A thaw

Yes, there is a feeling beyond all politics, and it is this feeling that feeds our love for this country.     Kurt Tucholsky, Heimat

Last December, in search of a dressing for my Brexit wound, I chanced upon a book with the ostensibly unpromising title of Deutschland, Deutschland über alles. This mischievously named collection of essays had been written in 1929 by the trenchant journalist Kurt Tucholsky. Tucholsky was a pacifist and a Communist sympathiser who interpreted the political zeitgeist with a keen eye and a sharp tongue. At a time when it wasn’t easy to be German, he wrote excoriatingly against the repressive forces he observed in Weimar society, but it is on a note of defiant optimism that the polemic ends.

In the disavowal of boisterous nationalism with which he concludes the anthology, he comes to the defence of those like him whose patriotism had been called into question by extremists. Still more importantly for the treatment of my unresolved Brexit anger, though, he also puts his finger on an unalienable truth for all those able to point, however reluctantly, to recognisable origins. It is that we are forever tied by bonds of affection to the country where we first drew breath, regardless of the political choices it has subsequently made.

In such a spirit of reconciliation, then, did I return last week from a stint in Germany, the reformed spiritual leader of the continent on which ‘we’ are turning our backs. It is not that the millstone of that collective noun is hanging any lighter around my neck; rather, distance has reminded me that the waters I, we, are drowning in are still dear to me. It is, I have realised, possible to love one’s country and despise its politics. Tucholsky, himself exiled from the republic of his ideas long before his expulsion took on tangible form, knew this. So it is in the hope of offering solace to all those others at once British and European and seeing in this no contradiction that I give you Heimat, the title of which refers to that untranslatable, and therefore irreplaceable, German notion of the hearth:

We have been saying No for 225 pages, No born of empathy and love, No born of hatred and passion – and now I’m going to say Yes for once. Yes to the landscape and to the country of Germany.

To the country in which we were born and whose language we speak.

The state may take a running jump when we speak of loving our Heimat. But why this one – why not one of the others? There are such beautiful ones out there.

That may be so, but our heart doesn’t speak there. And if it does, then in another language – we say ‘sir’ to the ground; we admire it, we treasure it – but that’s not love.

There is no need to sink to your knees in every backwater of Germany and lie ‘How beautiful!’. But there is something common to all parts – and it’s different for each of us. The heart of the one rises in the mountains, where fields and meadows look down on the tiny streets, there on the banks of the alpine lakes where it smells of water and wood and rocks, and where one can be lonely; if your Heimat is there, you hear your heart beat in its precincts. This has been so falsified in bad books, in even more silly verse and in films that it is almost an embarrassment to say that you love your Heimat. But anyone who knows the music of the mountains, can hear it ring out, anyone who feels the rhythm of a landscape…no, anyone who feels nothing other than that they are at home; that that is his country, this his hill, his lake – even if he doesn’t own a foot of the land…yes, there is a feeling beyond all politics, and it is this feeling that feeds our love for this country.

We love it, because the air flows through the streets like this and not like that, because of the familiar play of light – for thousands of reasons which we couldn’t list, which we’re not even aware of and yet which lie deep in our blood.

We love it in spite of the terrible mistakes in the deceitful and anachronistic architecture to which we are compelled to give a wide berth; we try to look past such monstrosities; we love this country even though in the woods and on the public squares all manner of men threateningly linger. Let them linger, we say, and wander off along the footpaths of the heath, which is beautiful in spite of it all.  

Sometimes this beauty is aristocratic and no less German for it; I cannot forget that a hundred farmers have had to live in poverty around such a castle [the original is adorned with a picture of a rural palace, or Schloss] in order that it could be built at all – but it is still, still beautiful. Yet this is not supposed to be an album to be placed on the table at birthdays; there are so many of them. Besides, they’re always incomplete – there is always another patch of Germany, always another corner, another landscape, which the photographer hasn’t recorded…in any case, everybody has their own private Germany. Mine lies in the north. It starts in central Germany, where the sky hangs so clear over the rooftops, and the further north you go the more your heart thumps, until you sense the sea. The sea – how suddenly many kilometres ago every post, every thatched roof took on a deeper meaning…we only stand here, they say, because the ocean is right behind us – we are here for the ocean. The wind blows around the bush, fine grains of sand grind between your teeth…

The sea. How unforgettable those childhood impressions; ineradicable every hour you spent there – and every year joy and ‘Good day!’ anew, and the Mediterranean may be as blue as they say…but the German Sea! And Buchenwald, and the moss on which you walk so softly that your tread cannot be heard; and the little pond in the middle of the forest with the mosquitoes dancing on its surface – you can touch the trees and, if the wind roars in them, we understand their language. As a joke, I gave this book the title Deutschland über alles, that foolish line of a loudmouthed poem. No, Germany does not tower over everything, nor is it above everything – never ever. But it must be with everyone, this country. So let this be the confession with which this book ends:

Yes, we love this country.

And now I should like to say something to you:

It’s not true that those who call themselves ‘national’ while being nothing other than bourgeois militants have annexed this land and its language for themselves. Neither the government representative in his frock, nor the supreme judge, nor the gentlemen and ladies of the Steel Helmet soldiers league can be Germany all on their own. We are still here.

They open their mouths and cry ‘In the name of Germany…!’. They cry ‘We, and only we, love this country’. It’s not true.

We are content to be surpassed by them all as patriots – we feel international. But in love of the Heimat we are surpassed by none of them – not even by those whose names can be read in the constitution. It is ours.

And strong though my aversion to them is, those warped nationalists who are letting nothing good whatsoever in this country be – not a hair, not a wood, not a vista, not a wave – it is not stronger than our determination to protect ourselves from succumbing to their chauvinism. We scorn the flags – but we love this country. And just as the national associations drum their way across the street, with the same authority – with exactly the same authority – do we who were born here and speak and write better German than the majority of the nationalist donkeys – with precisely the same authority – do we claim river and wood, beach and house, clearing and meadow; it’s our country. We have the right to hate Germany – because we love it. We cannot be discounted when they speak of Germany, whether we be communists, young socialists, pacifists, lovers of freedom of any stripe; we have to be thought of when they think of Germany…how easy it is to pretend that Germany is made up only of the national associations.

Germany is a fragmented land. And we are a part of it.

And in between all the contrasts – unwavering, without a flag, without barrel organs, without sentimentality and without raised sword – lives the silent love for our Heimat.

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