After the events in Charlottesville, Yascha Mounk reflected on observing a neo-Nazi rally as a Jewish kid growing up in Germany for Slate.
Though I pretended to be nonchalant, the whole spectacle left me deeply unsettled. My grandparents had lost most of their families in the Holocaust. They themselves had only survived by sheer dumb luck. Even before I understood much about politics, I somehow intuited that my two identities—German and Jewish—were deeply at odds with each other. That afternoon, it felt as though they would forever remain irreconcilable.
In the days after the march, some voices on the left claimed that those neo-Nazis represented the true Germany. Finally, they proclaimed, strangely jubilant, the mask had fallen off. We knew what the country was really like.
I understood the sentiment. And yet, even then, I rejected their conclusion as absurd. After all, just as Germany’s demons had become visible to all, so had its better angels: There were the thousands upon thousands of counterprotestors who stood up to the Nazis. There were the politicians who had loudly supported the exhibition. And there were the millions of ordinary Germans whose faces burned with anger, or fell with sadness, when they watched the evening news that night.
It is obvious why I have been thinking about all of this over the past days: Like Germany in the 1990s, America is slowly, fitfully trying to reckon with its history. Like in Germany in the 1990s, there are plenty of politicians who—out of conviction or electoral calculation or a mix of both—falsify history and trample over the feelings of victims’ descendants. And like in Germany in the 1990s, scores of well-meaning people have become convinced that these moral failings define the nation, that they represent the true America.
But if I did not believe that those neo-Nazis marching past my window got to define Germany back in 1997, I doubly refuse to believe that those neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville get to define the country I have come to call my home today.