what’s in a name?

One eyebrow-raising idea from Germany’s new (old) coalition is the creation of a Heimatministerium — a ‘Homeland Ministry’. Its remit is to push ahead with digitalisation and strengthen and develop rural areas, making these more attractive places for people and businesses. Article 72 of Germany’s Basic Law refers to the establishment of ‘equivalent living conditions throughout the federal territory’, as well as the ‘maintenance of legal [and] economic unity’. In other words, not only cities but rural areas too should benefit from growth, development and improved living standards.

So why the raised eyebrows? Well, first of all, there are some basic puzzles and inconsistencies. The tasks are both formidable and highly complex, involving technology, agriculture, transportation and construction and a huge budget. All the more surprising, then, that Heimat is apparently to fall under the umbrella of the Interior Ministry (thus creating a ‘super-ministry), rather than, say, Finance or Rural Affairs — or perhaps even a new Digitalisation Ministry bringing together various clusters of expertise. Furthermore, despite the ongoing disparity in living standards in the eastern states, doubt has been cast on the future of the solidarity tax intended to support eastern areas. And let’s not forget that masterminding and implementing this project will be the same government that’s already been in power for two of the three most recent legislative periods. The magnitude of the challenge ahead isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the coalition’s own legacy.

Second, there’s the name itself: ‘Heimatministerium’.

wood-2406511_1920Heimat’ is notoriously difficult to translate into English. Look in most dictionaries and you’ll find ‘home’ — hence the reference to ‘Homeland, although this doesn’t quite capture the full meaning. But even taken at face value, the name is still an odd choice for a ministry whose function is delivery of technology and infrastructure and the rejuvenation of rural regions. (Contrast this to the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin approach of the UK’s Ministry for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth). And incidentally, aren’t towns and cities included in Heimat too?

What’s more, Heimat is a very subjective word linked to identity and belonging. Germany’s Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier insists that nationalists can’t be allowed to claim ‘Heimat’ as their own. It is a word, he says, that refers to a longing for a place of security, solidarity and recognition. A place where you can ‘understand and be understood’.  However, it takes a lot more than high-speed internet for a place to feel like home; you need to feel at ease, that you belong and that you’re accepted just as you are, and wherever you’re from.

Heimat is a very subjective term linked to identity and belonging

One explanation for the unusual choice of name is that it’s an attempt to reclaim Heimat from the rhetorical arsenal of growing nationalism. However, by the same logic, you can just as easily regard it as a deliberate appeal to nationalists and far-right voters. Scroll through the #Heimatministerium hashtag on Twitter and alongside tweets mocking the new ministry and its name, you’ll also find  others embracing the new Heimatministerium as a vanguard against multiculturalism. A view no doubt reinforced by plans for the new super-ministry to be headed by Bavarian arch-conservative Horst Seehofer — vocal critic of Merkel’s immigration and refugee policy and friend of Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s right-wing authoritarian Prime Minister.

Green MP Anja Schillhaneck describes Heimat as ‘herkunftsbezogen und zudem tendenziell ausgrenzend’ — related to origin, with exclusionary tendencies. I share her concern. But more to the point, it’s also exactly how nationalists will continue to see it*. Furthermore, the AfD’s response has been to explicitly reject any attempts to ‘water down’ concepts of Heimat and identity by parties who ‘hate their own’.

And with that in mind, and despite Steinmeier’s reassurances, I wonder whether it might be preferable to leave Heimat to the right after all. Because I genuinely fear that attempts to ‘reclaim’ it risk strengthening nationalist arguments and framing — by bringing them closer to the heart of government and closer to the centre of public and political discourse.


*As confirmed by viewing various nationalist websites, which I choose not to publicise on my blog.

image credit: comfreak @ pixabay


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