Country roads?

Germany’s new homeland ministry raises questions – and eyebrows

Trachtentag in Neuhausen
Heimat is where the heart is. Source: Picture alliance

Is it patriotic sentiment? A mishmash of lederhosen, beer and dreamy pastoral scenes? Or simply a racist, exclusive idea that’s out of sync with modern times?

In Germany, people are agonizing about the word “heimat” — roughly, “homeland” with a special place in German hearts — now that the interior ministry is being expanded to encompass this emotive notion.

The interior ministry is currently responsible for issues from domestic security to migration. Its rechristening as the Ministry of the Interior, Construction and Homeland is part of the coalition agreement being arduously hatched by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats.

The two weakened big-tent parties are struggling to respond to losses last September’s election — partly as many conservative voters abandoned the CDU in favor of the Alternative for Germany, a far-right party. The hope is that the expanded remit will persuade voters anxious about migration that the government is taking their concerns seriously.

The AfD’s election campaign played upon these fears, vilifying burka-wearing figures and showing images of pigs suggesting Islam is incompatible with the German diet. These tactics clearly worked: The AfD was the third-highest polling party and entered the Bundestag — the first time for a far-right party since the Nazi era. However, other parties also used the label heimat, including the left-leaning Greens.

The word ‘heimat’ hasn’t ever not been instrumentalized politically.

Now, the renaming of the ministry is understood as a sop to people who are anxious about being left behind in a rapidly changing world. As in the United States and the United Kingdom, that mainly means migration, and carried social and political baggage.

“The word ‘heimat’ hasn’t ever not been instrumentalized politically,” wrote Daniel Schreiber in weekly newspaper Die Zeit. Many echoed his concern. No-one born after 1950s has ever used the word without irony, added Mr. Schreiber. Nowadays, it is “most often used in a spirit of exclusion and marginalization.” Other voices were optimistic that such a ministry might bring about tangible improvements. Katja Lange-Müller, a novelist, wrote in the daily Tagesspiegel that she thought it might it combat gentrification and exorbitant rents.

German angst about heimat has been growing since 2015, when almost a million people sought asylum there to escape war and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa. Ms. Merkel’s decision to open the country to refugees divided the country and continues to generate furious and emotional debate; late in 2017, German voters told pollsters that migration is still a key concern.

The word heimat is fraught with emotion. It dates back to the seventeenth century and has echoes of a sentimental longing for homeland and a profound connection to a place and people. Beyond a physical place, the word also implies a sense of home among a kindred tribe. The Nazis elevated heimat to a national concept, but the term has been used less since the end of World War II. Seen as questionably patriotic and a bit fusty, nowadays it has tended to be applied more modestly, to local museums, regional geography or traditional culture — think dirndl dresses and accordions.

It is certainly a new ingredient for the interior ministry which currently covers migration and domestic security. Officially, the ministry’s remit is “internal security and the protection of the constitutional order, for civil protection against disasters and terrorism, for displaced persons, administrative questions, and sports.” It is not to be confused with the US Department of the Interior, for example, with its remit to conserve federal lands and natural resources.

Now, Germans wonder whether the newly-renamed ministry will become more like homeland security in the United States. Or might it resemble Switzerland’s department of home affairs, which includes agencies that promote education and culture and addresses rural needs, for example?

After last year’s federal election suggested such a ministry would even out differences in living standards between eastern and western Germany. This east-west gap was seen as fueling advances by the far right in the national ballot.

Others observers mocked that they would prefer a holidays ministry and poked fun at the whole idea.

The ministry will be led by Horst Seehofer, the conservative politician who lost his job as Bavaria’s president to Markus Söder. It is telling that Mr. Seehofer will head the department, as the southern German state was the entry point for most refugees that came to Germany on land routes across Europe. Ever since, Mr. Seehofer, who also leads the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, has put pressure on Ms. Merkel to cap the number of refugees allowed into Germany.

Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia already have their own heimat agencies and perhaps can provide clues as to what the new entity might do. While critics have accused Bavaria’s ministry of nothing more than costly symbolism, its purported successes include an upgrade of the region’s broadband speeds and “laptops and lederhosen,” a movement to meld modern business practices with local traditions.

At the national level, sluggish broadband speeds in Germany mean digital infrastructure is likely to remain a concern for the new federal ministry. Mr. Seehofer has said that his priorities will include developing villages and towns and building more homes. Germany is suffering a growing housing shortage as people move to the cities, fueling popular anger and concern.

Although Mr. Seehofer is expected to receive billions to build 1.5 million new homes in the coming four years, that may prove tough as bureaucratic glitches mean the government does not actually have a say in housing policy. The agency responsible for construction – known in Germany as Bima – is attached to the finance ministry, rather than the building ministry. An internecine war between Bima and the environment ministry has been raging for years. The fight is not only over how independent Bima is and whether it is authorized to actually build residences, but also concerns the fate of thousands of state-owned properties worth an estimated €4 billion. Bima may yet prove a thorn in Mr. Seehofer’s side as its feisty spokesman, Jürgen Gehb, fights his corner.

This legal battle has been rumbling in the background for years and is likely to rage on. For now, many people fear the new ministry won’t be inclusive enough. They argue the department must go beyond pandering to right-wing fears and ensure Germany is a place where all feel safe, included and at home, from Jewish people to those of Turkish origin.

Other observers mocked that they would prefer a holidays ministry and poked fun at the whole idea. These divisions and dissatisfaction reflect those of the country itself. While Bavaria’s heimat ministry sought to avoid a two-speed state, the emotionally-charged debate about the new federal ministry reflects the divisions within the country, suggesting it could be a tough remit.

Daniel Delhaes reports on politics and transport from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Martin Greive is a correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Berlin. Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: williams@handelsblatt.comgreive@handelsblatt.com and delhaes@handelsblatt.com

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!