Heimat is a German word that literally translates to “home” or “homeland”, but its meaning – its feeling – carries greater weight, for which there is no English equivalent.
While contemplating the meaning of the world, I began to realize that finding my own version of (spiritual) Heimat – a strong sense of belonging – may just be one of life’s greatest accomplishments. And despite its German roots, Heimat has universal relevance. Here’s what you should know about it and why it’s worth exploring and defining in your own life.
The Politics of Heimat
Before we jump to the meaning of the word, it’s important to distinguish our understanding of Heimat from its often-divisive political usage. Today, “Heimat” is evoked constantly in German media by right-wing populists who are eager to revert back to times with the homeland was homogeneous and lacking in diversity. This movement has most recently been spurred by the rising tensions surrounding the refugee crisis. The word’s nostalgic, localizing essence incites a them-and-us rhetoric in the same way Amuuurrrica!-style patriotism does in the U.S. Many Germans, feeling their status quo coming under threat by “outsiders”, cling to the idea of Heimat as a distinctive factor in assessing who is welcome, and who is not. This is reminiscent of the Nazi era, when “blood-and-soil” propaganda led to the worst human genocide of modern times. In this sense, spewing political Heimat rhetoric is not just divisive, it is deadly.
But the true meaning of Heimat is subject to abuse the same way the concepts of freedom and democracy are abused by governments around the world. The essence remains sensible, even if the political application is suspicious.
The Spirituality of Heimat
For all intent and purposes, Heimat is relevant on a much deeper, fundamental level. I first learned about it while living in Germany and then, again, through a German boyfriend, who insisted on Heimat’s sanctity in defining one’s identity and place in the world.
The best definition I’ve come to for the word is this: Heimat is a sense of belonging that transcends the concept of “home” as a physical space and ventures into territory that involves social and spiritual belonging. Heimat has a lot to do with nostalgia and community. It is irreplaceable in the individual psyche, because it isn’t just your home – that place you live – it’s your home, that place you feel most content and rooted. For many Germans, heimat refers to their origins, either where they were born or where their family/ancestors are originally from.
When I began to consider Heimat in my own life, however, I couldn’t tie it to where I was born – Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Instead, I imagined where my soul was in sync with my surroundings and where I ultimately felt “at home” in that cheeky, corny sense. Having grown up between the USA and Turkey as well as having lived for long periods of time in both Spain and Germany, I always struggled to place myself in the world. Belonging, to me, was best described as existing in a space of anonymity, 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. In this place, I didn’t need to struggle to belong. I simply was.
When my boyfriend pulled me deeper into the concept of Heimat, though, I began to look at belonging a lot differently, connecting it to my spirituality rather than my physical and social presence. Where did I make sense and feel most connected to the people and culture around me? And, more importantly, was the answer to “where” an actual, physical location, or just a head space?
While I, and now you, toggle with answering that question, it’s worth appreciating the journey. Seriously, what the f*ck is Heimat?
This confusion is what German artist Stefan Strumbel so accurately depicts. Having risen in fame for his elaborate, colorful cuckoo clock sculptures (Karl Lagerfeld posed with one of Strumbel’s creations on the cover of German magazine Stern to mark his 75th birthday), Strumbel is half-mocking, half-reiterating the concept of Heimat.
On the one hand, the concept of Heimat is outdated, stuck in tradition, yet on the other hand, it remains symbolic and still worth reconciling. Strumbel pushes viewers of his art to consider how they define themselves culturally, socially and existentially. And maybe it’s the considering, not the answer, that’s the real meaning of the concept.