Take It From A German: Americans Are Too Timid In Confronting Hate

In Germany, we were taught over and over again that Hitler came to power because ordinary people were afraid to stand up and speak out. Americans could stand to learn that lesson now.

Photo Illustration by the Daily Beast

Late in the evening on Christmas day, Stephanie Pazmino slashed a black, transgender man after he offered her a subway seat. “I don’t want to sit next to black people,” Pazmino told the victim. A couple of weeks ago a man walked into a 7-Eleven in the Bronx. He had no intention to purchase anything but wanted to use the store’s microwave. When the Muslim clerk told him that this was against store policy, the man responded that he could do whatever he wanted. He told the clerk to go back to ‘his country’ and threatened to physically harm him.

At the beginning of December a hijab-wearing city transit worker was assaulted by a passenger who confronted her on the 7 train. “You’re a terrorist and you shouldn’t be working for the city,” said the man, according to reports, as he jabbed a finger at her MTA badge. He followed her off the train at Grand Central Terminus, and then pushed her down stairs at the station. (She was taken to hospital with injuries to her knee and ankle.) The attacker was not apprehended, and there were no reports of anyone trying to intervene.

That same week, a Bay Ridge resident named Christopher Nelson called an off-duty police officer wearing a hijab an “ISIS bitch.” “I will cut your throat!” Mr. Nelson threatened her. “Go back to your country!”

According to the New York Police Department, bias incidents in New York have spiked 400 percent in the two weeks that followed the election of Donald J. Trump, compared to the same period last year. The Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy organization that tracks hate incidents and provides tolerance training in schools, has released a report that stated that bias incidents have surpassed the 1,000 mark since the election. The vast majority of these incidents were directed towards immigrant women.

Earlier this year, I was a witness to one such attack. Riding the 7 Train into Manhattan from Queens, arguably the most diverse place on earth, I heard someone yelling anti-Muslim insults. A man had pushed a young woman in a hijab off her seat, and the woman was crying.

I decided to stand between victim and perpetrator. I was the only person who responded until a man who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent joined me. My heart was racing, as I explained to her, between gasps for air, that there’s a red emergency button she can push if something like this ever happens again. The woman spoke little English and didn’t seem to understand.

I felt silly. A red button was the only mode of empowerment that I could come up with? A button, because no one but me had dared to stand up?

I am not sharing this story to congratulate myself but to illustrate what I’ve learned from growing up in Germany.

I’m a small but furious German. When I went to high school in Bavaria in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the horrors of fascism still echoed through the classrooms. Germans have internalized that the reason why Adolf Hitler was able to rise to power was that no one stood up for the Jews.

Maybe that’s also why Germans are so quick to let you know when you do something wrong. Cross a street at a red light and your fellow pedestrians will start yelling. “You’re setting a bad example for the children!” And don’t even think of dropping a wrapper on the street. You’ll get a scolding and be told to “Pick it back up. Quick!”

One time, I took an American boyfriend to a large spa in Hamburg. When he kept his towel on in the sauna, a chorus of sweating, naked old men and women—German saunas are co-ed, what else?—demanded he take it off. Germans, he learned, have agreed on exposing their private parts in the sauna. So unless you want to embarrass them, you follow suit.

I have plenty of problems with Germany, but its people’s willingness to speak their minds and stand up for others isn’t one of them. Whatever you do, in Germany the public good trumps your individual desires. While I think demanding someone to drop their towel might be taking things a step too far, I also think that there is a lesson to be learned.

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Germans have also worked hard to understand how the unspeakable happened. They have one of those unwieldy compound words for it: Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “the process of coming to terms with your past.” The concept includes a duty to intervene when another’s dignity or life is in danger.

I vividly recall the teacher-led discussions in high school that dealt with the persecution and deportation of Jews. What would you do if it was your neighbor: look the other way or step up? We read eyewitness accounts of “good Germans” who hid Jews in their attics.

At home, my mother’s parents, who were socialists, openly admitted to the helplessness and devastation they felt when they saw Jews being picked up and loaded onto trucks. Unlike my father’s parents.

“The Jews had it coming,” my paternal grandmother told me. More than once she said, “The Nuremberg Rallies were the best times of my life.”

Perhaps it is for this reason, more than my schooling, that the recent spike in hate crimes hits close to home.

These aren’t isolated incidents anymore. Yet it is a trend our soon-to-be leader has decided to ignore. So how should we respond? What can we do to avoid becoming bystanders in something unspeakable? If you still think that we should just wait and see, I wonder when will you step in. Will you step in when it is too late?

When you move to the U.S., even from a western country like Germany, there will always be things that remind you that you don’t fully belong. Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I love about America. (Yes, your “cling” wrap and vacuum cleaners leave much to be desired, but, OMG, your invention of Goo Gone and duct tape was GENIOUS.) You are funny and diplomatic, chatty, warm and openhearted. If you’re a storyteller like me, America, and New York in particular, is the place to be. It’s wonderful to go the supermarket and be able to have amiable conversations with total strangers. One moment you look at the couple across the aisle thinking, “I wonder what language they are speaking.” The next moment you’re exchanging the addresses of your favorite ethnic restaurants. It’s amazing how quickly immigrants adapt to this great, magnanimous American way of life. And yet for the most part, it is our job as immigrants to this country to assimilate to the American way, rarely the other way around.

I am beyond frustrated that we’re stuck with a president who, just like Adolf Hitler, despises refugees, intellectuals, journalists, women and non-Christians. I am married to a Mexican immigrant, and both my husband and I became American citizens in order to be able to vote and perform jury duty. We pay our taxes here and take our civic duties very seriously. Like all immigrants, we are grateful to our adopted home for taking us in and allowing us a life here.

And yet it has always struck me as odd how timid most Americans become when asked to object to something, even politely. At the dinner table, I’ve noticed, what Germans call a discussion, Americans call an argument.

I know I am often perceived as harsh because I speak my mind. But I also see how the very thing that makes America great—its people’s quiet acceptance of other beliefs, their overwhelming friendliness, their effort to always get along—now threatens to become its downfall. I loathed having to read my friends’ whiny Facebook posts about how they were dreading Thanksgiving because of the elections. “Boohoo, I have to talk about politics to someone who thinks differently than I do!”

Here, this German said it. Will you still like me? I am asking because I believe what stands in the way is Americans’ compulsive need to be liked. At moments like this, though, we need to learn to object and intervene—whether in public protest or simply around the family dinner table. You don’t have to get into a fight to try out my little German lesson, but if you see something, do something.

Americans are fond enough of multi-ethnic, culinary mashups, and I think it’s time for all of us to try out a little German-American fusion. If you dare to bite into a Cronut or kimchi taco, you might want to try out my little German lesson. Hateful graffiti at the bus stop? Be like my Queens council man Jimmy Van Bramer: Get a sponge and detergent, and scrub it away. Hear abuse on the subway? Talk to the victim and lead her to safety. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” wrote the philosopher Edmund Burke. Exactly. So don’t just be good. Be a good German.