Karneval-goers in brightly dressed costumes stood momentarily aghast on the unseasonably warm Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) in Düsseldorf. Then a mixture of cheers, boos and laughter rose up to meet one of the most controversial of the German festival's long history of politically charged floats.
Being pulled slowly along the parade route by a green tractor knelt a ten-foot-tall Lady Liberty, hallmark of American freedom and liberty, grimacing as a red-faced Donald Trump attempted to rape her.
"The floats must be drastic if the situation is drastic," said Jacques Tilly, the floats creator. “And that is it. The situations I describe are true.”
On the next float Lady Liberty, with “America Resist” emblazoned on her breast, stood tall, holding the decapitated head of Trump by his hair. Referencing the danger of Trump’s chauvinist brand of politics and the victory, though potentially short-lived, of the United States courts ruling against Trump’s travel ban, according to Tilly.
"This is my real message that the Trump time will ultimately only be an episode and not the end," Tilly told the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger.
Tilly, a Düsseldorf native now in his mid-fifties, has been creating floats for Karneval’s pre-Lent Rosenmontag parade for more than 30 years, contributing his bright, larger than life creations to an artform that has leveled its satirical sword at politicians and political events for nearly two centuries, dating back to the early 1800s. Then, as now, locals used the festivities as an opportunity to express their political and social views of current events. From the 19th century occupations of the French and Prussians to terrorism and the rise of populism.
While Karneval in the Rhineland isn’t as famous as similar celebrations in Rio De Janeiro or New Orleans, every year close to a million Germans pour into the Rhine river valley’s Karneval hotspots of Dusseldorf, Cologne and Mainz for the days leading up to Ash Wednesday to drink, dress up and witness the parades, where the political floats take center stage.
“In Karneval, the people say, ‘this is our time. We have the power,’” Tilly said. “And a bit of that remains.”
This power, the power of satire, has made Tilly a controversial figure himself. In 2015, just after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Tilly, a longtime reader, fired back: He made a float.
“Political humor and satire are not a good weather event,” Tilly said. “Just when it is really serious, biting satire is called for.”
The float depicted a masked jihadist, sword in hand, chasing a beheaded man clutching a copy of Charlie Hebdo. From the man’s severed neck came the words, “You cannot kill satire!”
While Tilly is just one of many float builders for Karneval parades, he is considered one of the most daring. His floats have taken on Islamic extremism, Trump, Obama, Putin, Theresa May and Germany’s longtime chancellor Angela Merkel, depicted coming out of Uncle Sam’s ass waving American flags in 2003, to name just a few.
One of this year's floats featured Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Hitler, all populists with blonde hair, holding up a sign that read, “Blonde is the new Brown.” Another depicted Theresa May holding a gun to her mouth that read, “Brexit.”
Though some see these floats as tasteless, others find them necessary in a world where fear takes center stage, allowing politicians to say and do what they want in the name of protectionism.
Months prior to the parade and Trump’s eventual election victory, Tilly had hung up an image of Trump above his desk in order to, “get used to it gently,” and as fodder for his floats.
“His election victory is only a part of a right-wing populist revolt that is currently sweeping across the globe with growing success,” Tilly said in a translated interview with WDR. “And of course you have to make them ridiculous, all of those Le Pens, Wilders, Trumps, Orbans, Dutertes, Petrys, Humpes and all the other big-mouthed bouncers and high-stackers. We must pour them over with cunning mockery, pull through the cocoa, unmask it and expose it as long as we can. For when the development continues, our freedoms are also threatened. This is an option that I think is quite realistic.”
For now, most Karneval-goers are simply happy for the freedom to dress up, have a laugh and drink a lot of beer. Because one can only guess at the kind of material Tilly will have to work with next year.
Images from Jacques Tilly's Grossplastiken.de.