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Who's German enough for Germany?

June 28, 2019

Expect the soul-searching about what it means to be German to continue after changes to the Nationality Act. The old standards used to establish a national identity no longer apply, writes DW Zoran Arbutina.

A German passport on top of a copy of Germany's Basic Law
Image: picture-alliance/K. Willig

The wretched citizenship debate is back on the agenda. The recent revisions approved by both houses of the German parliament are doubtlessly due to the current zeitgeist — though their advocates are trying to present them as a matter of course.

Indeed, hardly anyone will call into question revoking the German citizenship of those who provided false or incomplete information prior to naturalization. Whether this step can be taken after a period of five or 10 years, is more or less a minor detail.

It is rather more problematic, however, that in the future, even those who are German from birth can be stripped of their citizenship. But as this applies only to those who have joined foreign terrorist militias, and only when such people also have a second nationality, the majority of German citizens support even that change.

Deliberate blur?

The third revision, however, is the most controversial: In the future, people will only be naturalized if, in addition to previous conditions, they also agreed to "integrate into the German way of life," particularly by not being simultaneously married to multiple spouses.

It stands to reason that people who live in polygamous marriages should be prevented from becoming German citizens — such marriages are already against the law in Germany. However, had that been the revision's goal, it could have been worded accordingly. By adding "integration into the German way of life," lawmakers intentionally created a vague regulation that is wide open to interpretations.

Usually, the wording of new laws is as precise as possible to limit room for interpretation. According to a German saying, people on the high seas and in courtrooms are left in God's hands. By using unambiguous wording, lawmakers can keep the judiciary from the temptation of playing God. The inclusion of the nebulous term "German way of life," however, achieves the exact opposite.

Arbutina Zoran
DW's Zoran Arbutina

Revival of the 'leading culture' debate

The question is, after all, what is this "German way of life"? How can people show that they have "integrated" into society? By watching a popular, long-running TV police procedural show on Sunday evenings? By getting up from their chairs and singing along to the national anthem — just the third stanza, of course — prior to German soccer team matches? By not wearing a headscarf? And if wearing a religious headdress at all, what about a yarmulke?

The law effectively revives the old debate on a German leading culture. However, seen against the background of electoral successes of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and rampant Islamophobia, this debate won't become any more meaningful. Someone can choose not to drink German beer, even the stuff brewed according to the centuries-old Purity Law, and still be a good German citizen. That even goes to people who don't drink any alcohol, and it still applies even if they renounce alcohol because of their religious beliefs.

Owing to the zeitgeist

Insisting on a "German leading culture" or "integration into the German way of life" easily leads to ridiculing the issue of who can be and is allowed to become a German citizen. That sounds amusing, but it isn't — the question of citizenship is a serious matter, and lives and livelihoods can depend on it.

Every law reveals, by its wording, the frequently invoked "spirit of the law." The spirit that emerges, in this case, is not a good one. The law regulating the acquisition of German citizenship, which should radiate invitation, openness and integration, breathes the spirit of differentiation.

This may fit the current political and intellectual climate in Germany, which puts Muslims under general suspicion of being undemocratic extremists, which identifies asylum-seekers as problems and in which a "welcoming culture" and "do-gooder" have long since become terms of abuse. But none of this points the way to the future. After all, the concept of differentiation and exclusion are concepts that have been implemented in the past — with disastrous consequences.

Who do we want to be?

The key question is not just how to obtain a German passport and the advantages it brings with it. Instead, the questions are: What are "the Germans" like, and how can someone become German without German parents? Vague terminology like "the German way of life" reveals profound insecurity when it comes to providing an answer to those core questions of identity. 

The old standards — watch the right TV show, drink the right beer, sing the right part of the anthem — are no longer enough and German society is still struggling to understand what it means to be German. The final result is still unclear, but, in any case, anyone looking at the amended Nationality Act for the spirit of an open and inviting society will be searching in vain. And those who don't feel welcome will hardly choose to develop any real enthusiasm for their new German identity.

But, despite all attempts at differentiation, these people can become Germans, too.  As Article 116 of Germany's Basic Law makes clear, "A German (…) is a person who possesses German citizenship."

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