The token politics of "Heimat"

What is meant by "Heimat"? "A place where you can be without having to justify yourself for being there," says the sociologist Armin Nassehi in interview with Klaus Kramer and explains in the process the absurdity of the homeland ministry concept

By Klaus Krämer

Why is there so much focus on the term "Heimat" in Germany at the moment?

Armin Nassehi: For several years now, we have been witnessing what could be called the rise of identity politics. That is, the question of where people feel they belong, the question of how you describe your own culture, the question – of course triggered by the refugee crisis – of what is actually German. The question of who belongs to Germany and who doesn't. All that can be subsumed under the term "Heimat", which is why the term is once again back in fashion.

German author Max Frisch deemed the German term "Heimat" as untranslatable. Meanwhile, there has been so much discussion around the term that it's hard to identify a clear definition. Would you currently dare to define "Heimat"?

Nassehi: Chances are that "Heimat" is wherever you can be without having to justify yourself for being there. I think that could serve as an abstract definition of the term. But at the same time, that approach seems to be too simplistic. It's also the word's usage that provides huge scope for all kinds of associations.

By the way, "Heimat" was originally a judicial term. It denoted the place where you were born, or your official address. The word then came to be highly romanticised, giving a lot of room for all kinds of interpretation, including "Heimatlosigkeitsgefuhl", a metaphysical term denoting the feeling of being lost in nowhere – another untranslatable idea that seems to be limited to the German language. But as a sociologist, I would say that "Heimat" denotes a place where you don't need to legitimise yourself, due to the fact you're there.

It is, of course, quite vague. It could be the place where you've always lived. But it also includes people who once came from elsewhere, but who nevertheless can rightfully claim that they belong there without anyone arguing with them about it. In other words, claiming your "Heimat" also means that others recognise your right to it.

German-Swiss border at Weil am Rhein (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
German-Swiss border at Weil am Rhein (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)

You grew up in Tubingen, Munich, Landshut, Munster and Gelsenkirchen and in Tehran, in Iran. What is "Heimat" for you personally?

Nassehi: I was afraid of that question. For me, it's very difficult to feel connected to a particular location. It's probably the two cities where I have spent most of my life, namely Munich and Munster. But it's very hard to say. To me, it's more something that has to do with the way things smell, with sounds, with music.

I remember certain kinds of music that played a role in my family and that I still listen to today. That's when I feel "Heimat".

What are the consequences of losing one's "Heimat?"

Nassehi: Very often, it results in an idealisation of the former "Heimat" that one had to leave behind. Many people find that – having spent even just a brief period in the U.S. or in Asia – that their sense of being Europeans or Germans intensifies. It is the distance and the experience of being in a foreign country that leads to produces such feelings. In this regard, the "Heimat" concept is a consequence of modernisation and mobility.The other aspect, of course, is compensating for the loss of "Heimat". In North and South America, for example, there are numerous reproductions of places from whence the immigrants originally came, including so-called "German" centres. Such places simulate a "Heimat" that, in most cases, never existed in the real "Heimat".

Does the establishment of a federal Interior, Construction and Heimat Ministry, as well as "Heimat" ministries in the states of Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, have special significance at this time?

Homeland Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) (photo: Imago/J. Heinrich)
Armin Nassehi: "The homeland minister has yet to tire of emphasising that ʹIslam doesn't belong to Germany.ʹ Identity politics donʹt get much sillier than that"

Nassehi: Well, there's something funny about the fact that a Catholic Bavarian has become "Heimat" minister in Protestant Prussia. It's a tough fate for Mr. Seehofer.

But on a more serious level, we should note that Germany's first Heimat ministry came into existence in the state of Bavaria, not to maintain some romantic ideas about "Heimat", but to create similar living conditions in cities and the countryside. That means the extension of broadband and the construction of bypass roads. Interestingly, all this is being inflated by the term "Heimat".

How else is the term being used in the political sphere?

Nassehi: The term "Heimat" is currently being used to address questions of identity politics. I see it as a strategy to prevent further growth of the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD). If the far-right are focussing on people's identity, then we will do the same.

But the term "Heimat" also stands for a tactical romanticised concept. For example, the Heimat minister has yet to tire of emphasising that "Islam doesn't belong to Germany." Identity politics donʹt get much sillier than that.

Interview conducted by Klaus Kramer

© Deutsche Welle 2018

Professor Armin Nassehi was appointed chair of sociology at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich in 1998. His specialist areas include cultural and political sociology, as well as the sociologies of religion, knowledge and science. In 2012 he became editor-in-chief of the cultural magazine "Kursbuch".