For some the word “Heimat,” which translates as “home” or “homeland,” may conjure up visions of beer, Lederhosen, and idyllic German landscapes. For others, it harks back to the dark era of national socialism in Germany. For many, it’s devoid of patriotic or nostalgic sentiment, a word simply used to describe the place they were born.
The announcement by the new German coalition government that it plans to add a “Heimatministerium” or homeland ministry (it will be known as the Ministry of the Interior, Homeland, and Construction) has caused a fair bit of head scratching and not a little ridicule.
Satirical Twitter account “Heimatministerium” mocked the plan. This tweet says: “For lunch the Heimatministerium recommends German home cooking! And you may drink a cool beer with that. We must not let down our traditions.”
The ministry will be headed up by conservative Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria—the sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Seehofer is known for his outspoken views on immigration, and forced Merkel into agreeing to cap refugee numbers at 200,000 per year last year.
So far, Seehofer has only said the new homeland ministry isn’t about “dirndls and lederhosen” but about implementing “the success of Bavaria across all of Germany.” He pointed out that Bavaria, where he already established a homeland ministry in 2013, is the safest state in the country as far as the number of crimes committed. In the coalition agreement between the CDU, CSU, and SPD, the objective of the new ministry is “to create an equal living standard within communes in rural and urban areas.”
Social Democrat MP Karamba Diaby defended the plan for the ministry, saying the topic of “Heimat” should not be handed over to right-wing populists. But history professor Paul Nolte from Freie Universität in Berlin sees it differently: The word “Heimat,” he said, lives at the intersection of nostalgia and xenophobia. “In this case, Heimat is a euphemism for border control and immigration policy,” Nolte said in a recent interview (link in German).
He pointed to the similarly-named Department of Homeland Security in the US, adding that: “The US ministry is not primarily occupied with programs like ‘our villages should be prettier,’ it’s about border control and immigration.”
The concept of “Heimat” gains most traction when people face times of great change or perceive their traditions and status quo to be under threat. The word, with its undertones of sentimentality, has been around for centuries in Germany. In modern times, of course, it was part of the Nazi’s “blood-and-soil” propaganda.
After falling out of favor for decades, the word is now no longer taboo and being bandied about by politicians across the spectrum.
“That the meaning of “Heimat” is being discussed in all parties at the moment, I interpret as an attempt by the established parties… to find an answer to the crushing estrangement between themselves and the electorate,” says Robert Vehrkamp, director of the Future of Democracy program at the Bertelsmann Institute. “Politicians are sort of looking now for concepts to bridge this estrangement.”
Vehrkamp told Quartz that he doesn’t believe Germany’s immigration policy is the sole cause of the rift between establish political parties and the people, however. He says the sense of estrangement is also to do with “new conflict lines of democracy, which no longer run between left and right, but that run between modernization optimists and those who are skeptical of modernization, and touches on dimensions like national and multicultural, globalization and anti-globalization.”
While the creation of a federal homeland ministry might suggest that Germany is following countries like the US and Britain, and turning inward in times of global stress, the decision to set up a homeland ministry has been seen as a way for the Christian Democrats to start luring back the million-plus people it lost to the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the 2017 election.
By trying to own the concept of homeland, it could perhaps offer voters something more emotional, especially those who have been left out of the country’s economic boom.
Like most right-wing populist parties, the AfD harnessed the notion of home during its election campaign, under the banner “our country, our homeland.” It compared German “culture” with Muslim culture—i.e. the culture of many refugees who fled to Germany in the last several years—with images of German women in bikinis and pictures of pork. Like Donald Trump with his Make America Great Again, the German right suggested that Germany’s very essence was under threat, its culture threatened with extinction and in need of urgent saving.
As for what “Heimat” really means, Robert Vehrkamp points out that it’s a bucket term—people can throw any meaning they like into it.