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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 this 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 with its citizens who have moved away both before and after it coalesced as a nation in 1871. From its beginning, the German government affirmed that persons of German extraction can reclaim citizenship, implying that once one was German, one was always German. That does not mean that the 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? Is that what is meant by the word "Heimat" of the title? "...the concept of Heimat, which scholars have usually identified as a local sense of place grounded in emotional attachments to familiar surroundings." The scholars acknowledge that there is something not quite real about the idea. "...the appeal of Heimat evolved at a time and place that never truly existed yet could be re-envisioned through an urban lens and the distance of time and space."

The authors raise a range of questions and set about answering them to varying levels of satisfaction. Who is a German? If you live outside 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 of 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? What if 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 to 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 the chapter that deals specifically with the Germans in Russia, did an 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 the organizations that gather and promote their story in both Germany and America.

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 of Germanness. Did Germans living outside Germany sometimes collaborate in ways that make their descendants squirm? Yes. Did they sometimes see 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 book gives the recognition due to them, and that makes it a worthwhile choice for reading and for many collections.

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