On January 30, Isabelle and Felix Couchman sat in the visitor area of the Bundestag, wondering whether their months of work was about to pay off. Just one day earlier, Germany's parliament had held a service to remember the victims of the Holocaust. Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble reminded members of parliament and guests of Germany's enduring responsibility.
The Couchmans had traveled from London to attend the Bundestag debates. Item 11 on the day's agenda was "reparation in the German nationality law."
Behind the unwieldy title of the Bundestag debate is the question of whether descendants of Jews who were stripped of their German citizenship by the Nazis should have it reinstated. Article 116 of the constitution, or Basic Law, states: "Former German citizens who, between 30 January 1933 and 8 May 1945, were deprived of their citizenship on political, racial or religious grounds and their descendants shall, on application, have their citizenship restored."
In practice, however, many applications for naturalization have been rejected. In 2017 and 2018 alone, almost 10,000 applications were made under Article 116. Only 3,900 were approved.
German parliament debates
The debate in the Bundestag was requested by the Greens — on the insistence of the Couchmans and their lobby, the Article 116 Exclusions Group. Founded in 2018, it represents Germans and their descendants, mostly but not exclusively of Jewish descent, who have unsuccessfully applied to have their citizenship reinstated in accordance with Article 116 § 2 of the Basic Law. The Couchmans are now in contact with more than 200 of the people affected.
"Citizenship is a fundamental right," Felix said. "These people can't get back the loved ones they have lost. In many cases, they can't get back their property. They can't get back jobs that they have lost. But they can get back one thing and that is German citizenship. People in our group haven't been allowed to do that. The reasons that have been given seem unfair, unlawful and plain wrong."
In parliament, however, the majority voted against the proposal. In a week in which world leaders commemorated the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and Christian Social Union and the Social Democrats (SPD) blocked the law. They argued that two new decrees initiated by the interior minister in August must suffice.
"We believe that a legal regulation instead of the status quo would not bring about an improvement, but rather a delay and perhaps even an aggravation," Michael Kuffer, of the conservative CSU, argued in the debate. "In this respect, we are of the opinion that there is no need for a new law."
Skepticism follows decrees
According to the new decrees, many of the previously rejected applicants will now be able to naturalize more easily. For this, however, among other hurdles, applicants must demonstrate simple German-language skills, as well as basic knowledge of the country's legal and social order and living conditions in a personal interview.
The position contrasts with that of other EU countries. In 2019, the Austrian Parliament unanimously ratified a law that makes it easier for the descendants of Nazi victims who fled the Third Reich to obtain citizenship. Going further back, Spain and Portugal facilitated the naturalization of the descendants of those who had to leave their countries at the end of the 15th century during the Spanish Inquisition.
The Greens are disappointed. "It has been shown that the great importance of this topic has not been adequately appreciated," the lawmaker Filiz Polat told DW. "The debate has degenerated into an absurd discussion about a petty argument. That's a pity."
'A discretionary relief'
After decades of standstill, the Couchmans welcomed the decrees passed by Germany's Interior Ministry last summer. But, for them, they don't go far enough.
"The decrees are essentially a discretionary relief," Felix said. "The German government doesn't like being told that there is a problem and here is the solution."
"From their point of view, the decrees do what they should do," he said. "They don't see the bigger picture, the constitutional issues. They don't see all the lives of the individuals who have been affected. They don't see the personal element. They just see a black-and-white tick-box exercise. They need to see beyond that.”
Despite being heartened that the proposal wasn't rejected by a landslide, the Couchmans returned to London disappointed.
For this report, DW looked at eight rejection notices and spoke to the people affected. One letter suggests that an ancestor left Germany for Brazil in 1937 voluntarily — and not for "political, racial or religious reasons." In reality, the applicant's Jewish grandfather had been banned from studying in Germany. Many of his relatives who remained were later murdered at Nazi concentration camps.
Another rejection reads: "According to the documents you submitted, your father was originally of Austrian nationality. They, therefore, have no right to naturalization under Article 116.2 of the Constitution.”
The applicant, Stephan Feuchtwang, was born in 1937 on what was then Adolf-Hitler-Platz in Berlin. His German mother and Austrian father fled via the Netherlands to the UK on the eve of the annexation of Austria, which would have removed his Jewish father's "semi-immunity" to Nazi laws.
It was only after the UK voted in June 2016 to leave the European Union that Feuchtwang decided to apply for German citizenship, at the age of 80. His attempt to remain an EU citizen after Brexit was in vain. Prior to the new decrees, Article 116 was only applicable to heritage on the paternal side, and not maternal. Last year, Feuchtwang applied a second time, under the new decrees, which take his mother's nationality into account.
Felix Couchman said many of interpretations of the constitution are sexist and ageist. "Some of the letters I have seen are just unempathetic," he said. "There is no emotion whatsoever. And, when you are dealing with people who either faced the horrors themselves or their relatives, it's pretty harsh to say something as black and white as that."
"I am not expecting gushing emotion," he said, "but these are human beings with a pretty horrible history and they need to be treated with respect."
Asked whether the Interior Ministry would apologize for the way that applicants had been treated, a representative told DW: "Decisions to refuse [applications] were based on the fact that the conditions for naturalization through reparation were not met at the time. Naturalization applicants, whose applications could not be met, should consider that they can now be naturalized based on the decrees."
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Continuing the fight
Before Isabelle Couchman officially accepts members to the Article 116 Exclusions Group, she checks their stories meticulously. Folders full of historical documents pile up in her husband's office — birth certificates bearing swastikas, Kindertransport notices, photos from concentration camps — alongside the rejection notices.
"It's quite emotional," she said. "Some of the stories are very powerful. Some people have lost their entire family. And when you are talking to them, you feel their pain."
"If the German government sat down with us and looked at some of the people who they have rejected, they would also realize that they have to do the right thing," she said, and began to cry.
The 116 group gives the descendants the courage to continue fighting. Together with Isabelle and Felix Couchman, they want to keep going until their right to German citizenship — without exception — is written into law.