I don’t usually meet Nazi sympathisers, but I did once. We met in Prague, late February, and he was walking down the street where I lived, while I loitered outside.
He wore a blue Ibrahimovic jersey and a yellow parka, and he had a stub of a cigarette in his mouth. He was in his late twenties. He walked with a sort of casual shrug. The point of this extended description is that it’s hard to make assumptions. You’d never pick him to be, for example, a vicious racist.
He greeted me, and I returned it. His name was Robin (“The bird…” he said, pressing the back of his left hand on his right palm and flapping) and he needed a lighter.
If you’re in Eastern Europe, and you don’t look European, three things often happen upon meeting people the first time: they (1) assume you speak English, as opposed to [the respective country’s language], (2) ask you where you’re from, and (3) ask you what you think of [the country/city/other you’re in].
The first two things should feel wrong and bad, but they also expedite introductions so it’s probably fine. I said I’m from Australia and I thought Prague was great. He responded with incredulity. “Prague is shit,” he spat, “Czech Republic – fucked.”
Robin needed a lighter so he could smoke a joint. We spoke at length. We talked about the European economy (“Everyone goes to Australia. Bad for us, the [he flexed his fingers, air-quoting some newspaper’s business section] ‘brain drain.’”), drugs (“MDMA, I love. Like sex. But no heroin. No way.”), football (“Iniesta is a genius. Fucking genius.”), women (“It is what Czech do best, no?”).
When the joint was finished, he promptly rolled another.
Robin loved to chat. Everything he said was replete with actual warmth, the honest joy of having just made a friend. “I will tell you something now,” he said, “but maybe you will judge me for it.” He was suddenly sheepish, hesitant. I said, go on. “Are you sure?” he replied. I nodded.
He paused and considered how to phrase what was on his mind. What was on his mind was this: “Sometimes, I think, maybe a man like Hitler. Maybe he was not so bad. You see all the people in Prague. Gypsies. Maybe Hitler had a gun to his head.” He tapped his chest where his heart was with one finger – once, twice – raised that finger to his bloodless lips. “This is what I believe.”
There was a silence I assumed I had to fill. So I said: Ah. I thought: you could’ve told me anything else, Robin, and I wouldn’t have judged you for it, you know? But you said that. You went and said that.
“Hitler,” he continued, “I…I think he is okay. He happened because of poverty. Look at the poverty now.” His hands were less animated; they’re just in front of him, cupped like he’s collecting water. At this point, I remember literally backing off. I said I had to go, mumbled something about the stove at my hostel. His shoulders sagged. He looked hurt.
At what point does it become appropriate to call someone out on their terrible opinions? What if you’d just met the person?
I’d like to think I’d do it immediately. But, in this situation, what could you do? Grimace, bite a knuckle, tell them: “That’s not true.” Any rejection of, or argument against, Robin’s beliefs would have seemed so feeble and impotent compared to the original statement, that bombshell: “I’m pro-Hitler.”
And what if you’ve just met in a foreign country? What if they’re big dudes – Czech – and they confess to admiring mass-murderers, and you just noticed that they have a buzzcut, and – oh, man – that they tried to show you some tattoos earlier but you politely declined?
Personally, in that case, I’d make my excuses and leave. So I left.
Robin waved as I walked away. “Maybe I’ll see you later,” he said. Doubt it. I watched him, in my peripheral vision, but didn’t turn around to look.