Can Germans Finally Tell Holocaust Jokes Around Jews?

In a recent opinion piece and a new book, German Jew Yascha Mounk spotlights how the shadow of the Holocaust has shaped modern Germany.

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Is it acceptable for young Germans to tell Holocaust jokes? Should Germans continue to feel guilty about what was done to Jews during the Holocaust? How does the shadow of the Holocaust shape modern-day Germany?

These are just a couple of the weighty questions that Yascha Mounk, a 31-year-old German Jew, recently addressed in "German, Jewish and Neither," an opinion piece in the New York Times in which he describes how the philo-Semitic attitude he claims was prevalent in Germany of the 1980s and 1990s has been replaced by an atmosphere in which Germans are perfectly comfortable telling Holocaust jokes.

Mounk's piece appeared prior to this week's publication of his book, “Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany,” which recounts his childhood in the small southern German town of Laupheim. The book depicts what the publishers describe as "Jewish life in a country still struggling with the legacy of the Third Reich"; in it Mounk tells the story of his family and his childhood, and shows how "anti-Semitism and far-right extremism have long coexisted with self-conscious philo-Semitism in postwar Germany."

The New York Times piece traces the changes Mounk senses in Germany, as well as the alienation he has felt as the only Jew among his German friends. He admits that he never had a bris or bar mitzvah, and says that he first admitted to being Jewish only in the fifth grade. His classmates laughed uproariously. “Stop making things up,” one of them yelled. “Everybody knows that Jews don’t exist anymore!” As the laughter subsided, the teacher told Mounk’s classmate, “You are wrong, as a matter of fact. There are a few Jews. Again.”

The family moved to Munich when Mounk was a teen. There, his new, more cosmopolitan friends treated him almost as a celebrity and he became the object of good will merely for being Jewish.

Once, at a party hosted by a high-school friend, he found himself caught up in a heated discussion between Franz, the host, and Marie, another classmate, about Woody Allen’s movies. The host initially appears to have said he wasn’t a fan, that he found Allen "creepy" and his movies "mediocre." But once Mounk joined the conversation, Franz apparently changed his mind. When asked why he was backpedaling, he stammered something about how, in a way, Yascha was actually related to Allen. Mounk stepped in to explain: “I guess what Franz meant to say is that I’m Jewish.” Marie gasped: “Oh, how exciting. A real Jew!”

While blatant philo-Semitism often embarrassed the young Mounk, he now feels much greater discomfort by what he describes as “a new mood of ‘enough is enough’.” He is particularly disturbed by intellectuals who call for a definitive finish line to be drawn underneath the past. “Polls found that most Germans agreed,” he writes.

Mounk goes on to describe an incident at the traditional Oktoberfest in Munich. Stephanie, a woman in her late 30s, tried to crack a joke, asking, “How do you fit 200 Jews into a Volkswagen Beetle?” Hans, a mutual friend, told her to stop, saying the joke was “not appropriate,” yet Stephanie wouldn’t let it go. “Why should I? Because you tell me to shut up? Come on, it’s just a joke! Why can’t a joke about the Jews be funny? It’s 2006. The Holocaust happened 60 years ago. We should tell jokes about Jews again. No, no. I won’t stay silent any longer.” Stephanie finished telling her joke: “Here’s how you fit them in. You gas them. You incinerate them. You stuff them in the ashtray. That’s how you do it.”

Stephanie’s joke allowed Mounk to "put in words what had made me uncomfortable even about the less crass advocates of the ‘finish line.’ Clearly, there was something artificial about the ritualistic displays of historical contrition that had long been central to public life in Germany. But to assert that the time had come to move beyond the past, once and for all, was no less artificial. Normality cannot be decreed by fiat.”

Many New York Times readers identified with the observations made by Mounk, a doctoral candidate in political theory at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The newspaper also published readers' responses to Mounk's piece, with some saying that while Mounk’s experience is universally true of Jews as well as other of minorities around the world, Jewish-German relations remain fraught to this day.

In one such letter, Renate Bridenthal, who grew up in New York as a child refugee from Nazi Germany and returned to Germany with her homesick mother from 1951 to 1953, wrote: “Other young Germans had gone through very different childhoods, had a different war experience and came from quite a different culture. It dawned on me that I was neither German nor fully American nor intensely Jewish. It didn’t feel like a crisis. Rather, at 17, it was an awakening. I thank Mr. Mounk for sharing his experience and making me fell less alone.”

Oktoberfest in Munich, 2012.Credit: Reuters

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