Brexit and Jewish applications for German citizenship


Boris Johnson (R) looks at pictures of Jewish Holocaust victims at the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, Israel, 10 November 2015, during a ceremony honoring the six-million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust of World War II.

British Holocaust survivors apply for German citizenship for practical reasons, but that does not make the gesture any less political

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Applications for German citizenship by British Jews and their descendants has spiked after the June 23 referendum on British EU membership.

The phenomenon is not nearly as massive as applications for Irish citizenship. The question is “why” such applications are significant. Surely, to suggest that Britain poses a threat to Jews is a gross exaggeration out of touch with reality. But, the fact that British Jews apply for German citizenship in the aftermath of the referendum must be significant.

The answer is simple for each case. Citizenship is opportunity. But, the cumulative phenomenon of individual cases has political significance, for Britain, for Germany, and for Europe.

Righting a wrong

Tens of thousands of German citizens of Jewish faith were deprived of German citizenship between January 30, 1933, and May 8, 1945. Article 116 (2) of German basic law specifies that Germans that have been deprived of their citizens are entitled to its restoration.

German Jews lost their citizenship with the ‘Law on the Revocation of Naturalizations and the Deprivation of the German Citizenship’ of July 14, 1933. But, most of the German Jews lost their citizenship later, on November 25, 1941, with the ‘Eleventh Decree to the Law on the Citizenship of the Reich.’ The latter stripped German Jews that has escaped Germany before the beginning of the war.

The minimum requirement is an officially translated paper specifying the person has once been a German citizen or is the descendant of a German citizen. The application itself is free of charge, but can be time-consuming as each application needs to be checked against official archives.

The catalyst was not offering German citizenship; in reality, application started coming in more frequently, when Germany became more lenient on dual citizenship.

What’s personal is politically significant

British Jews may indeed be seeking German citizenship for the practicality of “remaining” but, besides an exercise in stating the obvious, there is a broader political point to be made.

From around the world, German Jews have been applying for German citizenship long before Brexit. Leo Mark Horovitz applied for German citizenship at the age of 85, in 2014. He had fled Germany as a 10-year old child for Britain and then immigrated to San Francisco.

Alas, his application was also driven by a “practicality.” He was in love with a German psychoanalyst with whom he wanted to live, in Germany. Descendants of Holocaust survivors who want to marry and live in Germany often apply as well.

Being German, despite the will of the Nazi regime is important, but it seems that every application is also a personal story, often a love story, a work story, or a life-style story.

Many applicants are young Israelis and American Jews who want to live in Bohemian Berlin today, as their ancestors might have done during the interwar period. They seek the atmosphere of a cosmopolitan city that might have been sought by their ancestors in the very same city during the interwar period. For some Americans, a German passport is also a ticket for cheaper education anywhere in Europe.

In sum, the motive is always personal and often of a practical nature. But, citizenship and individual biographies have always been interwoven, for Holocaust survivors as much as for anybody else.

Brexit applications

Many of the British Jews that have applied for German citizenship since June 23rd may have been motivated by “practicalities” of life. German, Austrian, and Polish citizenship, like Irish, may be a passport to travel, study, and work anywhere in Europe.

The German embassy in London did receive over 400 applications since Brexit.

In reality, many of the Britons are descendants of Holocaust survivors that made their way to Britain after 1945, fearing for the future and seeking opportunity after the Holocaust. Their descendants are applying for German citizenship, with the certainty of dual citizenship, to augment their access to living, studying, and working in Europe.

Perhaps, there are more reasons to “hedge risks,” but these are not related to Antisemitism, although they are related to xenophobia.

Rachel Houseman from north London told the Independent that she was not optimistic about the future of the economy. She works in banking. She also says her family is appalled by the racism, citing an attack against a Dutch couple that happened to be Jewish. The attack against them took place when they were overheard speaking Dutch to each other.

Leaving Europe, not just the EU

Targeting EU citizens in Brexit Britain has little to do with Antisemitism. The historian Thomas Harding told AP he is applying for a German passport for other than practical reasons. He says it is all about a historical “reconciliation” with Germany. But, the timing is not accidental. Practicality seems to prevail.

That does not make the quest for German citizenship any less political in meaning.

Britain is not entirely unsafe for people with a European accent, but it is no longer regarded as “Europe.” In the aftermath of WWII, the project of European Integration was about creating a safe space of opportunity that could transcend national borders. That was the new “social contract” that no longer applies in Britain. Despite Boris Johnson’s assurances, Britain is leaving the idea of Europe as much as the EU. People are not “Remoaning,” they are holding on to what they believe they are entitled.

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