Are Today's Germans Morally Responsible for the Holocaust?

Yascha Mounk’s new book on Jewish identity leaves readers with a question: Are people destined to see themselves as the descendants of victims or oppressors?
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The Holocaust memorial in Berlin (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a perennially reoccurring question: What makes someone Jewish? Answers vary, touching everything from the blood in your veins to the prayer book on your shelf to the egg bagel on your plate.

Yascha Mounk, a 31-year-old German Jew who’s a doctoral candidate at Harvard, has offered another definition: You are a Jew if your parents or grandparents were called out as Jews, persecuted as Jews, and killed as Jews. “In a sense, this was enough,” he writes in a new book, Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany. “If to speak honestly about their life stories is to become, in the eyes of most beholders, a Jew—and if being a Jew, in turn, means not being a true German—then, so long as I lived in Germany, my family history made me a Jew.”

In his book, Mounk explores German attitudes toward Jews during the 70 years following the Holocaust (Mounk's parents and grandparents are Eastern European Jews, and he was born in Germany). But he also offers a broader theory about identity: that people understand themselves and others through their genetic ties to history’s victims and oppressors. This pattern develops repeatedly and in diverse contexts, Mounk argues: In Germany, there’s collective guilt about Jews and the Holocaust; in America, a similar phenomenon shapes discourse around blacks and slavery. Each new generation matures into its role as steward of historical hatreds; although the legacies of genocide and enslavement become refracted through time, young people can’t escape the grievances of prejudices past.

The resulting emotions they experience range from anxiety to hostility. Writing about Germany, Mounk points to philo-Semitism and overt racism as related reactions to the same historical guilt. He has many personal anecdotes to support this theory. There’s the exchange he has with a friend, Markus, who converted to Judaism out of shame after seeing a documentary about the Holocaust as a teenager. There’s the tasteless joke about incinerating Jews and fitting them into an ashtray, defiantly cracked over beers by thirty-something Stephanie. There’s recurring, self-conscious praise of Woody Allen, embellished for Mounk’s “benefit” lest he take offense at criticism of the wordsmithing of a fellow member of the tribe. His examples fall somewhere between absurd and macabre: Filtered through time, historical guilt has morphed into self-loathing, defiant contempt, and paranoid self-censorship.

This has also been true in the German public sphere, Mounk writes. In 1974, the filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote a play laced with thinly veiled anti-Semitism, claiming to critique German attitudes toward Jews. Lines like this made that claim seem questionable:

And it is the Jew who is guilty because he makes us guilty, for he is here. Had he stayed where he came from, or had they gassed him, I could sleep better today. They forgot to gas him. This is no joke, that’s what I think, deep inside of me.

Fassbinder’s play was eventually panned by critics and shuttered in theaters, but the piece represented a tense uncertainty, Mounk writes. Could “the nervous taboo against all forms of anti-Semitism … finally be lifted,” as Fassbinder and his supporters wanted? Or would Germans be forever doomed to keep an eye on the past, unsure of the boundary between criticism and insensitivity?

As these questions gained prominence in the public sphere, Mounk writes, the answers hinged on whether it’s possible to draw a “finish line” on the moral burden of the Holocaust. Especially starting in the 1970s and ‘80s, a vocal group of German intellectuals expressed resentment at “being made to feel guilty” about crimes against Jews, arguing that there should be a statue of limitations of sorts on moral responsibility. If it were even possible for public intellectuals to artificially define such a boundary, Germany certainly hasn’t hit it; Mounk’s experiences suggest that young Germans are still struggling with their ethnic inheritance.

Is it possible to to be freed from responsibility for the past, even after a long time has gone by? What's the half-life of historical guilt?

Perhaps this is the most important lesson from Mounk’s book: Ethnic alienation is more personal than political. Mounk speaks German without an accent; he looks similar to his fellow countrymen; he doesn’t even observe major Jewish holidays. Yet growing up in Germany in the 1990s and 2000s, he felt totally different from his peers. Almost implausibly, the abstract idea of collective national guilt defined his everyday life in a big way.

Mounk describes a swirl of small, subtle experiences of “otherness,” including classroom call-outs, awkward jokes told by friends, and offensive interviews with potential employers. He may not have started elementary school feeling like a “stranger in [his] own country,” but everyone else expected him to. Over time, he fulfilled their expectations. Because he was the subject of a stereotype, he came to confirm the stereotype itself: Jews are different from Germans.

That this is still the social environment of 21st-century Germany raises profound questions. How is it that young people come to feel guilty about the sins of their parents and grandparents? How did today’s twenty-something Germans learn to internalize guilt about Auschwitz, maybe even coming to resent the assumption that they’re supposed to feel guilty at all? How do atrocious ethnic crimes become disembodied ideas, morphing into a vague sense of moral responsibility?

Somehow, between essays penned by Jürgen Habermas and political stump speeches that use the “dog-whistle of anti-Semitism,” as Mounk calls it, the grandchildren of Nazis and soldiers and silent, complicit townspeople came to see themselves as part of a reified historical narrative. In one way or another, Germans define their ethnic identity in the context of the Holocaust. Ironically, the common response seems to rely on a nationalistic impulse to deal with Germany’s crimes of nationalism: By treating Mounk extra-carefully, his peers set him apart from other Germans; in setting him apart from other Germans, they reinforce the us/them mentality that undergirded the Holocaust in the first place.

Although Mounk admits he has no solution to this cycle of self-condemnation and historical defiance, he maintains a fairly dismissive tone regarding the philo-Semitism he so often encountered in his youth. Similarly, he pokes fun at the “liberal guilt among white Americans” about slavery and racism. In his view, these postures are inauthentic self-contortions that hurt more than they help: They reconfirm the differences between people of different ethnic backgrounds rather than carving out common ground. On this point, Mounk is persuasive.

But the real open question is not whether overeager self-flagellation is the right way to deal with atrocities; it’s whether it’s ever possible to be freed from responsibility for the past, even if a long time has gone by. What's the half-life of historical guilt?

The grandchildren of Nazis and soldiers and silent townspeople came to understand themselves as part of a historical narrative.

It’s been nearly 150 years since the end of slavery in the U.S., yet Mounk still sees the institution’s imprint everywhere in America. The citizens of Germany have spent less than half that amount of time reconciling with past transgressions. In many ways, the country has been granted clemency by its former enemies: It holds massive economic power within the European Union, its political leaders are well respected—even its athletes are beloved. Yet Mounk sees traces of old prejudice and solitary nationalism in the country’s politics: hostility toward Muslim immigrants; resentment about bailing out debt-ridden neighbors like Greece; reluctance to join Western allies on military missions in Libya and elsewhere. Whether or not Mounk’s attempt to link Merkel’s Germany to the country’s pre-World War II postures is persuasive (and I don’t think it is), he has set up a tangled paradox: Personally, young Germans still feel a connection to the legacy of the Holocaust; politically, certain policies have the ring of familiar intolerance; yet any outward recognition of these tensions is interpreted as either racism or reverse-racism.

At the end of the book, Mounk declares New York his new home, savoring the blandness of being Jewish in a city of 1.5 million Jews. “A true New Yorker is one who has come to the city in quest of something,” he writes. And quest he does: Throughout the book, Mounk seems to be searching for historical anonymity, a place where he won’t feel defined by the ancestors who suffered before him. Whatever anonymity Mounk may have found, though, he should know that it’s an artificial refuge. He himself has argued persuasively that identities are inextricably bound to past persecution. Leaving Germany doesn't diminish his ties to the country's conflicted history, and arriving in New York won't keep him from becoming part of the United States' own set of racial tensions. All his life, Mounk has felt like a stranger in his own land, but unfortunately, every land bears the weight of historical wrongs. 

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic.

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