Seeing this photograph of graffiti in Stuttgart transported me back to my time as an exchange student in Germany. Not so much for the cleverness of the critique it implies — though I do appreciate it — but because I spent much of my stay asking myself the very same question, “What the fuck is Heimat?”
You see, I spent the bulk of that year abroad in the part of Germany from which my father’s parents had emigrated in the early 1920s: hearing the accent they spoke their native tongue with; eating the foods I was familiar with from visits to their Pennsylvania home; and experiencing the rituals they had themselves known as teenagers. There were many occasions when, upon encountering a practice that seemed odd to me, I made myself more comfortable by imagining my grandfather and grandmother performing it.
And yet, though I traveled the hour or so to Stuttgart many times during my time in that part of Germany, I never mustered the courage to initiate contact with my relatives there, despite my host mother repeatedly urged me to do so. One day, I managed to make the long streetcar ride — subsequently replaced by a faster mass transit system — out to Botnang, on the outskirts of the city, and walked up the hill to the address of my grandfather’s younger brother Rudi, but couldn’t bring myself to press the doorbell. Instead, I stood outside it for a while, pondering my heritage.
Why should these people I had never met be more important to me than the strangers I had come to know during my time abroad? Why had my grandmother’s younger sister Aunt Louise suddenly started showing interest in me now that I was in Germany, after basically ignoring me for a decade? Why had German after German expressed their approval that I was getting to know the Heimat befitting my Herkunft, the homeland of my father’s family (and, in a broader sense, much of my mother’s family as well)?
Learning German while living in Germany — my father had never tried to impart his knowledge of the language to me — had attuned me very early, before I was proficient in grammar, to the multiple and sometimes mutually antagonistic connotations of words that an American studying German in the United States struggles to master. Heimat, because it correlates so obviously to the English root “home”, was one of the first abstract concepts I comprehended in this manner. Without ever looking the word up in a dictionary, I intuitively grasped the slipperiness Peter Blickle describes in the introduction to his insightful book on the topic, Heimat: A Critical Theory of the German Idea of Homeland: “As long as no one asks what Heimat is, German speakers think they know. But as soon as someone asks, the difficulties begin.”
It is this hard-to-define quality that the graffiti addresses. While contemporary Germans might take issue with the political critique suggested in the question, few would dispute that the term inspires “WTF?” moments. Painfully aware, even now, that the legacy of imperialism and fascism shadow their nation’s dealings, they know that invoking Heimat can land them in trouble. But that doesn’t stop them from using the word. It just makes them cautious.
If I were to generalize — with the proviso that generalizations are always somewhat risky — I would venture that postwar Germans have largely tried to shrink the term Heimat back down to a manageable and implicitly pre-nationalistic size, disentangling it from the idea of Vaterland that the Nazis asserted so vigorously. As Blickle writes, “Heimat is usually presented in contrast to the state, which is a political, public, vaterländisch construct. In other words, there is usually a fatherland and a Heimat, even if they both occupy the same geographical space.” Whereas the Nazis attempted to collapse this distinction, in keeping with their promotion of Gleichschaltung or “synchronization,” postwar Germans sought to reinforce it, an exercise abetted by the rather arbitrary division between East and West Germany.
Growing up when I did in the United States, in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, even this narrow conception of Heimat would have been anathema to me. It was an accident that I ended up in Germany at all, really. I had been studying Spanish in high school, but decided that I wanted to go abroad after my senior year too late to sign up for any Spanish-speaking country my parents would let me go (which ruled out much of politically or economically unstable Latin America.) Since I had long been inexplicably fixated on Scandinavia, my second option was an organization that would place me in Finland, Denmark or Sweden. But I had angered the local Maryland chapter’s president during an orientation retreat by staying up all night with his fifteen-year-old-daughter and concluded that it would be best to make alternate plans.
That’s how I ended up with Youth For Understanding, an organization that sent Americans to a wide range of countries but had more places available in Germany than anywhere else. I still had my dream of learning a Scandinavian language — I was a strange teenager — but was convinced by my classmate’s Hungarian mother that it would be a waste of time to spend a year in a country where many movies and television programs were shown in English. Under the circumstances, as the final deadline got closer and closer, choosing Germany was the path of least resistance.
I knew, of course, that my decision would make sense to an outside observer. I had spent my first decade listening to my father’s parents bicker with each other in German during our weekly visits. And I had been living then in a part of Pennsylvania where the majority of the population and many customs were ultimately of German descent. Spending a year in Germany would strengthen my sense of both family and regional heritage, other people would think, providing an identity I could fall back on during periods of self-doubt.
The thing was, I had precious little interest in confirming my German-ness. Even then, I was suspicious of the idea that there was value in connecting with one’s ancestral home. And that was still my frame of mind after living in Germany for nine months, as I stood outside the Bertsch residence in Botnang, trying to figure out what had prevented me from pressing the doorbell. True, I hadn’t called to tell them I was coming — conducting phone calls in a foreign language made me anxious — but Aunt Louise had written to say that I would be stopping by. There was no doubt that I would have been greeted warmly.
That’s why I kept berating myself when I finally did get to meet my relatives at the end of my year. My parents and sister had come over from the United States for a long vacation that concluded with a week-long stay at my host family’s spacious home. With my host mother’s help, my father quickly made arrangements for a visit and the four of us drove to Stuttgart. We first got to meet Rudi and his wife in the very house I had stood outside, then went to a local restaurant for a traditional German meal, the sort that I had been eating since my arrival in southern Germany, but also the sort that I had been eating, every now and then, since I was a baby.
It all felt totally natural. And I regretted not having had the chance to get to know my relatives better. Had I made contact earlier, I surely could have met their children and grandchildren, who would have had more in common with me. More importantly, I could also have learned more about my grandfather’s youth, the sort of family history that it now troubles me not to know. Even though I’m still not sure what to do with that history, I nevertheless want to be able to err on the side of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously termed “thick description.”
This explains why I have such a hard time paring down my own possessions, doubting myself with each decision to discard. However foolish it might seem, I aspire to leave my daughter and her descendants with enough material to flesh out the stories they only learn second or third-hand. Because even though I mean to leave a written record of my own experiences, both in short pieces like this one and longer compositions, I also know that having access to the material artifacts that prompt recollection leads to a richer understanding of the past than one person’s attempt to narrate it.
My regret at missing opportunities to learn more about my ancestors motivates me to act like a historical preservationist now. It’s why I’m currently making to get my rather circumspect father to open up about his youth. But it doesn’t address the deeper questions, such as why it seems so important to me to preserve the memory of experiences that don’t register on the scale of textbook history or where my conviction that each recollection must be geographically “tagged” comes from. If I am skeptical of efforts to bind heritage to Heimat — and have been so since I was a teenager — what is my motivation for so intently mapping my family’s history?
Strangely, I was driven to reflect on these questions with renewed vigor by watching Peter Jackson’s first two installments of The Hobbit. Though widely rebuked for turning J.R.R. Tolkien’s soufflé-like original into a supersized mincemeat pie, the films do an excellent job of elaborating on its themes of homeland and exile, as well as underscoring the importance of recording one’s experiences for posterity. In the process, however, they also implicitly take the story down an ideological path that Tolkien might have wished to avoid.
Some have argued that Tolkien’s depiction of dwarves is guilty of the same ethnic stereotyping found in the fairy tales of Mitteleuropa, with their acquisitiveness and materialism standing in for the Jewish people. To my mind, this is a dubious claim, undermined by the obvious affection the author has for dwarvish ways. But even if one is not inclined not to give him the benefit of the doubt, it seems clear to me that the films justify the logic that underpinned the formation of the modern state of Israel.
At one point in the first film — which my fangirl teenager has had me watch repeatedly in celebration of the second one’s release — the lead dwarf Thorin Oakenshield pointedly asks protagonist Bilbo Baggins why he has returned to the dwarves’ dangerous quest instead of returning to the comfort of his hobbit hole. Bilbo replies that he is doing so because he has a home but they do not, the Kingdom of Erebor having been taken away from them by the dragon Smaug nearly two-hundred years before. Although we know that Thorin’s folk had successfully resettled in the Blue Mountains by this time — a place that easily qualifies, what is more, as an ancestral home, since dwarves were living there long before Erebor was settled — Bilbo reinforces the message that only reclaiming their “original” kingdom will rectify the dwarves’ existential homelessness.
Deeper engagement with the universe Tolkien set in motion complicates this point. Bilbo may feel a kinship with the dwarves and a keen longing for the comforts of home, but ends up choosing to live in a kind of happy exile in Rivendell, with the high elves who are themselves multiply exiled. And Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings may want nothing more than to return to their neighborhood in The Shire, but find at the end of their quest that going home is far harder than they had ever imagined. Once you leave the seemingly safe confines of your Heimat, both physically and mentally, not even the strongest nostalgia can guarantee that you will live there at peace with yourself. Presumably, the same fate befalls the dwarves who reclaim Erebor. Indeed, we learn that Balin, the kindly old dwarf whom Bilbo gets along with best, leads a quixotic expedition to reclaim a home the dwarves had lost before they first came to Erebor, the mines of Moria.
If exile is the dominant condition of Tolkien’s creations, then restlessness is its inevitable consequence. Humans, elves, dwarves and sometimes even hobbits dream of returning to the homelands of their ancestors, yet find that the urge to return to your past is ultimately not that different from the urge to leave your past behind. It’s simply a question of where you draw the line separating the idealized portion of your history from its more dimly regarded aftermath. And the drawing of that line is both arbitrary and relative. The elves of The Lord of the Rings believe the dwarvish kingdom of Moria to have been a disaster, stirring up dark forces that would otherwise not have surfaced. The dwarves, by contrast, consider it to be their Golden Age.
In a stellar review of Jeff Malpas’s book Heidegger’s Topology: Being, Place, World, Julian Young discusses the discrepancy between the controversial German philosopher’s own conception of Heimat and the more progressive one that Malpas see his work facilitating. Malpas argues that Heimat ultimately “does not consist in being in any ‘fixed and stable spot’ on earth but rather in a state of mind: experiencing the ‘nearness’, ‘wonder’, ‘uncanniness’ of being. Anywhere, in other words, that shows up as a ‘poetic’, ‘holy’ place is, for the person who experiences it as such, a homeland.”
While Young largely approves of Malpas’s effort to read Heidegger against the grain, he resists the extremity of this conclusion. “Given Heidegger’s celebrated provincialism, his refusal to leave the Black Forest region of his birth, his taste for Swabian constume and his insistence that his intellectual work, as much as that of any Black-Forest farmer, is rooted in the Swabian soil, this is a surprising account of Heidegger’s Heimat. Surely, one might say, Heidegger’s life shows us, that homeland as he understands it is a ‘fixed and stable’ place on earth (different places, of course, for different people). “ But individuals like Heidegger are “only capable of accessing homeland in a particular geographic region.”
What would have happened if Heidegger, like the German Jewish intellectuals who the Nazis drove into exile, had been forced to leave his Heimat and take up residence in a place where he didn’t have any roots? Would the specificity that mattered so much to him, the physical and cultural geography of the Black Forest, have been something he could discover anew? If he did, finally, have to plant new roots far from German soil, would he have opted for a place that resembled it — as many immigrants to the New World did — or chosen instead a location radically different from the one where he grew up?
These questions would interest me no matter where I came from or where I had lived. But they resonate for me with extra power for several reasons: because I grew up in a part of the United States, the southeastern part of Pennsylvania, heavily populated by Germans who settled there because it reminded them of the homes they had left behind in Europe; because my father’s parents were themselves Swabians, like Heidegger; because I spent the majority of my year abroad living in Swabia, trying to make sense of my relation to it; and, finally, because I have now spent more of my life in Tucson, Arizona than anywhere else, in a setting that differs from both my own Pennsylvania origins and my family’s German ones in almost every respect.
As an added wrinkle, this part of southern Arizona is one of the few places in the continental United States where a Native American tribe has been continuously living on its ancestral homeland since before the arrival of Europeans. The Tohono O’odham people, whose territory extends westward and southward from Tucson, have not experienced the sort of extreme dislocation that has “metaphorized” the geographic heritage of tribes like the Cherokee.
When the Tohono O’odham speak of I’itoi , their cosmology’s creator figure, as the god who lives under the mountain, they mean Baboquivari Peak, which still lies, in part, on their lands. Although they no doubt have much to be nostalgic for, including that relatively recent past before the United States’ Department of Homeland Security began turning the Mexican border into a nightmarish security zone, they can at least hold on to the knowledge that they have not been exiled from their Heimat.
When I look out at the distinctively sharp profile of Baboquivari Peak — one which, rather oddly, somewhat resembles the conception of Erebor from Peter Jackson’s Hobbit franchise — I ponder the value of not having been displaced and the increasing rarity of that condition in our restless age. And I ask myself whether my own longing to return to the Pennsylvania of my childhood or even, at times, the Germany of my grandparents’ childhood is worth indulging.
How important is it to feel connected to a place that isn’t the place where one currently lives? The impulse to return is, by definition, reactionary. But is there a way to redeem it by, for example, acknowledging that the only way to go back is to go forward? Julian Young suggests that by foregrounding the journey rather than its destination, we might keep what matters most squarely in view. “It is only the inevitability of transition, of departure, that is necessary to experience life on earth as a fragile and precious gift. It is the inevitability of, not annihilation, but rather emigration which gives rise to the anticipatory nostalgia that is a necessary component of experiencing the wonder of life.”
As I stood outside my relatives’ home in Stuttgart, asking myself why I should feel a closer connection to them than to people I already knew, I was trying to figure out which ties should bind and which should be left to dangle, unfastened. Yet the mere fact that I had taken the time to make the trip out to that unfamiliar location was proof of its importance to me. Because if I hadn’t undertaken it, I wouldn’t have been prodded to think so long and hard about the significance of Heimat.
From the time in late 1922 when my grandfather boarded the train to take him and his bride north to Hamburg, where their ship was waiting, until he passed away in the spring of 1978, he never set foot in his Heimat again. Nor did he seem to regret his semi-voluntary exile — the German economy was in bad shape when he left — all that much. Although he would often tell me stories of his service in the German Navy during World War I, he never once mentioned what it was like growing up in another country, speaking another language.
Perhaps if he had, I would have felt the pull of my ancestral homeland more intensely. But I’m glad he didn’t. As German — and Swabian — as he and my grandmother were, I never had the sense that that was how they chose to describe themselves. Their identity was grounded on what they could bring with them as emigrants, not what bound them to a particular place. I am sure they missed home, especially at first, when their English was limited. Yet they never let that homesickness define them.
Now Germany, like most of Europe, is a place where people emigrate to rather than emigrate from. A sizable percentage of the individuals who saw that grafitti were not living anywhere near their ancestral homelands. Whatever their nostalgia for the homes they or their parents or their grandparents left behind, they have good reasons for being in Stuttgart. When they wonder what the fuck Heimat is, they are musing on the ties that bind them to another place outside of Germany, but also demonstrating, as they think in English about a German concept, that emigration makes it possible to see complexities to which those who never leave home are blind.
Photographs of German street art courtesy of Joel Schalit. Baboquivari Peak photo by the author.