We couldn't have been more surprised when the old Bavarian lady started kicking our car. We had stopped a few inches into the crosswalk at a red light—a crime, we realized too late, against the German social order, with its spiderweb of rules and unquestioning respect for authority. Had one of us gotten out to confront the sturdy old Frau, she would have quickly trotted away—just as her countrymen who jab you with umbrellas for not walking fast enough melt into the crowd when you turn to glare.
In a land where addressing even casual friends as Herr or Frau So-and-So is commonplace, the Germans' frequent rudeness in public situations where they can remain anonymous is more than a striking irony. lt is a tragic flaw in the national character. The Germans' disinclination to stand out from the crowd and stand up for their beliefs has given the world the impression that they care little about the vicious crimes neo-Nazis are committing against immigrants. Revulsed by the footage of violence broadcast regularly on TV, Americans tend to disregard the occasional news of marches protesting the violence, such as the one in Munich before Christmas and, more recently, those in Hamburg and Berlin.
The difficulty Americans have understanding how Germans could apparently begin to repeat the darkest hours of their history stems from a presumption that Germany is just like the United States: a wealthy, industrialized nation—with Hummels, great beer, and funny leather pants. Yes, they like Classic Coke and Levi's. But the Germans' understanding of government's role and the meaning of citizenship is very different from ours. And it is those differences that have sown the seeds of widespread and systematic neo-Nazi violence.
One of the basic duties of government in a free society is to protect the lives and property of its people. The German government has shirked that responsibility by largely refusing to arrest and punish the skinheads guilty of murder and arson. Why? In a country where you can be fined for making too much noise between 1:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon (naptime for the elderly and children), those enforcing laws against real criminals are paralyzed by memories of excessive police force in the past. The government's inaction in punishing serious crimes is overshadowed by the diligence with which it polices the mundane.
And enforcing the rule of law is never enough to prevent society's malcontents from acting on their beliefs. Popular opinion must be against those beliefs—but not by censoring them, for that only starts a slow erosion of everyone's rights while driving the troublemakers underground. Wicked ideas and those who spread them must be confronted, not avoided, debated, not ignored. In a free society, the onus of promoting tolerance and good will should be not on state censors but on each individual.
So the Germans must stand together as individuals and condemn the hatred fueling the neo-Nazis—a task all the more challenging because of the trust Germans place in government to solve their problems. The evening rally in Munich on December 6, the largest in that city since World War II, was a heartening first step.
"Under the motto 'A city says no' almost 400,000 citizens of Munich stood along the streets of the city center," my German friends wrote to me after joining in the December march. "There were many many young people there, and everyone carried candles, flashlights, and lanterns. Then the church bells began to ring. It was a powerful demonstration of the silent majority."
Just as important to maintaining a free society, however, is a fair definition of what constitutes that society's membership. Under current German law, it's almost impossible to become a citizen unless you are of German ethnicity. A Russian, for example, is granted automatic citizenship if he had German ancestors, but a Turk whose family has lived and worked in Germany for several generations is forever an outsider in the land of his birth. This law breeds racial tension and gives the neo-Nazis a sense of justification for their hatred of the "strangers" in their midst.
Germans made the symbolic gesture of solidarity with the persecuted immigrants by marching in the streets. But for many of the world's onlookers, that might not be enough. After all, how free would you feel in a society that forced you to embrace as compatriots neo-Nazi youths, with their complete dependence on the welfare state (down to expecting subsidies for combat boots and racist music), but not the resident aliens who've made your country their home for decades, providing the necessary work force for rebuilding your neighborhoods and city monuments after World War II?
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "German Lessons".