Heimat: a german keyword about an untranslatable word, its history and its political location

What do garden gnomes have to do with home? Why is “Heimat” so often associated with volkisch ideas? Do leftists have no home? A cultural-scientific reflection on an original German word.

For several years now, hardly a month has gone by without new books about ‘home’, including philosophical reflections, cookbooks, psychological guides and graphic memoirs. And even when shopping, we don’t escape home: supermarket chains and food manufacturers market even gin and chocolate coconut chips with slogans and brand names like ‘A good piece of home’.

It is comparatively new that political parties of the entire spectrum refer to Heimat, after only the radical and extreme political right used the word for a long time; think for example of the ‘Thuringer Heimatschutz’ or the largely insignificant NPD, which has long called itself the ‘social Heimatpartei’. There are, however, clear nuances: the Left Party, the Greens and the SPD define homeland as a project or connote it with diversity; the CDU, CSU and FDP promise ‘more homeland’ or combine homeland with future.

Transfigured dream or nightmare?

One of the reasons why political parties and marketing experts have discovered the homeland for themselves is certainly to be found in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Germans have exclusively positive associations with this word, as several major surveys of recent years have shown. But for the political left and for actors in the field of cultural politics, ‘Heimat’ is still synonymous with backwardness, isolation and closedness, as a negative antithesis to cosmopolitanism, liberalism and cosmopolitanism. The supposed transfiguration of homeland on the one side is often met with reflexive defense and discrediting on the other side. This polarization, as well as the tendency toward striking exaggeration in some media, gives the impression that homeland must be either a “German Dream” or a “nightmare.

Many also consider the German word ‘Heimat’ to be untranslatable, a German ‘Urwort’ that denotes an equally German concept. From this assumption it is not far to the idea that ‘Heimat’ is indissolubly linked to nation, nationalism, national socialism and volkisch thinking and ultimately leads to war of aggression and genocide. These often repeated lines of thought lead admittedly into the misleading one. But one thing is true: Heimat is indeed a key German word, but its meaning derives from its long and multifaceted history of transmission and discourse. For the word ‘homeland’ is a kind of seismograph: If there is increased talk of the homeland, this usually indicates that its existence appears to be questionable or precarious, because the word experiences its conjunctures above all in times of social, economic or political upheaval. And there is indeed no shortage of these in German history.

Heavenly homeland

The word goes back to the Gothic ‘haims’ (village) and the Old High German ‘heimōti’/ ‘heimote’, which meant dwelling, home, homeland or fatherland. In contrast, the Old High German ‘elilenti’, the precursor of the word ‘Elend’ (banishment, foreign country or exile), suggested that one was miserable far from home. The pair of opposites ‘home’ and ‘misery’ also had a religious component: ‘misery’ was the earthly existence as a place of exile for sinners, the (otherworldly) home, on the other hand, was the abode of the faithful. When the earthly home of many Germans was endangered by disease, looting and pillaging during the Thirty Years’ War, this figure of thought became a source of comfort in Baroque literature: Paul Gerhardt’s well-known song Ich bin ein Gast auf Erden (I am a guest on earth) contrasts earthly existence, characterized by toil and hardship, with the actual home in heaven.

‘Heimat’ was an ambiguous word early on, oscillating between an earthly attachment to place and a turning away from the earthly world.

‘Home’ was thus an ambiguous word early on, oscillating between earthly attachment to place on the one hand and turning away from the earthly world on the other, denoting both attachment to a place and a turn toward the future or imaginary. This oscillation pervades the history of the word’s use to this day. A particularly striking example is German Romanticism, which is repeatedly said to have shaped and transfigured the specifically German idea of ‘Heimat’ as belonging and cohesion. At the same time, Romantic literature tends to be characterized by a fascination with the distant: The Romantic universe is populated by artistically ambitious young men who leave their hometowns and head out into the wider world. Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Ludwig Tieck’s Franz Sternbald, and Eichendorff’s Taugenichts set out to seek the ‘blue flower,’ poetry, the infinite, or the miraculous, and to escape from home and everyday monotony. Although the Romantics rejected the modern, Enlightenment principles of rationalism, utilitarianism, and efficiency, the Romantic counter-image was by no means the simple, limited, and place-bound life of peasants and craftsmen, but rather the immaterial realm of fantasy and art. Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic ‘Wanderer over the Sea of Fog’, often used to illustrate posts about Heimat, is symptomatic: a lone individual – the secular version of the Christian pilgrim – gazes into the distance from a high vantage point, where the silhouettes of the mountains behind the clouds merge with the sky.

Loss of Heimat

It was not until the period of Vormarz and towards the end of the 19. In the late nineteenth century, the word ‘Heimat’ also appeared in political contexts: against the backdrop of mass German emigration to the United States and the Revolution of 1848, Heimat functioned as a model for intact community and democracy. This tendency was also expressed in the literary genre of the village story, the archetype of Heimatliteratur, which achieved world fame through the ‘Black Forest Village Stories’ by the liberal Jewish author Berthold Auerbach. During the period of high industrialization, ‘Heimat’ became the flag word of the educated middle classes, who were critical of the one-sided and narrowed thinking about progress, which now primarily referred to scientific, technical, industrial and economic development, and wanted to preserve familiar cultural landscapes and ancestral traditions. As the actual shape of the country was increasingly shaped by industrial culture and engineers, the humanistically educated retreated more and more into the realm of humanistic-literary culture, which increasingly functioned as a kind of compensation for the negative experiences and losses caused by modernization and mechanization.

Although the ideas of homeland rooted in history and tradition collided with the realpolitik of colonialism as well as with the politics of National Socialism, which relied on ‘total mobilization’ and territorial expansion, ‘homeland’ was repeatedly used in state propaganda from World War I onwards, as can be seen in writings of the Wilhelmine era, but also in propaganda films from the time of National Socialism. The material homeland came back into focus when the homeland of the Germans and many Europeans lay in ruins after the Second World War: In terms of everyday practice, politics, and society, the refugees and displaced persons, the host societies, and the inhabitants of the destroyed cities were faced with the question of how to deal with the various types of massive loss of homeland. The cultural industry also took up the issue: Heimatfilme existed earlier, but because of the Heimatfilm wave of the 1950s, many think the genre didn’t even emerge until 1950. Moreover, for many, these films are synonymous with ‘kitsch’; kitsch, in turn, is considered as typically German as ‘home’. Especially in the 1960s, the ‘Heimatkitsch’ was understood as an expression of the German national character and at the same time as a symptom of a dangerous ‘philistine ideology.

Recognizing the need for limitation

The connection between homeland and kitsch also shows, however, that the debate about homeland is not only about political positions, but also about social distinction: From the point of view of the educated, polyglot elites, the ‘little people,’ the petit bourgeois and provincials, are distinguished not only by their affinity for garden gnomes and homeland kitsch, but also by the degree of their attachment to homeland. At the same time, it is sometimes overlooked that the forces that produce mobility, openness, and dynamics always produce counter-reactions and needs for attachment, security, and belonging, in short: for home. It would therefore be desirable to overcome the dichotomous thinking that knows only the either-or of cosmopolitanism or isolation. It would be more constructive to address the need for limitation, preservation and rootedness, and to recognize that self-limitation and place attachment are legitimate ways of relating to the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *