Imagined communities: Germany through the lens of Heimat

“One man’s imagined community is another man’s political prison” – Arjun Appadurai

Heimat is a phenomenon that permeates past and present-day German society from top to bottom. In its simplest form, the term means home, hometown, or homeland and denotes a sense of connection that people in Germany feel toward ‘their’ country at the local, regional, or national level. But, specifically speaking, this basic translation of Heimat fails to adequately convey the term’s burden of reference and implication in German moral and political discourse about place, belonging, and identity1. A more nuanced definition of Heimat, which is grounded in a comprehensive linguistic study, structures the term along five – emotional (e.g. familiarity), memorial (e.g. sensorial triggers), spatial (e.g. town), cultural (e.g. traditions), and social (e.g. family) – associative dimensions2. A representative survey finds support for this interpretation of Heimat, showing that Germans stretch the term’s meaning from safety and security to landscape, dwelling, dialect, and kin3. This versatile capacity of Heimat to signify a range of ideas and that it serves well as a projection field for ideals might explain why, throughout German history, the term has always boomed in times of social reorganization4; be that in the form of ‘Heimweh’ (“Homesickness”) for a united ‘Vaterland’ (“Fatherland”) in the Romantic period, or as a sentimental trope for the depopulated countryside during 19th-century industrializing Germany. Thanks to its emotive power, Heimat was also used (and abused) for such purposes as promoting patriotism in WWI5 or Nazi-films like ‘Heimkehr’ (“Homecoming”) and other blood-and-soil propaganda6. Post-1945, when, tainted by the Holocaust, German national pride fell into a deep slumber7, ‘Heimatfilme' emerged as a popular film genre in which experiences of trauma, displacement, and instability were negotiated through motifs typical for the lost idyll8. In recent decades, Heimat has gained traction again thanks to various processes of social reorganization that globalization is engendering and, today, it is 'back on the map', having returned to Germany’s social stage and political arena in full swing.

With the arrival of 890,000 asylum-seekers in Germany at the peak of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in 20159, issues of immigration, ethnocultural diversity, and (the perceived loss of) national identity entered German politics and public discourse with new force. Two opposing factions have developed out of the divisive nature of these controversial topics, namely, people who provide support based on their welcome-attitude towards refugees vis-à-vis those who rally to right-wing movements in fear of ‘foreign domination’ and ‘Islamisation’10. To use a helpful analogy, on one side there are ‘Anywheres’, whose liberal inclination chimes with Chancellor Merkel’s credo of ‘Wir schaffen das!’ (“We can do it!”); on the other side, there are ‘Somewheres’, whose penchant for conservatism and traditionality makes them more hostile towards her ‘Willkommenskultur’ (“Welcoming culture”)11. Largely due to urban-rural structural imbalances, these camps have developed different perceptions of and aspirations for the imagined community of Germany, that is, an artificially conceived image of a national collective that is boundary-confined and marked by territorial attachment12. It is important to note that the ideological discrepancy between Germans’ imaginings of their nation is not an isolated case but rather extends beyond the country across the Western world at large. This is because globalization breeds political polarization and populism by widening existing societal cleavages13. Some scholars have acknowledged the important role of Heimat in the narratives mobilized by the political elite (“us and them”) and the populist far-right (“us versus them”)14. Arguably, however, a systematic analysis of the term’s significance for the overall infrastructure of imaginaries in Germany has thus far not been conducted yet. It is this scholarly gap that my essay partially hopes to fill.

I argue that Heimat can take us beyond the reiteration of Anderson’s by-now classic definition of ‘the nation as an imagined community' by shedding light on how German society imagines itself into being. To demonstrate this, I will draw on Appadurai’s theoretical framework for studying the forces at play in the complex transnational construction of imaginary landscapes15. This is not only because the ‘scapes’ that he conceptualizes as building blocks of imagined communities remain largely unelaborated in terms of Heimat. Moreover, Appadurai’s central argument that the problem of our globalized society is 'the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization' shows practical worth when it comes to Germany and other Western countries because paradoxical thinking does indeed persist over people associating globalization with imposing sameness through internationalizing processes of ethnocultural convergence on one hand, and differentiation – or, in his words, 'indigenization' – through processes of ethnocultural divergence on the other hand16. Thus, in the following three paragraphs, I will explore Heimat through the lenses of the most important [scapes] in terms of socio-cultural interaction, namely, ethnoscapes, ideoscapes, and mediascapes17. While technoscapes will be touched upon briefly in terms of digital media, financescapes fall outside the scope of my analysis for the sake of depth over breadth. With this in mind, let us now proceed to examine how Heimat gives shape to imagined communities in Germany.

Ethnoscapes are the landscape of moving persons who make up the shifting world in which we live, including tourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles, guest-workers, and other travelers18. Thanks to the globalization-induced collapse of time and distance19, ethnoscapes around the world are more fragmented now since 'specific territorial boundaries and identities'20 coalesce more readily on a larger scale. This de-territorialization and transcendence of nationhood can pose dilemmas of collective identity and lead to the isolation of the ethnic ‘other’21. And indeed, while Germany has been an important immigration destination since post-WWII, the rising number of asylum applicants has altered how Germans receive those with a different race or ethnic background22. For example: In 2015, five times as many racist hate crimes against foreigners were committed by right-wing extremists than in 201623. In Widdersdorf, where the population size has doubled over the past ten years, old-established residents of the community state that their village has become ‘unheimatlich’ (“unhomely”) due to the influx of non-nationals and local cultural estrangement24. Their rendering of Heimat suggests the desire for 'a common spatial frame of origin'25 and a common social frame of reference that Germany’s diversifying ethnoscapes no longer embody. This, then, implies that Heimat symbolizes the rural and domestic idyll, which bears nostalgic yearnings for an imagined community remembered as purer, simpler, natural, and stable rather than diverse, complex, or fast-paced26. Besides im/migration and urbanization, COVID-19 has also fuelled Heimat’s signifying capacities for (a return to) those “good old days” in which social life was more provincial and pristine. Germans reportedly “longed to return to their rural Heimat”27 and “learned to re-love their Heimat during quarantine”28. From this, we can gather that Heimat serves as a label for an airbrushed image of Germany because it signals some past and some possibly never existent socio-environmental conditions reminiscent of a more easily manageable social reality.

Ideoscapes encompass the ideologies of the state and the counter-ideologies of movements alongside the cultures they organize around keywords to seize power[^29]. Since Heimat is a metaphorical repository of word associations that draws upon an interconnected system of wider meanings29, the term serves as a strategically useful rhetorical tool for shaping political discourse. The right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) successfully capitalized on Heimat during the 2017 Federal elections with provocative campaign slogans – e.g. ‘Unser Land, unsere Heimat’ (“Our country, our home”) – that radicalized the term’s underlying values and beliefs. Party leader Höcke’s lobbying for a Nazi-reminiscent ‘Heimatbildung’ (“Homeland education”) that uses region-specific teaching materials to engage children with local traditions30 presented another calculated attempt at imbuing the term with the specious historicist idea of an organic nation31. These systematic distortions of Heimat have led the AfD to conceive of the term, not as representative of an open-minded country, but instead as infused with a racialized conception of Germanness. Thus, on the (far) right of Germany’s political system, Heimat is a byword for a place-based collective identity that, whether fictional or real, only native insiders and not foreign outsiders are entitled to.

In an act of patriotic damage control, other politicians set out to reclaim Heimat by endowing it with positive connotations. The first to do so was President Steinmeier from the Social Democrats (SPD), who addressed the AfD indirectly, yet suggestively, when stating that “the longing for Heimat – for security, for deceleration, for community and, above all, for acknowledgment – is something we simply cannot allow to become a nationalist prerogative”32. Then came Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU) and Interior Minister, who founded a ‘Heimatministerium’ (“Ministry of Homeland”) for the sake of “strengthening social cohesion…and creating equal living conditions”33. Critics argue that providing Heimat with an even greater public platform has legitimized its political and by extension populist potential34. Notwithstanding this argument, Heimat has also become a counter-ideological antidote to the AfD’s identity politics seeing that politicians like Steinmeier and Seehofer have reframed the term in a deliberately democratic context that brims with civic values like solidarity and justice. Despite its nationalist undertones, Heimat continues to be used by many parties to advocate for sustainability issues – ‘Wer seine Heimat liebt, zerstört sie nicht!’ (“Those who love their home do not destroy it!’) – and other socio-environmental problems. As such, Heimat encapsulates both a backward- and forward-looking vision of Germany that is reactionary and progressive at the same time.

Mediascapes cover the worlds created by image-centered and narrative-based accounts of strips of reality35. By disseminating information and ideas to the masses through sensorial channels, print and broadcast media outlets greatly contribute to molding societies into imagined communities because people see and duplicate their lives through the prism of the possible lives they are being offered36. The German press anxiously reproduces and sustains the ‘good’/‘bad’ binary through which the wider debate over immigration and national identity operates because it nurtures a logic of un/deservingness that centers on the socio-economic benefits and burdens that refugees presumably pose to their host country37. Heimat is intricately bound up with the discursively cultivated imaginaries of Germany because countless radio programs, magazine issues, newspaper article series, and so on are devoted to untangling the meaning of this buzzword38. By rendering immigration issues hyper-visible and putting Heimat up for constant discussion, German media creates practical conditions for the production of national imaginaries since it immunizes a ‘preconceived society’39. Therefore, mediatized Heimat reiterates the symbolic boundaries that define divergent imaginations of Germany.

Technoscapes – the architecture of mechanical and informational technology40 – facilitate and, to a large degree, define mediascapes like those of Germany because, today, knowledge-sharing social interaction increasingly happens online. Indeed, since 2018, for the first time, German people’s top-five favorite pastimes take place entirely outside of the analog realm41. As digital dwellers become more numerous, right-wing websites, ads, forums, and the like become more mainstream. There are around 4,000 cases of populist cyberhate permeating neo-Nazi portals such as ‘Thüringer Heimatschutz’ (“Thuringian homeland security”) and Facebook groups like “Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend’ (“Homeland-loyal German youth”)42. By propagating enemy instead of ally images of immigrants, digitized Heimat creates an ever-more contagious catalyst for imagining Germany as limited to an ‘in-group’ and detached from an ‘out-group’.

By examining Heimat’s situatedness in the socio-cultural scapes that bring imagined communities into existence, this paper aimed to find out how this semantic node informs imaginations of Germany. My findings can be summarized as follows: Firstly, in ethnoscapes, Heimat indicates the social cohesion that Germany’s Gesellschaft-like society is losing or lacking and thus alludes to Gemeinschaft-like conditions and modes of thinking that call to mind earlier times. Secondly, ideoscape-wise, Heimat represents a strategic lever used by populist demagogues to strengthen nationalist anti-immigration stances and counter-ideological opponents to foster socio-environmental welfare in culturally neutral ways. Thirdly, within mediascapes, Heimat contributes to strengthening socio-political attitude-polarizing mechanisms by condensing black-or-white proto-narratives into a highly spreadable form. Finally, Heimat’s presence in technoscapes is part and parcel of a fallacious narrative of endangered national survival filled with echoes of Nazism. Essentially, my observations indicate a twofold conclusion: Firstly, Heimat represents a literal and figural refuge for people who feel overwhelmed by their rapidly changing surroundings and lack the adaptability that the 21st century demands. Secondly – and perhaps more importantly – Heimat is like the Janus-face of German society because it shows, at once, two opposing imaginings of the country’s past, present, and future which are spatiotemporally, ideologically, and medially saturated. This coexistence of contradictory tensions provides opportunities to further explore the effect of Heimat on imagined communities.

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