Germany’s vice chancellor gives middle finger to neo-Nazis


German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel declined to apologize Wednesday for giving the middle finger to a group of neo-Nazi protesters who had been shouting disparaging remarks at him at a party rally last week. A video of the incident surfaced Tuesday on social media.

The leader of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), who is expected to run against Chancellor Angela Merkel in next year’s election, could be seen laughing dismissively and shaking his head in disgust at the right-wing extremists who called him a “traitor” from a distance after the rally in Gabriel’s home state of Lower Saxony. He then flashed the Stinkefinger — the stinky finger — as Germans call it, and walked away.

Even though Gabriel could face up to a 4,000-euro (about $4,500) fine for the gesture under German law, if prosecuted, the incident seemed only to bolster his popularity in the media and on social media. Germany has strict laws that outlaw insults and defamation in public. Although not always enforced, courts do hand down stiff sentences for even such trivial offenses as calling a police officer du, the informal word for “you,” rather than the more formal and respectful Sie.

Analysts said it was highly unlikely that Gabriel, who is also Germany’s economy minister and a strong backer of the country’s acceptance of more than 1.4 million refugees in the last year, would face charges for the rude gesture. They added it would probably make him -- and possibly even his party, which has long been far behind Merkel’s conservatives in opinion polls -- more likeable among voters ahead of two state elections next month and next year’s general election.

Gabriel’s father, Walter, remained an unrepentant Nazi until his death in 2012, at the age of 91. Gabriel, 56, grew up with his mother and broke off all contact with his father at the age of 25 because of Walter’s far-right leanings. After his father’s death, Gabriel publicly repudiated his father and his ideology.


“Hey, man, your father loved his country and what are you doing to it? You’re destroying it!” one of the neo-Nazis can be heard shouting at Gabriel in the video.

“Government ministers and the SPD chairman are human beings too,” the SPD said in a statement Wednesday after the video caused a stir on social media. “In the face of massive insults directed at him and his family, Sigmar Gabriel had an emotional reaction with a gesture that he stands by.”

“Naturally, Sigmar Gabriel doesn’t believe the gesture is appropriate for everyday communications, but it was not otherwise possible to communicate with those shouting and evidently ready to resort to violence,” the party said.

Gabriel, who also drew the wrath of anti-immigrant protesters last summer by calling another group of demonstrators a “mob,” has not yet made any public comments on the Stinkefinger incident.

The initial reaction in social media and in the mainstream German media was overwhelmingly positive, although Stern magazine’s online edition did ask in a headline: “Will the dirty finger cost Gabriel his chance of running against Merkel?”

“Gabriel has gone public about how he found his father’s Nazi past so horrible, so his reaction is something just about everyone can understand,” said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University. “In a way, it might even make him seem a bit more human and likeable to some people.”

The video was first posted on social media by the Junge Nationalen Braunschweig, a local chapter of the youth wing of the far-right NPD party. It was then reposted Tuesday to a wider audience by a rival anti-fascist group.


Germany has a rich recent history of public figures giving the middle finger -- and paying a price for it. Shortly before the 2013 election, the SPD’s last candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrueck, stirred controversy when a photograph of him giving the finger appeared in a magazine. He had been asked to describe with a gesture how he felt about all the criticism piling up on his candidacy. The former finance minister was panned for the photo — and, incidentally, lost the election by a wide margin nine days later.

In 1994, one of Germany’s top soccer players, Stefan Effenberg, was kicked off the national team and sent home in the middle of the World Cup in the United States after giving the middle finger to a group of fans booing him.

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.


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1:21 p.m.: This article was updated with an additional statement from the Social Democratic Party.

This article was originally published at 12:50 p.m.