February 8, 2018 / 5:57 PM / 15 days ago

Home is where the Heimat is: Germans bemused by new ministry

* Coalition deal envisages expanded Interior Ministry

* Merkel hails the “people we do politics for”

* Commentators see role as response to migrants, AfD

By Thomas Escritt

BERLIN, Feb 8 (Reuters) - After years focusing on the hard science of Germany becoming Europe’s economic powerhouse, the proposed next government also wants to pursue the gentler art of making it a better homeland.

The coalition deal between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats (SPD) includes a plan for a “Heimat”, or homeland, ministry, rehabilitating a term that had fallen into abeyance in the post-war era.

The term can conjure up images of the dramatic landscapes of Upper Bavaria or the rolling hills of the Rhineland but it can also evoke the ribaldry of drunken crowds in traditional lederhosen or dirndl dresses at Munich’s Oktoberfest.

The announcement that the Interior Ministry will become the Ministry of the Interior, Construction and Homeland provoked a bemused mix of ridicule and anger, especially among younger urban liberals, who see the proposal at best as kitsch and at worse as a reversion to a sinister nationalism.

“I’d prefer a holidays ministry,” journalism student Imre Balzer wrote on Twitter. “I’ve already got enough Heimat.”

The new role has been seen as a response to the soul-searching that followed 2015’s influx of more than a million refugees and the entry into parliament in September’s election of an avowedly far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), for the first time in decades.

“The word ‘Heimat’ reveals that the aim is to win back AfD voters,” wrote journalist Sibel Schick in the left-wing Berlin newspaper Tageszeitung. “But if the aim is to rebuild society, then that’s all of our business, not just AfD voters’.”

Michael Mayer, a historian at Bavaria’s Academy for Political Education, said: “My assumption is that it is mainly a piece of symbolic politics based on the idea that people voted for the (far-right) Alternative for Germany (AfD) not because things were going badly for them but because they felt bad.”

“OUR COUNTRY”

For some in a war-ruined country struggling to atone for the crimes of the Nazis, the word Heimat became was almost a dirty word. For their successors, being Europe’s economic locomotive and fiercest defender of human rights was identity enough.

But, announcing the coalition on Wednesday, Merkel suggested she thought there should be something more.

“Germany, or our country: these aren’t impersonal terms for us,” she said. “Those are men and women, old and young, entrepreneurs and employees, people with and without immigrant backgrounds, researchers and company founders, people in hospitals and care homes, our soldiers and police. They are the people we do politics for.”

The job is earmarked for Horst Seehofer, leader of the arch-conservative Bavarian sister party (CSU) to Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).

His home state Bavaria, where he is premier, already has a minister with responsibility for the Heimat. Among its major tasks is the building out of fast internet infrastructure.

Seehofer told journalists his focus as Heimat minister would be sharply practical. It was not about “dirndls and lederhosen”, he said in Munich on Thursday, but about developing villages and towns and building houses.

The coalition agreement contained little to shed light on his new role and it was unclear what kind of a budget the Heimat component of the ministry would have. The coalition could still be rejected by the SPD’s members, who have veto rights.

But that was not enough to stop the mockery. A fake Twitter account purporting to be the new ministry’s urged Germans to “take a walk in the German forest, listen to the birds, reflect and feel your bond with the Heimat”. (Additional reporting by Joern Poltz in Munich; Editing by Alison Williams)

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