A number of German states have banned public displays of the letter Z, which has become a symbol for supporters of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The states of Berlin, Saxony, Bavaria, and Lower Saxony will prosecute people who publicly display the letter. Baden-Württemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Saxony-Anhalt are considering implementing their own bans as well.
“The Russian attack on Ukraine is a crime and whoever publicly approves of this war can thereby become criminally liable,” said Marek Wede, a spokesperson for Germany’s Interior Ministry. German law forbids public support of illegal acts. Those who are found guilty could face punishment ranging from a fine to three years in jail.
The letter Z has been painted on Russian tanks and troop transport vehicles since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. Some Russian civilians have also reportedly painted the symbol on their cars, and a Russian gymnast donned the symbol on his uniform during a podium ceremony at Apparatus World Cup in Doha, Qatar. The Russian Defense Ministry claims the symbol stands for “za pobedu,” which means “for victory.”
In late March, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter, “I call on all states to criminalize the use of the ‘Z’ symbol as a way to publicly support Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. ‘Z’ means Russian war crimes, bombed out cities, thousands of murdered Ukrainians. Public support of this barbarism must be forbidden.”
Critics of Germany’s effort to expand its restrictions on so-called hate speech and certain types of political speech argue that the Z ban is both illiberal and not helpful to Ukraine.
“Of course it is regrettable that some people choose to defend or support Putin’s attack on a sovereign nation. But no one, not even our politicians, can seriously believe that banning the ‘Z’ symbol will change their minds. On the contrary, it will probably embolden Russia’s supporters, who already claim to feel victimised by the West,” wrote Sabine Beppler-Spahl, chair of the German liberal think tank Freiblickinstitut, in Spiked.
“Moreover, pro-Russia demonstrators can now accuse Germany of hypocrisy. After all, the very same German politicians who frequently attack the repression of dissent in Russia are now repressing dissent in Germany.”