#MeToo’s echo in Germany: has German society finally overcome the power of silence?

08. March 2018

by Miriam Mona Müller


In the international press, Germany is often portrayed as one of the champions of human rights. However, the #MeToo movement has shown that neither politicians nor German society at large has a common understanding of women’s rights. The country struggles to talk about patriarchy, gender-based power relations and sexual abuse, the majority of German people prefer to remain silent. But that situation is about to change; Germany now has its own Weinstein: Dieter Wedel.

The voice of the unheard – “No one would have believed me back then” Patricia Thielemann

Dieter Wedel is a famous German director who recently has been accused of sexual abuse.  On German TV, former actress Patricia Thielemann talked about her experiences with Wedel on the set of one of his films in the 90s. Thielemann explained that she made the decision to speak up to show solidarity with and to empower other victims who are not as privileged as she is. Following the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements in the US, she said she finally feels strong enough to stand up against the negative reactions of the media and no longer fears any consequences her statements might have for her acting career.
Her initial fears turned out to be justified: most of the print media portrays her as a liar and openly doubt the validity of her story. For instance, instead of asking why Dieter Wedel has abused numerous women, newspapers wrote about the fact that Wedel’s crimes can’t be prosecuted in judicial terms anymore since the his victims haven’t speak up earlier. In addition to that, Patricia Thielemann has had to face hate speech on social media. This case shows that in Germany, social sanctions for publicly denouncing acts of sexual violence are still extremely strong. Reporting sexual abuse often has a greater impact on the psychological, physical, and socio-economic status of the victim than for the perpetrator. Victims have to defend themselves in public, while the perpetrators let their lawyers speak on their behalf. Victims lose their jobs, while the perpetrators’ professional image remains relatively unscathed. No wonder victims outweigh the pros and cons of naming their perpetrators.

The voice of the perpetrator – “I resisted and I didn’t back down”- Dieter Wedel

Before the German Zeit Magazin published the stories of actresses accusing Dieter Wedel, the producer gave an interview in November 2017. In that occasion, Wedel pointed out that male actors are also victims of sexual abuse: he himself had been put under pressure by homosexual directors in his early career. Wedel emphasized that he resisted and didn’t back down. When he himself was accused of sexual assault, he immediately denied everything in an official statement and then retreated from the public eye, letting other people speak for him. For example, his wife issued a statement saying that “he has a big heart and that he would never do anything like this”. Actress and ex-partner of Wedel, Ingrid Steeger, defended him by emphasizing that he was never in need of abusing a woman: women were admiring him. Why should he have to force women to sleep with him, when actresses adored him? Ingrid Steeger’s respond implies that attractive men receive enough attention from their female admires, so they will never be tempted to abuse a women. This argumentation perpetuates the myth of the ‘strong male’ in German society. Men are more aggressive and have uncontrollable sexual desires, while women’s desires are secondary to men’s or not even considered at all. Steeger’s and Wolter’s reactions are part of an all too familiar pattern when it comes to the abuse of gender-based power relations: men stay silent and let other women defend them, thus lending to their denial more credibility. Dieter Wedel knows his business, and he knows how to stay silent but still heard.

The voice of activists – “In Germany, we have a strong culture of silence“ – Anne Wizorek

In 2013, Anne Wizorek initiated the online campaign #aufschrei (Engl. outcry, scram) against sexual harassment in Germany. Like #MeToo, #aufschrei made sexual harassment visible through social media.  It was initiated to name a privileged white politician who had abused his power in a sexist way.  With this campaign, Anne Wizorek hopes to bring about a fundamental change in German society, denouncing everyday sexism. The activist said during an interview with Deutschlandfunk Nova that she is always surprised that “just because Germany is led by a female chancellor, people outside of Germany assume Germany is super progressive”. But victims are not protected well enough in Germany: “it’s clear that no victim will speak up, as long as our society doesn’t protect them“ she said. Anne Wizorek’s campaign has shown that collective action is needed to disrupt sexist behaviour.  She has won the Grimme Online Award and wrote several books about modern feminism. Together with other activists she also initiated the 2016 campaign #ausnahmslos, (Engl. without exception) which deals with the instrumentalisation of feminism for racist propaganda.  Unfortunately, intersectionality is another topic that is hardly being addressed in Germany. Most of all, Wizorek’s campaign sends a clear message to abusers: we won’t be silenced. We won’t be voiceless anymore. And we stand in solidarity with the abused.

The voice of politicians – “It almost appears to me as a cartel of silence” Katerina Barley

Germany needs public debates like #aufschrei and #MeToo to put an end to collective silence. For example, Katarina Barley, the current Minister of Family Affairs, publicly criticized those involved for not reporting abuse. According to her, systematic sexual abuse continues to exist because of a ‘cartel of silence’ made up by three main actors: the abuser, who thinks himself safe, the confidants of the abuser, who remain passive and seldom raise their voices, and finally the victim, who are not able to break the wall of silence, even if the abuse is an open secret as in Wedel’s case. Katarina Barley’s comparison with a cartel of silence makes it clear: the power of silence is key when it comes to sexual violence.

To draw a conclusion, the echo of #MeToo is still small and Germany has not yet overcome the power of silence. In Germany abuser, abused and witnesses remain silent, because it is still a huge taboo in German society to talk publicly about sexual harassment. That is why, ‘the cartel of silence’ has worked so well in the past. Nevertheless, people like Anne Wizorek, Katarina Barley and Patricia Thielemann have shown that this spiral of silence can be disrupted.