On rustiness and citizenship - Daniel Trilling in LRB:
“The embassy official paused, collecting herself for a moment, before handing me the document. ‘Mr Trilling, it is an honour,’ she said. ‘This is in recognition of the great injustice done to you and your family. It should never have happened, and you should always have been a German citizen. I hope this brings you great joy.’ It was last October, and I was at the German Embassy on Belgrave Square to collect my naturalisation certificate – the moment I officially became a German citizen. I was there thanks to Article 116 of the German constitution, which states that those deprived of citizenship between 1933 and 1945 on political, racial or religious grounds are eligible to have it ‘restored’, as are their descendants. The application process had taken three years, and the officials had been friendly and helpful throughout. On the day I arrived to collect the certificate, I made small talk with the official as she gave me some papers to sign. Had I been to Germany before? Yes, lots of times – in fact, my mum taught German in secondary schools and used to bring me along on her exchange visits. Should we do this in German, then? Sorry, mine’s a bit rusty.”
“Since the Brexit referendum, the number of British people applying to have German citizenship restored has rocketed. Most of them are descendants of Jewish refugees. Before 2016, only a handful applied each year; by 2019, more than three thousand had applied and the number has continued to grow. This is part of a wider phenomenon, with many other British citizens who want to retain a link to the European Union looking for connections that will secure them a passport. There are three main ways to do this. If you live and work in an EU member state you can apply for citizenship based on residency, usually after a minimum of five years. In 2021, the most recent year for which figures are available, more than 10,600 British citizens were granted forms of EUcitizenship by residency. (This isn’t a particularly high number: Britain comes nineteenth in the table for 2021, with the top spots taken by Morocco, Syria and Albania.) If you’re extremely wealthy, meanwhile, you can try to buy your way to citizenship. The places with the most popular ‘golden visa’ schemes include Malta, where you must buy property worth €700,000, Portugal (€500,000) and Greece (€250,000) although richer EU countries have their own slightly less obvious loopholes.”
“In the UK, Ireland is by far the most popular route to obtaining EUcitizenship by descent, through parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents: between 2016 and 2020, more than 260,000 people in Great Britain applied for Irish passports.”
“ Article 116 of the German constitution is particularly tricky, not just because applicants have to deal with the state that persecuted and in many cases murdered their relatives, but because many people, like me, have had to demand the right to be included. The original law allowed for descendants of people stripped of German citizenship by the Nazis to reclaim it, if they would otherwise have inherited it. But until 1953, German nationality could only be passed on by fathers. If you were born outside Germany to a German mother and a non-German father, you weren’t eligible.
My ancestral link to Germany came through my maternal grandmother, who died in 2005. She fled Berlin for London in 1939 and lost her German citizenship in 1941, when a government decree stripped all Jewish Germans living abroad of their nationality. My mother was born in 1951, and her father was a British citizen, so we fell just outside the line. I first learned of this rule in 2016, and it still strikes me as stupid. For one thing, it requires some contorted counter-historical reasoning to make sense. If the Nazis hadn’t come to power, would I be German? Well, no. I wouldn’t exist. And the rule seemed particularly insensitive given Judaism’s matrilineal tradition. (I’m not religious, and don’t believe that a person’s gender determines their connection to their heritage, but still.) Besides, it didn’t seem fair at a more basic level. What was the point of the law anyway: to help make amends for Nazism, or to erase its presence from Germany’s citizenship records, as if it had never happened?”
“In late 2019, I attended a talk at the Wiener Holocaust Library in Bloomsbury, organised by the Jewish Historical Society of England to mark the launch of an oral history project collecting the experiences of British Jews who had applied to regain citizenship elsewhere in Europe. Since 2016 there has been a growth in inquiries to just about every EU country that once had a sizeable Jewish community – and not only from families displaced during the 20th century. Spain and Portugal have run schemes for the descendants of Sephardi Jews expelled in the Middle Ages. (Since those expulsions took place long before the development of modern nation-state bureaucracies, eligibility is determined by research into family trees or proof of connection to a Sephardi religious community.) The most interesting part of the evening was the audience discussion, which focused on Germany – not least because two embassy officials were in the audience.”
“These sorts of ambiguity aren’t restricted to applying for German citizenship. Trying to gain citizenship of another country can start off as one thing – wanting to avoid the inconvenience of losing EU free movement rights, say – and end up as something completely different. The process is intensely personal. Assembling the messy details of a life into a narrative that fits the requirements of state bureaucracy distorts the meaning of particular events – a brief marriage between a couple who didn’t get on, for instance. Bureaucratic complications are an inherent part of the process, because the bureaucracy itself is political. Governments are constantly drawing and redrawing the lines of belonging, to express ideas about a nation’s identity. The way a country decides to recognise citizenship by descent can be particularly revealing, because it tells you how these ideas have developed over time. Greece, with its long history of emigration, offers citizenship by descent to members of the ethnic Greek diaspora going back several generations. But the fact that it is now a country of immigration has prompted a fractious national debate about granting birthright citizenship to the children of immigrants, much of it centred on the case of the Greek-Nigerian basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was born in Athens but grew up effectively stateless. Britain’s transition from empire to nation-state involved a rewriting of its citizenship rules to distinguish between returning descendants of white colonials and non-white former colonial subjects: the Windrush scandal shows what happened to some of the people who fell through the gaps deliberately created during this period.
A country’s citizenship rules can hint at territorial claims. Since 2011, Hungary has given citizenship to more than a million ethnic Hungarians who live in other former territories of the Habsburg Empire, a move that has particularly upset neighbouring Slovakia. The rules can also target the most intimate parts of life. The significance attached to personal details – the way my family was caught out because our German citizenship came via the female line, for example – shows that citizenship is often used to regulate gender roles, sexuality and family structures. (The sociologist Michaela Benson described this to me as ‘the normative power of the state’.) Before 1948, Italy, like Germany, only allowed citizenship to be passed on via the male line, which continues to present complications for those applying to it for citizenship by descent. Meanwhile, the country’s far-right government is busy attacking the rights of same-sex couples, with a recent decree ordering councils to register only biological parents on birth certificates.”
“I’d been asked beforehand to speak, and it was the first time I’d really had to think about what becoming a German citizen meant to me. Like a lot of people, I’d started the process because I didn’t want to lose the right to live and work in the EU – and perhaps from a vague sense, given my family history, that you can never have too many passports. (It was different for my mother: she applied because she felt Brexit was a direct attack on the work she’d devoted her life to, teaching British children about other European languages and cultures, and she wanted to register her disgust.) But the longer the process had gone on, the more it had pushed me to think about two Germanys, each of which I had a link to but which I realised I had always regarded separately. There was the Germany I knew from my grandmother’s stories – the Germany that had given her refuge, then threatened and expelled her. And there was the Germany I knew first-hand: the language I’ve learned haltingly since childhood, the country I’ve visited and reported from as a journalist. Those two Germanys are vastly different places. But they are connected. I told the room that when I talked to friends about having become a German citizen, I kept saying, ‘Well, my grandmother wasn’t really German in the first place.’ I was going to stop doing that, I said. The provisional, ambiguous nature of our link to Germany – and Germany’s decision, in this instance, to make room for that ambiguity – was precisely what I valued.”
Read the article here.
A good piece, for several reasons.
How to gain citizenship of another country is one of the core problems of most refugees. Well, they just want a residence permit, but in more or less reasonable states after five years of residency you have the right to become a citizen.
Now quite a few British are trying to secure an EU-passport – oh, the endless comedy of Brexit – and rightly so, they are let’s say privileged refugees.
What does citizenship mean? Most British I assume couldn’t care less whether they get hold of an Irish, a German or a French passport, as long as it’s an EU passport. Not the same for everybody. It’s indeed highly ambiguous.
Even for Mr. Trilling Germany is far away, the passport is mostly a possibility, an insurance, an emergency exit. If worse comes to worse, we’ll always have Berlin.