Bucolic bliss drives Germany's 'Heimat' sensation

 

A publishing success ‘infused with the past’ is an antidote to the hurly burly of urban life

SOMETHING IS shifting in Germany and the evidence is on the newsstands. While most publications struggle for readers, one niche market has proven a runaway success: so-called “Heimat” magazines.

On the surface they look no different to any other country life magazines, presenting an idealised dose of rural authenticity as a remedy to hectic urban living.

Germany’s “Heimat” magazines do more than fetishise authentic country life, however: they appear to be tapping, very successfully, into a deep longing of a people to embrace its homeland, cultures and traditions.

The first magazine to enter what, for decades, has been a very German minefield was Landlust (Lust for the Land), launched in 2005. Today it is one of Germany’s best-selling magazines, with each bimonthly issue selling nearly a million copies and earning €20 million annually. The formula never changes: country living features, seasonal recipes and opulent photography. The current issue has articles on the “passion for daffodils”, offers practical Easter menus and introduces crocheting.

Other publishers, convinced Landlust would never work, were caught out badly and rushed to launch their own copycat publications. One of the recent arrivals in a now crowded market – Hör Zu Heimat from the same stable as the Bild tabloid – is the most explicit about its intentions.

“The smell of grandma’s apple pie, the rattle of autumn leaves, family, childhood, security,” wrote Hör Zu Heimat editor Christian Hellmann in his first editorial. “Heimat is something different for everyone and more than just a place.”

Often translated as “homeland”, Heimat means everything from local identity to love of nature and the changing fortunes of the concept reflect the many ups and downs of German history. Dating from the 15th century and beyond, the word first came into widespread use with 19th century romantic authors like Karl Philip Moritz, who described it as a “venerable expression of homey tranquility and happiness”.

By the early 20th century Heimat had become politicised by the German nationalist movement, with its distinct ideas about racial purity. Because of its potent, dual appeal – to Germans’ romantic and political thought – the Heimat idea was targeted and co-opted by the Nazis, aiding their rise to power in 1933.

In 1945, with their cities in ruins and German national identity tainted by the Third Reich, Germans embraced regional identity and flocked to so-called Heimat films, escapist technicolour romps involving hunky hunters in lederhosen and busty milkmaids in dirndls.

This idealised Heimat was eventually discredited by the 1968 student revolution as synonymous with national amnesia towards the Nazi atrocities. It was another two decades until film-maker Edgar Reitz reclaimed the idea as the name of his 15-hour Heimat trilogy, exploring German 20th century history.

So why has “Heimat” come home again to roost on the news-stand? Some point to uncertainty over globalisation and the persistent euro zone crisis, just as Germans embraced “Heimat” during 19th century industrialisation or the 1920s economic collapse.

Cultural sociologist Dr Frithjof Hager suggests Germans are retooling their “national patriotic identity” as a delayed reaction to the return of sovereignty in 1990. From two postwar Germanys, a new German state that never existed before was created.

“Unlike most countries we don’t have a long, shared past but now we have stability and national borders which we all more or less accept,” said Dr Hager. “We are building something now for the first time and thinking of the future.”

For him this “Heimat” revival is less to do with eastern Germans’ economic adjustment, than with a cultural readjustment among former West Germans. For the duration of the cold war, many of their prized historical and cultural sites were locked away in the other Germany. The ersatz “Heimat” that sprang up in West Germany has, he suggests, now been replaced with the real deal.

It is an interesting idea and would explain why the glossy Heimat magazines are filled with travel features to eastern cradles of German culture like Weimar and Erfurt.

So far there is no reason for Germany’s neighbours to be alarmed: no political party seems interested in embracing this “Heimat” revival.

If anything, German chancellor Angela Merkel is pulling her Christian Democrats (CDU) in the opposition direction, towards the political centre, away from its conservative roots. Ordinary Germans who have embraced the Heimat magazines are wary of attempts to politicise this Heimat ideal once more.

“For me the word Heimat is still an odd idea, infused with the past – the Nazis and even the East German authorities,” said Stefan Peggau, a longtime Landlust reader. For him, the magazines offer cheap escapism. “Like most people I know they are not reality; they are selling a sense of wellbeing at home.”