Yanis Varoufakis was scheduled to deliver a video message to a Palestine conference in Berlin on Friday — but police shut down the event. Varoufakis tells Jacobin how the Germans silenced him and why they’ve now banned him from entering the country.

Yanis Varoufakis during an interview on April 8, 2024, in Milan, Italy. (Pier Marco Tacca / Getty Images)

A three-day Palestine conference in Berlin last weekend promised a show of solidarity with Gazans — and an act of defiance against the pro-Israel groupthink that dominates German media. But just two hours into the event that began on Friday, April 12, police invaded to cut off the power and forced the hundreds of participants to leave. Police banned all further sessions in the name of preventing unsubstantiated threats of “antisemitic and violence-glorifying remarks.”

One of the billed speakers was former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. Not only did police cancel his speech, but he posted that he’d been hit with a general ban in speaking in Germany, even via video link. Now Berlin media tell us that this has been reduced to a ban on traveling to the country. In an interview with Jacobin’s Loren Balhorn, Varoufakis explains why the German state is so committed to stifling dissent — and why its claim to be defending Jews is so hollow.

Loren Balhorn

You announced on social media that Germany had issued you a Betätigungsverbot, basically a ban on speaking in public in Germany, and prevented you from intervening at the Palestine conference in Berlin last weekend. Now some of the German press is claiming you were only issued an Einreiseverbot, a ban on entering the country. Either ban would be scandalous, of course — but can you begin by telling us what exactly happened and how you found out about it?

Yanis Varoufakis

Well, it all began some time ago when most of the political spectrum in Germany demonized our conference as antisemitic and as sympathizing with terrorism. This is an outrageous accusation, especially against our co-organizers, Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East.

On the day of the conference, twenty-five hundred police surrounded the venue and harassed participants. A young Jewish comrade was arrested for carrying a small banner he made himself that said, “Jews against Genocide.” While being manhandled by police, he jokingly said to them, “Would it have been alright if it simply read ‘Jews in favor of genocide’?” Then he was manhandled even more brutally.

Two hours after the conference began, just before I was about to connect by Zoom, the police entered and broke up the event. So I recorded my speech on my laptop and posted it on my personal blog. The authorities were not pleased.

The Berlin police issued a Betätigungsverbot against me, a ban on any political activity, which has previously been used against ISIS operatives.

On the following day, during a demonstration organized by the Palestine conference, a police officer approached one of the organizers and two accompanying lawyers and essentially told them that they had better not use the loudspeakers to transmit my voice because the Berlin police had issued a Betätigungsverbot against me, a ban on any political activity, which has only been used a few times against ISIS operatives. One of the lawyers demanded the order in writing, but the police said they didn’t have to provide it.

Our lawyers contacted the police and the interior ministry, demanding an explanation. That must have caused a lot of embarrassment — after all, they had issued a ban against a citizen of an EU member state — and after two days of embarrassed silence, they changed their story from a Betätigungsverbot to an Einreiseverbot. As of now, neither have been issued in written form and the German authorities have refused my requests for a written explanation.

Loren Balhorn

Do you plan to take further legal action?

Yanis Varoufakis

Of course. My lawyers have demanded, firstly, a written confirmation of the ban and a statement explaining the rationale behind it. When the Handelsblatt, a German newspaper with close ties to the national security apparatus, reports that its sources say such a ban exists, then you have to take it very seriously.

But let’s be honest, what it’s really about is creating a climate of fear. That’s the political kernel of the matter: the German Staatsräson. It’s not about Germany’s dedication to protecting Jewish lives but rather Israel’s right to commit war crimes. There are people in Germany who tell me they will not speak out in support of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace or against my ban because they’re scared they will lose their job, or some kind of grant, and will be demonized.

Loren Balhorn

German interior minister Nancy Faeser welcomed the police’s crackdown on the conference and condemned it as spreading “Islamist propaganda.” Can you say a few words about why the conference was organized and what goals you were trying to achieve?

Yanis Varoufakis

The purpose was very straightforward: an immediate cease-fire and a peace process to safeguard equal political rights for everyone living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. That very straightforward and humanist agenda can never be described as Islamist or antisemitic. But there is a pattern here.

Back in November, another comrade and friend of mine, Iris Hefets, a Jewish-Israeli psychoanalyst who lives in Berlin, staged a one-woman protest. She walked around a square carrying a placard saying, “As an Israeli and as a Jew, stop the genocide in Gaza,” and a white German police officer arrested her for antisemitism! It would have been farcical if it weren’t so tragic.

Iris Hefets, a Jewish-Israeli psychoanalyst, walked around a square in Berlin carrying a placard saying, ‘As an Israeli and as a Jew, stop the genocide in Gaza’ — and a white German police officer arrested her for antisemitism!

I’ll give you another example: take Tamir Pardo, who was appointed by Benjamin Netanyahu to run the Mossad in 2011 — not exactly a pro-Palestinian organization. Six months ago, he gave an interview to the Guardian in which he said that Israel was practicing apartheid across Israel. If he had come to our conference and said what he said in the Guardian, the interior minister probably would have dismissed him as an Islamist.

I’m neither a Jew nor a Palestinian. I don’t have a view on what solution we should be working toward between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. What I do know is that I, as a citizen of the world, demand equal political rights and universal human rights. For the Germans to portray this as antisemitism and as somehow contrary to the German Staatsräson, I think, shows that they should take a long look at themselves in the mirror. I am the only Greek politician ever to be banned from entering Germany. They never had a problem with Greek neo-Nazis coming to visit.

Loren Balhorn

In your canceled speech, you mentioned a resolution from the “Alliance Against Antisemitic Terror” call for protests against the Palestine conference and expressed particular disappointment that two former comrades of yours in the left-wing party Die Linke had signed. Was this your first experience of such alienation between the German and European lefts?

Yanis Varoufakis

Yes. The first time happened in November when I heard that Die Linke’s think tank, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which I always held in high esteem, caved into pressure from the venue to disinvite Jeremy Corbyn from an event over his views on the war in Gaza. At that moment, I thought they’d lost it. Rosa Luxemburg must be spinning at five thousand revolutions per minute in her grave.

They accuse me of trivializing terrorism. Why? Because I made a distinction between violence against civilians, which we rightly condemn regardless of who commits it, and armed resistance against an occupying army. It really shows how low the level of debate has become, especially at a time when you have the whole political spectrum and media in Europe celebrating Ukrainian armed resistance to the Russian occupation every day.

Loren Balhorn

Both your pan-European alliance, DiEM25, and the political party MeRA25 that is contesting the European elections in a number of countries, have campaigned against the war in Gaza a lot in recent months. Why has Palestine become such a priority for you in the run-up to the European elections? Do European voters care?

Yanis Varoufakis

Look, if we lived in the 1930s, we would have made the persecution of the Jews our number-one priority as Europeans. If this were the time of the genocide in Rwanda or Bosnia, we would have made them the number-one priority. This is our duty.

Do European voters care? I don’t care. We do not operate on the cynical basis of working through focus groups to find out what kind of narrative is going to maximize our vote. We do what we think is right because it is right. That kind of politics is missing in Europe, and that is the kind of politics that our MeRA25 parties across Europe are pushing for.

A climate of fear like the one German authorities are trying to create now is what Europe’s corrupt and unviable socioeconomic business model needs to perpetuate itself.

We’re in the business of educating the public about the fact that a genocide is happening in our name, with our complicity. It is not only morally reprehensible, but it also prepares the ground for our own incarceration. Because a climate of fear like the one German authorities are trying to create now is what Europe’s corrupt and unviable socioeconomic business model needs to perpetuate itself. Before you know it, there is no democracy left.

Loren Balhorn

When polite society talks about restrictions on press freedom within the European Union, the conversation tends to focus on Hungary under Viktor Orbán or your own country under Kyriakos Mitsotakis. But since October, we’ve seen Germany press ahead with new restrictions on the freedom of speech and assembly, at least when it comes to this topic. Do you see a danger that Germany could become something like a leader in a new authoritarianism in Europe?

Yanis Varoufakis

It’s already happening. You know, my situation is simply a case in point. What are they going to say to Orbán about the rule of law, about not repressing freedom of speech? With what moral authority would that same liberal establishment admonish somebody like Orbán? He’s laughing all the way to the bank.

Loren Balhorn

What kind of implications will this have for Europe’s political future?

Yanis Varoufakis

Dissent has been constrained and circumscribed across the West over the last few years. Let’s be honest, it’s not just Germany. But this is the first time a government supposedly of the center-left — not some ultraright bunch of crazies, but a government of the Greens, the Social Democrats, and the Free Democrats — has taken it upon itself to ban a European citizen. And for doing what? For advocating a purely humanist demand of equal political human rights in the ancient land of Palestine, which we as Europeans have infected with so much malignancy.

Dissent has been constrained and circumscribed across the West over the last few years. Let’s be honest, it’s not just Germany.

One of the things that they won’t forgive me for is that on October 8, the day immediately after the Hamas attack on Israel, I was being interviewed, and I actually found out on air — I hadn’t read the newspapers that morning. I was asked to comment and I said, “I’m not going to condemn Hamas, I’m not going to condemn the Israelis, I’m not even going to condemn the Israeli settlers — because we Europeans have played this game of condemning everyone and pretending to be above the riffraff in Palestine and Israel.” I said, “You want me to condemn somebody, then let’s condemn ourselves. Centuries of European antisemitism, pogrom after pogrom against the Jews, culminating in the uniquely vile Holocaust. And what do we do then? We become complicit in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.”

I’m not going to join forces with European politicians who present themselves as superior, looking down upon the people living in Israel and Palestine and condemning them. Let’s condemn ourselves before we condemn anyone.

Loren Balhorn

You’ve been a presence in the German public sphere for over a decade now and sold a lot of books in Germany. Will your relationship with the country continue despite the ban?

Yanis Varoufakis

Well, I can tell you that I have lost my German publisher, who published six of my books over the last twelve years. They had the audacity to warn me against participating in this conference, at which point I severed my ties with them. The audacity of a publisher telling an author, “You know, we are not going to be able to sell your books in this country if you speak out against genocide.” Look, I don’t care. I’m going to continue cultivating links with my comrades in Germany, and MeRA25 will stand for the European election in Germany in June.

Germany will always be in my heart because of my memories from childhood, growing up under a fascist dictatorship. When I was seven, eight years of age, and we lived under the tyranny of the colonels, I remember my parents huddling under a blanket with a wireless radio, listening to public broadcaster Deutsche Welle. As a young boy, Germany was a beacon of hope. Willy Brandt, the chancellor of West Germany back then, was the epitome of democracy, supporting and standing in solidarity with Greek social democrats languishing in prisons, including my family members.

I’m not giving up on that notion of Germany, and I’m not going to allow the likes of Chancellor Olaf Scholz or Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who are doing enormous damage to the reputation of Germany and to German democracy, to keep me away. I’m going to stay very close to my comrades in Germany, and we’re going to work to reconstitute the spirit of social democracy there.


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