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Painted on a Russian military vehicle in Ukraine: Z. Twitter

Purging the alphabet: Germany cracks down on the letter ‘Z’

The sign on the vehicles and uniforms of Russian forces in the Ukrainian operation has become a rallying point for pro-Kremlin supporters. The ban on the symbol however, signals concern in Berlin that such supporters may be numerous.

Published: March 29, 2022, 10:33 am

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    In response to this, German politicians have reverted to satirical mode: After Bavaria and Lower Saxony, other federal states – Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia notably – now want to criminalize the public display of the letter “Z”.

    Against the background of the ongoing Ukraine hysteria, politicians believe the “Z” is unwelcome support for Russian military action in Ukraine. The Russian units operating in Ukraine are marked with the “Z”. Although there has been some speculation, the exact meaning of the marking is not yet known.

    “Anyone who uses the ‘Z’ symbol to publicly express their approval of Russian President Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine must expect criminal consequences in Lower Saxony,” Lower Saxony’s Interior Minister Pistorius (SPD) said on Friday. Pistorius added: “It is absolutely incomprehensible to me how the stylized ‘Z’ can be used even here to condone these crimes.”

    According to the Ministry of the Interior in Hanover, the public use of the letter “Z” during demonstrations could now be a criminal offense and be considered a disturbance of the public peace. In justified cases of suspicion, perpetrators would be prosecuted. The result will be up to three years in prison or a fine.

    Those Kremlin supporters who display a “Z” in public “should know that they can be prosecuted for condoning crimes,” Bavaria’s justice minister Georg Eisenreich (CSU) warned in a message to AFP. Bavaria (south) and Lower Saxony (north) are the country’s two largest regional states in terms of area.

    In Germany, numerous combinations of letters and numbers are already banned or are punishable because they are supposedly linked to Nazism. Now the already unsettled public is faced with further challenges. Drivers in Zwickau, Saxony, are asking themselves whether they should switch to other modes of transport in the future so as not to make themselves liable to prosecution with their official license plate number.

    The Swiss insurer Zurich also sees itself under pressure. It has already changed the company logo, which previously showed a large “Z” in a circle. Instead, the full company name will be in the circle in the future. Switzerland has meanwhile abandoned its neutral status to side with Anglo-American denunciations of Russia.

    Notably “Ζ” (zeta) is the initial of the ancient Greek word “ζῇ / zi”, which means “he lives” or “he is alive”. This is why in Greece, in 1963, demonstrators seized this letter to protest against the assassination of Grigóris Lambrákis, which occurred a few years before the country fell into the hands of the fascist junta – better known as the dictatorship of the colonels (1967).

    The symbol in the form of the Latin letter Z, instead of the equivalent Cyrillic letter З (Ze) used in the Russian alphabet, has been described as peculiar, considering the symbol is not Russian.

    Another German state, North Rhine-Westphalia, announced on Sunday that it would examine criminal consequences for the use of the letter. And Berlin is also taking action against the “Z” symbol. “If the context of the war is created with the use of the white Z, as can be seen on the Russian military vehicles, then of course that means advocating a war of aggression,” Interior Senator Iris Spranger (SPD) told the Tagesspiegel on Monday. “That would be a punishable offence, so we’ll intervene immediately.”

    Russian flags are currently still allowed to be displayed in public. This regulatory loophole was exploited by pro-Russian demonstrators who staged a colourful and noisy motorcade through the former West German capital Bonn over the weekend.

    According to media reports, around 100 vehicles had gathered. The motorcade was duly registered, and police intervention against slogans such as “Germany – Russia – Germany” could not be justified.

    But the daily Express quoted Mayor Katja Dörner as saying: “In Bonn, people are standing together in solidarity with Ukraine. In recent weeks, many Russians have supported refugees from Ukraine here. Such demonstrations are absolutely out of place and undesirable in our city!”

    The target of the motorcade was a Soviet memorial at the New Cemetery in Bonn-Lessenich, which is dedicated to Soviet martyrs of the Second World War.

    Russian military columns in Ukraine have not only used the letter “Z” but also the “O” and “V” which will probably soon be banned. The three letters are painted on their vehicles and units as identifiers for the areas of the operation in Ukraine, with the “Z” in the area southeast, in the Donbass.

    If the conflict does not end soon, the entire Latin alphabet may be put to the test. Ordinary Germans may decide that they do not want to “freeze for Putin” in their apartments in the coming winters. According to officials the country will only be able to end their “energy addiction” by 2027.

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