National Identity

National identity is an overly emotionally-laden concept that has the power to incite its more zealous advocates to the most irrational passions. And while the term defies clear delineation, its sense can perhaps only be intuited in a nation’s mythic imaginary, a collective unconscious of repressed desire and psychic trauma that latently resurfaces in its popular culture.

This essay traces the history of the German so-called Heimat-films (films about the homeland) and their generic change through time to show that Heimat films are mythic visions grounded in nostalgic longings for a past that never quite was. They draw from a collective bedrock of memories to invoke a legend of a common identity and nationhood. In that these films endow a community with a sense of shared ideals, they are at the heartbeat of what makes a nation.

In order to arrive at this observation, I consulted the work of several theorists who have problematized the notion of national identity. As early as 1882 Ernest Renan in a lecture given at the Sorbonne questioned traditional concepts of national identity. In trying to pin down what constitutes a nation, he argued that such commonly held notions of race, language or religion were quite dubious, defying neat categorization. For instance, there was no “pure” race, since all of Europe’s nations were essentially of mixed blood. Similarly, language and religion could also not function as fixed determiners for a nation. Instead Renan suggested that nations were based on solidarity rather than on assumptions of inherently eternal essences. Indeed for Renan, there were processes of nationalist myth-making at work which operated on two principles: “One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.” 1

About one hundred years later Benedict Anderson concurring with Renan proposed this definition of a nation: “It is an imagined community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”2 Tracing down the cultural roots of nationalism, Anderson stressed the cohesive force of nationalist imaginings that countries provide themselves with in order to reenact their sense of nationhood. He argued that nationalism as a cultural imaginary must be regarded as a continuation of those larger cultural systems such as religion and dynastic rulerships that were antecedent to it. With the advent of the Enlightenment in 18th century Europe, religious beliefs waned along with the certainty in the legitimacy of divinely ordained royal lineages. The gradual demise of what had constituted seemingly eternal values resulted in a desire for meaning and continuity on a more secular level. Accordingly, the longing for an idea of a nation provided in part an answer to such need.

In this respect, Anthony Smith sheds light on mythic visions – those cultural imaginings Benedict talked about – that provide guidance and shared ideals to a community. “These meanings and visions are encapsulated in distinctive ethnic myths which, like all myth, bring together in a single potent vision elements of historical fact and legendary elaboration to create an overriding commitment and bond for the community.” 3 Smith distinguishes between two different modes of ethnic myths, a genealogical one that attempts to base its identity on a lineage of blood relations and a cultural-ideological one that claims a certain cultural heritage as common ground for a collective identity. He contends that both types imbricate each other in providing a community’s self-understanding. Most visibly, he notes how myths of origins and descent figure prominently in the struggle for recognition, legitimacy and independence. Harboring a revolutionary potential such myths could even mobilize people to engage in territorial expansion in search for an imaginary lost homeland.

“Identity; dignity; territory; autonomy: these are the basic aspirations and dimensions of the drama of regeneration which the ethnic myth of descent explains and inspires in the participants. Not only does it seem to legitimize these aspirations and unite these dimensions; it energizes and feeds them like an explosive charge, whose roots seem indeed quite ‘primordial’ to members of ethnic communities and immune to the process of rationalisation.”4

Most notoriously, the notion of homeland, served to fuel Nazi Germany’s quest for the Third Reich – an ever expanding territory that tried to lay claims to almost all of Europe. National Socialism had its ideological roots in an anti-modernist campaign, that sought a return to an idealized rural past. In the nineteenth century a so-called Heimat movement (a longing for a homeland) arose as a revolt against the rapid industrialization and urbanization that threatened to engulf the natural habitats and villages. Film scholar Anton Kaes explains its meaning as it was in vogue during the pre-Nazi era:

“Since the era of industrialization, German literature has weighted this term with emotional connotations almost to the breaking point: Heimat means the site of one’s lost childhood, of family, of identity. It also stands for the possibility of secure human relations, unalienated, pre-capitalist labor, and the romantic harmony between country-dweller and nature.”5

Heimat connotes an utopian haven, an imaginary site of plenitude and wholeness. Indeed, the first Heimat films of the late teens and early twenties of this century were adaptations of literary genres that romanticized pre-industrial rural life. According to Willi Hoefig these early silent films – all mostly long-lost – followed their literary models in depicting panoramic views of blooming valleys, forests and mountain scapes as backdrops for their action.6

While this nature mysticism built on a desire to retreat to a pre-industrial communal life, Nazism strategically re-positioned that desire through a different set of values. With its laden rhetoric of blood and soil it fed into an already existing romanticized mythology of peasant life but then tacked on a new layer of ideological imperatives.

Although the Heimat movement had preached a peaceful retreat to nature, Nazism manipulated that seemingly incompatible discourse urging that Heimat implied something distinctly German that needed to be heroically fought for. For the Nazis the purity of Germany was threatened by what they considered to be their arch enemy – “The Jew.”

In their view, the Jew was a nomadic alien who parasitically lived off the Germanic people, ruthlessly and opportunistically exploiting them. By contrast the Germans, who were rooted to their native soil, had moral attachments and therefore a sense of personal and communal integrity. As Kaes points out, in the Heimat novels the city figured as a site of decadence and corruption, where “international business” was engaged in shady deals – all of which the Nazis would later link with the “Jew.” Under National Socialism, then, the concept Heimat also adopted distinctly anti-semitic connotations. Kaes writes: “After 1933 Heimat was a synonym for race (blood) and territory (soil), a deadly combination that led to the exile or annihilation of anyone who did not ‘belong.’ Under the National Socialists Heimat meant the murderous exclusion of everything ‘un-German.”7

Jeffery Herf explains that contrary to the Heimat movement’s disdain for inhuman machinery, Nazi ideologists “viewed themselves as liberators of technology’s slumbering powers, which were being misused by a capitalist economy”8 – a Jewish conspiracy. As Herf notes: “At the center of all Nazi views on the subject stood a mythic historical construction of a racial battle between Aryian and Jew.”9 The Nazis,then, attempted to reconcile voelkish (folk) romanticism with an affirmative stance towards technological progress as a means to empower the communal will of the nation. Accordingly, they pushed industrial technology as means to implement effectively their racist ideology which aggressively advocated the expansion of Lebensraum (living space) for the “Aryan” super race.

Under the Nazi dictatorship then, the term “Heimat” underwent a semiotic shift that up to then had lacked any imperialist connotation. Indeed, as Hoefig notes, the “Blood and Soil” films of the Nazi era often thematized the heroic defense of one’s homeland in the face of some opponent who seemed threatening to the communal sanctitude.10 In this way then, National Socialism insidiously reconfigured myth in order to invoke its vision of an utopian Third Reich.

After the Second World War, the thought of Heimat became even more overdetermined. It evoked shattered dreams and a yearning for a nostalgic past. In the aftermath of Germany’s demise, her people as a whole had trouble coming to terms not only with the horrendous crimes of the Holocaust but also with their vision of what they imagined their Heimat to be. In complete disavowal of their immense guilt, most Germans were absorbed in the experience of a tremendous loss. Millions of Germans lost their homes, most of Germany lay in ruins and the utopian visions of the Third Reich had turned into smoke and ashes.

During the process of national reconstruction, Germans longed for nostalgic memories. In their efforts to forget their Nazi past, they tried to revive a sense of Heimat that was safe, apolitical and insular. Accordingly, the post-war Heimat films constantly recycled saccharine images of a false idyll replete with stock characters full of kitsch sentiment. Anton Kaes notes:

“The many Heimat films made during the 1950’s reconstruction era portrayed Germany as a rural, provincial homeland with which Germans could identify. These films concentrated on German landscapes such as the Black Forest and the Lueneburg Heath that had not been devastated by the war; on untainted politically naive, and innocent Germans; and on regional dress, customs, speech, and music.”11

On the whole then, these films of the 50’s represented an apologetic desire to retreat to a more innocent past, a denial of the Holocaust and a white-washing of all guilt. Indeed, even though Heimat films lost their popularity in the 60’s, they periodically resurfaced in moments of political uncertainties. For instance, during the growing neo-conservatism of the former West Germany in the seventies and eighties, Edgar Reitz produced a TV series in which he conjured up an archaic vision of a German village. In an interview Reitz told an American reporter what the term “Heimat” meant to him:

“The word is always linked to strong feelings, mostly remembrances and longing. “Heimat” always evokes in me the feeling of something lost or very far away, something which one cannot easily find or find again. In this respect, it is also a German romantic word and a romantic feeling with a particular romantic dialectic.

“Heimat” is such that if one would go closer and closer to it, one would discover that at the moment of arrival it is gone, it has dissolved into nothingness. It seems to me that one has a more precise idea of “Heimat”the further one is away from it. This for me is “Heimat,” it’s fiction, and one can arrive there only in poetry, and I include film in poetry.”12

Reitz’s sixteen-hour TV epic Heimat is a revisionist tale of German history that chronicles the provincial life of a close-knit rural community before, during and after the Nazi era. Full of sentimental bathos, it focuses on the mundane every-day events of the villagers but largely consigns the Nazi atrocities to the periphery of the characters’ lives. In its nostalgic celebration of peasant life it attempts to mythologize images of purity and innocence thereby fostering a collective amnesia.

Even though the concept Heimat and its textual and filmic representations gradually acquired different layers of connotations and ideological impregnations, they all had in common a nostalgic longing for a mythic past. Stuart Hall points to the affective charge that national identity implicitly carries in its core.

“It is not a fixed origin to which we can make some final and absolute Return. Of course, it is not a mere phantasm, either. It is something – not a mere trick of the imagination. It has its histories – and histories have their real material and symbolic effects. The past continues to speak to us. But this is no longer a simple, factual ‘past,’ since our relation to it is, like the child’s relation to the mother, always-already ‘after the break.’ It is always constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth. Cultural identities are the points of identification, the unstable points of identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history and culture.”13

To conclude, in as much as the German Heimat films throughout their generic changes express a nostalgic desire for lost origins, for a primordial site of plenitude, they are engaged in a search for an imaginary realm of referentiality. Since this ineffable space of authenticity, of common roots and genuine traditions always escapes perceptual means, it can only be alluded to in metaphoric configurations. Articulated in legends and myths whose narrations are constantly reworked, we can never hope to totally unravel the discursive maneuvers involved in the process of nation making. Perhaps we can only intuit a phantasmagorial yet potent vision that inexplicably seems to haunt us having rekindled in us a melancholic desire.

In all the films touched upon, the landscape in particular seemed to function as the prime site of longing. Indeed, Homi Bhabha, therefore, could not be more relevant:

“The recurrent metaphor of landscape as the inscape of national identity emphasizes the quality of light, the question of social visibility, the power of the eye to naturalize the rhetoric of national affiliation and its forms of collective expression.”14


1) Ernest Renan, “What is a Nation” in Nation and Narration , Ed. Homi Bhabha, (New York: Routledge, 1990) p. 19.

2) Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (Thetford: Thetford Press Limited 1983) p. 15

3) Anthony D. Smith, “National Identity and Myths of Ethnic Descent,” in Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, ed. Louis Kriesberg, Vol. 7 (Greenwich: Jai Press 1984) p.95.

4) Smith, p. 107.

5) Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat, the Return of History as Film, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1989) p. 165.

6) Willi Hoefig, Der Deutsche Heimatfilm 1947-1960, (Stuttgart: Enke, 1973)pp. 143-164.

7) Kaes, pp. 165-66.

8) Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1984) p. 12.

9) Herf, p. 189.

10) Hoefig, p. 162-63.

11) Kaes, p.166.

12) Edgar Reitz, quoted in Kaes, p. 163.

13) Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation,” quoted in Hamid Naficy’s dissertation, Iranian Exile TV and originally published in Framework, No 36, 1989.

14) Homi Bhabha, “DissemiNation: time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation,” in Nation and Narration, p. 295.