Citizenship: Struggling to tie it down
Jo Shaw, University of Edinburgh
Dieter Gosewinkel’s substantial new volume Struggles for Belonging carries one of the most iconic pictures from the history of (anglophone) migration and citizenship studies on its jacket cover. It portrays the ship Empire Windrush arriving at Tilbury Docks in London in 1948, with hundreds of people from what were then Britain’s Caribbean colonies crammed on deck waving to those onshore, expressing a visible excitement at arriving in London. In the UK, this image is taken as an emblem of the subsequent struggles for citizenship of the Windrush generation when they have been faced with the ongoing impact of the colonial past on citizenship (in the sense of being recognised as insiders not outsiders in the UK) in the present. An almost identical picture, taken within seconds of the stock image on the front of Gosewinkel’s book, appears on the front of another recently published historical volume: Robert Gildea’s 2019 Cambridge University Press book Empires of the Mind. The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present. The title of that volume makes explicit the point about the iconography of the Empire Windrush image, regarding links between past and present.
How the inter-relationship between past and present plays out in relation to Struggles for Belonging is more subtle than might be expected: I am grateful to Dieter Gosewinkel for reminding me, in the context of the book debate at the EUI, that the Empire Windrush started its life in Germany as the MV Monte Rosa in 1930, serving as a troopship during the second world war, and ending up in the ownership of the British Government after the war. In its postwar life, before it ended up at the bottom of the Mediterranean, it still served as a troopship but also, at times, it carried new migrants across the Atlantic from the Caribbean to the UK. In that sense, the ship forms a bridge across Europe, as well as a bridge between the UK’s Caribbean colonies and the metropole. In the latter guise, it also operates as a memory and shadow of the profound shaping of modern citizenship which resulted from the Atlantic slave trade from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, although those temporal references, e.g. to the Age of Revolution and the era of the American Civil War and the Fourteenth Amendment, lie outside the ‘long twentieth century’ studied in Struggles for Belonging. In the former guise, it is a reminder that the Struggles for Belonging started life as a German book with a strikingly different title: Schutz und Freiheit (Suhrkamp 2016): “protection and freedom”. Only in the subtitles do the books merge Staatsbürgerschaft in Europa im 20. und 21. Jahrhundert becomes Citizenship in Europe, 1990-2020. That reference to Europe highlights that the focal point of the book is not so much on the relationships which gave rise to those transnational citizenship struggles, but rather on the impact of such struggles in Europe.
In terms of setting the scope of the book, it needs to be made clear that it does not engage in detail with the history of struggle (at least not from the bottom-up perspective). On the contrary, this is a powerful institutional history. Gosewinkel eyeballs citizenship in his chosen time period in great detail and with magisterial knowledge of his subject. The framing chapters of introduction and conclusion are relatively brief. The book is therefore overwhelmingly focused on setting out the details of citizenship (often in its internationally recognised guise of ‘nationality’) in the case study countries of (from west to east) the UK, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Russia. The 120 years of tumultuous events are in turn divided into six chapters covering overlapping time periods, and in these chapters Gosewinkel offers a sweeping history of the period through the lens of citizenship. This alone would make it a very attractive book for me to read. It feeds most of my obsessions. In that list, I would include the book’s aim to place the present in its historical context, boldly attempting a history of the present in its final chapter going right up to 2020. It takes a fresh look, like much of Gosewinkel’s scholarship, at the supposed east-west divide, finding much less evidence than might be thought for this to be viewed as a significant cleavage in relation to citizenship. It engages in more detail with the complex colonial histories of several European states than have previous histories of the citizenship ‘experience’.
It is also good to read Gosewinkel’s thoughts on recent supranational history of citizenship in Europe, although to do justice to that topic through the lens of legal sources, it would probably be essential to upend one of Gosewinkel’s opening assumptions, namely that legal sources of citizenship as status and rights can be a primary focus of study with only a side eye on judicial sources and case law. Certainly, that is not the case for citizenship in postwar Europe at the supranational and international levels (thinking here not just of EU law but also of the role of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and its judicial institutions). But judicial institutions and sources also play a substantial role at the national level, where citizenship policy has often been played out in terms of a dynamic struggle for attention and primacy between courts, legislatures, and executives under the shadow of the varied frameworks of national constitutional law. To return to the emblem of the Empire Windrush, the struggles for citizenship of the Windrush generation could not be understood without extensive recourse to the analysis of case law.
What is, however, most striking about Struggles for Belonging is that it illustrates just how much of a struggle it is to write a book about citizenship, as opposed to a book in which citizenship is a central character, but the core historical narrative is about changes in other spheres, whether that is the ebbs and flows of democracy and rights or the dynamics of socio-economic change. This is especially true when the writing steps beyond the narrow question of status membership, and focuses also on issues of rights which may, or often may not, be limited to those who hold status citizenship. Given the proliferation of rights discourse, especially in Europe, since the second world war, it is increasingly hard to delineate a precise area of actual citizenship rights. That is certainly true of some of the discussion in Struggles for Belonging about women’s rights. It remains to me an unanswered question whether women appear to lack ‘citizenship rights’ because they are treated as less than full (status) citizens or rather because ‘the rights of citizens’ are designed and defined in such a way as to exclude women a priori. It may be that we can learn a lot about the weaknesses of citizenship through the study of women as citizens, but I am less convinced that we can learn that much about the reality of women’s lives under capitalism or socialism through the study of citizenship. Citizenship has its limits, as Gosewinkel acknowledges.
That is a specific illustration of my more general point here about Struggles for Belonging. Citizenship does not drive change, but rather reflects the presence or absence of change in a variety of illuminating ways which are sometimes hard to pin down, because citizenship is such a protean concept. That is why intellectual arguments which focus on trying to change citizenship, or indeed to abandon it, are reductionist, in the sense that they lose the complex and rich empirical detail of the membership concept itself and of the wider socio-economic and political context in which it is nested. Citizenship not only has inclusionary and exclusionary dimensions. It is also tied to distributional inequalities both within Europe and between Europe and other parts of the globe, but these are driven by the resilient system of states and barely ameliorated by supranational or international legal regimes. States can and do use citizenship instrumentally, simultaneously suggesting that it carries a symbolic weight while treating it as ethically fungible (and thus treating as disposable those who do not have it). Getting rid of citizenship, in its current form, means getting rid of states in their current form. That may be a morally laudable goal, but it would certainly be a complex task to upend the contemporary organisation of society and to replace it with a durable and grounded recapitulation of the exercise of political power in a manner that can be said to be legitimate. Meanwhile, citizenship rolls on, with all its weaknesses, frustratingly ubiquitous.
In sum, taken as an exercise in contemporary history, using citizenship as an analytical lens, the book succeeds in illuminating the long 20th century in important ways that will make this into a standard work. The very richness of book, however, reminds us that there is so much more work to be done in this area.