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  • Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany by Yascha Mounk
  • Daniel Magilow
Yascha Mounk. Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014. 272 pp. $26. ISBN-13: 978-0374157531.

Yascha Mounk’s memoir attempts to answer a question that generally presupposes a one or two word response: “Who are you?” But as a highly assimilated and unreligious Jew, he cannot simply respond “Jewish” or “German.” Rather, to acknowledge his lack of a sense of place, he responds with a short biographical blurb: “My parents are Polish, I was raised in Germany, my family’s now sort of at home in Italy, and I went to college in England.” (226) (Mounk could also add “I now live in New York City as I complete a PhD at Harvard.”) This fragmented statement of self-definition and personal alienation only appears toward the end of a book that is at once a memoir of growing up Jewish in the Berlin Republic, an overview of post-Holocaust German memory politics, and a critique of contemporary German debates on multiculturalism.

Stranger in My Own Country is a highly personal attempt to understand the meaning of Germans’ postwar obsession with the Holocaust and the often pathological ways that failed attempts to work through the past still manifest themselves. Whether offered as public pronouncements by German chancellors or Mounk’s own acquaintances, these phenomena range from awkward episodes of philosemitism to antisemitism poorly camouflaged as anti-Zionism to outright racism. By giving a human face to the everyday experience of intolerance, Stranger in My Own Country succeeds in adding nuance to a picture of antisemitism in Germany that still derives overwhelmingly from violent Holocaust imagery. Antisemitism today is not primarily about Nazis demanding Jews leave Germany. Rather, it reveals itself through the actions [End Page 205] of well-intended, democratically minded Germans unable or unwilling to engage with Jews as human beings. Instead, Jews are essentialized and understood as having to be treated with kid gloves. Mounk offers lucid anecdotes of his often cringe-inducing interactions with Germans terrified of seeming even the slightest bit critical of a Jew or smug young Germans for whom the past seems so distant that they believe they should be able to make anti-Jewish jokes with impunity.

To give context to these personal accounts, Mounk paints a broad portrait of postwar German memory politics that sometimes bypasses crucial episodes. To be sure, the book is offered as a personal memoir and not an academic history. Yet it nevertheless gestures toward scholarship with a limited scholarly apparatus that relies heavily on journalistic and belletristic accounts. Even so, Stranger in My Own Country still provides a valuable and accessible overview to many other key episodes and debates in post-Holocaust German-Jewish memory culture. Many of these events are well-known to specialists but are still obscure or virtually invisible to lay readers, such as the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in the mid-1960s, the impact of the screening of Holocaust: The Story of the Family Weiss in 1979, the Bitburg incident in the mid-1980s, the Historian’s Dispute of the late 1980s, Martin Walser’s controversial acceptance speech upon receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1998, and the Germans-as-victims discourse of the early 2000s. Moreover, Mounck makes a convincing (if not entirely original) case for interpreting the 1968 student revolts in Germany through the lens of working-through-the-Holocaust discourse. Nevertheless, the book omits a few crucial episodes in recent memory discourse, notably Peter Eisenmann’s Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Monument for the Murdered Jews of Europe) and the heated, multi-year Mahnmaldebatte (Monument Debate) that preceded it.

Stranger in My Own Country provides a particularly valuable service to readers who do not know German when, in the course of recounting key episodes of post-Holocaust German memory discourse, it dissects some of its most important keywords. These include the myth of the Stunde Null (zero hour), the German fantasy of a postwar tabula rasa untainted by the Nazi past. Another key term is Schreibtischt...


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pp. 205-207
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