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?
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.