propaganda or the act serves to further civil enlightenment, to avert unconstitutional aims, to promote art or science, research or teaching, reporting about current historical events or similar purposes.
- If guilt is slight, the court may refrain from imposition of punishment pursuant to this provision.
§ 86a StGB Use of Symbols of Unconstitutional Organizations
- Whoever:shall be punished with imprisonment for not more than three years or a fine.
- domestically distributes or publicly uses, in a meeting or in writings (§ 11 subsection (3)) disseminated by him, symbols of one of the parties or organizations indicated in § 86 subsection (1), nos. 1, 2 and 4; or
- produces, stocks, imports or exports objects which depict or contain such symbols for distribution or use domestically or abroad, in the manner indicated in number 1,
- Symbols, within the meaning of subsection (1), shall be, in particular, flags, insignia, uniforms, slogans and forms of greeting. Symbols which are so similar as to be mistaken for those named in sentence 1 shall be deemed to be equivalent thereto.
- The exceptions from §86 subsection (3) and (4) apply accordingly.
The text of the law does not name the individual symbols to be outlawed, and there is no official exhaustive list. A symbol may be a flag, emblem, uniform, or a motto or greeting formula. The prohibition is not tied to the symbol itself but to its use in a context suggestive of association with outlawed organizations. Thus, the Swastika is outlawed if used in a context of völkisch ideology, while it is legitimate if used as a symbol of religious faith, particularly any South, South Eastern or East Asian religions. Similarly, the Wolfsangel is outlawed if used in the context of the Junge Front but not in other contexts such as heraldry, or as the emblem of "landscape poet" Hermann Löns.
Because of the law, German Neo-Nazis took to displaying modified symbols similar but not identical with those outlawed. In 1994, such symbols were declared equivalent to the ones they imitate (Verbrechensbekämpfungsgesetz § 2). As a result of the ban on Nazi symbols, German Neo-Nazis have used older symbols such as the black-white-red German Imperial flag (which was also briefly used by the Nazis alongside the party flag as one of two official flags of Nazi Germany from 1933 until 1935)  as well as variants of this flag such as the one with the Eiserne Kreuz and the Reichsdienstflagge variants, the Imperial-era Reichskriegsflagge, the Schwarze Sonne and the flag of the Strasserite Black Front – a splinter Nazi organization – as alternatives.
Affected by the law according to Federal Constitutional Court of Germany rulings are:
- Sozialistische Reichspartei (1952)
- Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (1956)
- Freie Deutsche Jugend (West Germany)
- Volkssozialistische Bewegung Deutschlands/Partei der Arbeit (1982)
- Aktionsfront Nationaler Sozialisten/Nationale Aktivisten (1983)
- Deutsche Alternative (1992) (not to be confused with Alternative für Deutschland)
- Nationalistische Front (1992)
- Wiking-Jugend (1994)
- Freiheitliche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (1995)
- Blood and Honour, Germany chapter (2000)
Symbols known to fall under the law are:
- the swastika as a symbol of the Nazi Party, prohibited in all variants, including mirrored, inverted etc. (exceptions are only applied to swastikas used as religious symbols in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain temples)
- a stylized Celtic cross, prohibited as a symbol of the VSBD/PdA and in the variant used by the White Power movement. The legal status of the symbol used in non-political contexts is uncertain, but non-political use is not acted upon in practice.
- the solar cross as a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan (symbol of cross burning from the "second Klan" era onward), the German Faith Movement, the Thule Society and the 5th and 11th Waffen SS divisions
- the Sig rune as used by the SS
- the Sturmabteilung emblem
- the legal status of the Othala rune is disputed;[clarification needed] prohibited as a symbol of the Hitler-Jugend/Wiking-Jugend. Post-war military usage was incorporated into the Bundeswehr with a stylized "Othala rune" being featured on the shoulder insignia of the Hauptfeldwebel with it also being used by the ranks succeeding it.
- the Wolfsangel as used by the 2nd, 4th and 34th Waffen-SS divisions, Hitlerjugend and Junge Front
- Gauwinkel badges (2002)
- Reichskriegsflagge: prohibited in the Third Reich version including a swastika.
- the "Heil Hitler" greeting (1970)
- the "Sieg Heil" greeting (1990)
- Unsere/Meine Ehre heißt Treue, along with the Totenkopf symbol, as the motto of the Waffen-SS and Mit deutschem Gruß as the verbal equivalent of the Hitler salute.
- The Reichsadler with the Nazi swastika.
- the "Horst-Wessel-Lied" (the anthem of the Nazi Party) and "Unsre Fahne flattert uns voran" (a song of the Hitler-Jugend) (1991)
- the hammer and sickle, red star and red flag when used as emblems of the Communist Party of Germany
- The Black Standard of the Islamic State; widely considered the chief sigil or flag of the jihadi group.
- the People's Protection Units (YPG) pennant was explicitly banned as a symbol related to the PKK on 2 March 2017, even though the organisation itself is not currently recognised as terrorist.
- Since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia, several states including Berlin, Lower Saxony and Bavaria are looking to put the military Z symbol under the law.
Illustration of the emblems mentioned in the list above:
Party Eagle (Parteiadler) of the Nazi Party.
Celtic cross as used by White Power movements
Broken solar cross of the Thule Society and the German Faith Movement
Ku Klux Klan (1915–current) "fiery cross" from the 1905 novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, and its 1915 film adaptation The Birth of a Nation
Schutzstaffel sig runes
Flag of the Nazi Party
Reichskriegsflagge 1938–1945 (national war flag)
Emblem of the Communist Party of Germany (redrawn after a historical lapel pin)
Reverse side of the Red flag of the Communist Party of Germany
IS / ISIL / ISIS / Daesh version of the Black Standard
Flag of the People's Protection Units
In 2005, a controversy was stirred about the question whether the paragraph should be taken to apply to the display of crossed-out swastikas as a symbol of anti-fascism. In late 2005 police raided the offices of the punk rock label and mail order store "Nix Gut Records" and confiscated merchandise depicting crossed-out swastikas and fists smashing swastikas. In 2006 the Stade police department started an inquiry against anti-fascist youths using a placard depicting a person dumping a swastika into a trashcan. The placard was displayed in opposition to the campaign of right-wing nationalist parties for local elections.
On Friday 17 March 2006, a member of the Bundestag, Claudia Roth, reported herself to the German police for displaying a crossed-out swastika in multiple demonstrations against Neo-Nazis and got the Bundestag to suspend her immunity from prosecution. She intended to show the absurdity of charging anti-fascists with using fascist symbols: "We don't need prosecution of non-violent young people engaging against right-wing extremism." On 15 March 2007, the Federal Court of Justice of Germany (Bundesgerichtshof) reversed the charge and held that the crossed-out symbols were "clearly directed against a revival of national-socialist endeavors", which thereby settled the dispute for the future.
Application to forms of media
Section 86a includes a social adequacy clause that allows the use of the symbols that fall within it for the purposes of "art or science, research or teaching". This generally allows these symbols to be used in literature, television shows (as with the 1960s Star Trek episode, Patterns of Force, itself allowed after 1995), films, and other works of art without censoring or modification and stay within the allowance for the clause. For example, German cinemas were allowed to screen Raiders of the Lost Ark and Inglourious Basterds, films which feature frequent displays of Nazi symbols, without censorship.
Up until 2018, video games were not included in the social adequacy clause. A High District Frankfurt Court ruling in 1998 over the video game Wolfenstein 3D determined that because video games do attract young players, "this could lead to them growing up with these symbols and insignias and thereby becoming used to them, which again could make them more vulnerable for ideological manipulation by national socialist ideas". Since this ruling, the Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (USK), the German content ratings board, would refuse to rate any game that includes symbols under Section 86a, effectively banning them from retail sales within Germany. This led to software developers and publishers to either avoid publication in Germany, or create alternative, non-offending symbols to replace them, such as in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, where the developer had to replace the game's representation of Adolf Hitler with a version without the moustache and named "Chancellor Heiler".
In August 2018, the German government reversed this ruling as a result of a ruling from April 2018. The web-based game Bundesfighter II Turbo was released prior to the September 2017 elections, which included parodies of the candidates fighting each other; this included Alexander Gauland, who had a special move that involved Swastika imagery. When this was noticed by public authorities, they began prosecution of the game in December 2017, submitting it to the Public Prosecutor General's office for review based on the Wolfenstein 3D decision. The Attorney General declined to consider the game illegal under Section 86a, stating that the 1998 ruling was outdated; since then, USK had adopted age ratings for video games, and that there was no reason not to consider video games as art within the social adequacy clause. As a result, the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons adapted the Attorney General's ruling to be applicable for all video games within Germany, and subsequently the USK announced this change in August 2018; USK will still review all games to judge whether the use of imagery under Section 86a remains within the social adequacy clause and deny ratings to those that fail to meet this allowance. In August 2020, Through the Darkest of Times, in which players follow an anti-Nazi resistance group, became the first game permitted by USK to depict swastikas.
- Censorship in Germany
- Bans on communist symbols
- Bans on fascist symbols
- List of symbols designated by the Anti-Defamation League as hate symbols in the United States
- Memory law
- Modern display of the Confederate flag
- Thor Steinar
- Verbotsgesetz 1947 in Austria
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In the United States one particularly virulent form of expression is associated with hatred and prejudice – the burning of a cross. Originally a traditional Scottish custom of signalling, following the American Civil War cross burning was adopted by guerrilla groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (Klan) as a symbol of racial supremacy and as a means of terrorising the newly freed slaves. The burning cross was glorified in the wicked movie The Birth of a Nation (1915) that depicted the Klan as heroes and saviors. Cross burnings were common at Klan rallies throughout the 1920s at a time when lynchings were commonplace and the Klan was at the height of its power. The burning cross was used as a warning and a threat to any person seeking to improve the political or economic condition of the black race.
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Germany on Friday [September 12, 2014] announced a ban on activities that support the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including any displays of its black flag, as part of an effort to suppress the extremist group's propaganda and recruitment work among Germans.
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On September 12 (2014), the Federal Interior Ministry banned any activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), including recruitment, fundraising, and the use of the group's symbols under the name "Islamic State" (German: Islamischer Staat), such as the black flag bearing ISIL's name.
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