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


European citizenship in good times and bad times

Maarten Prak, Utrecht University

I would like to start with a personal story. My wife and I are Dutch nationals, living in The Netherlands. Until recently both our children were living in the United Kingdom. And while doing so, they both started families of their own. As a result, our four grandchildren were all born in the UK. Only two, however, are UK citizens, while the other two are Dutch citizens. As far as I know, the parents were not given a choice; this happened by default. The only difference is that our daughter has married a UK citizen, and even though she still has Dutch citizenship herself, both her children, born in Newcastle and Glasgow, were given British citizenship. Our son, on the other hand, is married to a Dutch citizen and therefore their children had to choose between becoming British or Dutch citizens, as Dutch law strongly resists dual citizenship. This immediately goes to show that citizenship laws are a combination of a descent principle (ius sanguinis) and a territorial principle (ius soli). As Dieter Gosewinkel’s masterly study of European citizenship demonstrates in amazing detail, those two principles have been mixed in all manner and form during the twentieth century for reasons that seem to defy any logic.

I call Gosewinkel’s book ‘masterly’ because it is wide-ranging and at the same time very focused, as I hope to demonstrate in this review. I have read his book as a historian, albeit of an earlier period (Prak 2018). Therefore, I will want to say something about things that typically interest historians, such as sources and chronology, but also about sample selection, comparative method, and analytical framework.

Among the many qualities of this book is that it covers, in depth, countries that are often treated superficially in studies that claim to be ‘European’. This applies generally to the regions of European ‘minority’ languages, which are usually understood to be everything beyond English, French and German. And while the UK, France and Germany are among the six countries selected for in-depth treatment, so are Poland, Russia, and Czechoslovakia, three countries that tend to be passed over, simply because the author has not mastered the requisite languages to cover these. Including them has allowed Gosewinkel a much more balanced view of the entire continent. One can assume that the fact that he works in Berlin, a city situated close to the middle of the European East-West axis, has made him sensitive to the fate of Europe’s eastern half.

To be sure, the selection of cases still raises some questions. France, Germany and the UK are the ‘usual suspects’ when discussing Western Europe, and in this book medium-sized Czechoslovakia has no Western equivalent like Belgium or Denmark. There is also the more fundamental problem that, while the other four have long national histories, both Poland and Czechoslovakia were essentially newly created countries in 1918, even if Poland had a history of national independence before it was partitioned in 1795 and ceased to exist as such for well over a century. Czechoslovakia was carved from the dismembered Austrian-Hungarian Empire after World War One. However, shifting (and therefore disputed) borders were such a constant feature of Central Europe during the century covered by this book – and remain so today – that it is easy to justify the inclusion of these two countries in the sample. Ironically, perhaps, parts of pre-war Poland and Czechoslovakia have been incorporated in Ukraine in 1945.[1]

The primary sources for this book are constitutional texts and sets of citizenship laws from the six sample countries. This makes Gosewinkel’s book a work of legal history. That chimes with the author’s training in Law and History. It is, at the same time, a slightly old-fashioned way of addressing the topic. Citizenship studies has tried to emancipate itself from its legal origins by concentrating much more on citizenship practices and identities.[2] It nonetheless gives Gosewinkel plenty of material to work with and there is no denying that these formal frameworks help shape what we might call the ‘citizenship experience’. Because this is what Gosewinkel is really interested in: not the legal technicalities as such, but how these affected real people. As a result, the practical applications of these rules and regulations are discussed in a great many places in the book, albeit often to show that practices diverged from rules. The primary sources are guiding the story, without overwhelming it. In fact, looking at the book’s substantial footnotes, the reader is pointed to an impressive secondary literature. Here, the language has had a bigger impact than in the composition of the sample, as most of it is in German and English.

Still, the real asset of the book is its comparative perspective. It allows Gosewinkel to point up all kinds of national peculiarities, but at the same time interesting parallels. In 1918, for example, the revolutionary Russian state gave citizenship rights to foreign workers in Russia. In the 1920s, such rights were gradually restricted to ethnic Russians with legislation that mirrored what was happening in such ‘bourgeois’ states as France and Britain. Less surprisingly, the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships politicised citizenship in very similar ways.

Such observations are useful, but more could be done with them, I want to suggest. Comparisons can be set up in a variety of ways. True to his disciplinary profile as a historian (and perhaps also as a legal scholar), Gosewinkel has opted for a flexible approach that essentially identifies similarities and differences across the six cases. Given the material he works with, this may seem like a logical choice, but it still made me wonder what might have happened if he had chosen a more rigorous, analytical version of comparison (Tilly 1984; Ragin 1987). That would have forced him to look more systematically for the answer to the question guiding the book’s content, a question that is raised on the book’s second page, where it reads: “What are the historical conditions for the possibility – and thus the limitations – of an ideal of progressive equality, participation and integration, which since the Enlightenment had been immanent in the concept of citizenship and often invoked in its practical implementation?”

The rigorous comparison would have required the author to identify beforehand a set of explanatory factors (independent variables) that might have summed up those conditions, and then apply those to his six case studies in a string of historical periods. Instead, he has chosen to present his materials in a narrative form whose dynamic stems from the chronological subdivisions of his text. These subdivisions are, in turn, determined by the well-known historical turning-points of Europe’s twentieth-century history: World War One (1914-1918), the end of World War Two (1945), and the end of Communism in Eastern Europe (1989). This implies a strong emphasis on the role of international and domestic politics in the narrative.

One of the elements that stands out for me from Gosewinkel’s story, however, is the strength of the idea of citizenship. In other words, the cultural dimension of citizenship. And this all the more so, because the other element shaping a lot of the dynamic is nationalism, and the way nationalism and citizenship have interacted. I was therefore a little surprised to read in the conclusions that “[c]hanges in political and social constellations and interests explain citizenship policy in nation-states – and also beyond territorial-imperial dimensions – with greater accuracy than the cultural idioms of the nation” (p. 424). Perhaps this sentence applies to the variations in citizenship regimes, instead of to the general trend?

One area where the strong role of cultural factors stands out, is in the blending of citizenship with ethnicity and outright racism. The book has an informative chapter on the consequences of European imperialism for conceptions of citizenship and their application. Legally, the inhabitants of the colonies were often promised rights equal to those of the metropolis, but in practice they found it very difficult to enforce their equal status, as the so-called Windrush generation (the ship after which they were called graces the cover of the book) is discovering to this day in the UK. However, the same mechanisms were also operating within Europe itself, where especially those with fragile nationhood, i.e. Poles and Jews, were systematically discriminated by other countries. It is one of the many ironies of this history, albeit a very sad one, that after World War Two the Polish state persecuted and drove out most of the remaining Jews in that country, and that the state of Israel has systematically infringed the rights of its Muslim inhabitants.

Whereas culture could be a wrecker of citizenship rights, it could also support their expansion. Female activists took the idea of equality between citizens, as enshrined in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century constitutions, seriously and demanded that women would be treated accordingly. Even if gender equality still has to be achieved, massive steps forward have been made. Likewise, social activists have used these arguments to promote the welfare state that, again, is in no way perfect, but a massive improvement over the situation in, say, 1900. It also shows that citizens have had agency to improve their situation vis-à-vis the state. Having said that, it still looks as if most of the improvements in citizenship rights have been the result of more or less autonomous state actions. This applies especially in the post-war period when politicians globally and in Europe took decisive actions to improve civic rights. The emergence and expansion of the European Union is the most obvious element in this process. The EU was not established in response to civic demands, but as project of politicians determined to constrain themselves, but also inspired by ideas about a better future. And with ups and downs, and indeed persistent regional variations, they have nonetheless managed to achieve that. It is an accomplishment that is celebrated very tongue-in-cheek by the author of this impressive book.