Conversations in the Park

Dominique Hipp and Crawford Matthews | 5 October 2022

Two colleagues from the Deutsches Historisches Museum’s department of Education and Communication went through various Berlin parks and recorded the opinions of park visitors about the topic of citizenship. The responses will be presented as part of the intervention “Conversations in the Park” in the exhibition “Citizenships. France, Poland, Germany since 1789”.

“The passport is the most noble part of a person. And it also doesn’t come about in such an easy way as a person.”

Bertolt Brecht – 1940/41

“What does your passport mean to you?”

“Not much. Well, no special meaning for me.”

Unidentified person in the park, 2022

The passport as a travel diary and memory aid is one of the things most often named that German citizens associate with their ID document. Citizenship, on the other hand, is abstract and not very easy to grasp for many people, although it can make a difference about their chances of life and survival. In the answers heard in the park to the question about the meaning or importance of citizenship, one contradiction became clear: many of the people who were applying for new citizenship expected more than just a pragmatic decision, although they often had an indifferent relation towards their own citizenship.

In the exhibition “Citizenships. France, Poland, Germany since 1789” © DHM / Eric Tschernow

The catalogue with which the colleagues approached the people in the park contained such questions as: What does your passport mean to you? Does your passport give you a feeling of belonging? What advantages does your citizenship have for you? Can you imagine a life without a passport or citizenship? Who should receive citizenship and what should the criteria be?

Since the people questioned in the park were very international, the answers represented quite different perspectives. The people discussed their positions towards the topic of citizenship passionately. Persons without Union citizenship wavered between admiration and envy towards the rights of EU citizens. When a South Korean woman was asked about her relationship to her passport, she gave heavy-hearted comments about the meagre value of her passport in Germany and about her relation to her residence permit. She described long and dismal waiting times in the foreigners’ registration office and the permanently precarious situation of people that have to prove that they have a suitable job in order to get a one-year extension. In summary, she judged that this ID document, which marked her as a foreigner in Germany, did not create a feeling of belonging in Germany, but had just the opposite effect. She felt excluded and “not welcome” in the country in which she was living. The difference to her Italian partner could hardly have been greater. Compared with her, he spoke very cheerfully about his stay in Germany and his initial efforts to learn German. He did not have to show his papers, felt accepted, and therefore felt a certain affinity towards Germany, but especially towards Europe and his Union citizenship, which guaranteed him security and civil rights in other European countries.

The question of the effects of possessing or not possessing citizenship on the subjective feeling of belonging was treated in a conversation with a Briton who was able to acquire German citizenship before Brexit came into effect. This, he said, meant “that I’m also at home here and not only in my country of origin or birth.” He added: “Germany is my adopted country, but that has a different meaning, because I decided for it, whereas I was born in Great Britain – I didn’t have a choice.”

Picture of a scene in a Park in Berlin 2022 © DHM

This also raises the question of whether the acquisition of new citizenship allows people to develop a multiple identity. Do they feel and call themselves part of a (constitutional or juridical) community or do they also feel that they belong to the “imagined community” of a country or even a nation?[1] The British historian Linda Colley wrote: “Identities are not like hats. Human beings can and do put on several at a time.”[2] Many people reject the status of multiple citizenships which could possibly lead to a multiple identity. In the 19th and 20th centuries dual citizenship was prevented whenever possible on principle. In those times of mass armies and compulsory military duty, the governments wanted to avoid possible conflicts of loyalty.[3] In Germany this tendency had many proponents, and still does. The Junge Union Deutschlands (Young Union of Germany), for example, declared on a poster in 1999: “Complete loyalty can only be rendered to one country,” and therefore “we oppose general dual citizenship in Germany.” [4] Until 2013, migrants could only acquire German citizenship, as a rule, if they relinquished their homeland. In the meantime, the rules have been watered down, but only for people from the EU or for those who were born in Germany or went to school there. People from so-called “third countries,” such as Britons after Brexit, are confronted with a difficult decision, namely whether they really want to be nationalized in the new country and to give up the citizenship of their former country.

Poster of the Junge Union against dual citizenship, Berlin, 1999 © DHM

The reactions in the park were equally emotional when it came to the decision of accepting a life without a passport. The majority of the people spoke in favour of a future “world citizenship,” but only if everything would stay as it is.

There were sometimes also contradictions in the responses, especially from German citizens. On the questions about the meaning or importance of the ID document and the feeling of belonging, many Germans replied that the ID card or passport was a purely bureaucratic matter and that they felt no particular bond with the German state. However, as an essential criterion for naturalisation, they demanded precisely this bond from the foreign applicants.


[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006).

[2] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (London: Pimlico, 2003), p. 6.

[3] Dieter Gosewinkel, Schutz und Freiheit? Staatsbürgerschaften im 20. und 21. Jahrhundert (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2016), pp. 49, 88, 273.

[4] Poster of the CDU youth organisation Junge Union against dual citizenship, in: Dorlis Blume, Dieter Gosewinkel, Raphael Gross (eds.), Staatsbürgerschaften. Frankreich, Polen, Deutschland seit 1789 (Berlin: Piper, 2022), p. 166.

© DHM/Thomas Bruns


Dominique Hipp

Dominique Hipp, Dr. phil., research assistant at the German Historical Museum in the Education and Communication Department. She is a member of the DFG-funded network group “Emancipation after Emancipation. Jüdische Geschichte, Literatur und Philosophie von 1900 bis heute” and has published on the topics of “juristische Aufarbeitung von NS-Verbrechen”, “Gegenwartsliteratur” and “Recht und Literatur”.

Crawford Matthews

Dr. Crawford Matthews is a research assistant in the Education and Communication Department at the German Historical Museum and Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. He wrote his doctoral thesis on the history of European diplomacy in the early modern period and his monograph will be published by Routledge in 2023, entitled Anglo-Prussian Relations, 1701-1714: The Reciprocal Production of Status through Ceremony, Diplomacy and War.

© DHM/Thomas Bruns