Marquette Warrior: European Elites’ Corrupt Opposition to the Death Penalty

Monday, June 20, 2005

European Elites’ Corrupt Opposition to the Death Penalty

American liberals would have us believe that European nations have abolished the death penalty because they are just oh so more civilized than we redneck Americans. The reality, as outlined by an article in the Washington Post, is that the death penalty was abolished to protect Nazi war criminals.
Contrasting their nation’s policy with that of the Americans, Germans point proudly to Article 102 of their Basic Law, adopted in 1949. It reads, simply: “The death penalty is abolished.” They often say that this 56-year-old provision shows how thoroughly the postwar Federal Republic has learned — and applied — the lessons of Nazi state-sponsored killing. (Communist East Germany kept the death penalty until 1987.)

But the actual history of the German death penalty ban casts this claim in a different light. Article 102 was in fact the brainchild of a right-wing politician who sympathized with convicted Nazi war criminals — and sought to prevent their execution by British and American occupation authorities. Far from intending to repudiate the barbarism of Hitler, the author of Article 102 wanted to make a statement about the supposed excesses of Allied victors’ justice.

The International War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg sentenced 11 top Nazis to death, all of whom were hanged in November 1946 except for Hermann Goering, who committed suicide. The Western Allies hanged or shot dozens of lesser-known war criminals — including 284 at a U.S. Army prison in Landsberg between November 1945 and June 1951. Though SS men who had supervised death camps and massacred Jews were among the condemned, many Germans bristled at victors’ justice. “The longer the executions went on,” reports a town history on the Landsberg Civic Association’s Web site, “the louder became the voices demanding an end to them. There was a broad political alliance in favor of clemency efforts.”
The Italian case is equally corrupt — with with a bit of a comedic touch. Italy abolished the death penalty immediately after World War II.

Savor the absurdity. They had a fascist dictator, but then they turned against the dictator and lynched him (and, for good measure, his mistress). They then promptly decided they were too civilized to have a death penalty.

It is indeed elites in Europe (and in places like Canada) that are responsible for the abolition of the death penalty. As an article in the European Studies Newsletter explains:
Yet the public opinion explanation does not appear to explain the basic transatlantic divergence we observe. European public opinion, and that of other advanced industrial abolitionist nations, views the death penalty positively. In France, for example, President Mitterrand abolished the death penalty in 1982 despite 62% percent of the French being retentionists; only last year did poll support dip for the first time below 50%. Two-thirds of the German population favored the death penalty at the time of its abolition. Today 65-70% of Britons, nearly 70% of Canadians, a majority of Austrians, around 50% of Italians, and 49% of the Swedes favor its reinstatement. It is difficult to argue, therefore, that the United States and Japan differ from Europe primarily in terms of public opinion. Public opinion in Europe appears to follow national political decisions—and, even then, only slowly—rather than leading it. This suggests that the difference lies not in the public, but in the public’s relationship to politicians—to which we now turn.
As Joshua Micah Marshall observed in an article in The New Republic:
Basically, then, Europe doesn’t have the death penalty because its political systems are less democratic, or at least more insulated from populist impulses, than the U.S. government. And elites know it. Referring to France, a recent article in the UNESCO Courier noted that “action by courageous political leaders has been needed to overcome local public opinion that has remained mostly in favour of the death penalty.” When a 1997 poll showed that 49 percent of Swedes wanted the death penalty reinstated, the country’s justice minister told a reporter: “They don’t really want the death penalty; they are objecting to the increasing violence. I see this as a call to politicians and the justice system to do more.”
The dirty little secret of American liberals is that they like Europe not in spite of the more elitist culture and political institutions but because of those things.

They envy Europe because they see people like themselves in charge, and they disdain America because ordinary citizens have the power to frustrate them.


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