Serving two masters

With a new law set to allow dual citizenship for the first time, Germany's forced choice nationality policy is set to change. Exberliner examines what this change really means, talking both to the experts and the people set to be most effected.

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Photos by Michal Andrysiak

A new law is expected to let a generation of foreigners born in Germany after 1990 become dual citizens… but what does it really change? Exberliner unveils the mystique shrouding German citizenship.

It is a grey Berlin afternoon and Yasemin, a 23-year-old law student, is sipping coffee at her favourite café in Schöneberg with her 22-year-old cousin, philosophy student Yasu. Articulate, elegant and confident, they are the first generation of their family born in Berlin. Their grandfather migrated from Turkey to Kreuzberg in the early 1970s to work as a Gastarbeiter, and Yasu’s mother was nine months old when the family arrived here.

Both Yasu (photo, right) and Yasemin (left) are German citizens whose parents had opted to become naturalised Germans after fulfilling the minimum residence requirement of 15 years in the country. Yet in doing so, they had to renounce the country of their birth. “Our parents agreed it would be more strategic to opt for German citizenship, given the growing importance of the EU. they wanted us to be spared the bureaucracy of applying for visas every time we needed to travel on a school trip,” Yasemin explains.

If Yasemin’s parents had retained their Turkish citizenship, she would have received dual Turkish-German citizenship in 2000… but only up until 2013, when she would have had to choose which nationality she wanted to keep. This Optionszwang (forced choice) policy, in place since the 2000 citizenship reforms and put in place by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, grants temporary dual citizenship to children of foreign parents born in Germany after 1990. They must make the choice between the ages of 18 and 23; if they don’t, they automatically lose their German passport. For Yasemin, it would have been no choice at all. “It never occurred to me to even apply for Turkish citizenship, since my only ties with that country are through my parents and grandparents. I speak Turkish and respect the culture of my family, yet I was born here, my life is here and I feel German.”

Yasemin and Yasu’s generation is the focus of a new proposal to abolish the Optionszwang, part of the November 2013 SPD-CDU coalition agreement. Under the new law, children born after 1990 in Germany to two foreign parents would be allowed to keep both citizenships permanently, no choice necessary. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière (CDU) wants to push the legislation through parliament by the April Easter break, but the CDU and SPD are still at odds over a key detail. For the SPD, being born in Germany should be enough to qualify for the dual passport. But the CDU insists that proof of having grown up and lived in Germany for 12 years, or a high-school finishing certificate (Schulabschluss) should be provided.

This proposed addendum has been met with virulent criticism from Germany’s Turkish community, who would be affected by the law more than any other nationality.

Long shrouded in mystique, German nationality law has been the cause of much confusion and heated political debate over the last decade. Many Germans themselves struggle to understand the nuances.

Up until 2000, a person could become a German citizen only through the jus sanguinus (right of blood) principle – that is, if he or she had German parents. This was established during Prussian rule. “The notion that one person could ‘serve two masters’ was incompatible with loyalty to the German empire. That is why it was the exception rather than the rule up until the end of the 20th century for a migrant to become naturalised as a German, let alone keep their first citizenship,” says Frankfurt-based immigrant rights activist and lawyer Victor Pfaff.

The 2000 citizenship reform introduced under then-Chancellor Schröder introduced the jus soli (right of soil) principle, so that children of foreign parents born in 1990 or later acquired German citizenship under the ‘optional model’ as long as one parent had resided in Germany for at least eight years and possessed a permanent residence permit for three years. If a child did not put in their form to their local authorities before their 23rd birthday to retain German citizenship and renounce their first citizenship, they would automatically be denaturalised as a German.

Yet German nationality law has many inconsistencies and long-standing exceptions when it comes to dual citizenship. According to the German Statistisches Bundesamt (National Statistics Office), every second person who becomes a naturalised German retains their first citizenship as it is. Since 2005, EU and Swiss citizens and their children have not been affected by the ‘option’ obligation. “Furthermore, the ban on dual citizenship does not apply to those from Afghanistan, Algeria, Eritrea, Iran, Cuba, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and most Latin American countries, due to the fact that those countries do not accept the act of renouncing your nationality,” says Pfaff.

In addition, under a special agreement, descendants of German Jews who were subjected to forced denaturalisation during the Third Reich have the right to apply for German citizenship and keep their first citizenship – including Israeli citizens with German ancestry, for example, or an American Jew with a German grandfather. Similarly, Spätaussiedler or late repatriates (German descendants of ethnic German migrants mostly from Romania, the former USSR and Kazakhstan) and their children are also exempt from the dual citizenship ban.

The main group of people affected by the Optionszwang or removal thereof are the three million Turks living in Germany. In Berlin, 77,536 people with a Turkish background hold German citizenship. Meanwhile, 99,558 are Turkish citizens. Though many of them have lived in Germany their entire lives and could have applied for naturalisation, they choose to remain Ausländer in a country they call home.

“Many Turks are reluctant to apply for a German passport because they don’t see the advantages,” reads a report in the Deutsch-Türkische Nachrichten last December. “As many still own property and have family members in their native land, they are afraid to lose their Turkish citizenship. They suspect they might have disadvantages should they ever want to return to Turkey.”

Identity and culture are never black and white. Indeed, far from it. Germany, instead of embracing and enacting the policies of multiculturalism (where new migrants are encouraged to retain their traditions and culture in their adopted country) typical of migrant countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia, opted instead for the integration model (where newcomers need to fit in with German culture). Yasu observes that there may be some Turkish youth who feel more Turkish even though they were born in Germany, while their parents and grandparents have made many efforts to integrate into the German way of life through studying the language and working here, even though they were been born in Turkey.

Given the forced choice, most young Turkish Germans are opting to remain citizens of the country of their birth. In 2013, the Optionszwang fully took effect, as dual citizens born in 1990 began turning 23. Of the 3400 Turks in Germany who had to make the decision, 3224 chose German citizenship, while just 176 chose Turkish. Still, Yasu says, the new proposal benefits “those young people born here who never really identified with Germany and felt constantly discriminated against. They will basically lose the stigma of being labelled a ‘migrant’, which would have been the case if they had opted for Turkish citizenship over German. Now they don’t have to make that decision and get to keep both. They will have the documents to show their ‘German’ identity when they need it and won’t be forced into choosing either way, which is surely a plus.”

Three generations of Turks – children, parents and grandparents – call Germany home. Yet before Schröder, the parents and grandparents were not given the option of applying for German citizenship. They were still treated as Gastarbeiter, guest workers who were supposed to return home after they had worked in Germany’s post-war reconstruction industry in mostly blue-collar work whether toiling in factories, labouring at construction sites or opening small businesses. Then, post-Schröder, the children of the first and second generations were eligible for temporary dual citizenship. The parents and grandparents, including Yasu’s and Yasemin’s parents, were never given this option: they had to pick one way or another. And now, they are still not covered in this new proposal; it is once again only the third generation.

Ayşe Demir, Deputy Chairperson of the Türkischer Verein Deutschland (TVD), the peak national body representing interests of the Turkish community is therefore critical of the proposal to abolish the Optionszwang. “It sends the wrong message to those Turkish migrants who came to Germany and gave so much to this country. It is not just an emotional issue about feeling ‘more’ German or ‘less’ Turkish in deciding to keep both German or Turkish citizenship.” As part of the coalition negotiations, the CDU rejected the SPD’s original demand for general recognition or acceptance of dual citizenship for all foreigners living permanently in Germany, regardless of whether they were born here or migrated. Hence the disappointment by many members of the Turkish community in Germany.

Demir notes the failure to permit dual citizenship for all migrants as not only unfair, but discriminatory. “You need only look at the level of administration and bureaucracy, particularly in inheritance and matrimonial matters, which is much more cumbersome for non-Germans living in Germany than for German citizens.”

Furthermore, Demir points out the unrealistic possibility that the German government would have to sign bilateral agreements with potentially around 100 countries to facilitate a recognition of the first citizenship of the person and then their newly acquired German citizenship.

In comparison with the Schröder reforms of 2000, the proposed removal of the Optionszwang seems to be more of a symbolic gesture rather than a real revolutionary political change. “For my parents and grandparents particularly, they do not feel either passionate or critical about this new proposal,” says Yasemin. “My parents made the decision for themselves years ago to choose one way or the other and they chose German.”

At its heart, the debate says more about German political intransigence rather than many people’s personal reality: 2.3 million Germans already hold two or more passports. Perhaps more than the symbolism, there is the convenience it will bring: if the new law goes into effect this year, it will eliminate the endless paperwork of the 40,000 potential cases of the youth who would have needed to make their decision by 2018. “Like my dad says, ‘You carry your past in your heart, not on a piece of paper’,” says Yasu.

Originally published in issue #126, April 2014.