The Heimat Abroad: The Boundaries of Germanness
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
The Heimat Abroad: The Boundaries of Germaneness. Edited by Kristina O'Donnell, Renate Bridenthal, and Nancy Reagin. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2005.
To read this book is to enter a world of either-or, of being German
or non-German, its vision that of a people wondering if they belong
where they live. The editors say in the introduction, "..through
history of ethnic inclusion and exclusion, we confront why Germanness
has always been and remains a problem."
A dozen scholars map out aspects of Germany’s relationship
citizens who have moved away both before and after it coalesced
nation in 1871. From its beginning, the German government affirmed
persons of German extraction can reclaim citizenship, implying that
once one was German, one was always German. That does not mean that
law has been uniform; as recently as 2000, the criteria have been
tightened. But is Germany always to be the true home of all Germans?
that what is meant by the word "Heimat" of the title?
of Heimat, which scholars have usually identified as a local sense
place grounded in emotional attachments to familiar surroundings."
scholars acknowledge that there is something not quite real about
idea. "...the appeal of Heimat evolved at a time and place
truly existed yet could be re-envisioned through an urban lens and
distance of time and space."
The authors raise a range of questions and set about answering
to varying levels of satisfaction. Who is a German? If you live
Germany and hold citizenship in another country, are you still German?
Does language define you? Does culture? Do you need to fulfill
obligations to Germany? Must you exhibit the traditional qualities
order and personal discipline? Must you belong to a German association?
What if your family has lived outside of Germany for several
generations, you neither speak German nor practice the culture?
your parents or you are married to a non-German?
Several key words pop up to describe the world’s German population:
Reichsdeutsche (persons living in Germany proper) Volksdeutsche
(ethnic Germans living elsewhere) and Volksgemeinschaft (the whole
bunch, defined, in the National Socialist view, as "all Germans
not excluded for racial, hereditary, behavioural, or political reasons.").
The identity of Germans was complicated exponentially by National
Socialist-era notions of racial purity, and the authors face this
issue head on.
The idea of Germans as distinct persons within the human family
is treated in the book by looking at some of the places where Germans
have settled outside of Germany’s border. One of the essays
deals in detail with German Jews who emigrated to Brazil in the
years before World War II, when their status in Germany was becoming
precarious. It was the time of the depression, and many countries
were experiencing economic distress and did not welcome immigrants.
Another looks at the German community that formed in Mexico. This
group began as "trade conquistadors" and segued into "industrial
nomads," not an extreme leap. At first, they saw themselves
as making a fortune then returning to Germany, only gradually identifying
as Mexicans. Their presence emboldened Germany to suggest that Mexico
might like to join the Axis side during World War II. A third essay
deals with German colonization in Africa and the resultant concern
with racial mixing. Always, it seemed, someone mourned assimilation
and made an effort to strengthen the Germanness of the group, through
newspapers, schools, or cultural enrichment programs.
The major interests of several writers were the Germans who moved
Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Russia, groups that eventually
related to a Heimat outside Germany. This makes the book of special
interest to German Russian readers. Renate Bridenthal, who wrote
chapter that deals specifically with the Germans in Russia, did
especially fine job of naming the scholars who originated the "Germans
from Russia" identifier, wrote the first histories, gathered
genealogical material that is leaned on even today, and initiated
organizations that gather and promote their story in both Germany
Germany in the twentieth century showed a keen interest in the
Germans farming in Russia, and German armies occupied the Ukraine
in both world wars. Officials catalogued the German villagers and
subverted their loyalties in any way they could, though the partially
assimilated populace showed less interest in their German roots
than Germany would have liked. Their men, after all, were off fighting
with the Russian armies against Germany. Hitler envisioned a rich
agricultural state in the Ukraine farmed by Germans, some of whom,
he hoped, would return even from the Americas. It becomes clear,
in this book, that Stalin did not cut his fears about a fifth column
out of whole cloth, though Russia has acknowledged that there is
no evidence that the Germans were a national danger.
These writers pay limited attention to the Germans who live in
the United States despite the fact that 5 million went to North
America between 1815 and 1914 and 29 per cent of the United States
population claimed some degree of German origin in 1980. The two
world wars fought against Germany created anti-German feelings in
America and there was successful suppression of things German. Also,
the attractive American culture provided a great impetus to assimilation,
even among those most recently arrived.
The authors, to their credit, refuse to pussyfoot around the Nazis,
their policies, and the effect their ideas have had on definitions
Germanness. Did Germans living outside Germany sometimes collaborate
ways that make their descendants squirm? Yes. Did they sometimes
personal advantage and cast a blind eye on evil? Yes. Was the
collaboration often innocent of knowledge of what the whole Nazi
program meant? Yes. Did they sometimes subvert the Nazi regime when
they identified that evil? Yes again.
This book is not an easy read. Unless you are a scholar, you might
as well locate your dictionary and look up diaspora, irredentist,
and metropole right now. Some of the essays are more readable than
others. In all of them are the names of organizations, of government
agencies, and of publications that are what Mark Twain called alphabetical
processions. A list of the acronyms is provided for the conscientious
reader. At least one of the essays requires a knowledge of European/German
state history and no little geography. All essays have extensive
footnotes that suggest other sources if the reader desires.
What was left out? This reviewer would have liked to have seen
a whole essay on language and the class distinctions created when
one group spoke high German and others dialects. There were just
scattered references to it. The effect of communist policies on
the German villagers and Baltic Germans alike was not emphasized
forcefully enough to show the personal devastation they caused.
The role of religious faith, personal and institutional, in the
lives of ethnic Germans, lightly touched upon, was surely a more
prominent and defining element in the lives of the Volksdeutsche
than these studies would suggest.
The detailed inclusion of the Germans from Russia, Volga and Black
Sea and Eastern European is rare in a scholar-written work. This
gives the recognition due to them, and that makes it a worthwhile
choice for reading and for many collections.