Censorship in Germany has taken many forms during the history of the region. Various regimes have restricted the press, cinema, and other entertainment venues. In modern Germany, the Grundgesetz guarantees freedom of press, speech, and opinion. Censorship is mainly exerted in the form of restriction of access to certain media (motion pictures, video games) to older adolescents or adults only. Furthermore, the publication of works violating the rights of the individual or those considered to be capable of inciting popular hatred (Volksverhetzung) may be prohibited. Possession of such works (including Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf), however, is generally not punishable. With one exception 2006, Germany has been consistently rated among the 20 most free countries on the Press Freedom Index.
German Empire (1871–1918)
In the German Empire, many media were under Imperial control. Before World War I, civil administrators appointed by the government were charged with ensuring the public decency of printed material within the Empire.
The Imperial Press Law of 1874 ended the government's right to censor materials before publishing. It also eliminated the need for a government-issued license to publish. However, the government retained the right to be notified of all publications when printing began. Theatres, cinemas, cabarets, and music halls, however, were still subject to state licensing. Police had direct control over these venues.
With the outbreak of World War I, the military took over the censorship office with the aim of mobilizing German support for the war. A police official was instated in every city for this purpose. Restrictions on materials became much harsher. Materials could be banned because of association with a particular person or country, or simply because the censor felt that the piece was distracting or a waste of time.
Weimar Republic (1918–1933)
Article 118 of the Weimar constitution forbade censorship with the text "No censorship will take place". An exception to this article was film. The film industry was regulated by the Film Assessment Headquarters. The purpose of this organization was to censor films released in Germany for pornography and other indecent content.
The Gesetz zur Bewahrung der Jugend vor Schund- und Schmutzschriften (“Law for the Protection of Youth from Trash and Filth Writings”) of 18 December 1926 provided for the partial censorship (restrictions on distribution) of printed materials in the interest of youth welfare, though it was only applied post-publication on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, it incorporated limits to what could be censored and on what grounds; printed materials could not be added to the index for political, social, religious, ethical, or world-view-related reasons.
Another exception was "Hate Speech". The Weimar republic did have quite modern anti-hate speech laws, and they were the basis for numerous prosecutions against leading nazis, with convictions that included jail time.
Nazi Germany (1933–1945)
Censorship in Nazi Germany was extreme and strictly enforced by the governing Nazi Party. It was implemented by the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. All media—literature, music, newspapers, and public events—were censored. Attempts were also made to censor private communications, such as mail and even private conversation, with mixed results.
The aim of censorship under the Nazi regime was simple: to reinforce Nazi power and to suppress opposing viewpoints and information. Punishments ranged from banning of presentation and publishing of works to deportation, imprisonment, or even execution in a concentration camp. Hitler outlined his theory of propaganda and censorship in Mein Kampf: "The chief function of propaganda is to convince the masses, whose slowness of understanding needs to be given time so they may absorb information; and only constant repetition will finally succeed in imprinting an idea on their mind."
East Germany (1945—1990)
Censorship in the former German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) was widely implemented. Licenses were required to publish any material, and permission was required to exhibit or perform any visual art. In addition, journalists without government approval were not hired. Censorship was implemented both before and after publication of a work.
The primary goal of East German censorship was to protect the interests of communism and its implementation. Works critical of the East German or Soviet governments were forbidden, as were any works which seemed sympathetic to fascism.
Punishments were levied against dissenters to the censorship laws, up to and including deportation to West Germany.
West Germany (1945—1990) and re-unified Germany (1990-present)
During the post World War II period, the West German media was subject to censorship by the Allied occupational forces. Criticism of the occupational forces and of the emerging government were not tolerated. Publications which were expected to have a negative effect on the general public were not printed. A list of over 30,000 titles, including works by such authors as Carl von Clausewitz, was drawn up. All the millions of copies of these books were to be confiscated and destroyed. The representative of the Military Directorate admitted that the order in principle was no different from the Nazi book burnings, although unlike the burnings, the measure was seen as a temporary part of the denazification program.
When the official government, the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) took over, these limits were relaxed. The new German constitution guaranteed freedom of press, speech, and opinion. Since Germany kept the West German constitution after East Germany joined its jurisdiction, the same protections and restrictions in West Germany apply to contemporary Germany. However, continued globalization and the advent of Internet marketing present a new host of complications to German censorship and information laws.
Publications violating laws (e.g., such promoting Volksverhetzung or slander and libel) can be censored in today's Germany, with authors and publishers probable subjects to penalties. Strafgesetzbuch section 86a rather strictly prohibits the public display of "symbols of unconstitutional organizations" such as the NSDAP and affiliates. Materials written or printed by organizations ruled to be anti-constitutional, like the NSDAP or the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof Gang), have also been placed on the index. Public Holocaust denial is also prohibited and may be severely punished with up to five years in prison. A decision of a court that assumes that a publication is violating another person's personal rights may also lead to censoring (a newspaper for example can be forced not to publish private pictures).
One official censoring body in Germany is the Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien (Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors). Although not de jure outlawed, media listed by this board may be purchased by adults only, and the exhibition (for sale) is usually also prohibited. While this indexing can grant publicity to some works, it is often tried to prevent in order to make the media available to a wider audience. Common methods for such a prevention include the removal of certain content (e.g., Nazi symbols) or the reduction of violent scenes in movies and games.
The Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (USK) is a privately organized body that also controls (electronic) media regarding their suitability for minors. The German Jugendschutzgesetz (Youth Protection Act) of 2003 made the former advisory-only label a de facto requirement; only products controlled by such a body may be publicly displayed for sale, with further restrictions applying to such media considered to be "18+".