′Heimat 2018′: Cologne sings its identity | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 24.04.2018
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'Heimat 2018': Cologne sings its identity

No other city in Germany has as many songs about "Heimat," expressing the feeling of home, as Cologne. Groups of people gather to sing together about their local patriotism, and not only during Carnival.

"Kölsch" is not only a beer, but also the local dialect of Cologne. In other parts of Germany, people can identify Cologners as soon as they've said three words. Songs in Kölsch contribute to expressing the feeling of "Heimat" in the city.

As part of our mini-series "Heimat 2018," DW reporter Silke Wünsch asked members of the young Cologne-based band Fiasko, a historian and a Turkish journalist to explain what the "kölsche Jeföhl" ("Gefühl" in standard German, or the "Cologne feeling") is all about.

Read more: 

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We're standing on the roof of the headquarters of a huge insurance company located right by the Rhine River, giving a fantastic view across the entire city. Right next to us, there's a globe made of steel and neon lights — an artwork created by HA Schult. Illuminated in different colors at night, it has become another one of Cologne's landmarks. Right now, the globe hasn't been lit yet. As the sun sets, Cologne's panorama is immersed in golden light.

I went up there with Henning, Daniel, Dirk and René, members of the Kölsch rock band Fiasko. They started recording songs in the local dialect in 2014. Three years later, their song "Nur do" ("Nur Du" in standard German, only you) became an immediate hit.

They have a simple explanation for the huge success of their cheerful folk rock song: It expresses the feeling of "Heimat," or "home," friendship and togetherness — things that are extremely important in Cologne.

Watch video 02:04

Cologne-based rock band Fiasko sings and talks about 'Heimat'

Local patriotism is infectious

Fiasko singer Daniel tells me what inspired the band to compose their song "Nur do." The musicians were searching for strong words that would express their feelings: "When we wrote this song, we were thinking about what 'Heimat' really means to us. And very quickly, we got the idea that 'Heimat' is simply a place where people can live freely and feel alright, no matter where they are." However, he found it much harder than expected to express this feeling in a song.

Guitarist Henning explains why so many Cologne-based bands deal with this topic: "In this city, it's the music that connects people. No matter where they are from, no matter whether they're tourists, refugees, or long-time residents. This type of local patriotism that's in the air everywhere seems to be felt by everybody. And that's why so many bands write songs about Cologne and the Kölsch feeling."

Deutschland Kölschrock-Band Fiasko (DW/S. Wünsch)

The Cathedral of Cologne must be in sight whenever the members of  FIASKO think about their "Heimat"

Homesick for Cologne, even when you're there

Cologne has long been a city that celebrates itself through music.

One of its most famous musicians, Willi Ostermann, sang about Cologne, his nostalgia for its cathedral and his homeland back in the 1920s and 30s: "When I think of my homeland, and see the cathedral in front of me, I would like to turn in that direction, I would like to walk by foot to Cologne." Cologners still sing this song to this day, ideally with as many people as possible, right in the middle of the city they feel nostalgic for.

From Carnival costumes to the red-white scarves worn by fans of Cologne's soccer team, the 1. FC Köln, along with singing with a bunch of people the classic "En unserem Veedel" (Kölsch for "in our neighborhood"): These are all things that contribute to making you feel part of Cologne. But is that the real meaning of "Heimat"?

A regional definition of 'Heimat'

Historian Carl Dietmar has been researching the city's history for years. He moved here in 1969, and some 50 years later he still manages to explore the "Cologne way of life" with fresh eyes. He has observed that getting together with like-minded people plays an important role in the Kölsch feeling of home.

That's why Dietmar believes "Heimat" should be defined in different ways according to regions. In his view, the "Heimat" feeling in Cologne differs sharply from the one experienced by Bavarians — an information that Dietmar feels should be transmitted to the Bavarian politician Horst Seehofer, who will be Germany's first federal Heimat minister.

Read more: A deeper look at Germany's new Interior and Heimat Ministry

For outsiders, it's easy to understand why Bavarians love their beautiful landscapes. But when it comes to Cologners, one may wonder why they love their ugly city so passionately. The answer to that question is typically Kölsch: "Cologne is not a beauty. It's a feeling!"

Historiker Carl Dietmar (DW/Silke Wünsch)

Historian Carl Dietmar moved to Cologne almost 50 years ago

Trying to find out why Cologners are so fixated on their city, Carl Dietmar has developed his own theory that has something to do with the city's history: "Until 1907, Cologne was Germany's biggest fortress. The city was surrounded by a wall. There were only 20 gates through which people could enter or leave the city. Once outside, you had to walk roughly 70 meters through a military zone guarded by soldiers. And that's why, already back then, Cologne residents preferred to simply stay at home," says Dietmar, adding with a wink that it's just a theory. Still he believes that "Nowhere else are people so proud of their city."

Read more: Patriotic term 'Heimat' driving new German 'identity politics'

Perfectly integrated

In a little street called Weidengasse near the old district of Eigelstein, where many Turks live, I meet journalist and author Baha Güngör.

The Istanbul-born author grew up in the Rhineland and studied journalism and became the first Turk to work for a German newspaper. In 1976, when Turks were still called "guest workers," he moved to Cologne, where he discovered the Weidengasse. Back then, a young Turk who was able to communicate perfectly well in German and Turkish was still a rare phenomenon. He quickly made friends, and that's something he still appreciates about Cologne.

Köln Journalist Baha Güngör (DW/Silke Wünsch)

Baha Güngör is a passionate fan of the 1. FC Köln 

Due to job changes, he also spent some time in other cities in the Rhineland, including Bonn. But he is now is moving back to Cologne, and he's looking forward to it.

I ask him how it feels to see the city's cathedral again after a long time: "Oh, I have often missed the cathedral. I used to go there often to light a candle for Cologne's soccer team." When he saw the cathedral for the first time as a child, he was afraid of this extremely tall dark building — until his grandmother told him that it was "a mosque for Christians." "And that's what the cathedral means to me to this day," Güngör adds.

Between homeland and home

For Güngör, the "Kölsch feeling" definitely has something to do with the 1. FC Köln. Like other Cologners, he celebrates its success, and suffers when they have lost a game. Right now, the team seems to be losing quite often. But Güngör is convinced that it will rise again: "That's what always happened in Cologne's history. Over and over again, the city was occupied by foreign powers, including France and Prussia. With their typical stoicism, the Cologners always said 'It all turned out well after all.'"

Güngör is now working on a new book that tries to differentiate between "Heimat," as a homeland, and "Zuhause," one's home: "To me, Cologne and the Rhineland are my home and I love living here. But when I think of my 'Heimat,' then I think of Istanbul. It's a multicultural city just like Cologne."

Unlimited optimism, a high degree of tolerance and an indestructible feeling of togetherness would be quite incompatible with a conservative way of thinking. But at the same time, young Cologne bands singing "There aren't any words to say what I feel when I think of Cologne," or "My compass always shows me the way to Cologne," don't seem to have any problems with using the term "Heimat."

Fiasko guitarist Henning believes the term has nothing to do with being conservative: "The word awakens things in people's minds. How each one defines it, is up to them."

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