The columnist in this piece thinks that the English speaking world needs a new word from German: Heimat. This is a term which captures more than 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.”
I’m not sure that English doesn’t already have this concept – it’s a place concept that’s actually pretty common. We talk about place attachment, sense of place, and a host of other things that pick out these intangibles. But what really interests me here are two things. First, the history of the term in a German context, and second, the writer’s sense that this term diagnoses our contemporary political and social malady.
First, the term in German history. The writer does make a passing nod to its use in Romanticism, and its co-option by the Nazis in their “Blood and Soil” doctrines. I think he underplays the sinister underside to the term. The Nazis didn’t just co-opt the term, they made it a center-piece of their public face. It was the reason for invading Poland – that was the historical and natural part of the German people. It was the cover that kept many Germans playing along with the war effort. After the insults heaped upon Germany after WWI, during the Weimar Republic, there was a strong sense that the German-ness of Germany had been taken away. And the rise of “decadent” art forms during that time, in Berlin, Vienna, and other places put a cultural face on that loss of Heimat. So, it wasn’t just co-opted by the Nazis. Its dark underbelly, nativism, came out, and it came out for similar reasons that we see today – a sense of threat to ways of life by new, scary, seemingly foreign ideas, values, and practices.
Heidegger and Gadamer both make much of Heimat. Heidegger links it not just to language but to dialect, thus reinforcing the regionalist sense. One reading might suggest that different places show forth different aspects of Being through the way they live in the world, and so, the regional differences must be preserved because without them we would lose a particular sense of what’s possible. That’s fine, except that this leads easily to a kind of exclusiveness, and a resistance to change. Gadamer turns away from the regionalism and sees Heimat as having an aesthetic nature. It is not so much home as homecoming, through literature, poetry, and all our forms of memory that exist not just to bring back the past, but to create it anew for a new time. Honoring Heimat doesn’t mean keeping it the same, but renewing it, speaking it again and again.
The columnist wants to have it both ways. He wants us to recognize the pull of Heimat, but also not follow the path to exclusiveness, which leads to something like nativism. I don’t think he’s thought this through, though. How do we really resist nativism, that insistence on the rightness and goodness of our way of doing things and the accompanying resistance to outsiders, to change, and to questioning, that comes with Heimat? Can we really have a love of our place, and not treat our place as the good place, the right place, and the best place, one which must not be corrupted by anyone or anything?
The political questions underlying Heimat are many. How did the place get to be a good place for many people? Was it because some other people made it that way, through forced labor, even slavery? Was it by conquest and war? What maintains it today? What was in fact borrowed from someone else but which we think of as our own? It is fine to have a sense of attachment to one’s place, but if that doesn’t come with some questions about how the place got to be good in the first place, it’s a kind of illusion.
I think the Heimat analysis is flawed in the column. Yes, attachment to place is fine. But it’s not just globalization that is perceived as a threat to peoples’ sense of belonging. Historically marginalized people in US society are demanding respect. One of the statistically strongest characteristics of those described as yearning for Heimat in the article, Trump voters, is to racism. This seems to me to be no coincidence. That doesn’t mean that every Trump voter is racist, it means that the statistical correlation is strong, and is supported by the policies of his government. In other words, Heimat for his voters has been translated into racial exclusivity. Over and over we see Trump tweeting about things that no president before him would have said in public, but which serve to signal to his base that he knows what their sense of Heimat is all about, and he’s going to give them the signifiers that they can interpret to mean that their sense of place is being restored.
Of course, it isn’t being restored. But the cultural signifiers do matter. Trump voters felt like they were being mocked throughout Obama’s presidency, because they were – just not for what they thought. They thought their lives, their values, their Heimat was being mocked. It wasn’t. Their intolerance was. Their willingness to let their gay sons and daughters die in the streets, disowned and rejected, was. Their hypocrisy was, and their sense that they personally had earned everything they had, without recognizing that social inequities and racism played a part in their success, was being mocked.
Their values? Nope, no one was mocking those. Not their lives, either, or their loves. The point was never to tell anyone that they couldn’t have what they had, but rather that everyone should have what they have. The ability to love who they wanted. The ability to be considered for jobs and housing equally to others. The ability to not get racially profiled and shot in the street for nothing. The ability to have every vote count and every voice heard. No one’s Heimat was being mocked, everyone was simply trying to lay claim to this home.
But that version of things is hard to hear, because we all think of ourselves as good people, and so if someone is laughing at us, that cuts to the quick. It becomes almost impossible to differentiate between our values and the illusions and sins those values cover over. The mocking is about our Heimat, we think, not about the illusions we hold in order to have that Heimat. Heimat is not just a Romantic notion, pure and good, but it comes with its own dark side, easily activated by those with political or religious ambition, or an inchoate sense of dissatisfaction, frustration, or hate.
The question remains, I think: how do we think about a sense of place, a love of place, without ending up with nativism? And, how do we counter the perversions of place that we see everywhere, in Trump’s America, Brexit, and in the nativism we see across Europe and beyond? We’ve not really thought about all of the current political crisis across the world as a problem of place, but in some sense it is.