- The Heimat Abroad: The Boundaries of Germanness
This book takes up a theme not common among historians of Germany: it argues that Germans living far away—around the world, in places as far away as North Dakota or China—played a role in German history that was as important as that played by Germans living inside Germany, and in some cases more so. It raises the question that has baffled us for centuries: What is Germany? What does it mean to be German? It is an immensely learned book, top heavy with detail. Though professional historians will find faults in it, the book runs over with insight, truth, and even excitement.
Its seventeen essays, each written by a different author, recount the experiences of Germans living abroad. It displays the frustrations, tensions, and joys of these men and women as they interacted with the inhabitants of the host countries and sought to retain a special relationship with their Heimat. The relatively relaxed and mature arrangements for cultural exchange in much of the period covered by the book (1871 to the present) made easy the movement of individuals along and across borders all over the world.
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, “The Legal and Ideological Context of Diasporic Nationalism,” is addressed to the claims of citizenship that erupted into controversies over laws “and the established legal context for constant exchange” (pp. 9 –10). Senior officials of the German government saw Germans after Bismarck’s fall (1890) [End Page 119] not as conducting and enacting a great experiment but as fulfilling a predetermined destiny. This view has its origins in the messianic convictions of William II. He saw in the fact that so many Germans had moved outside Germany a journey of the elect to salvation beyond history. From this it was only a short step to believing that Germans had inherited the Old Testament concept of the chosen race. Howard Sargent cites several striking examples of the intensity of this feeling among prominent figures of the decade prior to 1914. With time, of course, this view became secularized. Nationalistic fervor, that contentious hysteria of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century society, gave it a far wider currency than it had ever before enjoyed. Strength was lent by the growth of powerful associations—lobbies, factions, and special pressure groups of one kind or another that fostered the notion that Germans abroad were to be supported, encouraged, and strengthened. What this produced was a widespread impression, supported by patriotic emotion, that the Almighty had contrived a nation unique in its virtue and magnanimity.
Section 2, “Bonds of Trade and Culture,” takes under scrutiny four German overseas settlements and their relationship to the mother country. The involvement of governmental and domestic institutions in strengthening German identity had its counterpart in the outposts themselves. German diasporas in Mexico City, Chicago, and Brazil were bound to Germany by personal interactions of family and friends. In most cases, they maintained their identity as Germans. Cultural and economic bonds linked them to the German state. In an excellent essay, Thomas Lekan traces the relationship between Germans overseas to the Eifel region of Germany and the powerful leagues it produced in the American midwest. Though trying to assimilate with their hosts, the task of remaining close to their homeland had, in most cases, the fi rst claim on the diasporas’ resources, even as they tried to assimilate with their hosts.
Part 3, “Islands of Germanness,” is addressed to the effect of German settlements in central and eastern Europe—how they developed, were maintained, and strengthened over the period prior to the outbreak of World War I and the contemporary world of today. These efforts were, not surprisingly, strongest during Hitler’s time. The German chancellery issued a directive in 1938 that defined “Volksdeutsche” as people “whose language and culture had German origins though they were not citizens of Germany” (p. 267). But they were part of Germany’s destiny...