There’s No Place Like Heimat: How the Culture We Consume Reflects Our Desires

What makes The Wizard of Oz lovable and relatable is not the fantastical travels of Dorothy and her loyal dog, Toto, but the desire to return to a familiar and trusted home—even if that home might be with an aunt and uncle in the middle of bleak Kansas. Even if we have never been to Kansas, we can understand the longing for the security that comes with home, even if our home is not a beautiful island or mountain dwelling. German culture reveres this concept of an ideal home even more; for the past seven centuries, it has produced more books, music, poems, and movies on this concept than the English-speaking world.

The collective mind of Germany’s culture is so obsessed with this topic, one could even say consumed by it, that the German language has a unique word for this concept: Heimat. Most regions have local Heimat museums, elementary school students must take a course learning about the local history and environment called Heimatkunde, and the German government even has a federal department for Heimat. The German language, infamous for its many compounds, has a couple dozen words which incorporate Heimat. Why do so many Germans consume so many books and movies around this concept, and why are they consumed by the concept of Heimat?

I propose that this building block of German culture comes from an unmet desire for both an ideal physical place as well as emotional well-being. Heimat is an example of the universal desire that we share when we long for an ideal home with comfort and acceptance. There have been many attempts to portray this ideal through films and books. But the problem is that the longing remains unquenched, which leads many to stifle or substitute Heimat for a lesser ideal. Christianity, however, affirms the goodness of the desire and holds that no stifling is needed; our desire for an accepting home, or Heimat, will be realized in heaven.

To first understand the nature of desire, one should examine the meaning of Heimat. Even in the German language, the term Heimat is difficult to define; it captures a sense of both physical location and emotional attachment, and it also has been used with different nuances in different eras. If one had to choose a single word, Heimat would translate as home or homeland. Since the 15th century, it has carried connections to physical concepts associated with nature, such as the Linden tree, one’s place of birth, or a rural village.

Heimat carries strong emotional sentiments as well. It is partially associated with Geborgenheit (another hard to translate word, roughly the feeling of security or comfort, of feeling as if one belongs and is understood) but, simultaneously, is also associated with Sehnsucht (yet again, only a rough translation can be offered; a nostalgic yearning). Geborgenheit points to why Heimat is so loved; in my Heimat, I do not have to explain myself: the people understand and know me, I understand and know them, and we have a bond. The second emotion points to the reason Germans have been consumed by this word for so long; people think of Heimat the most when they lack it. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy only loves Kansas when she leaves. This concept, for once, translates well into English; it is looking back at the “good ole’ days” when gas was a buck a gallon and life was simple. At the core of humanity, this desire is emotional, and not just physical.

In the 50’s and 60’s, a popular new film genre based on Heimat demonstrated one way in which people have attempted to fulfill this desire for physical and emotional security. Each of these 250 films had the same shallow plot involving two young lovers in some scenic natural setting. And, despite their repetitive and flat nature, the German people readily consumed them; the highest grossing German film of all time is indeed a Heimat-film, Der Förster vom Silberwald, and boasts of 28 million views in theaters. The film sets up a drastic opposition between the idyllic pre-industrialization nature, traditional attire, and classical music with fast-paced modern life in the city. For example, a beautiful young woman chooses a forest ranger over a city-dwelling modern artist. Long scenes of eagles hunting and deer running through mountains are also contrasted with failed modern art in a small apartment. The film idealizes Heimat as a village mountain life, for both its beauty as well as its connection to childhood memories and familial contact.

The question remains: why did the Germans, known for engineering excellence, revere this agrarian lifestyle so much? It is absurd that this rational culture would be obsessed with this fantasy. One key element alludes to the answer. The male protagonist, when asked about his past, laments his “verlorene Heimat” (lost Heimat). This “lost home” term refers to the forced migration of 12-16 million German-speaking people and German citizens from land controlled by the Soviet Union at the end of WWII to then East and West Germany. The film industry could produce 250 films, each with the same story arc of the beautiful country couple because after having just lost their own Heimat, the audience was longing for the Heimat ideal that the films could provide. The desire for the ideal, like the desire for Heimat, is strongest, just when the ideal is most lacking.

In the 60’s and 70’s, many academics pushed back against this genre because it was seen as kitsch. Kitsch is another German word borrowed by the English language combining the ideas of cheesiness and sentimentality. These films could be compared to Hallmark movies; although they are cheesy and low caliber, many people still enjoy them. The academics wanted to point out that reality is not as clean and simple as films portray it to be; the idyllic image of living and working in harmony with nature never existed. A new genre known as anti-Heimatfilms (or critical Heimat films) arose to point out the delusion of the Heimatfilms of the 50’s.

For example, Das plötzliche Reichtum der armen Leute von Kombach (1971) tells the story of another German village which represents the idealized community of the Heimatfilms. Everything idealized, however, is not what it seems. Farming is back-breaking work that brings worries rather than wealth; consequently, the village attempts to gain wealth by raiding a wagon full of tax money. Relationships are also strained: a couple only gets married because they had a child out of wedlock and not because of romantic love. Both the connections to the land, such as farming, and the emotional connections to people, such as in marriage, fail to follow through on the promises Heimat offers. The film ends with the execution of all of the villagers involved. This disastrous ending signifies the ultimate failure of the idealized picture of Heimat.

This film was very successful with film critics but was a total bust with the popular audience. The film successfully made one think, but it did not offer anything redemptive about the situation. This is perhaps the reason for its lack of popularity; people do not just want to think, but they want to see their desires fulfilled. The happy image of returning to a balanced farm life, even if not realistic, feels good. This feeling continues to show the universal and persistent desire for an idealized home, a desire that criticism cannot wash away.

In our globalized and industrialized world, the village ideal seems unattainable. Others have offered alternative solutions to finding one’s Heimat. But in seeking alternatives, we leave behind the physical desire for Heimat for solely the emotional. Some suggest finding Heimat in the sky lounge of the airline Lufthansa if one’s job requires constant travel.[1] Some, such as many exiled German authors, consider a language their Heimat; perhaps they can speak, read, and write English, French, and German, but the language in which they feel at home is German. German sociologist Hartmut Rosa offers the metaphor of an anchor as Heimat, anything that holds one in place during the turbulence of life.[2] Heimat could then be family, a set of political ideals, or any other comfort defined by the individual. These suggestions make sense in that they fulfill one half of the traditional understanding of Heimat; they provide some stability during life’s problems.

The problem with Rosa’s definition, however, is that it tells us we need to settle for something less than we desire. It takes away the physical component of Heimat, leaving us with only the abstract, emotional feeling of home. In a sense, it claims that our desire is wrongly placed. But does one really have to settle for giving up half to fulfilling the longing for Heimat? For this answer, we can look to our final home.

One use of Heimat thus far not mentioned is found in German translations of the Bible. Martin Luther, in his 1545 translation, uses the term in Genesis 24:7 when Abraham talks about God’s command to leave his home and travel to the Promised Land. “The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my kindred [Heimat], and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’”[3] Thus, Luther affirms in this translation the motif of leaving one’s Heimat.

Other German translations have also used Heimat in Philippians 3:20, “But our citizenship [Heimat] is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”[4] This concept of Heimat as being found in heaven has been an integral part of the Christian tradition. In the Grimm dictionary, comparable to the Oxford English Dictionary, part of the definition of Heimat includes this connection to Christianity. “For the Christian, heaven is Heimat, in contrast to the earth, on which he, as guest or foreigner, sojourns.”[5]

Heimat fits with the Christian tradition because this tradition affirms the desire for somewhere physical and good. In the traditional view of creation, God created the world as good, and Adam and Eve lived in the perfect Garden of Eden, which was “very good.”[6] Their desires were both spiritual–for God–but also physical– for fruit.[7] In this way, Christianity affirms the desire for a physical place, in contrast to Rosa’s definition. It offers an explanation for why one might look into the past for the ideal Heimat.

Furthermore, the Christian tradition asserts that the world is currently fallen. Just as the abundance of suggestions of Heimat ideals points out that there is something lacking in the current state of things, Christianity also affirms that things are not all good in the world. In the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the fruit not allowed them, they damaged their perfect relationship with God and were exiled from the Garden.[8] Through this, they lost their perfect home.

Christianity offers additionally, however, the promise of a perfect physical reality to come. 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21, both passages from the New Testament, describe the coming “new heaven and new earth” that would arrive after Christ’s return. These descriptions imply something very physical. This can also be logically deduced because of the belief that Jesus, after His death and resurrection, has a physical body and has promised us physical bodies as well. Physical bodies require a physical place to live. In Revelation 21:4, John describes heaven as a place where “He [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”[9] This physical reality carries the sought after emotional fulfillment. In this way, heaven satisfies.

Perhaps cultures are consumed by the desire for the ideal, not because it is an unrealistic goal, but because it is part of human nature. The desire for Heimat points to the possibility of the completely fulfilled desire for a physical place in which we are known and are secure. Our longing for Kansas is not irrational but, rather, is a foretaste for the feast to come.

 

1Harmut Rosa, “Heimat im Zeitalter der Globalisierung*,” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung,
17 October 2018 (155), <http://www.kas.de/upload/dokumente/2012/heimat/Heimat_
rosa.pdf>
2 Rosa, (163)
3 Genesis 24:7 (ESV)
4 Philippians 3:20 (ESV)
5 “Heimat” Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm, trans. Elizabeth
Schmucker, 17 October 2018, <http://woerterbuchnetz.de/cgi-bin/WBNetz/wbgui_
6 Genesis 1:31 (ESV)
7 Genesis 3:6 (ESV)
8 Genesis 3:23 (ESV)
9 Revelation 21:4 (ESV)

 

Elizabeth Schmucker, a proud Philadelphian to the core, is a senior studying Mathematics and German Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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