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Jeremy DeWall, Vanderbilt University, History (Postdoc)

Redemptive Geographies: The Turn to Local Heimat in West Germany, 1945-1965

Through a series of case studies, my project argues that a broad cultural-geographic turn to local places of Heimat (home) occurred in early postwar West Germany–a development with significant ramifications for postwar democratization, Europeanization, and re-establishment of civilian life. While a grandiose vision of nation acted as a redemptive geography during the Third Reich, by the end of the war, I argue, amidst trauma, occupation, and tainted national identities, intimate local spaces came to the fore as sites of protection, community, identity, orientation, and a place of “life after death.” Local and regional identities provided crucial alternative media through which West Germans could identify with the new democratic project. To do so, locals in different cities reformulated historical memory and local traditions to develop notions of “tolerance,” “federalism,” “democracy,” “republicanism” and “world-openness” as tenets of local identities. While border regions formerly understood themselves as national fortresses, after 1945 they shifted to identifying themselves as European “world-open bridges.” The project concludes that, while many scholars view cultural democratization as primarily a product of the 1960s, they have overlooked significant developments in the early postwar years in which many sought to identify with democracy and rapprochement with the West through the medium of their local worlds.

As a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies, I will extend my study into new crucial avenues, considering in greater depth the role of the Heimat concept in early postwar federalist theories, discussions of Heimat in the rubble cities of the Communist East, and how the popular turn to Heimat in ravaged urban centers in the FRG contrasted with stereotypical tropes of Heimat as bucolic cinemagraphic landscape. Postdoctoral research for the final manuscript will further help excavate more comprehensively the complex generational, cultural, and intellectual shifts in the 1960s that informed devaluation of the Heimat concept and growing derisive attitudes towards local rootedness. Finally, I will devote a portion of my research in Berlin to exploring in more detail the contested progressive reappropriations of Heimat and localism in the political struggles of the 1970s and 1980s.