Our Shared Heritage?

I have recently read ‘[Eure] Heimat ist [unser] Albtraum’, a book on the concept of Heimat, or heritage [1] with essays by writers with ‘a migrant background’, as the classification in German has it. It raises many points that we in the heritage and culture sectors must engage with even more than we have done to date, and there are no easy answers. [2]

 

The book’s challenge begins with the title: ‘[Your] heritage is [our] nightmare’, with the words ‘your’ and ‘our’ embossed without colour so that they can only be read at a closer look. The title thus emphasizes both a sense of separatedness and of a threat. That treat emanates from the concept of Heimat, which is contested in Germany, but which in large parts of society enjoys a revival as the feeling of belonging to a place or group [3].

 

The issue, as several essays in the book make clear, is how Heimat is defined and who has access to it. More specifically, it is about who does the defining and the granting of access. The writers argue that it is the dominant (non-migrant) group. It is they who establish a norm and classify people accordingly into those who belong to this Heimat,  and those who do not.

 

Several authors argue that speaking the language fluently, upholding the values of the German constitution, and even holding a German passport does not ensure that people are considered as belonging to the German norm. The examples they cite are numerous: from being constantly asked ‘Where are you from?’ to having their loyalty to the German state questioned [4]. One writer, Mithu Sanyal, also notes that the history of the new Germans [5] is not represented: they are not part of the German Erinnerungskultur, or memory culture, she argues, and thus of those who are remembered and those who do the remembering.

 

Max Czollek adds to this an excellent analysis of the discursive system of representation through which the German norm is established. He argues that it stems from Germany’s desire for normalcy after the Holocaust. In the ensuing narrative, Germany is no longer racist, because it cannot be: to acknowledge racism would end that normalcy the country craves, a normalcy it is too emotionally invested in to give up. Thus is born the Integrationsparadigma, or integration paradigm, he writes, with an all-encompassing expectation for those outside the dominant group to ‘integrate’.

 

Czollek in particular offers a suggestion on how we might move forward. For one, he suggests a focus on Gegenwartsbewältigung, or Coming to Terms with the Present, as opposed to Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or coming to terms with the past. The latter is at the root of the current narrative of German normalcy, he argues, as a focus on the successful (yet equally past) efforts of the country to take responsibility for the Holocaust. Gegenwartsbewältigung, he suggests, would make the country tackle current issues of racism so that the events of the (German) past are not repeated. Furthermore, he suggest ‘an acknowledgement of radical diversity’, which moves beyond classifications and instead acknowledges that contemporary Germany is already “all of the above”. The norm, therefore, is radical diversity.

 

The points raised in this book are a challenge to heritage and wider cultural practice. The easiest part, one might imagine, is to include ‘migrant’ narratives in the stories we tell, and that’s something that we’ve discussed in the sector for years. And yet here we are, with people still telling us that their stories are missing.

 

The book’s essays engage forcefully with the systems of representation that are at work, and I believe it is those very systems that prevent us from radically changing our practice. In Germany, for example, we may indeed, as Mithu Sanyal implies, require a shift in our memory culture. However, as Max Czollek has pointed out, for non-migrant Germans this represents a deeply engrained narrative which to challenge is difficult [6]. And yet, if we are serious about true inclusion and equality, we must do more to understand the underlying dynamic and move beyond it.

 

Both Czollek’s concepts of Gegenwartsbewältigung and radical diversity seem an excellent start, but they require of us a focus away from the past and into the present, away from repeating existing narratives to negotiating new and shared narratives instead. On the surface, that sounds simple. Digging deeper, the waters immediately become murky. In practice, I think we need to start by creating spaces where the representations applied to people are made visible and an open and respectful discussion about those representations can take place.

 

 

Notes

[1] ‘Heimat’ is sometimes translated as ‘home’, but the English word ‘home’ does not by far come close to the multifaceted and highly charged (as well as contested) meaning of the German word ‘Heimat’. ‘Heritage’, in its encompassing senses of origin, inheritance, and belonging to a group or country seems much more appropriate. This also becomes evident in the translation of the book title, which is likely to engender a similar response in English readers when using ‘heritage’ to translate ‘Heimat’, whereas ‘home’ makes the meaning of the title just a little odd but not a real, emotionally charged challenge.

 

[2] The book is written in a German context, and some of it is quite specific to that context. Nevertheless I feel there are points that are relevant beyond Germany’s borders, especially regards the processes of othering and exclusion, and the creation of a strong and shared heritage and culture.

 

[3] The foreword more specifically relates the sense of threat to the Ministerium des Innern, für Bau und Heimat, or Ministry of the Interior, for Construction and Heritage, which – as ‘Heimatministerium’ – was established in 2018. Of course it didn’t help that the minister in charge immediately proceeded to question whether Islam was part of that German Heimat.

 

[4] As happened with footballer Mesut Özil who, despite being born in Germany, was given a prize for integration and then had his loyalty to the German state questioned because he posed with the Turkish president Erdoğan (the point being also that another footballer, Lothar Matthäus, met Russian president Putin yet his loyalty was not questioned at all – presumably because he is part of the dominant group).

 

[5] This seems a term often used by those ‘with a migrant background’. It seems to offer a real sense of inclusion. And if we must still have a distinction between German people, I’d rather it be ‘old’ and ‘new’. Point is, we’re all Germans.

 

[6] Not just, I would argue, because ‘we’ – and I suppose I must include myself in the non-migrant, dominant group – require validation that we have overcome our country’s horrific actions of the past and have atoned for them. It is also difficult because the discursive boundary to right-wing rejections of the need for remembering, and taking responsibility for the Holocaust seems like such a thin line. (And no, while I am supportive of a widening of our current memory culture I am in no way suggesting that we should forget our responsibility for the Holocaust. See the definition of Gegenwartsbewältigung. And to non-German readers: me feeling the need to add that illustrates the difficulty.)

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