GLOBALCIT Review Symposium of Struggles for Belonging: Citizenship in Europe, 1900-2020 by Dieter Gosewinkel

Introduction by Dieter Gosewinkel ; comments by Daniela Luigia Caglioti, Rainer Bauböck, Maarten Prak and Jo Shaw


Dieter Gosewinkel, WZB Berlin Social Science Centre

Citizenship was the mark of political belonging in Europe in the twentieth century, while estate, religion, party, class, and nation lost political significance in the century of extremes. This thesis is demonstrated by examining the legal institution of citizenship with its deciding influence on the limits of a political community, on in- and exclusion in the history of 20th and 21st century Europe.

Citizenship was the mark of political affiliation in Europe in the 20th century. While estate, religion, party, class, and nation lost political significance in the century of extremes, citizenship advanced to become the decisive category of political affiliation. In the century’s upheavals and political struggles, the legal institution of citizenship had a deciding influence on the limits of a political community, on in- and exclusion, and thus on an individual’s opportunities in life. Enfranchisement included the obligation to risk life and limb for the survival of one’s country in exchange for the right to its protection; participation in the expanding political and social rights in the democracies and welfare states of Europe; and ultimately access to the new legal status of being a citizen of the European Union.

Conversely, at no other time did the lack of citizenship, the non-affiliation with a political community, have such existential consequences as in the 20th century: the political ostracism and social defencelessness caused by mass expatriation leading to statelessness; the expulsion of millions with the objective of ethnic cleansing and a ‘homogenisation’ of a country’s ‘national’ population; the gradual exclusion of minorities from citizenship, with the aim of their disfranchisement and extermination; and the denial of citizenship to millions of immigrants by the receiving country, which left them in political limbo.

The decision about who was considered a citizen of a European country in the 20th century— and who not—characterised the political self-conception of a country and its society—as an immigrant-welcoming society or as a closed community, as a polity defined by pluralistic values, or as an ethnocultural community, even a racial state. From the point of view of an individual, the status of citizen determined in many cases not only the quality of a person’s opportunities in life but also his or her chances of survival.

Struggles for Belonging recounts the history of citizenship in Europe as the history of European statehood in the 20th and early 21st centuries, doing so from three vantage points: as the development of a legal institution crucial to European constitutionalism; as a measure of an individual’s opportunities for self-fulfilment ranging from freedom to totalitarian subjugation; and as a succession of alternating, often sharply divergent political regimes, considered from the perspective of their inclusivity and exclusivity and its justification.

The subject of the book is the history of citizenship in its twofold meaning. On the one hand, the text deals with the legally defined, formal status of belonging to a (nation) state, in other words, with the ‘external’ aspect of citizenship, which in German is called Staatsangehörigkeit, or nationality. On the other hand, the text addresses the rights and obligations associated with the status of citizenship—the ‘internal’ aspect of citizenship. It reveals the transformation of citizenship by examining the connection between its two aspects. Historically, nationality emerged as a mandatory requirement for access to the rights of citizenship. Belonging to a (nation) state and essential claims to its legal rights were closely linked. This nexus undergoes a fundamental change, as the book illustrates. Basic rights due solely to citizens in the early 20th century are also widely afforded non-citizens in the early 21st century. But is this functional change synonymous with a change in meaning of citizenship and European statehood as a whole?

The European history of citizenship is discussed on the basis of six selected countries: Great Britain, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia. In addition to their size and major political importance, these territorially contiguous states form a continuous developmental trajectory of political interconnection in conflict and adaptation that stretches across all of Europe and exemplifies the continent’s development. The depiction historically contextualises the ‘short 20th century’ by choosing as its beginning the end phase of the European empires around 1900 and extending the narrative thread into the 21st century and the present.

Main Findings

The study synthesises an extensive discussion about citizenship / Staatsbürgerschaft / citoyenneté in the historical, legal, and sociological literature in order to challenge the central theses of the debate. It comes to four main conclusions. First, contrary to an influential theory (Brubaker 1992), it is not discursive idioms about the nation that primarily determine the inclusive or exclusive character of citizenship. Rather, in the 20th century it was changing politico-social constellations—economic, demographic, and foreign policy interests and conjunctions—that defined the political form and practice of citizenship. The first chapter covers the outgoing epoch of the multinational empires and continental Middle and Eastern European colonial powers, which experienced the zenith of their expansion of power and their collapse. Alongside the particularly intense manifestation of national and ethnic criteria for in- and exclusion during the heyday of the European nation state, new hierarchical systems grading affiliation on the basis of ethnicity and race developed, redefining the relationship between colonising and colonised nations on the European continent as well as in the overseas colonial territories.  These evolving politico-social constellations came to be more important than discursive idioms to determine the legal systems of inclusion and exclusion and the choice of systems of ius soli (law of territory) and ius sanguinis (law of descent).

Second, contrary to the dominant narrative, the history of citizenship in Europe is not told as the history of a qualitative decline of legal culture from Western to Eastern Europe. Instead, this frequently alleged gap is called into question. Through the equal inclusion of comparative countries from Western and Eastern Europe—for the first time in the historical literature on citizenship—transfer processes in both directions, as well as areas of citizenship policy, are revealed whose ‘progressiveness’ did not have its origins in the West. Chapter 2 demonstrates how World War I introduced an epoch in which the political and social importance of citizenship in the everyday lives of Europeans increased greatly, as did, however, its delimiting and exclusionary impact as well. The extreme depletion of the reservoir of—male—conscripts sharpened the dividing line between the sexes and in the course of large-scale conquests incited conflicts between ethnic and national loyalties, between ethnicity and nationality, as was seen, for example, in the areas occupied by Germany in France and Russia. The emerging European civil war, which would become a world civil war, had one of its battlefields in the immensely contradictory and conflict-ridden history of citizenship as shown in Chapter 3. This phase was marked by a fundamental tension. On the one hand, there was the systematic codification and substantive expansion of political and social civil rights in the emerging democracies and social welfare states of Europe. Legal inequality between the sexes diminished; a social security net began to spread across all of Europe. On the other hand, these expanding rights were increasingly reserved for a country’s own citizens and thereby nationalised. This restrictive tendency escalated to the extreme with the race and class-based exclusion and extermination policies of the dictatorships in Europe’s “bloodlands” (Snyder 2010) prior to World War II and intensified during its course. Citizenship changed its function and went from being an institution of governmental protection to one of discriminatory selection and extermination policy. In this period ‘progressive’ tendencies in the development of citizenship (e.g. franchise and independent citizenship status for women) to some extent went from Eastern to Western Europe.

Third, the history of citizenship in Europe since the nineteenth century cannot be told as an exclusively European one as shown in Chapters 1, 4, and 5. The politics of colonialism and the colonial practices of affiliation in the European powers’ overseas and continental colonial empires remained in effect well into the postcolonial policies of citizenship and migration. The colonial racial hierarchy of belonging shaped not only the antipodes, but also the inheritance of a current policy of citizenship in Europe. In this sense, the book is a study about the historical substance and future prospects of European citizenship in a globalised world. Chapter 4 shows that the history of citizenship in Europe was not defined by the continent’s geographical boundaries and can be understood only if one bears in mind the long tradition of colonial hierarchisation of citizenship. The chapter has a connective function, drawing a chronological arc from the end of the 19th century to the end of World War II, from the first half of the century to the second. Looking at the overseas colonial empires of Great Britain, France, and Germany, as well as the continental empires of National Socialist Germany and the Soviet Union, the chapter pursues the question of the continuity of colonial hierarchies of affiliation and inequality from the peak period of imperialism to the end of the epoch of European colonisation. This chapter demonstrates the inextricable entanglement between European and non-European developments of citizenship since the 19th century.

Fourth, the book’s historical cross-section supports a critical review of the widespread theory of convergence between regimes of citizenship in Europe. A differentiating finding that gives a balanced assessment of citizenship policy in Western and Eastern Europe shows the historical conditions for expectations of Europeanisation through law and thus for European citizenship. The “postwar period” (Judt 2005) of citizenship (Chapter 5), which was overshadowed by expulsions, decolonisation, and the ideological division of Europe, embodied a long history of dealing politically with the consequences of war, violence, and discrimination. In the European dictatorships after 1945, integration into the community of class and the state-prescribed ideology remained decisive for political affiliation and thus for the rights of citizenship, which dissidents were deprived of through expatriation. By contrast, in Western European society, which became more open under the influence of post-colonial immigration and the sustained boom, citizenship (Marshall 1950) evolved into the ultimate emblem of a social welfare state, a state in which on the principals of constitutionally guaranteed and expanding civil rights political affiliation was based on consensus, participation, and consumerism. These two polar concepts of citizenship, which influenced each other despite the supposed isolation of the two European hemispheres, were overcome and politically overlaid by a new human rights policy that established the protection of civil rights outside the state and contributed to the 1989 political transformation of Europe.

The triumph of liberal constitutionalism in Europe after 1989 (Chapter 6) appeared to herald the end of a hard, limiting (nation) statehood and thereby to increasingly suspend the key function of citizenship—the granting of political affiliation, security, and freedom. Human rights-based protections of individual freedom, as well as the legal consolidation and geographical expansion of European integration, call for new transnational concepts and institutions of political affiliation, which find their focus in European Union citizenship. However, new, conflict-laden disputes about the borders of nation states and their political affiliation are reviving old rivalries, particularly in the eastern states of the ‘New Europe’. The return in Russia and Hungary, for example, but also in Poland to a protective concept of citizenship defining political affiliation according to imperial motives or ethnic criteria justifies doubts about the influential thesis claiming convergence in citizenship policy in Europe. Brexit and the closure of borders between member states of the European Union in the corona pandemic confirm recent trends towards (re-)nationalisation. The need to safeguard security and freedom instead reminds citizens of Europe of their nationality.

The book leads from the apogee of the European nation state to current developments in present-day Europe—to the debates and conflicts surrounding migration and integration; to the meaning of national belonging at Europe’s centre as well as in its crisis regions; and finally to the battles over security and freedom that are being fought in the name of citizenship, from the French banlieues to the Ukrainian-Russian border.


This study is intended for various academic fields, especially historians, legal scholars, and social scientists interested in European history as of the twentieth century, specifically a modern constitutional and social history of Europe up to the present day. The book undertakes a synthetic synopsis and critical analysis of the broad spectrum of international literature in various disciplines on a central institution of the European constitutional and social state, that of citizenship. For the first time, such a study includes not only Western but also Eastern European developments and literature. This is new in the literature and should give rise to more studies of citizenship transcending the alleged ‘gap’ between Eastern and Western Europe. It was surprising to me that if we include the extra-European areas in which European countries exercised state authority the strong North-South gap in the legal hierarchy of citizenship makes the West-East gap not negligible but less important by comparison. The research involved direct contacts with historians from Germany and Western Europe as well as from Eastern Europe; with theoretical sociologists and political scientists, with scholars working historically and empirically in those fields; and with experts in administrative, European, and constitutional law. The topic is thus of interest to disciplines working theoretically—on fundamental questions about modern institutional and social order—as well as to those working empirically. As this book mostly deals with legal texts and ideas, further research might take a closer look at the relationship – and possible gap – between legal norms and administrative practice in history.  With its synthesis and overview reaching from the late nineteenth century to Europe’s current political problems, the book is also aimed at an audience beyond scholarship, at a broader public with an interest in politics and history—at the media, teachers, and those interested in migrants’ problems, immigration, and human rights issues.