Germany is set to prosecute the display of the “Z” symbol, which has risen in infamy and popularity with the conflict in Ukraine. The “Z” symbol is associated with the Russian military, which sports the letter on its vehicles alongside a host of other symbols.
On Monday, the German Interior Ministry welcomed announcements by regional states that want to pursue legal action against anyone who uses the symbol. The ministry says that the prosecutions are based on a law that prohibits the public approval of illegal acts.
It is unclear if Germany’s anti-free speech law also applies to any Germans who proudly display the symbol of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov Battalion or other symbols associated with Stepan Bandera.
Germans who fall foul of the law could face up to three years in prison or fined, according to the country’s criminal code.
According to Politico Europe, Germans who paint the symbol on their property, such as their vehicles or homes, display it during demonstrations, or even publish it on social media platforms could face charges.
According to Russia’s Defence Ministry, the “Z” symbol stands for “za pobedu,” which translates to “for victory.”
Politico Europe reported:
The symbol has been adopted by Russians to show support for the war. Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak wore the symbol at an international event in Doha and Kremlin-backed propaganda outlet RT has launched "Z"-related merchandise.
An interior ministry spokesperson said security authorities were aware that the symbol was already being used in Germany but did not provide more detail.
Bavaria, Berlin, Saxony and Lower Saxony have announced that they will take legal action against anyone who displays the symbol. Officials in three other states — Baden-Württemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony-Anhalt — have also announced plans to do the same.
“The ‘Z’ has become a symbol of an authoritarian regime, which is conducting a terrible war of aggression, breaking international law, gagging freedom of expression and making lies the norm,” wrote Michael Roth, a member of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, who chairs the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee.
“Anyone in our country who uses the ‘Z’ is making themselves into a vassal of the Russian regime and must be punished,” he said.
His remarks are supported by a Free Democrats MP, Wolfgang Kubicki, who backed the move.
“A liberal constitutional state must be able to withstand a lot when it comes to freedom of expression and assembly,” Kubicki said, adding, “Publicly condoning ongoing criminal wars of aggression using propagandistic symbolism is no longer part of that if it disturbs the public peace.”
Germany remains one of the strictest regimes in its crackdown on free speech, prohibiting so-called “hate speech” from being shared on social media through its “NetzDG” law. Social media companies like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are required by law to remove illegal content within 24 hours of notification, or face up to 50 million euros in penalties for violation.