May 022008

In a recent post, I have commented on a (now scrapped) law from the 1930s that made it technically illegal for “foreign” PhDs to use their titles in Germany. A superficially similar case concerns the German citizenship law that was first enacted in 1913 (the Empire happily existed without a concept of federal citizenship for more than four decades) and remained in force with minor amendments until 2000. At the core of this law was the idea that one cannot become German. Rather, one is German by virtue of the bloodline, i.e. by having German forefathers (the original sexist bias of the law was ameliorated in the 1970s). This is the infamous ius sanguinis. However, while the PhD regulations were half-forgotten and rarely enforced (though they provided an income for dubious lawyers), the continuity of the citizenship law after the war was clearly the result of political intent and was even enshrined in article 116 of the constitution.

While the ius sanguinis is archaic, the West German elites had two good reasons for not modernising the law. First, given that Bonn did not accept East Germany’s claim to sovereignty, meddling with the concept of citizenship was obviously dodgy. Second, West Germany considered itself a safe haven for millions of ethnic Germans who were still living in Central and Eastern Europe. Sticking with the traditional concept of citizenship kept the door wide open for these people: like in the case of refugees from East Germany, there was no need to apply for citizenship, because they were already German. Moreover, German citizenship was not exactly in high demand after the war.

One unforeseen consequence of the citizenship law was, however, that children born in Germany by foreigners remained themselves foreigners. By the 1990s, Germany had a sizeable and growing population of several million second (and third) generation foreigners, but thanks to the phenomenal inertia of Germany’s political system and their political persuasions, the Kohl-led governments of the 1980s and 1990s made only token attempts to remedy this situation. The (then new) SPD/Green government, however, came up with some rather radical reform ideas soon after it was elected in 1998. Howard’s article tells the complex and heroic tale of these reforms and the immense political backlash they created. It’s highly recommend for anyone who wants to understand the intricacies of the political battle of citizenship and immigration.

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