Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany
By Yascha Mounk
*Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pages, $26
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, postwar Germany’s leading literary critic, who died last year at the age of 93, once described himself as “half Polish, half German and wholly Jewish.” Reich-Ranicki later denied that claim, insisting instead that he felt equally an outsider everywhere.
The former “literary pope,” as he was known, makes a cameo in “Stranger in My Own Country,” a curious new book by Yascha Mounk, which comes with heady endorsements that promise it will change how we view the German-Jewish relationship. Part family history, part memoir, but mostly a condensed history lesson told in a brisk 272 pages, Mounk, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, uses his own reading of postwar German history to bolster his argument that, even at this remove from the Holocaust, it is impossible for a Jew to feel at home in Germany and among Germans.
It is a thesis worth taking seriously, even though Mounk does himself few favors by attempting to bolster his argument with unfocused (and often problematic) historical analysis. Mounk admits that he doesn’t have a very sharp understanding of why he stopped feeling German. He describes his flag-waving enthusiasm at the age of eight when Germany won the 1990 World Cup; then 20 years later, he is puzzled when he is unable to cheer the Germans on in the same tournament. “I had stopped rooting for the German team, or identifying with Germany, or thinking of myself as German. Until today, I’m not quite sure why this happened.” He isn’t? It’s little wonder, then, that so little of the book is, in fact, about his personal experience.
“Stranger in My Own Country” is subtitled “A Jewish Family in Modern Germany,” but by my count, only a dozen pages or so are devoted to Mounk’s complicated family saga, which stands among the best aspects of the book. But much of the other writing can feel formulaic, and the way Mounk often repeats his main points seems more for the author’s benefit than for the reader’s.
Mounk is right is in pointing out the naiveté and annoying insistence one often encounters from Germans who automatically expect Jews to be experts on everything from kashrut to Israeli politics. He writes about the “understandable, yet deeply alienating” fear of German gentiles of making a “misstep” in dealing with Jews that “makes the simplest interaction between Jew and Gentile quickly degenerate into a politically correct comedy of errors.”
He also points to what he considers the poisonous role of philo-Semitism, the German enthusiasm for Yiddish, klezmer music and other fetishizations of the Eastern European Jewish culture that their ancestors wiped out. Sure, that exists and I’ve encountered it. I’ve also had my share of awkward conversations about Jews and Judaism, including one with a cabbie who thought he was paying me a compliment by pointing out (1) that there were close to 150,000 Jews in Berlin before the Nazis came to power and (2) the same number of Turks live in Berlin now and (3) weren’t we better off then!
Mounk milks his awkward confrontations for their comic potential and they often read like comedy sketches. These segments are often the best-written (and most entertaining) parts of the book, along with some very evocative descriptions of historical events (including a beautifully written account of Willy Brandt’s famous knee-sink before the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, that sounds like it belongs in another book entirely). Ultimately, “Stranger in My County” can’t decide what it wants to be. It’s not really a polemic, not really a history book or a cultural history. Ultimately, 272 pages prove too much space for what Mounk seems to be trying to say.
Expressing enthusiasm about the sense of home that he found in New York and America (where he is free not to feel Jewish), Mounk makes naïve claims about parallels between German-Jewish relations and “the controversies that arise between white and black Americans.” This leads him to an unnecessary and rather bizarre digression about the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley. He also underestimates the general ambivalence that Germany, and much of Europe, has about integrating their non-native populations — in Germany, the notion of hyphenated identities, as in Chinese-American, is all but illogical — and how his own sense of alienation may stem from xenophobic attitudes similar to those that make Germany’s large Turkish population often feel unwelcome.
The most relevant historical analysis and discussion in the book has to do with those in Germany who advocate a “finish line” (a position that he shows became increasingly popular in the 1990s and 2000s) to all the commemoration, education and reverence about the crimes of the Third Reich (and to the “special treatment” that some feel Jews and Israel receives from Germany). But even here, he seems to draw the wrong conclusion. “German Jews find themselves cast as extras in the country’s increasingly aggressive attempt to prove that it has finally left the past behind.” I’m not entirely sure I understand what he means by “extras,” except that Mounk feels that drawing a finish line, rather than normalizing relations between Germans and Jews, continues to stigmatize and exclude Jews. Naturally there are debates about how to deal with, commemorate and study the Holocaust. Yet the many German non-Jews I know who engage in Holocaust scholarship do so because they understand the universal importance of the Holocaust’s tragic dimensions. I seriously doubt that Jews feeling disenfranchised would rank among the direst consequences of an agreed-on “finish line.”
In ideological terms, the most specious part of Mounk’s book is his revisionist interpretation of the ’68 generation. He gives short shrift to what was perhaps the most decisive moment of postwar West Germany, virtually reducing the entire generation to a bunch of PLO-cheering terrorists. Was there terrorism and enthusiasm for the PLO? Sure, that was an element. But ’68 was also the beginning of a genuine reckoning with Nazi crimes that continues to this day — signified by the long German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung, literally “coming to terms with the past” — and is evident in the wealth of ongoing scholarship and commemoration of the Holocaust that continues to this day.
And yet, Mounk tells us that his initial “overly positive view of 1968 was naïve” since that “generation’s obsession with the past led many of its protagonists into dangerous delusions.” Specifically, he’s referring to the far-left wing terrorist organization, the Red Army Faction. We learn far more about the “violent fringes of the 1968 movement [who] would invoke the name of Auschwitz to justify lethal attacks on Jews” than anything else. He concludes this 10-page-long discussion of left-wing violence (and in such a short book that tackles so many issues, 10 pages is a considerable chuck) with a bit of pop psychology from one of Germany’s most polemical (Jewish) journalists, Henryk Broder, who claims that those in the violent radical left were therapeutically displacing their shock and anger at their parents onto the Jews: “The Jews are the Nazis, the Palestinians are the victims of the Jews, and your parents have nothing to do with any of it…” Mounk tells us he finds this explanation “lucid,” although to my mind, “lurid” gets closer to the truth.
A drawn-out digression, also towards the end of the book, in which Mounk describes his yearly vacations in Tuscany, does him few favors. Immediately, he feels a sense of well-being and acceptance among the Italians that he never in his life felt from the Germans. I’m not sure what his point is here, except that some Germans have a well-deserved reputation for being chilly, and that given the choice between Munich and Florence, I too would choose Tuscany.
Especially puzzling is Mounk’s decision, very late in the book, to offer a rumination on the extent to which he can even be considered Jewish, since in the absence of any Jewish experiences (he had neither a bris nor bar mitzvah, is rarely aware of when Yom Kippur comes around, and makes a point of telling us that his favorite dish is a prawn omelet), he is only a member of the tribe by virtue of his thoroughly secular mother. Mounk’s point is precisely that being a normal citizen in Germany is impossible even for a nominal Jew like him. Yet Mounk’s “even I” gesture is far from persuasive. Mounk tells us that growing up, being Jewish was merely another detail about him, no more important than the name of the town or the hospital he happened to be born in. Growing up the only Jew in town and totally ignorant of Jewish religion and culture, he could only let himself be defined by others. It’s difficult to imagine someone who has grown up in the past three decades supported by one of Germany’s 100-odd Jewish communities and its institutions being so reliant on outside attitudes and prejudices to construct his own Jewish identify.
Although I am not German, I resist Mounk’s thesis and find his presentation of himself as an authority dangerous. Through my knowledge and experience of Jews in Germany, specifically young Jews, including both those outside of the official community and the completely secular, I reject his conclusions about the impossibility of leading a normal life as a Jew in Germany and I wonder about what might have changed since Mounk left Germany 13 years ago to study, first in England, now in America. My German Jewish friends in Mounk’s age range have never so much as hinted that they don’t feel at home here. In fact, a friend of mine from a similar background as Mounk recently told me that he gets homesick whenever he’s away from Germany for longer than two weeks.
As an American who has made Berlin my home for six and a half years, I have encountered varying shades of prejudice and I acknowledge from my side the hyper-sensitivity and awkwardness that German often bring to their encounters with Jews. And yet, my main complaint with Berlin, from a Jewish angle, is not that I don’t feel at home here, but simply how limited the spectrum of Judaism is. As in other European cities with comparatively small Jewish communities, there is a sadly restricted idea of what guise Jewish self-expression and definition can take. Far more damaging than any sort of stigmatizing labels is how German Jews and their community leaders too often insist on defining themselves in monolithic terms and categories. This is the main impediment to leading a modern and progressive Jewish life in Germany today.
A.J. Goldmann is a Berlin-based writer and journalist.