Commentary Magazine

Jews, Not Germans

Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany
By Yascha Mounk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pages

On December 7, 1970, West German chancellor Willy Brandt visited the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial. This, the most visible achievement of Brandt’s Ostpolitik strategy—the purpose of which was to improve relations with the Communist bloc that had forcefully divided his own country—would forever be remembered not for what it portended about Germany’s future but the effect it would have in forcing Germans to reckon with their past. After laying a wreath, Brandt dropped to his knees in a spontaneous gesture of silent, humble grace. Unlike most Germans, Brandt had an unblemished record when it came to the Second World War and the Holocaust. An early and outspoken opponent of the Nazis, he was forced into exile during their rise to power. He was also the first chancellor to visit Israel.

“He, who need not apologize to anybody, has kneeled on behalf of those who dared not or cared not to,” is how Yascha Mounk, a young German-born Jew, characterizes the moment in his new book, Stranger in My Own Country. Brandt’s kniefall, which captivated the world and ensured his winning the Nobel Peace Prize the following year, was hardly popular within Germany; 48 percent of his countrymen considered this symbolic act of penance to be “exaggerated.” But it sent a signal to Jews that the country responsible for the Holocaust was finally beginning to confront the enormity of its historic crime.

Fast-forward nearly 30 years, to 1998, when one of Germany’s most prominent novelists and public intellectuals was delivering an acceptance speech for a prestigious literary prize. Speaking of how Auschwitz “is held up to me every day in the media,” Martin Walser decried “the motives of those holding up our disgrace” as stemming not from a desire “to keep alive the memory or the impermissibility of forgetting, but rather to exploit our disgrace for present purposes.” Auschwitz, Walser said, had now become a “moral cudgel.” He did not need to elaborate upon who was wielding it.

For Yascha Mounk, these two high-profile interventions by prominent German public figures capture the high and low points of German–Jewish relations in contemporary Germany. Mounk was born in Germany, and German, he writes, “is the only language I speak without an accent.” Yet even though Mounk knew barely a thing about Jewish practice or traditions, this facet of his identity always made him feel like an outsider. Even the name of the country’s official Jewish communal organization hints at the perception that Jews are mere guests in Germany: It is the Central Council of Jews in Germany rather than the Central Council of German Jews. For Mounk’s parents and most other German Jews, Brandt’s attempt at redemption was a long overdue sign of welcome from a nation whose most visible act of penance had been financial reparations paid to Israel (which were even more unpopular than the kniefall), followed a decade later by the airing of the U.S. miniseries Holocaust, watched in a record number of German homes. But it was not until the 1980s that German society really came to grips with its legacy of war and genocide. Yet Walser’s speech, and the popular reception for it, seemed to mark a retrenchment. Mounk remembers seeing his grandfather’s distraught face as he watched Walser on television, a moment that forced the old man to “reconsider” whether he would ever truly be welcome in Germany.

In Stranger in My Own Country, Mounk interweaves the personal story of his family’s experience with a history of Germany’s fraught relationship with the Jews. Mounk of course encounters anti-Semitism, but it is just as much an unseemly philo-Semitism that gives him unease: “Driven by misplaced guilt and embarrassment about the unspeakable things their ancestors had done to mine, they ended up feeling limitlessly sorry for me.” Any Jew who has lived in Germany will recognize this type of overeager German, who, so wracked by Holocaust guilt, becomes preternaturally obsessed with Judaism and Jews, joins a klezmer band, learns Hebrew, and might even go so far as to convert to Judaism—and undergo adult circumcision if necessary. Relations between Germans and Jews, he writes, often devolve “into a politically correct comedy of errors.”

Such a phenomenon may make for funny anecdotes, but it can be emotionally exhausting having to live it every day. For Jews living in Germany, it is impossible to escape the legacy of the Holocaust, which has also shaped the country’s politics profoundly. No other country in Europe can match Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past,” an admirable national undertaking that, despite its fits and starts, is simply unparalleled on a continent where forgetting has been an easy route for politicians seeking political harmony and for regular people averse to feeling guilt. The 1960s protest movements were inspired by the postwar generation of Germans, angry at their parents who had remained silent about their pasts. How elements of those self-described “anti-fascist” movements devolved into fascistic behavior themselves and, in some cases, launched anti-Semitic violence, is a fascinating story (it is German leftists we have to thank for the now-common slur that Israelis are the new Nazis), and Mounk largely rehashes it from Hans Kundnani’s captivating 2009 study Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust.

The strengths of Mounk’s book are to be found in its memoirist passages and the political conclusions he reaches as a result of personal experience. There are few native-born German Jews who can grapple with the subject of Jewish identity in contemporary Germany, and Mounk is a graceful, well-read, and introspective writer. His sense of being out of place in a nation that—like nearly all European countries, with the possible exception of the United Kingdom—ties nationality to ethnicity leads him to discover a kinship with Germany’s sizeable Turkish minority. Descendants of “guest workers” originally brought to Germany in the 1950s and 60s to help fuel the county’s “economic wonder,” these second and third-generation Turks (of “migration background,” to use the delicate German phrase) have enormous difficulty in convincing their ethnic German neighbors to consider them fully German, even though they were born on German soil.

Mounk’s sympathy for the Turkish Germans and his own status as an outsider leads him to endorse a liberal conception of citizenship that is divorced from blood and soil. Whether or not Germany (or Europe as a whole) will ever be able to achieve this ideal is something Mounk cannot predict; a 2010 tome by a high-ranking Social Democrat, Germany Abolishes Itself, alleging Turks to be genetically inferior, became one of the bestselling books in the country’s history. The German fear that Turks and other immigrants are not doing enough to assimilate (a faulty assumption based upon factors such as whether or not they speak German within the privacy of their homes), he rightly says, are overblown and mask a deep-seated racism.

Mounk, almost inevitably then, embraces the American ideal of the immigrant society, and it is here where his book ends on a bittersweet note. After spending his formative years in a country where he was constantly reminded of his Jewishness, he finds his way to America, to New York, where being Jewish is far from special; indeed, it is ho-hum. Freed from the burdens of the German past and the complications of its present, Mounk concludes that he is “no longer a Jew.” Never religiously observant in the first place, his only identification with Judaism being an appreciation for Seinfeld and whitefish bagels, Mounk can justify that “the one last possible source for [his] Jewishness” is a negative one: that his ancestors were oppressed and murdered because of it. For his entire life, being Jewish was “an external imposition.” Now, in America, he is free to choose his identity for himself, and that identity is as a New Yorker.

Mounk’s unbridled assimilation into the American patchwork is consistent with that of an increasing number of American-born Jews, who, due largely to intermarriage, no longer identify as Jews in any meaningful way. One of the unintended negative consequences of America’s loving embrace is that many Jews, no longer facing the anti-Semitism of earlier generations and having reached the heights of American society in all spheres, are feeling less of a need to lead Jewish lives, in even the most minimal sense. Stranger in My Own Country is a timely reminder for American Jews that they are lucky to have been born in this promised land, but that there are hidden costs in its most welcoming arms.

About the Author

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative and was a 2012–13 Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow in Berlin.

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