Landeskunde for Expats

What is “Germany”? When most English-speaking people think of Germany, images of lederhosen, the Alps, Neuschwanstein Castle (the “Disney castle”), and Oktoberfest are probably the first things that pop into their heads. Of course all of those things are Bavarian, not German. If they happen to think of German cars (Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche), they’re still in southern Germany (except for Volkswagen in Wolfsburg). And then there’s historical stereotype number one: Adolf Hitler, who was Austrian and liked to hang out in Bavaria.

So for many people Germany = Bavaria. That’s like saying Texas is the United States of America. Oops.

Porta Nigra detail 2

Trier’s landmark Porta Nigra gate. Trier is Germany’s oldest city, but it’s not in Bavaria. Learn more about Trier. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Most people who have never been to Germany, Austria or Switzerland have no idea how regional those countries are. Germany has about 80 million people, most of whom have much more of a regional identity than a national (or a state) one. Germans live in regions with names such as Allgäu, Schwarzwald (Black Forest), Eifel, Franken (Franconia), Harz, Oberbayern, Ruhr (Ruhrgebiet, Ruhrpott), Rheinland, Schwaben (Swabia), and Taunus. There are over 50 different named regions in Germany, few of which correspond to the 16 Bundesländer (states).

Austrians sometimes claim there are two regions in their country: Vienna and everywhere else. Of course it’s more complicated than that. Austria may only be the size of South Carolina, but its 8 million citizens live in nine provinces and regions from the Danube in the east to the mountains of Vorarlberg in the west – all with different dialects, geography, and customs.

About 64 percent of the 8 million people in Switzerland speak German, one of the country’s four official languages. The rest speak French, Italian, or Romansh. But Swiss German (Schwyzerdütsch) is a very special version of German, and also very regional. That reflects the regional nature of the Alpine country, which is extremely decentralized into 26 cantons. German Way Expat Blog writer Jessica wrote about her encounter with Swiss German and Swiss culture after her move from Germany to Switzerland.

Which brings us to Landeskunde.

The German word Landeskunde is difficult to translate into other languages. There is no single word in English that conveys the same meaning. Not even two words can really cover it. The German term means “the study of the geographic, regional, and cultural aspects of a country.” Sometimes Landeskunde is translated as “applied geography” or “regional studies,” neither of which truly conveys the full meaning of the German word. The German Wikipedia entry for Landeskunde has no equivalent Wikipedia page in English or any other language. (The Spanish page merely explains the meaning of the German word in Spanish.)

It is important for expats living in German-speaking Europe to understand the concept of Landeskunde. Usually expats very quickly learn something about the region where they happen to be living. But have you taken the time to delve deeper into the regional characteristics? You don’t have to go to school to study local or regional Landeskunde. All you have to do is pay attention to your surroundings. But what should you be looking for? Here are some suggestions:

What is the geography like? Does the local or regional culture differ greatly from other parts of the country? A major concern for expats: How does the local dialect vary from standard German (Hochdeutsch)? Are there special foods that are unique to the region? What historical and geographical features are the locals proud of?

Dialect map

A map showing German dialects since 1945. IMAGE: Et Mikkel (Wikimedia Commons – See Deutsche Dialekte – Wikipedia for more.)

Most countries have regional distinctions, and often a north-south divide. Germany is no exception. Besides an obvious north-south divide, Germany also has loosely defined regions that are usually different from the country’s 16 federal states. Germans usually identify more with their region than their state. Unlike in the US, they don’t even use the state name in postal addresses! That’s rather odd when you realize that there are three towns in three different German states named Königstein, or that there are a total of seven communities in Germany bearing the name Berg. It’s a good thing there are Postleitzahlen (postal codes). But sometimes the region is added to the city name to clarify its location. A good example is Freiburg im Breisgau (Freiburg i.B.) in southwestern Germany in the state of Baden-Württemberg.

Germans have their own ideas about their regions, often colored by longstanding stereotypes. And those stereotypes survive because most Germans never move away from their own region. They often know more about Miami, Tenerife or Mallorca than places in their own land. Longtime expat Jane wrote about her move from one area in the south of Germany (Schwaben/Swabia) to another one in the north (the Ruhr). After hearing the mostly negative, stereotypical things the locals had to say about where she was going, she was pleasantly surprised by the cultural differences she discovered.

Let’s take a closer look at just one of Germany’s regions: Swabia (Schwaben). Regional borders tend to be loosely drawn. Historically Swabia was once much larger than it is today. It was part of a larger territory known as Alemannia*, once inhabited by the Germanic Alemanni who fought the Romans. Now Swabia covers most of the former state of Württemberg (the other half of today’s state of Baden-Württemberg) around the Tübingen and Stuttgart areas, and over into western Bavaria. (During the Nazi era the administrative region known as Bavarian Swabia became the Gau Swabia.)

Swabians are known for being hard-working and thrifty. They also like to add -le (rather than standard German -lein) to nouns to form the diminutive (Häusle = little house). People with the last name Schwab probably have distant Swabian ancestors. Notable Swabians include: Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, Gottlieb Daimler, Rudolf Diesel, Hartmut Esslinger, Hermann Hesse, Hans and Sophie Scholl, and Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox). The Swabian saying “Schaffe schaffe Häusle baue” (“work, work, build your little house”) reinforces the stereotype of the industrious Swabian.

The thrifty Swabian stereotype explains why Angela Merkel invoked the schwäbische Hausfrau or “Swabian housewife” during a 2008 visit to Stuttgart in the heart of Swabia. – From The Economist: “Angela Merkel, neither Swabian nor a housewife but the chancellor of Germany, mentioned [the Swabian housewife] at an event in Stuttgart. The American banks which were failing, she said, should have consulted a Swabian housewife because she could have told them how to deal with money.”

Cultural understanding allows you to understand why Merkel said what she did. Whether you live in Swabia, the Rheinland, the Spreewald, or the Taunus, as an expat you’ll enjoy your time there better if you know what’s what. A little Landeskunde goes a long way.


*The word for Germany in many languages is derived from Alemannia. Examples: Catalan (Alemanya), French (Allemagne), modern Arabic (ألمانيا), Persian (Alman), Portuguese (Alemanha), Spanish (Alemania), and Turkish (Almanya).

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