BERLIN — During my second week in Germany nearly three years ago, I joined 15 other Americans standing in front of a large world map in a sleek conference room in Stuttgart. We’d just moved to Berlin as part of a yearlong fellowship with the Robert Bosch Foundation, and had traveled down to the foundation’s headquarters for a few days of orientation before diving into German language classes and work placements across the country.
Rather than placing the small pins we’d been given where we were born or on the cities from which we’d just moved, our program leaders asked us to identify our Heimat—a word with no English equivalent, that most closely translates as “home,” “homeland” or “native region.” Imparting that basic definition, they went on to explain that the word gets at a much deeper idea: It’s a place you feel at ease, where people understand you, that you long for when you’re away; one colleague remembers them describing Heimat as “where your heart feels at home.” Most important, they told us, it was up to us to interpret.
I considered for a moment before placing my pin, weighing the new word in my mind. Was my Heimat the small town in the San Francisco Bay Area where I’d grown up, where my mother still lives and to which I return regularly? Was it Philadelphia, where I attended college and learned how to think critically? Was it the University of Cambridge, where I studied abroad and which remains a sort of intellectual utopia in my mind? Or was it Washington, the city from which I had just come, where I had lived my entire postcollegiate life? Like for many in my generation, my life and communities have been spread out across multiple cities; the right choice wasn’t immediately obvious. In the event, to be contrarian, and counter the high concentration of pins across the United States, I chose Cambridge.
That was my first, but far from last, encounter with Heimat in the nearly three years I’ve lived in Germany. At the time, it didn’t feel especially noteworthy; all I remembered was thinking Heimat sounded like a nice concept and that it was a shame we didn’t have an equivalent in English. The same thought occurred again the following week when, upon starting German classes in Berlin, I saw our textbook’s first lesson focused entirely on Heimat.
But the word and the idea behind it are far more complex—and politically fraught—than that initial introduction suggested. The topic is often debated in German media and inescapable if you write about the German-speaking far right. Although Germans often use the word offhandedly, it is a loaded concept with a complicated history; political groups from the Nazis to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) today have used the term to define who belongs in German society and who doesn’t. They invoke the word simultaneously as a nostalgic, unattainable ideal and an implied threat of exclusion.
Heimat can be as benign as the mentioning by my roommate in the eastern city of Görlitz last summer that she would spend the weekend at her parents’ home in her Heimatstadt. Or the suggestion of a woman in my local market hall in Berlin, upon her hearing my boyfriend’s Austrian accent, that he might like an Austrian cheese since it’s “a piece of Heimat.” It can also be as complicated as an activist’s telling me in Cottbus, a city in eastern Brandenburg that’s seen a disproportionate rise in right-wing extremism, that people are angry and lost, turning to the AfD because they feel as if they are “losing their Heimat… rapidly before our eyes.” And it can be as dangerous as AfD politicians’ wielding it as a rhetorical club against political enemies or those deemed too foreign to fit into their idealized German society.
In retrospect, the map and that question about Heimat were a fitting prelude to exploring the political issues facing Germany today and the rise of the populist far right here and across Europe. Indeed, the concept lies at the heart of the debates about belonging and identity in a changing Germany; it tends to take on prominence when society is trying to process various fundamental changes to the country and its way of life. Some see the word as self-evident, a regular and integral part of their vocabulary; others recoil, believing it to be entirely lost to far-right politicians; still others want to “save” it, reframing it to represent the more inclusive society they want Germany to be.
As one historian put it, the idea of Heimat “is one of the main elements in contemporary renegotiations of what it means to be German.” Peter Blickle makes that characterization in his book Heimat: A Critical Theory of the German Idea of Homeland, adding “Heimat tends to be invoked when German-speaking cultures are expressing their difficulties in adjusting to modern life.” Published in 2004, nearly a decade before the AfD’s founding, those words still ring true today.
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The word “Heimat” has been used for centuries, although its meaning has shifted and expanded significantly along the way. Hardly the wide-ranging, philosophical concept it’s become today, it was originally associated with a legal term, Heimatrecht, which meant the right to live in and enjoy the protection of a particular town or community—either where one was born or had lived a certain amount of time. In many parts of the German-speaking world, people carried a Heimatschein, or document identifying and proving their Heimat. (Even today, the Swiss identification card is called a Heimatschein.)
During the 19th century, at the height of the Romantic period, the word acquired some of the nostalgic, metaphysical connotations it holds today: It began to represent the desire for a simpler, easier time and concrete local identities. As Germany industrialized, massive societal shifts led to a longing for, and glorification of, the rural life many had left behind. Odes to Germany’s lush forests, picturesque fields and the power of nature played a crucial role in the Heimat concept of the 19th century; Heimatromane, or Heimat novels, tell romanticized tales about life in small towns or those who long for them after moving to the dirty, impersonal city.
With German unification in 1871, Heimat also gave the country’s many disparate regions a way to maintain their own traditions and identities while becoming part of a broader German nation. The Heimat movement of the late 19th century was deeply rooted in folklore, local history and preservation of local customs. (People away from their Heimat often were said to suffer from Heimweh, the pain of being away from one’s home. The concept was considered so serious it was once classified a medical disorder.)
“Heimat pulls together everything that is perceived as threatened by societal upheaval and technical-industrial revolutions,” writes the sociologist Susanne Scharnowski in her 2019 book Heimat: Geschichte Eines Missverständnisses (“Heimat: Story of a Misunderstanding”). “Tradition, a sense of comfort, community, connection, stability, closeness, security, familiarity, harmony, manageability and last but not least, nature and landscape.”
Those deep ties to nostalgia, utopia and identity preservation made it easy for 20th-century political groups to weaponize the word for their own purposes. During World War I, it featured prominently in national propaganda: Soldiers fought bravely to protect their threatened Heimat. Under the Nazis, the idea of cultural preservation combined with Hitler’s “Blood and Soil” ideology to make Heimat a catch-all reference to the racially pure society the Nazis aspired to. Under Hitler’s ideology, Jews were Heimatlos—a people without a Heimat—and therefore suspect in the future society he envisioned.
The Nazis “politicized, paganized and nationalized” Heimat, Celia Applegate writes in her book A Nation of Provincials, arguing that they perpetrated the “ultimate perversion of the idea of Heimat.”
After the war, as Germans surveyed the wreckage and began rebuilding their country, Heimat again took on a soothing, nostalgic quality—as an escape for a nation eager to move past its collective guilt. Like the Heimat stories of the 19th century, hundreds of “Heimat films” portrayed the idyllic life and calming nature of small-town life. As Blickle writes, those movies enabled Germans to “have a sense of their own innocence and identity, of the continuity of their own lives, and they could have it without having to question the politics of the recent past.”
It’s hard to fully explain the meaning of Heimat and myriad implications and subtexts it brings because it is ultimately whatever people want it to be.
Today, the word is seemingly everywhere: In restaurant names, on t-shirts, in advertising campaigns. It’s hard to fully explain the meaning of the word and myriad implications and subtexts it brings because it is ultimately whatever people want it to be. Heimat can be the feeling of pulling into your driveway or the sound of a childhood friend’s voice after many years apart; it can be the taste of the coffee at the cafe you’ve frequented every morning for years, or the smell of the grass in the park beside your house. Heimat is a screen onto which each of us projects our deepest longings and desires—which is partly what makes it so powerful and emotionally charged.
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Despite its complicated history and fraught associations, polling suggests Germans overwhelmingly view Heimat as a good thing: 92 percent view the concept positively, according to a 2017 Kantar Emnid survey. Asked about their definitions of Heimat in a 2015 poll for the broadcaster ARD, 82 percent associated the word somewhat or strongly with family and loved ones; 88 percent with the place they live; 86 percent with deeper feelings of safety, comfort and happiness; and 75 percent with language, traditions and customs.
A significant segment of the population also believes its Heimat is under threat. More than a quarter of Germans said in a 2018 Allensbach Institute survey the things that make their Heimat home are “increasingly being lost.” Top reasons included the shuttering of many local businesses (78 percent), level of immigration (69 percent), rapid pace of change (67 percent) and that traditions are no longer preserved and practiced (60 percent).
That sense of loss or impending loss—along with longing for a simpler time that’s long past, or maybe never fully existed—ran through many of my conversations with supporters of far-right parties. In Görlitz, some people’s uproar over what they saw as the desecration of a city park called Wilhelmsplatz by careless foreigners was often founded on an idealized version of the past. As I wrote last year, few refugees came to Görlitz; the majority of its foreign population comes from neighboring Poland. Still, many AfD supporters there see even the small number of immigrants as a threat to their way of life.
“I grew up here, and when I was a child we could never walk on the grass in Wilhelmsplatz,” Christina Lachmann, a 73-year-old Görlitzer, told me after an AfD event one evening, lamenting the state of her “beautiful” city. “The foreigners—yes, they can meet there, but they need to clean up after themselves. For me, it’s not okay to just leave all their trash there… There has to be a certain sense of order, right?”
And last fall in the Austrian Alps, watching lederhosen-clad young men herd elaborately decorated cows down from mountain pastures during the annual Almabtrieb ceremony, I better understood the sorts of images politicians from Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) evoke when they speak about preserving Austrian Heimat and traditions.
“As you can see here today, our culture is an important topic,” Andreas, a 33-year-old FPÖ supporter, told me that day, gesturing to the celebration around him as he explained why he supports the party. “I think that probably deserves more attention in our politics.”
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It should come as no surprise, then, that far-right parties like the AfD and the FPÖ see Heimat as fertile rhetorical ground. During elections in 2017, the AfD’s main slogans included “Our Country, Our Heimat” and “Take Your Country Back,” both clear references to fears of a Heimat under threat (and both obvious echoes of the kinds of populist rhetoric used by pro-Brexit politicians and Donald Trump in 2016). Ahead of elections to the European Parliament last year, a top AfD campaign slogan was simply “Save Heimat.”
In addition to its campaign posters and slogans, the AfD’s politicians frequently speak about Heimat as something under attack, primarily by refugees and immigrants. Björn Höcke, the AfD’s leader in the eastern state of Thuringia and the party’s most notorious far-right figure, said in a 2018 television special that traditional political parties are “essentially intent on destroying the Heimat” and that his party has had success because “people are seeing their Heimat disappear.”
Marianne Spring-Räumschüssel, head of the AfD in Cottbus, told me last spring that Heimat and one’s connection to it are central to the AfD’s identity: Asked how she would describe the party, she said it is “first and foremost very conservative… and connected with Heimat.” Party supporters emphasized her point at a rally the following day, when some carried signs announcing “Love of Heimat Isn’t a Crime” and “I’m Not Giving Up My Heimat.”
Various far-right and extreme-right groups in Germany also refer to Heimat in their names. In Saxony’s Erzgebirge region, the “Heimat and Tradition Initiative” helped organize sometimes-violent protests against refugee housing centers in 2015 and 2016. The Brandenburg AfD leader Andreas Kalbitz was recently kicked out of the party over his alleged membership in a banned right-wing extremist youth movement, the Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend (“German Youth Loyal to the Heimat”). And the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) refers to itself as “the social Heimat party.”
Next door in Austria, the FPÖ has also long made Heimat a central part of its identity. Like Germany’s NPD, it bills itself as “the social Heimat party” and ran its 2019 parliamentary campaign on the slogan “Fair. Social. Loyal to the Heimat.” After the party lost big in those elections, leader Norbert Hofer announced the newly rebranded party would focus even more strongly on the idea of “Heimat protection.”
Although it is primarily the purview of the far right these days, other political forces also use Heimat in campaign rhetoric. The center-right Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, emphasizes the word frequently—as both a way for the CSU to highlight Bavaria’s strong regional traditions and identity, and a strategy to prevent supporters from defecting to the AfD. During the state’s 2018 elections, one campaign poster featured state premier Markus Söder in a traditional Trachten jacket, reading “Heimat: Hold Onto Our Bavarian Way of Life.” And Söder’s CSU colleague Horst Seehofer, upon taking up his post in Merkel’s cabinet in Berlin in 2018, even changed the name of Germany’s interior ministry to the “Ministry for Interior, Construction and Heimat.”
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For those who don’t fit into the AfD’s idyllic, German (and implicitly white) concept of Heimat, the word, and its presence so ubiquitous it appears in the name of a government ministry, can feel less like a nostalgic longing for hometown beer halls and grandma’s schnitzel and more like an implied threat of exclusion. Mentioning the word to a progressive-minded German might prompt cringing (by even those who may use the word casually when they describe visiting family for the weekend).
On an individual level, Heimat is the place you don’t have to explain yourself: where you feel comfortable, where people know you, where you belong. But if your Heimat is somewhere you believe you belong but others see you as a perpetual outsider, can it truly be your Heimat? And what happens to those who have lost theirs, who settle somewhere new seeking another Heimat? Such questions have become increasingly urgent in recent years as more than a million refugees came to Germany in 2015 and 2016.
When AfD politicians or supporters talk about Heimat, they mean “a homogenous, Christian, white society in which men have the final say, women above all focus on having children and other life realities are out of the question,” Fatma Aydemir and Hengameh Yaghoobifarah, both Germans who are descended from migrants, explain in the foreword to their 2019 collection of essays Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum (“Your Heimat is Our Nightmare). “In recent decades, the word has aided right-wing populists and extremists as a concept to deprive all those people who don’t fit this ideal of their right to exist.”
Heimat features prominently in campaign rhetoric, including this 2018 poster from the Bavarian Christian Social Union
Given the long-standing associations between Heimat and the far right, it’s understandable some would want to leave the word behind entirely. Others on the left say the term can still be saved—and have tried to redefine it in the political sphere.
In a 2017 speech commemorating German reunification, for example, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier sought to bridge the divide between the nostalgic Heimat of the right and an open, inclusive Heimat of the left. “I am convinced that those who long for their Heimat are not from yesterday. To the contrary: The faster the world around us spins, the stronger this longing for Heimat,” he said. “But we can’t leave this longing for Heimat to those who construct Heimat as ‘us against them,’ as blood-and-soil nonsense, that conjures up a holy German past that never existed.”
Others, particularly among the Greens, have taken a similar approach. During 2018 state elections in Hesse, the party ran a campaign poster featuring a white hand entwined with a black one. “Heimat?” the poster asked. “Of course!” A vote for the Greens, it continued, would be a vote against racism and for an inclusive future: “Everyone wants to feel at home. And every person has the right to have a home. We will do everything we can to ensure that in the future it’s true: A Hessener is whoever wants to be a Hessener.”
Rather than one definitive Heimat, immigrants to Germany might have Heimaten, the word’s less-used plural. When I met Görlitz Mayor Octavian Ursu last summer, I asked what the word means to him. He was born in Bucharest, Romania, and moved to Görlitz at 22. After spending more than half his life in Germany, he was elected mayor for the center-right CDU last June. Ursu ran a close race against the AfD’s Sebastian Wippel, who grew up in Görlitz. In campaign materials, Wippel’s slogan was “A Görlitzer,” inherently implying Ursu wasn’t.
“In my case, I have a current Heimat and an earlier Heimat—and that will always be the case,” Ursu told me. “[Heimat] is a term that has to do with a lot of things, but in the end it’s a feeling: Is this my Heimat, my home, or not? Everyone can decide that for themselves. If you feel safe, if you feel at home, if you’re on the road and you come back and you say, ‘How wonderful that I’m home again’—then you’re in your Heimat.”
One of Ursu’s other competitors for mayor, the local Greens leader Franziska Schubert, also argued for finding a constructive way to use the word, saying she doesn’t want the left to have “no-go areas in language.” The difference between the Heimat she believes in and the one far-right parties instrumentalize, she said, lies in the question of whether Heimat is allowed to evolve—or if it’s meant to be a static, romanticized image of the past (in other words, a Heimat of inclusion and essentially saying ‘Make Germany Great Again”).
“It’s always changing, Heimat—it’s okay if the roads are changing, it’s okay if the people are changing. It’s okay,” she told me. “It’s about negotiating what kind of Heimat do we want? Is your Heimat my Heimat? Who is allowed to speak for our Heimat? Who can represent it? Is it diverse, or isn’t it?”
Those are not questions that can be worked through easily; Germans have strong, deeply differing views. But Schubert’s point stuck with me as I explored the theme in the months that followed: Difficult though they may be, those questions are key to understanding the challenges Germany faces and the kind of society it wants to become.
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Although I’ve long considered writing about Heimat, I intended to do it differently: From the rolling hills of Bavaria, home to the country’s first Heimat ministry under Seehofer; from Hesse, where the Greens sought to reclaim and redefine the word; or perhaps from North Rhine-Westphalia, which holds a “Heimat Congress” every two years to explore the concept. The prospect of writing about the topic in the midst of a global pandemic, from my apartment and in cafes in my neighborhood as Berlin tentatively reopens, never crossed my mind.
But these last few months, I’ve often found myself thinking about the topic—not as it relates to Germans’ Heimat, but my own. Heimat came to mind when, as the pandemic intensified this spring, I felt a visceral but sustained urge to return to a place where I feel fully at home, where everyone understands me, where I don’t need to speak German or navigate unfamiliar bureaucracy, where I would be able to be physically near many of the people in my life I care about most.
Heimat came to mind when the number of cases in the United States began multiplying, when images of exhausted doctors and overwhelmed hospitals and makeshift morgues in chilled trucks dominated headlines. And it came to mind these last few days as I’ve woken up each morning to images of cities in flames and shattered glass in streets and people grappling yet again with the fact that American society values certain lives more than others. Despite being the country of the supposed American Dream, a diverse nation of immigrants, we are far from sorting out issues of who belongs and who doesn’t—whether our Heimat can become more open and inclusive for all who live in it, or if it belongs to those who simply want it to be Great Again for certain parts of the population.
Being an American abroad during the Trump era, I’ve found, has always involved a low-grade feeling of sadness and shame. Every tweet, every scandal, every withdrawal from America’s role in the world is somehow both far away, happening in some alternate world, and inescapable because Americans abroad are constantly asked how they feel about those developments. When white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, when officials separated children from their parents on the border, when Brett Kavanaugh exploded with rage during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, I’ve watched from afar with a sense of disbelief and despair. The pandemic intensified those feelings, made them inescapable and maddening and sometimes overwhelming.
The nature of my work in Germany means I often speak with people who feel their Heimat, the place that matters to them most, the place they idealize and long for, is under threat and changing in ways that make it unrecognizable. Watching fires burn and tear gas fired across America these last days, feeling an immense sadness and an urge to be there, I think I better understand how powerful that concept can be.
Top photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heimat-Wetzgau.jpg