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.
The official was at pains to make the five-minute handover as cheerful as possible. All the same, a jolt ran through me when she delivered the apology. I experienced a strange mix of emotions. Her statement seemed absurd: what are you apologising to me for? And if you are going to apologise to me for what the Nazis did, losing a legal status I never thought I was entitled to is the least of it. I felt stupidly grateful, as if I’d just received praise from a teacher, then ashamed for feeling so grateful. ‘What have you just done?’ went a voice in my head. I was dazed as I made my way out of the building and somehow, between the meeting room and the front door, I managed to lose the German-British friendship pin – a pair of crossed flags – the official had given me with my certificate.
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 EU citizenship 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.
If you’re a British citizen living in Britain without hundreds of thousands of pounds to spare, you need an ancestral connection that allows you to claim citizenship by descent. The rules vary greatly from country to country. Some are very restrictive: the Netherlands, for instance, only allows people to inherit citizenship from their parents, and doesn’t usually allow citizens to hold dual nationality, so becoming Dutch would mean giving up British citizenship. Others extend citizenship by descent to the second generation (grandparents), third generation (great-grandparents), or even further back. In some circumstances Italy recognises ancestors born in the 1860s, when the modern state was unified. In the UK, Ireland is by far the most popular route to obtaining EU citizenship 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.
All these routes have their obstacles, but obtaining citizenship by descent can be especially complicated – logistically, emotionally and politically. Collecting the documents that prove a connection to a parent or grandparent usually involves talking to relatives who may or may not want to talk to you. It may involve dredging up stories that families would rather keep quiet. And since you’re applying to become a member of a particular nation-state (there’s no such thing as general EU citizenship), you are on some level aligning yourself with that country. 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?
It turned out that a lot of other people thought the law was unfair. I came across the Article 116 Exclusions Group, which was formed in 2018 to represent the growing number of people whose applications were being rejected. Many were descendants of women shut out by the 1953 cut-off, but there were others too: people who had fled Germany but acquired another nationality before being officially stripped of German citizenship; children who were born out of wedlock or adopted; people who came from territories annexed by Nazi Germany but now part of other countries. Felix Couchman, a lawyer whose mother was a Kindertransport refugee, set up the Exclusions Group with his wife, Isabelle. He told me that even though he was eligible (he was born after 1953), he found it ‘morally and – probably – legally wrong’ that other people were being excluded. The group was campaigning for a change in German law, but it also ran a Google group where people could ask for advice. I passed the details to my mother, who got in touch with them.
The advice at the time was that people who thought they might be excluded should apply anyway, providing as much evidence as possible that their relative had been a German citizen. This raised a further complication. My grandmother wasn’t born in Germany. She was born in Kyiv, then part of the Russian Empire, in 1911, and fled with her parents to Berlin in 1921 during the Russian civil war. The family were stripped of Russian citizenship by a Soviet decree (yes, it happened to my grandmother twice), and were later given Nansen passports – a League of Nations travel document issued to people left stateless by the collapse of the Russian and Ottoman empires. My grandmother only obtained German citizenship in 1935, through marriage to a German Jewish man she divorced the following year. Finding evidence for a restored citizenship application is difficult enough: the burden of proof is on the applicant, German records aren’t centralised and many prewar archives were destroyed by bombing. For us, it was made more difficult still by the fact that there wasn’t a German birth certificate. There wasn’t a German passport either, because the first thing my grandmother did on arriving in London in August 1939 was to tear it up and flush it down the toilet at Liverpool Street station.
My mother did the searching, not least because she’s fluent in German and knows how to write emails in the formal language state agencies use. She wrote to the BVA, the interior ministry’s records office, and to the Berlin State Archive, asking if they had a record of my grandmother’s passport or marriage certificate. They didn’t. After several more emails, a BVA employee asked my mother – politely – to stop contacting him as ‘my information possibilities are exhausted.’ This struck me as another absurdity, of a kind familiar, I imagine, to anyone who has had to push back against inflexible citizenship rules. What did we need to do to prove my grandmother had been forced out of Germany by the Nazis? Wasn’t our existence proof enough? The absurdity only deepened when my uncle discovered a British document referring to my grandmother on a genealogy website. It was a certificate from 1940, exempting her from internment as an enemy alien, which gave her nationality as ‘German, previously Russian’ and her middle name as ‘Sara’ – the name the Nazis forced Jewish women who didn’t have an ‘approved’ Jewish first name to take after 1938 (for men it was ‘Israel’). The German state had placed its mark on her, but not in a way that has legal standing today.
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.
By this point, Germany was engaged in delicate behind-the-scenes discussions with the Exclusions Group, supported by the UK-based Association of Jewish Refugees. When the Exclusions Group was founded, its members had discussed what approach to take. Some thought the group should sue the German government: in their view the exclusions compounded the trauma of the Holocaust, and they wanted compensation. But the Couchmans pointed out that since some of the people seeking restored citizenship were elderly – Isabelle Couchman told me about meeting a woman who had been imprisoned in Theresienstadt as a child – they might not live to see a legal challenge resolved. Litigation was expensive and losing a case might set a precedent that would be harder to overturn. Instead, the Couchmans wrote to the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas. The German government said it would take time to amend the constitution, since this required a parliamentary vote.
One of the embassy officials gave an update, explaining that in the meantime Germany had issued decrees relaxing the rules for the descendants of women and unmarried couples. Nevertheless, the discussion grew tense. A middle-aged man became visibly upset as he talked about the long waiting periods. Most of his extended family had been murdered in the Holocaust, he said, and he felt that being asked to wait any time at all was a terrible insult. A middle-aged woman said that her elderly mother, who was sitting next to her, wanted to tell everyone that she disapproved of the rush for citizenship – whether of Germany or any other European country. ‘Citizenship means loyalty,’ said the mother, a Holocaust survivor who came to Britain from Berlin at the end of the war. The UK had offered her sanctuary, and she thought it was ungrateful to seek another nationality. Her daughter, meanwhile, was applying for German citizenship against her mother’s wishes. Isabelle told me that such disagreements are common: the Exclusions Group has received abusive messages from people who think that what it’s doing somehow absolves Germany from its historic crimes.
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.
In the end, it was Britain’s attempt to police its own lines of belonging that gave us our opening. A member of the Exclusions Group suggested that my mother contact the National Archives, to see whether they held anything else along with the certificate exempting my grandmother from internment. In early 2020 they got back to us to say that there was a Home Office file with my grandmother’s name on it, but it was classified until 2048. To view the contents we had to make a freedom of information request, which took another few months to process. As with other enemy aliens, the authorities kept track of my grandmother during the war: the file contains records of her correspondence with the Home Office, alongside reports from immigration officers, Special Branch and MI5 (‘Nothing recorded against’ was MI5’s verdict). It was closed in 1947, when she married my grandfather, a British citizen, and acquired his nationality by default. Among the enclosed documents was a report from the Metropolitan Police Aliens Registration Office acknowledging her marriage – which cited, among other personal details, her German passport number. The German Embassy said this would probably be enough to guarantee the success of the application, but suggested we try the German state records again. A few months later my mother had another look in the Berlin city records – most of which have now been digitised – and found a copy of the Charlottenburg district marriage registers for 1935, which included details of my grandmother’s first marriage.
For some families these searches have led to shocking discoveries. That wasn’t quite our experience. My grandmother talked about her experiences in 1930s Berlin, so we didn’t learn anything new about her direct experience of Nazi persecution. We already knew that because she had red hair Germans would stop her in the street and ask ‘Why are you walking around with these Jews?’, and that on Kristallnacht she and a friend hid more than a dozen young male Jewish acquaintances in her apartment. (They met them in the street one pair at a time, walking arm in arm as if they were going off on a date.) We knew how she felt about Germany after the war, too – furious with her generation for what they did, but not with their children or grandchildren. But the documents were revealing in their way. The British file shows my grandmother repeatedly trying to be relieved from the wartime restrictions on her movement: in 1940, worried that she would be interned, she wrote a letter to the Home Office begging to be de-registered as German and registered as Russian instead.
The German records, meanwhile, contained a detail that has stuck with me. A few years after my grandmother’s first marriage, someone went back into the marriage register to write in the names ‘Sara’ and ‘Israel’. Then, at some point in the early 1950s, someone crossed out these names. It’s an understandable impulse – from the bureaucrat’s point of view, a simple way to make amends. But it gives events a neatness they don’t deserve. By the time those names were crossed out in the 1950s – perhaps even by the official who added them in the first place – most of the people who had been given them were dead. We know what happened to my grandmother, but who knows what became of her ex-husband? In the archives you can see his marriage certificate, his birth certificate, even his parents’ marriage certificate. But after 1935 the trail goes cold. There isn’t even a death certificate, just a record from a police district in southern Berlin stating that a man with his name was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941. Was that him? By the time the war was over, was there anyone left to look for him?
In April this year I returned to the German Embassy to attend a reception for the formerly excluded applicants. Germany passed a law amending its constitution in 2021 (aside from the work of the Exclusions Group, a 2020 court decision, after a long battle by the American descendant of a German Jewish refugee, forced the issue). Felix and Isabelle Couchman gave a short presentation on their work. Now that the campaign’s main goal had been achieved, they were working on ironing out other loopholes – descendants of children born to same-sex couples via surrogate parents, for instance, were still having problems – and organising trips to Germany for people who saw restored citizenship as the start of a wider reconciliation.
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.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.