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Sehnsucht Heimat (Longing for Heimat)
Postcard for the exhibition 'Sehnsucht Heimat'('Longing for Heimat') in the Salzlager Hall/Kunsthalle Tirol, 1998
© Circus-Reklame, Innsbruck

Is the need for roots and for an unambiguous identity the answer to identity-conflicts in our overly pluralistic world? Is this, in other words, a politically innocent human and social need of today? Or does the seemingly harmless discourse of identity in fact provide a not so innocent postmodern sequel to the familiar old rhetoric of Volk, Vaterland und Heimat ("people, fatherland and Heimat")? In any case, talking about identity is surely a more modern way of talking about Heimat. And Heimat is a metaphor that awakens many longings and fantasies.

An Expedition through the Ideological Terrain of Heimat
"Heimat is the place where one's own habits are taken for granted by everyone else. In one's own Heimat, one never needs to be afraid." (Position-paper of the Austrian People's Party, 1994)

In the agrarian, pre-industrial era, Heimat originally meant the possession of house and home, the place where one was entitled to stay. "The Heimat", in German-speaking areas, was a plain and simple legal term, and if an individual did not have a so-called "Heimat-right," or had one and lost it, then that individual had to go off to foreign parts, or into "misery" as it was called. And there were many people in misery.

The concepts "Heimat" and "identity" owe the development of their profile to modernization.
In the course of the nineteenth century a change occurred in the understanding of the concept of Heimat. Heimat itself became an emotional value, saddled with sentimental cliches and celebrated in Heimat- songs such as Am Brunnen vor dem Tore, known to the world through Schubert's setting "Der Lindenbaum".

Heimat grew to be an alternative construct to the modern age, i.e., it became the idealization of a place one had left behind. In the course of industrialization a Heimat-movement emerged, primarily out of the cities. The philosopher Rudolf Burger calls Heimat therefore "a whining lost-property ad." National-socialism later latched on to the Heimat-cult and the concept of Heimat took on a Nazi-brown coloration, a veneer that it has not lost to this day.

Protectedness, security, warmth, carefree childhood, the feeling of belonging, enjoyable landscapes, one's own four walls - around these elements float the ideas of Heimat, as Nora Räthsel, a German researcher into racism, ascertained in a professional survey (Radiokolleg, Österreich 1, May 29 - June 1, 1995). In the American language, there is an expression "mobile home." The word "mobile" means the opposite of being bogged down, of running on the spot, and it has very positive connotations, more positive than its connotations in German where the concept of a "mobile home" is almost self-contradictory. At home, being at home, has in German much more the connotation of being attached to one place. And the primary significance of the German word "Heimat" is above all the separation of me and mine from everything far-off and foreign.

Heimat as Identity-Factor
There is in German literature a popular genre called the Heimat-novel, often translated as the regional novel because of its being rooted in particular regions. Austrian writers in this genre, such as Karl Heinrich Waggerl (1897-1973) or Peter Rosegger (1843-1918) were criticized after 1945 for their idealized and cliched depiction of rural areas. In Austrian post-war literature, by contrast, there arose a form of anti-Heimat- novel by authors such as Franz Innerhofer (1944-2002), Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) and Elfriede Jelinek, (born 1946) to name only a few. The Heimat-film is also a film-genre with a rich tradition in German-speaking countries: consider such popular Austrian Kitsch films as "The Forester of Silberwald." (1954). German directors, such as Edgar Reitz, in his world-famous film-opus, called Heimat (1984), ploughs similar furrows, but in a different way. For Reitz, Heimat is not merely a territorial or regional concept but a memorial to his origins. For his colleague Wim Wenders, the Heimat utopia does not exist.

His heroes have no Heimat. They are at home in themselves. For Wenders, identity means that one does not need a Heimat. Consciousness, so he says, has to do with not being at home - a denial of all those "wood and pasture rhapsodies" that always put a negative value on the derootedness of modern people, seeing this as something disconcerting and threatening.

More than one Heimat
Overwhelmed by floods of information, international economic interconnections, mass-culture and world-wide migration movements, regional and cultural borders have long since begun to crumble, so much so that there is already a trend towards counter-movements emphasizing the belief that culture evolves from the native soil, and nourishing the fiction of identity rooted in that soil. Heimat - a little home-allotment garden in the global village? The retreat into the miniature is the ground on which conservatives and progressives cross paths in their efforts at socio-cultural criticism.

The Munich psycho-therapist Wolfgang Schmidbauer attempts to explain modern identity as being stamped with the antithesis between world and Heimat, (Radiokolleg/Österreich 1, May 29 - June 1, 1995): He suggests that the world offers the human being endless possibilities, but also endless misery; Heimat limits both; the prisoner caught in the confined sphere of Heimat longs for freedom, the wanderer lost in the world longs for Heimat, according to Schmidbauer. And at the opposite pole to provincial existence are those who see themselves as citizens of the world, with credit-card and passport in their hand-baggage.

Refugees, migrants, immigrants - for reasons of wars or poverty, they have to leave their Heimat and live in foreign lands. Many of them have chosen Europe as their destination and find their right to a new Heimat often disputed, not least with the argument that the cultural identity of Europe is under threat. Europe, that is seen by its citizens only step by step as Heimat, functions today as a bulkhead against people from the poor areas of the world. This being so, the yearning for Heimat can hardly be seen as innocent utopian thinking.

Station: Heim.at
(Last update: 02/2006)

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