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How a six-letter word has opened a debate about lederhosen and Nazis in German politics

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How a six-letter word has opened a debate about lederhosen and Nazis in German politics
Two men in lederhosen in front of the Reichstag. Photo: DPA
09:17 CET+01:00
Is the creation of a “Heimat” Ministry a sincere attempt to deepen emotional links between politics and the electorate - or does a more sinister impulse lie behind it?

Is it about lederhosen, bratwurst and beer? Will it stir a healthy patriotism? Or does it hark back to the darkest chapter of German history by championing nationalism and excluding minorities?

A new "Heimat", or homeland, ministry to be launched Wednesday by Chancellor Angela Merkel's new government has left Germans deeply divided.

Some have poked fun at the term, which can evoke Alpine vistas and black forest cake, on new "Heimat" Twitter accounts that recommend "plain German fare" with "a chilled beer".

But critics charge that using the loaded term means pandering to far-right populists pushing a xenophobic agenda and can only serve to isolate migrants and other minorities.

Championed by Merkel's conservative Bavarian allies the CSU, the revamped "Ministry of the Interior and Heimat" is set to combine public security and sports with new areas such as housing.

More than simply denoting homeland, the concept of "Heimat" also conjures up a cultural belonging and a sense of nostalgia.

As Germany's new Foreign Minister Heiko Maas put it, it is "an important bit of happiness".

But few words are as politically loaded in post-war Germany as Heimat, a word that to many still carries a whiff of the era of Adolf Hitler's racist regime.

'Blood and soil'

"Heimat was the central building block of the Nazis' blood and soil ideology," author Daniel Schreiber wrote in Die Zeit weekly, noting that the term "has never existed without being politically instrumentalised".

No party has leapt on the concept as whole-heartedly as the far-right and anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, which in September's election ran a campaign with slogans such as "Our country, our Heimat".

Describing themselves as "patriots," and railing against an influx of mostly Muslim foreigners, the AfD has vowed to help voters "Get your country back".

Almost 13 percent of Germans voted for the AfD last September, while the "establishment" parties, Merkel's bloc and the centre-left SPD, scored their worst results in decades.

The new super ministry is part of a push by the mainstream parties to reclaim the term from the extremists.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a speech on German Reunification Day: "We must not leave to the nationalists our longing for Heimat, for security, for a slower pace in society, for cohesion and recognition."

Germany's large ethnic Turkish community was among the first to criticise the new ministry.

"We fear that it would not bring about cohesion and togetherness, but exclusion and division," the chairman of the Turkish community association, Gokay Sofuoglu, told Berliner Zeitung.

NDO, an umbrella group for migrant rights groups, also slammed the new ministry as "symbolic politics for potential right-wing voters".

In the 1950s, wholesome Heimat films set in an idealised countryside were produced by West Germany to wipe out the Nazi association.

On the other side of the Wall, East German children were taught communist ideology during Heimat history classes, noted Schreiber.

Today, he said, the word has been seized upon by those who, in the fast-paced age of globalisation, want to return to an idealised past.

'Emotional link'

The man in charge of the Heimat Ministry, Bavaria's outgoing CSU premier Horst Seehofer, sees his job as promoting cohesion by helping mostly rural regions that have been left behind economically by richer cities.

Seehofer, mocked online as Heimat Horst, and whose southern state was the main entry point during Germany's mass migrant influx, says he will strive to bring communities together through religious dialogue and broker integration through sports.

But his SPD cabinet colleague Maas, an outspoken crusader against the far-right, wrote in Der Spiegel weekly: "I don't know what Horst Seehofer thinks about when he talks about Heimat.

"Maybe he thinks of dirndls and dialects, about Neuschwanstein castle and Ludwig II, or about a 'conservative revolution'.

"I have another idea of Heimat," the trained lawyer wrote, arguing for a common pride in the values of Germany's liberal democracy as enshrined in the post-war constitution. A dirndl is a traditional Bavarian dress.

"Constitutional patriotism is the most beautiful form of love for one's homeland," wrote Maas. "It is the opposite of German chauvinism but does not run against our nation and its history."

Marc Saxer from think-tank the Friedrich Ebert Foundation warned that many Germans may find it difficult to feel warm and fuzzy about something as dry and rigid as the constitution.

"To take the wind out of the sails of the right-wing populists," he wrote, "Politicians must fight again to give people control over their lives and give them back the feeling of belonging to their community.

"The term Heimat promises an emotional link."

SEE ALSO: Heimat and other words that are impossible to translate into English

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