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Chinese tourists learn that the Nazi salute remains a serious matter in Germany

Two Chinese tourists discovered the hard way that giving the outlawed Hitlergruss — or Nazi salute — in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin is no laughing matter in Germany.

The two men, ages 49 and 36, were quickly detained after police spotted them taking pictures of each other in front of the country’s most popular tourist spot Saturday while giving the stiff-armed “Heil Hitler” greeting that is illegal in Germany and punishable by up to three years in jail.

The tourists, who were released after posting a total of $1,200 in bail set by a local judge, were the latest in a long line of foreigners to run afoul of the strict laws outlawing not only the Hitler salute but all Nazi symbols.

The Nazi Party is banned in Germany. Its symbols, such as the Hitler salute and swastika, and imagery can only be used for teaching, in films or historical research, or in documentaries or films satirizing the Nazis.

Two British tourists were detained last year for the same offense as the Chinese tourists near the Reichstag, and a 30-year-old Canadian tourist from Quebec had to post $170 bail for performing the salute for a picture of himself taken by a German woman at the same locale in 2011. Scores of police and countless security cameras monitor the Reichstag building around the clock.

“We definitely treat this and all similar such cases as a serious violation of the law,” said Patricia Braemer, a spokeswoman for the Berlin police. “The law banning the use of symbols that violate the constitution applies not only to Germans but to everyone in Germany. Anyone coming here ought to know and respect the country’s customs.”

Although Germans learn extensively about the horrors of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich and the Holocaust in school and through the media, some Germans also get into trouble for flashing the Hitler salute in public — thinking at first it is just for a laugh or as a lighthearted provocation.

Two high school students from the northern city of Rostock were charged with displaying Nazi symbols for giving the Hitler salute on a class trip to a history museum in Berlin this year.

They took pictures of each other giving the salute while standing in front of posters showing Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. When their teachers discovered the pictures, they made the students delete them from their phones. But the school principal later turned the students over to police.

“There are surely a lot more people around who give the Hitler salute than the police see,” Braemer said. “But the penal code is valid for everyone, and when we see it, we respond accordingly.”

Some German police officers have also been caught trying to make inappropriate Nazi jokes. One Berlin police officer assigned to guard the British Embassy there was suspended in 2004 after he gave a fellow officer the salute at the start of his shift and shouted, “Heil Hitler.”

In 2007, a Berlin man who taught his dog named Adolf to give the Hitlergruss on command — the German shepherd raised its right paw — was sentenced by a local court to five months in jail.

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

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