Thomas Chatterton Williams in the New York Times:
In the study of German history, there is the notion of sonderweg, literally the “special path,” down which the German people are fated to wander. In different eras, and depending on who employed it, the term could imply different things. It began as a positive myth during the imperial period that some German scholars told themselves about their political system and culture. During and after World War II it turned distinctly negative, a way for outsiders to make sense of the singularity of Germany’s crimes.
Yet whether viewed from within or without, left or right, the Germans could be seen through such a lens to possess some collective essence — a specialness — capable of explaining everything. In this way, one could speak of a trajectory “from Luther to Hitler” and interpret history not as some chaotic jumble but as a crisp, linear process.
There is something both terrifying and oddly soothing about such a formulation. For better or worse, it leaves many very important matters beyond the scope of choice or action. It imagines Germans as having been either glorious or terrible puppets, the powerful agents of forces nonetheless beyond their control.
A similar unifying theory has been taking hold in America. Its roots lie in the national triple sin of slavery, land theft and genocide. In this view, the conditions at the core of the country’s founding don’t just reverberate through the ages — they determine the present. No matter what we might hope, that original sin — white supremacy — explains everything, an all-American sonderweg.
No one today has done more to push this theory in the mainstream than the 42-year-old author Ta-Nehisi Coates.