Home Meets Heimat

How to Cite

Ludewig, A. (2007). Home Meets Heimat. M/C Journal, 10(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2698
Vol. 10 No. 4 (2007): 'home'
Published 2007-08-01

Home is the place where one knows oneself best; it is where one belongs, a space one longs to be. Indeed, the longing for home seems to be grounded in an anthropological need for anchorage. Although in English the German loanword ‘Heimat’ is often used synonymously with ‘home’, many would have claimed up till now that it has been a word particularly ill equipped for use outside the German speaking community, owing to its specific cultural baggage. However, I would like to argue that – not least due to the political dimension of home (such as in homeland security and homeland affairs) – the yearning for a home has experienced a semantic shift, which aligns it more closely with Heimat, a term imbued with the ambivalence of home and homeland intertwined (Morley 32). I will outline the German specificities below and invite an Australian analogy.

A resoundingly positive understanding of the German term ‘Heimat’ likens it to “an intoxicant, a medium of transport; it makes people feel giddy and spirits them to pleasant places. To contemplate Heimat means to imagine an uncontaminated space, a realm of innocence and immediacy.“ (Rentschler 37) While this description of Heimat may raise expectations of an all-encompassing idyll, for most German speakers “…there is hardly a more ambivalent feeling, hardly a more painful mixture of happiness and bitterness than the experience vested in the word ‘Heimat’.” (Reitz 139) The emotional charge of the idiom is of quite recent origin. Traditionally, Heimat stimulates connotations of ‘origin’, ‘birth place, of oneself and one’s ancestors’ and even of ‘original area of settlement and homeland’. This corresponds most neatly with such English terms as ‘native land’, ‘land of my birth’, ‘land of my forefathers’ or ‘native shores’. Added to the German conception of Heimat are its sensitive associations relating, on the one hand, to Romanticism and its idolisation of the fatherland, and on the other, to the Nazi blood-and-soil propaganda, which brought Heimat into disrepute for many and added to the difficulties of translating the German word. A comparison with similar terms in Romance languages makes this clear. Speakers of those tongues have an understanding of home and homeland, which is strongly associated with the father-figure: the Greek “patra”, Latin and Italian “patria” and the French “patrie”, as well as patriarch, patrimony, patriot, and patricide. The French come closest to sharing the concept to which Heimat’s Germanic root of “heima” refers. For the Teutons “heima” denoted the traditional space and place of a clan, society or individual. However, centuries of migration, often following expulsion, have imbued Heimat with ambivalent notions; feelings of belonging and feelings of loss find expression in the term. Despite its semantic opaqueness, Heimat expresses a “longing for a wholeness and unity” (Strzelczyk 109) which for many seems lost, especially following experiences of alienation, exile, diaspora or ‘simply’ migration. Yet, it is in those circumstances, when Heimat becomes a thing of the past, that it seems to manifest itself most clearly.

In the German context, the need for Heimat arose particularly after World War Two, when experiences of loss and scenes of devastation, as well as displacement and expulsion found compensation of sorts in the popular media. Going to the cinema was the top pastime in Germany in the 1950s, and escapist Heimat films, which showed idyllic country scenery, instead of rubble-strewn cityscapes, were the most well-liked of all. The industry pumped out kitsch films in quick succession to service this demand and created sugar-coated, colour-rich Heimat experiences on celluloid that captured the audience’s imagination.

Most recently, the genre experienced something of a renaissance in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent accession of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, also referred to as East Germany) to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG or West Germany) in 1990. Described as one of the most seminal moments in modern history, the events led to large-scale change; in world politics, strategic alliances, but were most closely felt at the personal and societal level, reshaping community and belonging. Feelings of disbelief and euphoria occupied the hearts and minds of people all around the world in the days following the night of the 9 November 1989. However, the fall of the Wall created within weeks what the Soviet Union had been unable to manage in the previous 40 years; the sense of a distinctly Eastern identity (cf. Heneghan 148). Most of the initial positive perceptions slowly gave way to a hangover when the consequences of the drastic societal changes became apparent in their effects on populace. Feelings of disenchantment and disillusionment followed the jubilation and dominated the second phase of socio-cultural unification, when individuals were faced with economic and emotional hardship or were forced to relocate, as companies folded, politically tainted degrees and professions were abolished and entire industry sectors disappeared. This reassessment of almost every aspect of people’s lifestyles led many to feel that their familiar world had dissipated and their Heimat had been lost, resulting in a rhetoric of “us” versus “them”. This conceptual divide persisted and was cemented by the perceived difficulties in integration that had emerged, manifesting a consciousness of difference that expressed itself metaphorically in the references to the ‘Wall in the mind’.

Partly as a reaction to these feelings and partly also as a concession to the new citizens from the East, Western backed and produced unification films utilised the soothing cosmos of the Heimat genre – so well rehearsed in the 1950s – as a framework for tales about unification. Peter Timm’s Go, Trabi, Go (1991) and Wolfgang Büld’s sequel Go, Trabi, Go 2. Das war der Wilde Osten [That Was the Wild East, 1992] are two such films which revive “Heimat as a central cultural construct through which aspects of life in the new Germany could be sketched and grasped.” (Naughton 125) The films’ references to Eastern and Western identity served as a powerful guarantor of feelings of belonging, re-assuring audiences on both sides of the mental divide of their idiosyncrasies, while also showing a way to overcome separation. These Heimat films thus united in spirit, emotion and consumer behaviour that which had otherwise not yet “grown together” (cf. Brandt).

The renaissance of the Heimat genre in the 1990s gained further momentum in the media with new Heimat film releases as well as TV screenings of 1950s classics. Indeed Heimat films of old and new were generally well received, as they responded to a fragile psychological predisposition at a time of change and general uncertainty. Similar feelings were shared by many in the post-war society of the 1950s and the post-Wall Europe of the 1990s. After the Second World War and following the restructure after Nazism it was necessary to integrate large expellee groups into the young nation of the FRG. In the 1990s the integration of similarly displaced people was required, though this time they were having to cope less with territorial loss than with ideological implosions. Then and now, Heimat films sought to aid integration and “transcend those differences” (Naughton 125) – whilst not disputing their existence – particularly in view of the fact that Germany had 16 million new citizens, who clearly had a different cultural background, many of whom were struggling with perceptions of otherness as popularly expressed in the stereotypical ethnographies of “Easterners” and “Westerners”. The rediscovery of the concept of Heimat in the years following unification therefore not only mirrored the status quo but further to that allowed “for the delineation of a common heritage, shared priorities, and values with which Germans in the old and new states could identify.” (Naughton 125) Closely copying the optimism of the 1950s which promised audiences prosperity and pride, as well as a sense of belonging and homecoming into a larger community, the films produced in the early 1990s anticipated prosperity for a mobile and flexible people. Like their 1950s counterparts, “unification films ‘made in West Germany’ imagined a German Heimat as a place of social cohesion, opportunity, and prosperity” (Naughton 126).

Following the unification comedies of the early 1990s, which were set in the period following the fall of the Wall, another wave of German film production shifted the focus onto the past, sacrificing the future dimension of the unification films. Leander Haußmann’s Sonnenallee (1999) is set in the 1970s and subscribes to a re-invention of one’s childhood, while Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin (2003) in which the GDR is preserved on 79 square metres in a private parallel world, advocates a revival of aspects of the socialist past. Referred to as “Ostalgia”; a nostalgia for the old East, “a ‘GDR revival’ or the ‘renaissance of a GDR Heimatgefühl’” (Berdahl 197), the films achieved popular success. Ostalgia films utilised the formula of ‘walking down memory lane’ in varying degrees; thematising pleasing aspects of an imagined collective past and tempting audiences to revel in a sense of unity and homogeneous identity (cf. Walsh 6).

Ostalgia was soon transformed from emotional and imaginary reflection into an entire industry, manifesting itself in the “recuperation, (re)production, marketing, and merchandising of GDR products as well as the ‘museumification’ of GDR everyday life” (Berdahl 192). This trend found further expression in a culture of exhibitions, books, films and cabaret acts, in fashion and theme parties, as well as in Trabi-rallies which celebrated or sent up the German Democratic Republic in response to the perceived public humiliation at the hands of West German media outlets, historians and economists. The dismissal of anything associated with the communist East in mainstream Germany and the realisation that their consumer products – like their national history – were disappearing in the face of the ‘Helmut Kohl-onisation’ sparked this retro-Heimat cult. Indeed, the reaction to the disappearance of GDR culture and the ensuing nostalgia bear all the hallmarks of Heimat appreciation, a sense of bereavement that only manifests itself once the Heimat has been lost. Ironically, however, the revival of the past led to the emergence of a “new” GDR (Rutschky 851), an “imaginary country put together from the remnants of a country in ruins and from the hopes and anxieties of a new world” (Hell et al. 86), a fictional construct rather than a historical reality.

In contrast to the fundamental social and psychological changes affecting former GDR citizens from the end of 1989, their Western counterparts were initially able to look on without a sense of deep personal involvement. Their perspective has been likened to that of an impartial observer following the events of a historical play (cf. Gaschke 22). Many saw German unification as an enlargement of the West; as soon as they had exported their currency, democracy, capitalism and freedom to the East, “blossoming landscapes” were sure to follow (Kohl). At first political events did not seem to cause a major disruption to the lives of most people in the old FRG, except perhaps the need to pay higher tax.

This understanding proved a major underestimation of the transformation process that had gripped all of Germany, not just the Eastern part. Nevertheless, few predicted the impact that far-reaching changes would have on the West; immigration and new minorities alter the status quo of any society, and with Germany’s increase in size and population, its citizens in both East and West had to adapt and adjust to a new image and to new expectations placed on them from within and without. As a result a certain unease began to be felt by many an otherwise self-assured individual. Slower and less obvious than the transition phase experienced by most East Germans, the changes in West German society and consciousness were nevertheless similar in their psychological effects; resulting in a subtle feeling of displacement. Indeed, it was soon noted that “the end of German division has given rise to a sense of crisis in the West, particularly within the sphere of West German culture, engendering a Western nostalgica for the old FRG” (Cooke 35), also referred to as Westalgia. Not too dissimilar to the historical rehabilitation of the East played out in Ostalgic fashion, films appeared which revisit moments worthy of celebration in West German history, such as the 1954 Soccer World Championship status which is at the centre of the narrative in Sönke Wortmann’s Das Wunder von Bern [Miracle of Bern, 2003]. Hommages to the 1968 generation (Hans Weingartner’s Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei [The Educators, 2004]) and requiems for West Berlin’s subculture (Leander Haußmann’s Herr Lehmann [Mr Lehmann, 2003]) were similar manifestations of this development.

Ostalgic and Westalgic practices coexisted for several years after the turn of the millennium, and are a tribute to the highly complex interrelationship that exists between personal histories and public memories. Both narratives reveal “the politics, ambiguities, and paradoxes of memory, nostalgia, and resistance” (Berdahl 207). In their nostalgic contemplation of the good old days, Ostalgic and Westalgic films alike express a longing to return to familiar and trusted values. Both post-hoc constructions of a heimatesque cosmos demonstrate a very real reinvention of Heimat. Their deliberate reconstruction and reinterpretation of history, as well as the references to and glorification of personal memory and identity fulfil the task of imbuing history – in particular personal history – with dignity. As such these Heimat films work in a similar fashion to myths in the way they explain the world. The heimatesque element of Ostalgic and Westalgic films which allows for the potential to overcome crises reveals a great deal about the workings of myths in general. Irrespective of their content, whether they are cosmogonic (about the beginning of time), eschatological (about the end of time) or etiologic myths (about the origins of peoples and societal order), all serve as a means to cope with change. According to Hans Blumenberg, myth making may be seen as an attempt to counter the absolutism of reality (cf. Blumenberg 9), by providing a response to its seemingly overriding arbitrariness. Myths become a means of endowing life with meaning through art and thus aid positive self-assurance and the constructive usage of past experiences in the present and the future.

Judging from the popular success of both Ostalgic and Westalgic films in unified Germany, one hopes that communication is taking place across the perceived ethnic divide of Eastern and Western identities. At the very least, people of quite different backgrounds have access to the constructions and fictions relating to one another pasts. By allowing each other insight into the most intimate recesses of their respective psychological make-up, understanding can be fostered. Through the re-activation of one’s own memory and the acknowledgment of differences these diverging narratives may constitute the foundation of a common Heimat. It is thus possible for Westalgic and Ostalgic films to fulfil individual and societal functions which can act as a core of cohesion and an aid for mutual understanding.

At the same time these films revive the past, not as a liveable but rather as a readable alternative to the present. As such, the utilisation of myths should not be rejected as ideological misuse, as suggested by Barthes (7), nor should it allow for the cementing of pseudo-ethnic differences dating back to mythological times; instead myths can form the basis for a common narrative and a self-confident affirmation of history in order to prepare for a future in harmony. Just like myths in general, Heimat tales do not attempt to revise history, or to present the real facts. By foregrounding the evidence of their wilful construction and fictitious invention, it is possible to arrive at a spiritual, psychological and symbolic truth. Nevertheless, it is a truth that is essential for a positive experience of Heimat and an optimistic existence.

What can the German situation reveal in an Australian or a wider context? Explorations of Heimat aid the socio-historical investigation of any society, as repositories of memory and history, escape and confrontation inscribed in Heimat can be read as signifiers of continuity and disruption, reorientation and return, and as such, ever-changing notions of Heimat mirror values and social change.

Currently, a transition in meaning is underway which alters the concept of ‘home’ as an idyllic sphere of belonging and attachment to that of a threatened space; a space under siege from a range of perils in the areas of safety and security, whether due to natural disasters, terrorism or conventional warfare. The geographical understanding of home is increasingly taking second place to an emotional imaginary that is fed by an “exclusionary and contested distinction between the ‘domestic’ and the ‘foreign’ (Blunt and Dowling 168). As such home becomes ever more closely aligned with the semantics of Heimat, i.e. with an emotional experience, which is progressively less grounded in feelings of security and comfort, yet even more so in those of ambivalence and, in particular, insecurity and hysteria. This paranoia informs as much as it is informed by government policies and interventions and emerges from concerns for national security. In this context, home and homeland have become overused entities in discussions relating to the safeguarding of Australia, such as with the establishment of a homeland security unit in 2003 and annual conferences such as “The Homeland Security Summit” deemed necessary since 9/11, even in the Antipodes. However, these global connotations of home and Heimat overshadow the necessity of a reclaimation of the home/land debate at the national and local levels. In addressing the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the removal and dislocation of Aboriginal children from their homes and families, the political nature of a home-grown Heimat debate cannot be ignored. “Bringing them Home”, an oral history project initiated by the National Library of Australia in Canberra, is one of many attempts at listening to and preserving the memories of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders who, as children, were forcibly taken away from their families and homelands.

To ensure healing and rapprochement any reconciliation process necessitates coming to terms with one’s own past as much as respecting the polyphonic nature of historical discourse. By encouraging the inclusion of diverse homeland and dreamtime narratives and juxtaposing these with the perceptions and constructions of home of the subsequent immigrant generations of Australians, a rich text, full of contradictions, may help generate a shared, if ambivalent, sense of a common Heimat in Australia; one that is fed not by homeland insecurity but one resting in a heimatesque knowledge of self.

Author Biography

Alexandra Ludewig