"Heimat" as an exclusionary concept of right-wing parties in Germany

The concept of Heimat, which is rooted in German-speaking countries, raises questions of belonging and is often misused on the right-wing political spectrum. The AfD, a German populist party on the right, even uses food in its exclusionary othering strategy against migration

Summer School

In addition to the institutional concepts of citizenship and of becoming a legal subject, there is an informal concept in the German-speaking region that can be used to express belonging to a place or a community, one which at first glance seems to be more open and permeable:  This concept is called Heimat.

Although there is no direct English translation for it, the phenomenon of Heimat encompasses "concepts and experiences of home and belonging (defined as locality and community as well as nation)" (Ahmed et al. 2003: 2). Due to its semantic multiplicity, the term is not just tied up with a territorial meaning, but also refers to questions or practices of appropriating a particular place. This appropriation of place, whether materially or emotionally, is a challenge that people in general face when they move elsewhere. Especially refugees, who have to leave their home country behind and develop a new identity in the arrival society, a mostly foreign environment, are affected by the concept of “uprootings/regroundings“ (ibid.). Therefore, it is hardly surprising that in the course of such increased migration movements, the concept of Heimat has now found its way back into German politics. Conservative forces and right-wing parties in particular have always worked to politicise, emotionalise and aestheticize the topoi of Heimat, “home” or “homeland”, always as related to or determinative of the concepts of foreignness and strangeness. (cf. Hülz et al. 2019; Möhring 2019) In this way, the argumentative confrontation of what is “home” with what is “foreign” updates the typical colonial discourse pattern expressed in the dichotomy of the  “threatening stranger” vs. the “safe/familiar home”.

In this paper, the relationship between Heimat/home and strangeness/foreignness will be examined with a view to the German right-wing populist party AfD (Alternative for Germany). By analysing two images, it is possible to make the visual dimensions of the German Heimat phenomenon visible in order to fill the gap in such scholarship, which mostly focuses on film and advertising and less so on the images used by political actors. (cf. Möhring 2019)

The AfD and the “foreign”

The AfD is a very young party in the German political spectrum. In its early days, it was known for its Euro-critical stance, but this has now changed to an anti-migration attitude. (cf. Arzheimer 2015; Häusler 2016; Bieber/Roßteutscher/Scherer 2019) It is also characterised by its early use of various social media channels. The AfD supplements its communications during election campaigns with a constant, mantra-like repetition of specific themes on social media (e.g., rejection of renewable energy, opposition to migration, reinforcement of an independent national identity and symbolism) in order to mobilise voters and slowly shift the social discourse to the right. 

Although the concept of Heimat can be inclusive and open to new things and change, studies of the AfD's election manifestos show that the manifestos define this term as exclusionary and polarising. (Schuppener 2021; Reusswig 2019) The fulcrum of many AfD messages is the determination of what is “local/native” and what is “foreign”, which will be shown on the one hand through the example of food, and on the other hand through the emotional charging of stereotypes. In short, this means that which is constructed as “foreign” and “unknown” is often rejected, while that which is imagined as “local”, “familiar” and supposedly “native” is welcomed. Rhetoric about “home” and “belonging” by the AfD is also used to motivate the repatriation of migrants or the prevention of their entry, as can be seen in the following example.

Image removed.Figure 1: Facebook post of the AfD in the Leipzig District (screenshot):  “Because of Muslims:  Daycare centre removes pork from the menu

Food as the embodiment of the authentic

When you think of your home country or region, you have certain memories of smells, moments or landscapes in mind. The same types of images are evoked when we think of faraway places, for example a travel destination where we want to see famous sights and eat typical, local food. "Because of its ‘easy availability’ and ‘its value as a public symbol of identity’ (Tolksdorf 1982: 241), food is particularly suitable for experiencing home and foreignness on a symbolic and at the same time a physical-sensual level." (Möhring 2019: 197) 

Food and identity are thus interconnected, as can be seen by looking at the graphic on the right (Figure 1), and can be used for political struggle. The starting point of this graphic is the news of an alleged pork ban in a Leipzig kindergarten, which gave the AfD the opportunity to discredit Muslims as the alleged cause of  a process of social change. A regional offshoot of the party used these rumours to post a picture of (allegedly) pork schnitzel with potato salad, accompanied by the words:  "Because of Muslims: Daycare centre removes pork from menu" (see Figure 1). As a “forbidden and unclean animal”, the pig has a special position in Islam and therefore seems to the AfD particularly well-suited to marking the incompatibility of the two cultures. The pictured dish, a pork schnitzel with potato salad, is supposed to stand for authentic, country-specific German or Saxon cuisine. Therefore, the removal of pork from the menu is constructed as a threat, not as an inclusive act of tolerating different eating habits. The "fact" of the “otherness” of this decision is far more important than merely the menu’s potential enrichment. Consideration, thought of as the inclusion of all eating habits and foods when designing a menu, is here turned into its opposite. Migration and food coincide and are used to define the “native” and the “foreign” in the sense of a dichotomy, and not in terms of exchange relations and their possible advantages, but in terms of the replaceablity of what is old and familiar. Eating thus becomes political, not an inclusive gesture or practice, but one that serves to exclude people from the existing status quo or society. Despite such people acquiring citizenship, the everyday practice of eating denies them recognition as “Germans”, with this reading. Such people cannot find or build a new homeland with their “foreign” eating habits.

Heimat as a visual practice of exclusion

Image removed. Figure 2: AfD mobile election poster 2019: "WHO PROTECTS US [FROM THE] 'PROTECTION SEEKERS'?” (screenshot, Facebook page of AfD Sachsen)

Similar to digital messages, election posters as text/image combinations are a proven instrument to mobilise voters. The case presented here is an election poster from the 2019 campaign in Saxony (Figure 2), a region in Germany, one that served to deny refugees protection status by apostrophising their neediness while criminalising them through the combination of text and image.

The text ("WHO PROTECTS US [FROM THE]  'PROTECTION SEEKERS'?") and the image are conceptually arranged in relation to each other in such a way that the ambiguity which would otherwise be typical is overcome and the message becomes clear:  The dichotomy of a representative “us” ("US") and a “hostile other” ("PROTECTION SEEKERS") is narrowed to a confrontational perspective of violence. This is a caricature of so-called “welcome culture” and of existing migration policies. (cf. Doerr 2021: 10) Furthermore, the discourse of the imagery used in the media that was dominant in the years 2015 – 2019 is evidently inverted here. In that discourse, fleeing children were mainly framed in order to arouse sympathy and photographed accordingly. (cf. Schober 2020) Here the children in need of help are now criminalised in a perpetrator-victim inversion and constructed as a threat. Kaçar Aşci highlights that

the inclusion of a child in party campaign visuals of the right-wing populists and perceptions associated with it might change from context to context. If s/he is a German child s/he represents vulnerability, on the other hand, s/he might represent terrorism and/or poor integration issues if s/he is a migrant’s child. Therefore, depending on the context, a child can carry either positive or negative significance. (Kaçar Aşci 2021: 220).

In the context used here, the negative dimension is obvious. The re-arrangement allows the threat to be situated as a symbolic confrontation of the homeland, also referred to as the "doomsday scenario". (Özvatan and Forchtner 2019: 211 by Doerr 2021: 8) The “Us” and the figurative representation refer to the German people, the childlike depiction of which represents their vulnerability. Ultimately, this representation leads us to the AfD's attitude about incompatible cultural groups.

Furthermore, “[b]y building up such threat scenarios and articulating the demand for protection [(“WHO PROTECTS US”?)], the AfD presupposes that previous efforts in this area are deficient, i.e. that the state order and those politically responsible cannot guarantee security and protection against dangers and crime”. (Schuppener 2019: 250) The argumentative strategy of setting “the people” against “the elite” has also already been used by the populists. (cf. DeBellis 2018: 2f.) The AfD is not just showing its critical or negative attitude towards migration, but is also showing a critical/negative attitude towards the state, or rather the ruling elite, who are (questionably) accused of not providing sufficient protection (against a supposed threat).

Conclusion: The dichotomy of “home” and “foreign”

The confrontation of the foreigner with the homeland or the native is a basic theme of the German right-wing populist party AfD. Heimat, as a counter-concept to the foreigner, facilitates the production of negative attitudes towards immigrants and persons who have moved to Germany. The AfD makes it possible for us to show the danger of the interpretive hegemony of political discourses and narratives which do not rely on a sense of belonging as a citizen, but rather on an exclusionary concept that questions such belonging as well, provoking changes and rejections.

It is not just legal status on paper, but also everyday practices that determine whether a community lives together successfully or not, after all. The right-wing Heimat-narrative makes integration conceivable only in the form of assimilation, which requires the complete abandonment of the newcomer’s own origins and homeland identity. In reality, this is a sham argument by the AfD politicians. Among other things, it implies that there is a “naturally grown” Heimat and that asylum seekers should be "accommodated in centralised facilities in groups that are as homogeneous as possible in order to [...] preserve and strengthen their homeland identity". (AfD Sachsen 2019: 48) This ethnopluralist way of thinking makes it impossible for newcomers to ever become part of the German community because their “otherness” seems to be “inscribed” in them by their homeland or origin. However, even eating pork or drinking alcohol would never be enough, for these right-wing actors, for such persons to be accepted as part of the local “us”. It is therefore important to challenge this narrative of Heimat (“home” / “homeland”) and to propose other concepts for creating a sense of community.

This article is an output of the International Summer School for Young Researchers “Citizenship and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe” which took place in Košice, Slovakia, in September 2023 and was organised by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung offices in Prague and Warsaw, Leipzig University and the University of Rzeszów.

The views and conclusions expressed in the text represent the author's opinions and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. 

References/Citing Literature

AfD Sachsen (2019). Trau Dich Sachsen. Regierungsprogramm der Alternative für Deutschland zur Landtagswahl Sachsen 2019.

Ahmed, S., C. Castañeda, A. M. Fortier, and M. Sheller, eds. (2003). Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration. London: Berg

Arzheimer, K. (2015). The AfD: Finally a Successful Right-Wing Populist Eurosceptic Party for Germany?, West European Politics, 38:3, 535-556, DOI: 10.1080/01402382.2015.1004230

Bieber, I., Roßteutscher, S., & Scherer, P. (2018). Die Metamorphosen der AfD-Wählerschaft: Von einer euroskeptischen Protestpartei zu einer (r)echten Alternative? Politische Vierteljahresschrift, 59(3), 433-461. doi:10.1007/s11615-018-0103-y

DeBellis, R. (2018). Elections, Rhetoric, and Policy: Comparing the Rise of Far-Right Nationalism in Western Europe and the United States, Scholarly Horizons: University of Minnesota, Morris Undergraduate Journal: Vol. 5 : Iss. 2 , Article 3.

Doerr, N. (2001). Anti-Islam, Ethno-Nationalism, and Gendered Images: The Far-right Visual Politics of the AfD. Soc. Sci. 2021, 10, x. https://doi.org/10.3390/xxxxx

Häusler, A. (2016). Die Alternative für Deutschland: Programmatik, Entwicklung und politische Verortung. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Hülz, M., Kühne, O., & Weber, F. (2019). Heimat: Ein vielfältiges Konstrukt. Wiesbaden: Springer VS. 

Kaçar Aşcı, F. (2021). MIGRANTS AS FLOATING SIGNIFIERS IN AND THROUGH RIGHT-WING POPULIST POLITICAL STYLE: THE CASE OF THE AFD . Marmara Üniversitesi Avrupa Araştırmaları Enstitüsü Avrupa Araştırmaları Dergisi, 29 (2) , 209-228 . DOI: 10.29228/mjes.423

Möhring, M. (2019). Heimat und Fremde.  In: Sabrow, M., & Saupe, A. [2022]. Handbuch historische Authentizität. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag. 192-199.

Reusswig, F. (2019), Heimat und politische Parteien. In: Hülz, M. / Kühne, O. / Weber, F. (Hgg.): Heimat. Ein vielfältiges Konstrukt. Wiesbaden: Springer VS 2019, 371-390.

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