Cologne's Carnival Parade Tones Down Its Charlie Hebdo Satire

The Charlie Hebdo float as it was originally planned. Image courtesy Kölner Karneval's Facebook page.

The Charlie Hebdo float as it was originally planned. Image courtesy Kölner Karneval's Facebook page.

Whether they know it as Karneval, Fastnacht, Fasching or the fünfte Jahreszeit (Fifth Season), Carnival never fails to divide Germans each year. While in some regions of the country, a state of emergency prevails throughout the six Carnival days because of the large turnout, other regions hold no celebrations at all. 

In Cologne, one of the well-known strongholds of the festival in Germany, Carnival was extra contentious this year. After announcing in late January that it would scrap a planned Charlie Hebdo float in order to not detract from the “free and lighthearted nature of Carnival,” festival organizers surprised spectators by including a Charlie Hebdo design in the Rose Monday parade.   

Cologne Festival and the Carnival Committee.. #CharlieHebdo

The #Kölner #Karneval Festival Committee makes it known that a #CharlieHebdo float will be joining in with the #Rosenmontagszug parade after all.

Instead of a clown sticking a pencil into the chamber of a gun held by an armed militant, the float showed the clown watering a pencil growing out of the ground like a plant, with the word Narrenfreiheit, or “Jester's choice,” written on it. The head of the militant rested at the clown's feet. 

In January, the Carnival parade festival committee had explained the reasoning behind their decision to stop construction on the original float on Facebook:

Wir möchten, dass alle Besucher, Bürger und Teilnehmer des Kölner Rosenmontagszuges befreit und ohne Sorgen einen fröhlichen Karneval erleben. Einen Persiflagewagen, der die Freiheit und leichte Art des Karnevals einschränkt, möchten wir nicht. Aus diesem Grund haben wir heute entschieden, den Bau des geplanten Charlie-Hebdo-Wagens zu stoppen und den Wagen nicht im Kölner Rosenmontagszug mitfahren zu lassen.

We want all visitors, citizens and participants of the Cologne Rose Monday Parade to be able to experience a cheerful Carnival in a free atmosphere, without any concerns. A parody float that limits the free and lighthearted nature of Carnival is not something we want. For this reason, we today decided that the construction of the planned Charlie Hebdo float will be stopped, and that the float will no longer be part of the Cologne Rose Monday parade.

The design was selected on Facebook prior to the Carnival. Over 2,400 participants voted for the winning design.

Subsequently, a great deal of discussion took place in the media on the security situation at the Cologne Carnival, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. According to the festival committee, speculations about special forces and marksmen stationed along the parade route were rife, despite the security risks being low. The parade organisers commented on the decision on the Cologne Carnival Facebook page:

Uns ist klar, dass nicht jeder mit dieser Erklärung einverstanden sein wird. Trotzdem hoffen wir, dass viele von euch unsere Beweggründe zumindest respektieren und den Rosenmontagszug dennoch genießen werden. Die Entwürfe, die wir euch heute vorab vorstellen, geben einen kleinen Ausblick darauf, dass wir auch in diesem Jahr politische und gesellschaftskritische Themen ansprechen. Dass wir uns dabei selbst von der Kritik nicht ausnehmen, zeigt euch hoffentlich der Wagenentwurf „Scheißjob” …

We're certain that not everyone will agree with this explanation. However, we hope that many of you will at least respect the motivation behind our decision, and will still be able to enjoy Rose Monday. The designs that you can have a sneak peek at today offer a small glimpse into the political and socially critical themes we're addressing this year. The fact that in doing so, we're not placing ourselves above criticism is hopefully demonstrated by our “Scheißjob” float design …

Kritische Reflexion des Festkomitees des Kölner Karnevals: Ihr Gegenentwurd "Scheißjob" zum ausgeschiedenen Charlie Hebdo Wagen. via Facebook Seite des Kölner Karnevas

A critical reflection from the Cologne Carnival Festival Committee: their “Scheißjob” float acting as an alternative to the withdrawn Charlie Hebdo float. via the Cologne Carnival Facebook page

Many had reacted with disappointment to the announcement, having expected a little more courage from the parade organisers.

Twitter user Tom depicted the disappointment of Cologne residents in this image, which reads in a mix of French and German “I am Cologne,” a play on the French phrase Je suis Charlie in solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris:

Düsseldorf also displayed a Charlie Hebdo-themed float, which read, “You can't kill satire”:

A long tradition of satire 

The Shrovetide Carnival days are Christian in origin, and traditionally herald the start of the six-week Lenten period. The Carnival was originally celebrated throughout the whole of Germany, but following the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the pace of festivities in the Protestant regions of Germany slowed considerably, as this German-language link demonstrates.

The public holidays are today celebrated predominately in the Catholic regions of southern Germany and the Lower Rhine, especially in Cologne, Düsseldorf, Mainz and Rottweil. In the traditionally Protestant cities of Berlin and Hamburg, however, barely a hint of the revelries can be detected. Indeed, German satirical magazine Der Postillon even joked about granting refugees from the Carnival strongholds asylum in northern Germany.

North German radio station N-JOY had the following to say about Carnival in the north of the country:

+++ HURRY ++ Carnival in the North ++ Parks closed due to overcrowding ++ Walk with us +++ #Helau +++ #Alaaf ++ HURRY

On the other hand, the Carnival in Cologne looked more like this:

Clown in NRW! Photos, videos etc. from yesterday! Take another look!

The most important days of the German Carnival are Weiberfastnacht, the women's carnival, on Thursday, and Rose Monday, the day before Shrove Tuesday. Traditionally, Weiberfastnacht is the day on which the Carnival is most celebrated — at home, in schools, at work, in public institutions and on the streets, in pubs and clubs. The most important aspect, however, is that everyday life gets completely turned on its head. Any age group can be found wearing fancy dress in the Carnival cities. Rose Monday is the true high point of the festivities and the day on which the large Carnival processions are held.

An essential part of the German Carnival is the satire levelled at political and social events. This satire takes no prisoners — in particular, politicians often find themselves the subjects of scathing ridicule on the slogans of floats taking part in the Carnival parades. Take a look at a few of the most accomplished specimens from the last few years below.

Putins Pressefreiheit. Wagen des Düsseldorfer Rosenmontagszuges 2009. Bild von Twitter Nutzer Paola Farrera. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Putin's freedom of the press. Carnival float at the Rose Monday procession in Düsseldorf, 2009. Photo by Twitter user Paola Farrera. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Obama and Snowden, Düsseldorf Carnival 2014:

The French and German economies, represented by President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel, Düsseldorf Carnival 2014:


Vladimir Putin in 2014:

Despite the biting satire, many Germans view the Carnival as dusty, authoritarian and paternalistic. Many Carnival associations are dominated by men, while women are often little more than dancers with short skirts and fixed grins. An example of a Carnival association that challenges the established traditions is the Stunksitzung in Cologne. Stunksitzungen are critical or satirical, left-leaning comedy programmes, with sketches and musical performances. The Stunksitzungen aim to distance themselves from the traditional Carnival, which is characterised by brass bands, traditional uniforms and hierarchies. 

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