Tuesday, December 21, 2004

My digital Heimat

I must admit to this act of resistance that involved a library, 12-15 books, and two undergraduates reading economics texts. The books were old, at least in the sense that they were about a century old and I was allowed to remove them from the library. And they were obscure: some of them might never have been checked out. From the contemporary perspective the authors are unimportant. Books like these more often are lost and forgotten within the stacks.

In the old days the person who checked out books would simple remove the cards from the inner sleeve and photograph them with the ID of the borrower: he or she might never think about the book that passed through his or her hands. But the two students who checked out my books had to make a place for each of these books in the digital archive. The easy part was putting a barcode on the top of the page. They also had to type in the titles and authors. What made the scene amusing to me was that the two students of economics were confronted with old German typography. They had to wait while I read the names and titles to them. Leaving the library, I felt that the things I study and read suddenly had new value.

The books were all various examples of German regional literature. They could be described as Heimat literature: an artform that connected the genius of the German spirit to tradition, land and community. In Max Weber's opinion, it was a reaction to the demystification of the world. These works are usually associated with anti-modernism and sentimentality; some studies try to connect the longing for tradition represented in these works with the eventual rise of Fascism (Hitler the art student was inspired by a Bavarian painter of rural life). It has been difficult to dissociate some writers from Nazism: the poet and pedagogue Rudolf Dietz of Wiesbaden has become the subject of controversy: was his anti-semitism more than the racial attitudes held by Germans for the Third Reich? how involved was he in the part? is he a fitting figure to name a school after? (in Googl-English)

Recent histories (like those written by Celia Applegate and Alon Confino) debunk this notion,showing how Heimat was less reactionary (city and industry were themes that writers tried to harmonize with their ideas of community) and how Nazi concepts of leadership (Führerprinzip) were at odds with the explicit decentralization represented by the literature.

Heimat, as a field of cultural, social, and intellectual production, is difficult to define. Perhaps more scholarship has been dedicated to the complexity of the concept. As Peter Blickle puts it:
To have a Heimat and not know what Heimat is has been a dilemma of German thinkers for at least two centuries. [It is] and ideal thank makes scholars feel uncomfortable. When dealing with it, intellectually and rationally trained minds have to work with an idea that often seems to defy rational analysis.
In the middle of the nineteenth century ethnologists studied the people of Germany in the variety, attempting to understand how different communities, existing contiguously with one another, could form a nation. (Of course none said that there was no nation.) The ethnological momentum translated into local societies that explored local history, customs, and language. They were also at the forefront of architectural preservation. The Heimatvereine sponsored festivals and poetry in dialect. But, as Applegate and Confino point out, they also tried to integrate modernity into their activities: they sponsored economic studies of the exploitation of natural and industrial resources; they tried to incorporate the urban workers into their activities; and the city itself could be understood as a type of Heimat. They did not intend the world that they described to isolate itself--it was a point from which the Greater Germany could be understood.

As a movement, Heimat literature took off around 1900 (even though there were works produced before this). The market for periodicals had become decentralized, allowing for the publication of more magazines of local and regional interest. The intellectual impetus came from Julius Langbehn, who encouraged German art to orient itself toward the local context. The first example of this was Die Rheinlande: Wilhelm Schäfer originated the idea of a regional art periodical that also contributed to national concept of aesthetics. It was meant to be more than nostalgia and kitsch.

Many writers whose works presented place as a critical aspect of the narrative were lumped into this category as well. Moreover, some of these writers were not stylistically limited by Heimat: they associated with other writers and contributed to other literary movements. Clara Viebig (1860-1952) from the Eifel (between Aachen and Luxembourg) , one of the best, wrote books that were more in the symbolist and naturalist veins. She attended to the economic and social as well as the social dimensions of local life: nature was a complex, motivating force. Wacht am Rhein, despite what the title suggests, is a story about post-Napoleonic Dusseldorf after the annexation of the territory by conservative Prussia. She even touched on feminism and sexuality in some of her novels. Josef Ponten (about whom I already wrote) probed the psychological dimensions of landscape beyond his region.

Many turned their interest of the place of man in the landscape toward expressionism. The Alsatian writers Ernst Stadler, Emil Schickele, and Otto Flake were exceptional writers who, unfortunately, have no place in French literature. Schickele wrote excellent novels that explored hybrid identities. During the war, he fled to Switzerland and wrote Hans im Schnakenloch about brothers who fight on different sides. His novels reveal a growing awareness of the conundrum posed by national identity and show him reaching out for a Europeanness. In his trilogy Erbe am Rhein (1925-1931) he tried to use family history (his father was German, his mother French) to resolve problems caused by international borders. Sometimes having foundations in Heimat was useful for exploring the foreign influences on Germany. Carl Zuckmayer, who had an extensive career, wrote an exceptional biography that includes reflections on Weimar Berlin that I have not seen explored elsewhere:
There was the everlasting influence of the Eastern Russian temperament upon Berlin's cultural life, and that influence was more productive, more stimulating, than most of the things that came out of the West at the time. ... Thus Russian grandeur invaded a Prussian world that was narrow by tradition, and narrower still under the present condition of economic want. We never knew or cared whether the invasion was one of the Tsarist noblesse or Bolshevist libertarianism. We loved the Russians and felt a kinship with them in our intellectual and moral aspirations, and in our own libertinage.

Others produced novels of deep sociological insight on par with Emile Guillaumin and, sometimes, Zola. Rudolf Herzog, in several works, described the social and economic lives of cities. In Die Stoltenkamps he produced the archetype of the industrialist, modeled on the Krupps, who cares for nothing but his own well being. He also produced an epic centered on Hanseatic merchants in Hamburg, a work on local culture far from his own home. Another Alsatian, Friedrich Lienhard, dealt with the tyranny caused by the cosmopolis (Großstadt or cité) as it affected border areas. However, he was also a nationalist: provincialism would not solve social problems. Instead, he introduced a new category to describe an artistic middle road to replace Heimat: Hochland. Several writers formed a circle in Nyland, Berg in the mining area south of the Ruhr to describe industrial life. One of them, Heinrich Lersch, who eventually threw his lot in with the National Socialists, wrote poetry on the lives of workers.

[I must admit that I know little of the most prominent Heimat writer, Hans Friedrich Blunck of Hamburg.]

Heimat has become a hot subject (soon the third miniseries called Heimat will air on German television). It is obviously a concept that has no real equivalent in other cultures. By comparison, French regional literature is weak: a little Guillaux, Giono, a turn of a phrase by Daudet.

It is curious that these works, in a age that prides itself in rediscovering the obscure and restoring its place in history, would still languish. The original decision to purchase these books reflected the reputation that the authors held. Only over time did they become obscure--scholars focused on the Manns, Brechts, and Hesses. Moreover, many of these authors deal with problems that would resonate with scholars: problems of boundaries, identities, migration, integration, ... .


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