Citizenships. France, Poland, Germany since 1789

Dieter Gosewinkel | 5 July 2022

At the opening of the exhibition “Citizenships. France, Poland, Germany since 1789”, the curator, Dieter Gosewinkel, held the following speech in the Zeughaushof.

In autumn 1942, in the midst of the Second World War, the autobiography of a famous author, born in Vienna into a Jewish family, was published posthumously: Stefan Zweig. Looking back at his exile in England, he stated: “The fall of Austria brought with it a change in my personal life which at first I believed to be a quite unimportant formality: my Austrian passport became void and I had to request an emergency white paper from the English authorities, a passport for the stateless. Often in my cosmopolitan reveries I had imagined how beautiful it would be, how truly in accord with my inmost thoughts, to be stateless, obligated to no one country and for that reason undifferentiatedly attached to all. […] An Austrian passport was a symbol of my rights. Every Austrian consul or officer or police officer was in duty bound to issue one to me […]. But I had to solicit the English certificate. It was a favor that I had to ask for, […] a favor that could be withdrawn at any moment.”[1]

As a literary eyewitness, Zweig captured the core of what citizenship means: the right to protection by the state, protection from expulsion, but also in a foreign state; the recognition of the right to political belonging; the granting of the corresponding rights to freedom and participation; finally, elementary duties, such as military service. Zweig hits precisely on the historical moment in which citizenship – at least in Europe – reached its highest value for the individual and at the same time was in the greatest danger: at the climax of nation-state expansion, the civic form of citizenship was destroyed. The dictatorships of Europe arbitrarily withdrew citizenship, cast so-called politically and “racially” undesirables into statelessness and delivered them to dangers threatening their very existence amidst devastating economic crises and war. Zweig, the involuntary wanderer, coming from the “World of Yesterday”, here runs into the “steel-hard case” (Max Weber) of the ultramodern authoritarian state, for which citizenship is used as an instrument for the organisation of rule.

Stefan Zweig suffered an existentially threatening situation at first hand, which leads to the core of the exhibition and its central thesis: In the course of the 20th century citizenship becomes the dominant form of political belonging, which determines the chances for life and survival of the individual. Unlike Zweig, who came from wealthy circumstances, the countless millions of labour migrants, refugees, expellees and optants who traversed Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries were in a completely different situation. Often subject to onerous poverty and harassment, they sought – often more involuntarily than wilfully – to get to a different country where they hoped to be accepted and protected. Not infrequently their hopes were dashed: they were not naturalised, of if they were, they were nevertheless discriminated against and scorned as “different”. The exhibition examines these migration flows since the 19th century. It concentrates on three countries in the heart of Europe: France, Poland, Germany. Historically, they have been very closely interrelated neighbours, in both positive and negative ways. The three countries have been extremely important mutual destinations for labour migration, trade and cultural exchange. But their relationship is also characterised in a particular way by nation-state demarcation and violence, culminating in exterminatory hostility. This special entanglement between restriction and attraction manifests itself in the history of their citizenships and is institutionally perpetuated in citizenship law. This is why the exhibition focuses on these three countries.

When you enter the exhibition, you are not guided through the history of these three countries one after the other. Instead, the important aspect for us is the entanglement of their histories since the time of the French Revolution. In the central entrance room, you walk along the Ariadne’s thread of chronology past the important stages in the development of citizenship: from the invention of the “citoyen” and “obywatel” in the constitutional works of France and Poland during the revolutionary period, through the proliferation of passport variations in the early migration flows between the three countries during industrialisation. From the middle of the 19th century it then leads to the high point of national demarcation, which we show in particular by means of two embattled, crisis-prone regions, Alsace-Lorraine and Silesia. Here we see the splendid so-called “liberation dress” in the colours of the tricolore with which the women of Strasbourg celebrated the return of Alsace to France in 1918, and the Polish eagle, whose outspread wings invite Germans in Silesia to vote for Poland in 1920. The time of the two world wars shows the regulation frenzy in the welfare states as they descend into dictatorships and control the access to citizenship strictly and with increasing discrimination. The panel showing the Nuremberg racial laws of 1935 demonstrates the nadir of this development. The time after the Second World War, and even more so after 1989, is increasingly marked by the challenges of the greater diversification of society. Post-colonial and inner-European migration movements change the composition of citizenship and trigger new conflicts about belonging. This is demonstrated in the controversy about dual citizenship. We show citizenship as more than a legal institution. It is also and above all the result of – political, social, cultural – battles for belonging. Our further tour through the exhibition therefore concentrates on the “in depth” rooms, or better, “expansion” rooms, which make these historical battles for belonging more transparent. Here we show the power imbalance in the naturalisation process when the applicants submit their requests humbly, and not infrequently with trepidation, and the officials apply their raster of legal criteria to them coldly and sometimes not without bias. There we see how often the upbringing to become a ”good citizen” is carried out through schooling and military duty. Here the delimiting, nationalistic side of civic education comes to the fore, when, for example, a painting from 1887 shows a French geography teacher emphatically displaying the lost regions of Alsace and Lorraine to his pupils as a “black spot”.

The history of citizenship testifies to the battles of discriminated groups for recognition and belonging as citizens with equal rights. In this respect, two rooms are devoted to women and Jews. One of my favourite objects, I have to admit, is a fan from 1914 with the inscription “Je désire voter”, with which the French women’s movement – in connection with the Polish and German movements – fought for women’s suffrage. What a difference between this enthusiastic struggle for voting rights and the general attitude towards voting today in all three countries!

How Jews, the group most severely discriminated against in civic matters, had to literally go to battle for the right to belong to the state is demonstrated in a showpiece of the exhibition, the painting from 1833 by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. It depicts, as it is entitled, “The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living According to Old Customs”.

The sharply discriminating division of the world into “citizens” and indigenous “subjects” is highlighted in the room on colonialism and racism. The painting “Prussian Joy of Love” from 1890 shows a Black man in a Prussian officers’ uniform with a blond white woman snuggling up to him. It depicts a real case and is at the same time a false idyll! The marital liaison shown here contradicts the general reality of the German colonial, racist state, which carried over its rejection of so-called “racially mixed marriages” into the German domination of occupied Poland during the Second World War.

Citizenship as a legal institution reveals it full severity where it creates procedures of identification, selection and expulsion. This is what Stefan Zweig meant – and he himself was witness to the stigmatisation of “enemy aliens” during the First World War and the denaturalisations by the Nazi state which affected many artists, politicians and intellectuals. There were also denaturalisation procedures after 1945 in Germany – as well as in Poland. The most prominent case involved Wolf Biermann.

The role of citizenship in the everyday administrative routine is shown by means of the players involved in both sides of the naturalisation procedure. Anyone who wants to be naturalised sits opposite civil servants who decide on the weal and woe of the application and the applicant. Modern video films represent the criteria – and cultural differences – in the naturalisation procedure of the three states.

At the end of the exhibition we show how much these historical battles for belonging are still part of our lives today. The abrupt closing of borders due to Covid, where the proud status of the European Union citizen suddenly ends at the old tollgates, and the new refugee movements that are surging into Germany, France, and now especially Poland, pose the old question with new poignancy: What does it mean and what benefit does it bring to have a citizenship – or not to have one?

We didn’t simply want to make an exhibition that illustrates an abstract legal institution through the paperwork that it produces: naturalisation applications, correspondence, legal texts, passports. We show a great deal of this. But for us it is precisely about the emotions that these documents embody and evoke – feelings of very different kinds: positive emotions in those who feel proud of their political belonging and relief or gratification that they now enjoy rights and protection through their citizenship. On the other side, the disappointment, the rejection, the anger, and, indeed, the hatred that those feel whose application has been turned down, or whose citizenship has been revoked or imposed, or those who due to their citizenship have to go to war for a state, perhaps even the wrong one. All this is involved, is written between the lines, and calls up the observers’ own associations.

And of course there is also the indifference of those whose passport means little to them. This feeling is legitimate and widespread. However, particularly in times of war and crisis, as you can see throughout the exhibition, it is anything but indifferent whether one possesses a citizenship – and which one. That is how Stefan Zweig saw it when he looked back, not without melancholy, at the cosmopolitan dreams of his World of Yesterday.

On our sound-cloud channel you can listen to the speech (in the original German) by the writer and journalist Olga Mannheimer that followed this one.


[1] Stefan Zweig, Die Welt von Gestern. Erinnerungen eines Europäers, Erstausgabe 1942, Berman-Fischer Verlag A.B. Stockholm, überarbeitete Neuausgabe Fischer, Frankfurt a.M. 2020, pp. 434, 435, 436. Engl.: The World of Yesterday. An Autobiography, New York, The Viking Press, 1943, p. 409.

© Christian Leroy

Dieter Gosewinkel

Prof. Dr. Dieter Gosewinkel works at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center and is professor of modern history at the FU Berlin. He is a historian and jurist and has produced numerous publications in the area of European law and constitutional history, especially on citizenship in Europe.