Why the World Should Learn to Say ‘Heimat’

Lederhosen and dirndls among traditional gingerbread at Oktoberfest in Munich. Credit Michaela Rehle/Reuters
Lederhosen and dirndls among traditional gingerbread at Oktoberfest in Munich. Credit Michaela Rehle/Reuters

After “kindergarten” and “schadenfreude,” it’s time for another German word to enter the Anglosphere: “Heimat.” German-to-English dictionaries will translate Heimat (pronounced HI-mat) as home, native land or homeland, but none of those words capture the true meaning of the term.

Heimat describes not just a geographical place, but a state of belonging. It’s the opposite of feeling alien; for most Germans, it is mixed with the smell of Christmas cookies from Mama’s kitchen. Heimat is about the landscape that left its mark on you, the culture that informed you and the people that inspired you when you were growing up.

To many, it is the mildest form of patriotism, and it long preoccupied German romantic writers like Novalis, Hölderlin and Eichendorff. Later, the Nazis co-opted the love for Heimat into a murderous hatred of those they decided did not belong. After World War II, Heimat was repurposed as an amnesia-inducing blanket that covered the horrors and guilt with kitschy, romantic Alpine movies.

Now Heimat is back in a new guise, at the core of a major conflict that shapes the post-Communist world: identity versus diversity. Pundits and politicians debate its importance; one party of Berlin’s (still to be confirmed) grand coalition has decided Germany even needs a Heimat ministry. Horst Seehofer, the prime minister of Bavaria — a state that, with its dirndls and mountain retreats, is the home of Heimat, if you will — has been put in charge of a new “superministry” covering the interior, infrastructure and Heimat. The move was ridiculed immediately by members of the young, urban Twitterati. Will we all be forced to wear lederhosen, they sniped, and have our weekly portion of sauerkraut?

This was a poor, reflexive reaction to what may prove to be an enriching idea. If interpreted in a prudent and modern way, a little dose of Heimat could help Germany avoid going down the same road to political degeneration that the United States and Britain have followed. Yet the rediscovery of Heimat will bear fruit only if the term is once again redefined.

The process is underway. In this new conception, Heimat is shelter from a disorderly world. Simply put, Heimat is a counter-concept to globalism. To give just one example, a German magazine called Landlust (roughly translates as Countryside Pleasure) is now the best-selling publication in the country. Its focus? Teaching its readers how to chop their own firewood or how to prepare pear compote the traditional way. That’s the innocent and potentially inclusive form of Heimat.

But Heimat also holds the danger of serving as a justification to exclude the “other” in order keep the “own” unspoiled. Heimat is why many voters support the new far-right Alternative for Germany party, known by its German abbreviation AfD, in its battle against Muslim “invaders.” The AfD is trying to defend Heimat by spreading fear of outsiders coming in hordes to do away with the German “Volk” once and for all. More and more Germans are subscribing to this exclusive understanding of Heimat. According to one poll, the AfD has just reached a popularity rate of 16 percent, replacing the ailing, center-left Social Democrats as the second-largest political force in Germany.

Heimat is what Trump voters and Brexit supporters long for, and what they accuse their political elites of abandoning. The driver of polarization and source of social poison in these countries has been a mutual and self-supporting alienation. Both the Trump and the Brexit vote have been explained as a country versus city divide, yet the cleavage transcends geography. Rather, it stems from the clash between “change is loss” and “change is gain” mentalities, which has split village and metropolis alike.

Globalization has hurt urban and rural life in Germany as well. When low interest rates force a small rural bank branch to close, local residents lose more than just a place to withdraw cash — they lose a social institution. And when city parks and train stations become gathering places for migrants and, coincidentally or not, crime hot spots, people feel less safe.

The “Heimat ministry” is a signal that the federal government has understood this broader political danger. The leaders in the grand coalition see a risk in serving the interests of many different social groups if a large part of society simultaneously feels left behind. The euro crisis involved bailouts for other countries; the migration crisis saw bailouts for new arrivals. Where were the bailouts for laid-off workers and shuttered small-town banks? These experiences serve as warnings to the next Merkel administration: Balance the needs of the outside world with the interests of the nation state — or pay the price.

This is not about closing doors; rather, it’s about figuring out how to be inclusive enough that the calls for closing the doors quiet down. Tolerance evaporates when the values of the majority seem under threat. In this sense, strengthening an enlightened version of Heimat, countering the impression that the native culture is endangered, can actually help integrate foreigners.

Contemporary notions of Heimat are no longer simply about emotional connectedness to a place or creed. And they are certainly not about drawing lines to exclude outsiders — let alone to push out people already in a community. But they do mean loyalty to the bedrock of modern German society: the postwar Constitution, the Basic Law. Happy is the person who is able to celebrate this as part of Heimat, whether he wears lederhosen or not.

Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.

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