Decoder

Explaining a word and the culture that uses it.

America Doesn’t Need Heroes

Why Germany’s concept of Zivilcourage is one for the Biden era.

By , a journalist and strategist living in Vancouver, Canada.
Zivil Courage Illustration of words
  LARS MADSEN ILLUSTRATION FOR FOREIGN POLICY

One of the most serious lessons American schoolchildren learn is they’re vulnerable. Kidnappers and drug dealers were the sinister villains of the 1980s and 1990s, brought to life by Drug Abuse Resistance Education programs and all-school assemblies about “stranger danger.” Today, more than 95 percent of K-12 schools in the United States run their students through active shooter drills. Children crouch quietly beneath their desks in the dark and pretend to die along institutional hallways.

Things work differently in certain parts of Europe, where children instead take lessons in everyday moral courage, or Zivilcourage. Students learn how to intervene in emergency situations to keep others safe and uphold shared values. These lessons, developed by municipalities, police departments, and nongovernmental organizations, are designed to empower young people rather than frighten them. In Zurich, officials say Zivilcourage education is meant to create “confident human beings” able to “realistically evaluate challenging situations.”

One of the most serious lessons American schoolchildren learn is they’re vulnerable. Kidnappers and drug dealers were the sinister villains of the 1980s and 1990s, brought to life by Drug Abuse Resistance Education programs and all-school assemblies about “stranger danger.” Today, more than 95 percent of K-12 schools in the United States run their students through active shooter drills. Children crouch quietly beneath their desks in the dark and pretend to die along institutional hallways.

Things work differently in certain parts of Europe, where children instead take lessons in everyday moral courage, or Zivilcourage. Students learn how to intervene in emergency situations to keep others safe and uphold shared values. These lessons, developed by municipalities, police departments, and nongovernmental organizations, are designed to empower young people rather than frighten them. In Zurich, officials say Zivilcourage education is meant to create “confident human beings” able to “realistically evaluate challenging situations.”

Zivilcourage is an especially resonant concept in Germany. Broadly, it means standing up for what’s right, even at true personal risk. Zivilcourage can describe collective struggles, but usually it refers to individual actions: defending fellow passengers against racist slurs on public transit, calling out lies and misinformation online, whistleblowing on the job, or even chastising someone for smoking where they shouldn’t. Police departments regularly lead information campaigns about Zivilcourage. Media outlets give it dedicated verticals. Invoked by politicians, academics, and regular people alike, Zivilcourage teaches that upholding the standards of a peaceful, pluralistic society is a responsibility shared by all.

Indeed, Zivilcourage has become quietly central to modern Germany’s civic imagination. It has been claimed by a range of political groups—some more convincingly than others. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (and her predecessor Gerhard Schröder) have used the term to celebrate reunification and warn against antisemitism. In recent years, Zivilcourage has also been borrowed by the populist right to justify protests against immigration as well as rallies opposing lockdown measures and Berlin’s so-called “COVID dictatorship.”

It is high time Americans borrowed the concept of Zivilcourage for themselves. Although U.S. President Joe Biden won his electoral battle for “the soul of the nation,” the United States is still an exceptionally harsh and unforgiving country to live in. Life expectancy is dropping and “deaths of despair” are rising. Americans own more guns per capita and murder more people with them than in other wealthy democracies. Police kill more civilians too, often people of color. The Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol Building was a terrifying act of political violence that heightened the sense of urgency felt by many Americans about the future of the republic. But violence doesn’t have to be cinematic or even explicitly political to pose a serious threat to democratic life. It’s no coincidence that a nation where some bodies matter more than others now finds itself on the brink of losing its democracy. The reason American kids practice active shooter drills is because they must.

Zivilcourage illustrates how and why physical safety matters for democracy: It’s essential everyone feels confident and secure enough to stand up for their convictions in public, protect one another from violence or harassment, and uphold shared values. If these things aren’t possible, democracy quickly deteriorates. Germans aren’t braver than the citizens of other places nor are their civic norms and institutions unthreatened. But Zivilcourage helps to clarify how the tiny moral decisions of everyday life are collectively significant, how humble braveries can keep democracy itself from going under.


Zivilcourage has a long and storied history in Central Europe. Usually the term is credited to the 19th-century Prussian stateman Otto von Bismarck, who famously lamented in 1864 that civilians (especially politicians and bureaucrats) lacked the courage of soldiers. But it’s the Nazi past that lends Zivilcourage its moral weight and resonance. “Under national socialism, civil courage was life threatening and so all the more precious,” argued future German President Christian Wulff in 2008. Today, the concept is most closely linked with resistance figures like the sibling pamphleteers Hans and Sophie Scholl, who were executed by the regime in 1943 and are now celebrated as exemplars of moral courage.

It’s also widely understood in Germany that civil courage was desperately in short supply under Nazism, and the history of Zivilcourage is also a tale of absence. This was the view of Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most famous victims of the Third Reich. In a 1942 Christmas letter to friends in the resistance, Bonhoeffer wrote “civil courage has been virtually nowhere to be found, even among ourselves.” The problem, he suggested, wasn’t individual cowardice but that structural forces in German society were making it harder for ordinary people to be brave in the small ways required of them.

Today, as the Bonn-based psychologist Anna Baumert explained to me, “civil courage is a very German topic of interest.” Baumert leads a research unit on moral courage at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods. She told me Zivilcourage is discussed on a “relatively regular basis” in Germany. It’s also a legal requirement: The country has made it a federal crime to witness an accident or attack and not do your best to help.

One consequence of the country’s Nazi past is Zivilcourage is understood as a habit to be practiced or a muscle to be worked. Unlike American heroism, it’s not an innate or mysterious quality that belongs to some and not to others; it’s a skill that can be taught. “Everyone can learn to be brave,” runs one official slogan. The Hamburg police promise you can be courageous without the exceptional powers of Superman or Catwoman. In most situations, authorities explained, Zivilcourage can be shown just by ticking several simple boxes: Don’t put yourself in danger, ask others for help, call the police, offer first aid to victims, and be a reliable witness. A decade ago, it was impossible to overlook the publicity campaign in Berlin’s 173 U-Bahn stations. Staring out from the posters as you journeyed home in the dark was a confident young woman of color, her fingers pressed into the shape of a gun. The text said calling for help to protect your fellow passengers was “your weapon against violence” as well as a critical way to show Zivilcourage.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, this humbler view of Zivilcourage took hold. It was less about resisting a dictatorship and more about protecting one another against harassment and petty crime in public places. Officials were motivated by several disturbing trends. In the years after reunification, anti-immigrant sentiment was running alarmingly high (in 1992, one-quarter of Germans approved of the slogan “Foreigners Out”), neo-Nazi movements were on the rise, and violence against foreigners was increasingly common. In the 2000s, far-right terrorists murdered several Greek and Turkish immigrants, seizing public attention. Civil courage, in the form of active bystander intervention to protect minorities, appeared to be frighteningly absent for a second time in modern German history.

Although Zivilcourage has now come to be framed by state officials as a weapon against racial discrimination, Baumert cautioned that reality is more complex. When asked about civilian courage, she explained some Germans still leap to prejudiced conclusions, often casting asylum-seekers or immigrants as the attackers in the situations they imagine. Too many cases of racial or religious harassment are ignored by onlookers. And the country is just beginning to wrestle with systemic racism in policing, with a great deal of hesitation and discomfort.

Of course, stories about courageous bystanders sell newspapers and drive public attention in many countries. What’s peculiar about Zivilcourage is the concept’s explicitly political charge. To demonstrate civil courage in Germany, whether dramatically or in small ways, is a truly democratic act: It is “one of the bedrock virtues of democracy as we experience it,” said the country’s civic education agency. Why should this be so? Baumert explained that in democracies, “it’s important that norms are enforced by ordinary people,” not only by the police or the state. In other words, Zivilcourage transforms bystander intervention into an act that is much more profound than simple good neighborliness. It becomes the business of equal citizens reinforcing their political lives together.

No public figure has been more vocal about the democratic function of Zivilcourage than German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In the face of resurgent right-wing populism and spiraling distrust in political institutions, Steinmeier has insisted elite politicians alone cannot rescue democracy. What really strengthens self-government, he argued, is everyday moral courage: ordinary people acting to champion the norms and behaviors needed to sustain a free society. In 2019, shortly after a right-wing gunman attacked a synagogue in Halle, Steinmeier told the country what democracy asked of them all was simple but important: not that they each become heroes but simply that they act as “confident citizens” equipped with “gumption … reason, decency, and solidarity.” Democracy belongs to the bravest, Steinmeier believed. And Zivilcourage is its lifeblood.


In the early 2000s, as Germans were refocusing the concept of Zivilcourage around anti-discrimination, the United States also codified a new position on public bravery: “If you see something, say something.” Coined by a New York ad man on Sept. 12, 2001 and later adopted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, this slogan has shaped how Americans behave in public spaces for nearly two decades. It asks people less to defend one another than to surveil one another. It depends on gut checks and assumptions steeped in racial prejudice. In the post-9/11 U.S. security state, the courageous citizen snitches.

Whether you call it moral courage or civilian bravery, none of the direct translations from German really have much purchase in the United States. Heroism, perhaps, is the concept that resonates in the United States the way Zivilcourage does in Europe. It might be the final shred of bipartisan consensus that remains: the belief that citizens of superhuman courage and virtue walk among us, their extraordinary bravery to be revealed when circumstances require it. It is mostly Democrats now who celebrate the American heroism of civil rights leaders like John Lewis or Rosa Parks. One of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s last acts was to propose a “Garden of American Heroes” that would honor everyone from Walt Disney to Kobe Bryant. (Joe Biden quietly cancelled it last month.)

What’s common across party lines, however, is the general sense that U.S. heroism can’t be trained or taught. It’s a quality subject to natural distributions like height or hair color. Implicit in the honoring of civilian heroes like Lewis or Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger or Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman is the assumption that most of us are not so brave, that a lesser (or simply more average) citizen would have failed to act. It’s not for nothing the major U.S. contribution to discussions about civil courage is the “bystander effect,” a psychological theory where the presence of onlookers makes it less likely someone will intervene in an emergency situation. It has mostly been debunked, but the myth is very difficult to dislodge: that most people just won’t act bravely to help another person, that human nature leaves us no choice, and that only heroes can overcome their own psychological hardwiring.

Proponents of Zivilcourage and students of its historical significance might beg to differ. Germany had to be remade after 1945. The denazification process was uneven, but over time, the rules of peaceful pluralism were relearned. Nazis became Germans again. These are the lessons that inform Zivilcourage, an idea built on the assumption that citizens can learn to be better and braver in the ways demanded of them by a democratic government. More courageous habits can be formed.

The United States’ recent history is illuminating too. Gun violence and police brutality are two of the country’s deadliest and most distinctive social problems. Because they so drastically change the calculus of any threatening physical situation, these forces have consequences for civil courage. Intervening to protect neighbors or norms becomes a riskier and costlier decision than it might be elsewhere. After all, it’s no small feat to intervene in a tense or violent public altercation; it becomes tougher if you have reason to think (as you should in the United States) that guns might be involved. Calling 911 after seeing someone in distress is not a straightforward solution if you have reason to worry the police might make things worse. The unpredictable violence that has become quietly endemic to American life makes the work of looking out for one another—that is, the business of citizenship—much harder and scarier than it ought to be.

In no other wealthy democracy does Zivilcourage exact so high a potential price. Absent of major reforms, that price will keep rising. Strengthening gun laws and dealing decisively with police violence—these objectives are just. But they should also be treated as urgent and indispensable contributions to the republic’s survival. As we begin looking for signs that U.S. democracy is healing, it would be a mistake to dwell too much on election results. More telling will be whether or not politicians succeed in carving out more space for everyday civilian courage, for people to be brave in the small ways they need to be.

Europeans who write and think about Zivilcourage often cite an aphorism credited to journalist Franca Magnani: “The more citizens with civil courage a nation has, the fewer heroes it needs.” Heroes may help win wars. They can’t heal ailing democracies.

Ian Beacock is a journalist and strategist living in Vancouver, Canada. Trained as a historian at Stanford University, he’s currently working on a book about democratic emotions. Twitter: @IanPBeacock

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