German Politics

Bringing ‘Homeland’ Back

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How to define "homeland" in Germany? Could it be about beer and dirndls at the Oktoberfest? Source: Reuters

In Germany the idea of the “homeland” is not an innocent concept. In particular, the word “Heimat” carries a ton of baggage. That baggage goes from the postwar effort to forget the war, right up to the country’s recent election, when the upstart Alternative for Germany (AfD) claimed the term for itself, coding it with overtones of nativism, nationalism and racism.

The success of the AfD in capturing nearly 13 percent of the national vote to become the country’s third-largest party after the mainstream Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, has made “homeland” a new buzzword in German politics.

No less than the head of state, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, took the occasion of the Day of German Unity this week to claim back the term from the far-right AfD. “To understand and to be understood – that is homeland,” Mr. Steinmeier said in his speech, adding that a yearning for this feeling is growing as the world moves faster.

“We can’t leave this yearning for homeland to those who construe homeland as ‘us against them,’ as nonsense about blood and soil,” he said, referring to the 19th century concept of what makes a “real” German, which became a Nazi slogan. “The yearning for homeland – for security, for slowing down, for sticking together and above all, for recognition – this yearning can’t be left to the nationalists.”

“I find it good that the federal president puts a positive spin on the concept of homeland and doesn’t leave it to those who badmouth our republic and splinter our country.”

Cem Özdemir, co-chair, The Greens

In all, Mr. Steinmeier used the term homeland 19 times in his speech on unity – a word he used only a dozen times before.

The leader of the more left-wing Green party, Cem Özdemir, welcomed this focus. “I find it good that the federal president puts a positive spin on the concept of homeland,” he said, “and doesn’t leave it to those who badmouth our republic and splinter our country.” Homeland, he added, should “not be an exclusive concept, but an inclusive one.”

The Greens have not previously been so open about the concept either. Many in the party made fun of Katrin Göring-Eckardt, who headed the party’s ticket along with Mr. Özdemir, for speaking of her love for her homeland. A Berlin lawmaker for the party said the word is “based on origin and besides tendentially exclusive.” The youth organization for the Greens maintained that the concept was not suitable to combat right-wing ideologies for exactly that reason.

But the former co-chairman of the party, Reinhard Bütikofer, accused the youth organization of policing language too much and of denouncing “fresh thinking.” Robert Habeck, a party leader in Schleswig-Holstein, countered that politicians must develop a “homeland idea, an identity idea.” The party pointed out that in the runoff vote for Austrian president, Alexander Van der Bellen, nominally an independent but backed by the Greens in that country, embraced the concept of homeland in his fight against the right-wing populist candidate. He won the election.

By the time the Christian Democrats weigh in, however, the idea doesn’t sound quite as fresh. They have been quick to identify the feeling of homeland with those living in rural areas. “Precisely in rural areas, even in the West, there is a broadly dominant feeling of being more and more neglected,” Volker Kauder, who leads the Christian Democratic caucus in Parliament, said in a newspaper interview this week. “When first the school closes down, then the post office and then the savings bank, people get the impression that no one is taking care of them.” Mr. Kauder said that help for rural areas must become a core issue in negotiations for the new government coalition.

The Bavarian wing of the party, the Christian Social Union, which was particularly hard hit by the surge of support for the AfD, suggested that a new federal ministry devoted to development in structurally weak areas be established using the homeland state ministry in Bavaria as a model.

The growing divide between city and country in Germany is certainly one of the issues that emerged from the election. Mr. Steinmeier mentioned it when he talked about new walls dividing the country nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “I mean the walls between our experiences of life,” he said, “between city and country, online and offline, poor and rich, old and young.”

But he did not limit the concept of homeland to any one of these areas. He cited the example of the Turkish-German civil rights activist, Seyran Ateş, who told him she gets excited when she sees the Bosporus in Istanbul again but also when she returns to Berlin, seeing the television tower. “Homeland can also be a plural,” Mr. Steinmeier said. “A person can have more than one homeland, and find new homelands.” It is this inclusive concept of homeland, he suggested, that can contribute to unity in an increasingly diverse Germany.

The AfD swept into Parliament with slogans like “Our country, our homeland” and “Get your country back”. Their racist message was not so much a dog whistle as blasted out over a megaphone. Their success with these slogans has caught the mainstream parties off guard. Mr. Steinmeier’s speech and the new attention to developing a more inclusive concept of homeland are signs that the appeal of these slogans have been heard by politicians in Berlin.

Darrell Delamaide is an editor for Handelsblatt Global based in Washington DC. Dietmar Neuerer covers domestic politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin. To contact the authors: neuerer@handelsblatt.com, d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com

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