In Germany, Consternation Over A Word

Filed in Guest Voices by on March 9, 2018 0 Comments

A rising tide of nationalism in Germany has seen the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) vault into third place in the German parliament after last year’s federal election. It now holds 92 seats in the Bundestag.

Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats have formed a coalition with the Social Democrats to run the country, after both major parties lost seats. Her days as chancellor seem numbered. It also effectively makes the AfD leader of the opposition.

A feeling of belongingness

One indicator of the resurgence of national feeling is the increased visibility of the word “heimat,” a word with no English equivalent.

It’s interesting to note the differentiation in German between heimat and staat. The latter is a legal definition that identifies the political state, whereas the former refers to homeland, and is an emotional term.

The AfD harnessed the notion of home during its election campaign, under the banner “our country, our homeland.”

Perhaps in response, the new German coalition government is adding a “Heimatministerium” or homeland ministry — it will be known as the Ministry of the Interior, Homeland, and Construction — to the cabinet. The states of Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia already have such ministries.

Horst Seehofer

Horst Seehofer, leader of Bavaria’s Christian Socialist Union, the sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, will be the new federal minister. Known for his outspoken views on immigration, he forced Merkel into agreeing to cap refugee numbers at 200,000 per year in 2017.

This has caused some pushback from those who worry that it will bring back the kind of ethnic nationalism that reached its pinnacle under the Nazis. The idea of heimat, the homeland, was a popular part of Nazi ideology.

Paul Nolte, a history professor at the Freie Universitat in Berlin, considers the word as being at “the intersection” of nostalgia and xenophobia. “In this case, heimat is a euphemism for border control and immigration policy,” he maintains. Love and attachment to homeland can easily include a rejection of anything foreign.

Paul Nolte

Yet the word, long considered toxic, is gaining traction, and now Germans of all stripes have begun to use the term in a positive light. Robert Habeck, Schleswig-Holstein’s agricultural minister and a Green Party politician, has said that politics “must formulate an idea, an idea of heimat, an idea of identity.”

Jochen Bittner, a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, published in Hamburg, describes heimat as not just a geographical place, but a state of belonging. It’s the opposite of feeling alien. “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,” he wrote recently in an op-ed in the New York Times.

Last October 3, the anniversary of the official reunification of Germany, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in a speech, remarked that many people cannot understand today’s world and yearn for “heimat.” He even went so far as to define the term: “To understand and be understood, that is heimat.” It is, he added, “where we find meaning.” Most Germans associate the term with family, intimacy and a feeling of security.

Ethnic nationalism in Germany again

Edoardo Costadura, a professor of romance languages at the University of Jena, explained to Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public international broadcaster, that individuals develop a longing for heimat when “they have gotten the impression that the world has become a village, but they don’t want to live in that village.”

The German word has become part of a larger conflict in the world, that of identity versus diversity. In some ways, globalization has made many people yearn for that which we may call “local.”

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Henry Srebrnik

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