The Justice Minister of Germany announced on Wednesday that his government would scrap a long-standing law prohibiting Germans from insulting foreign heads of state. He said the law was “outdated and unnecessary.”
That kind of law is usually referred to as “lèse-majesté" — the French for “injured majesty" — stemming from their original use as protections for monarchs. A number of countries around the world still have them, though most have at least nominal monarchies themselves. Germany's last monarchic period ended when World War I did, and the law is seldom used. People in Germany insult foreign leaders all the time, just like anyone else.
As such, the symbolic timing of the move is likely more important than the move itself. In other words: Donald Trump became a foreign head of state five days ago.
Trump is not a popular man in Germany. He has openly questioned the importance of the European Union, which Germany effectively anchors, and has called German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policies “catastrophic.” In a Pew survey taken last summer, 77 percent of Germans expressed confidence that President Barack Obama would “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” and 85 percent said they had no confidence in Trump to do the same.
To be sure, Heiko Maas, the justice minister, certainly didn't allude to Trump in his announcement. The law will take effect on Jan. 1, 2018.
The German lèse-majesté law was most recently used by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to prosecute a German television satirist. The satirist, Jan Boehmermann, read a poem on live television about Erdogan, accusing him of having sex with goats and saying that the Turkish president loved to “repress minorities, kick Kurds and beat Christians while watching child porn.”
Merkel took the law's side in Boehmermann's case, and authorized the criminal proceedings against him. Her spokesman released a statement explaining that “satire takes place within our country’s press and media freedom, which — as you know — is not unlimited.”
With that freedom now less limited, it will face a new test: the famously thin skin of President Trump.