Protection and Freedom? Citizenship in Europe in the 20th and 21st Century

Book Cover Gosewinkel "Schutz und Freiheit?" Citizenship was the mark of political affiliation in Europe in the twentieth century. While estate, religion, party, class, and nation lost political significance in the century of extremes, citizenship advanced to become the decisive category of political affiliation.

In the century’s upheavals and political struggles, the legal institution of citizenship had a decisive influence on the limits of a political community, on in- and exclusion, and thus on an individual’s opportunities in life. Its enfranchisement included the obligation to risk life and limb for the survival of one’s country in exchange for the right to protection, participation in the expanding political and social rights in the democracies and welfare states of Europe and ultimately access to the new legal status of being a citizen of the European Union.

At no other time did the lack of citizenship, the non-affiliation with a political community, have such existential consequences than in the twentieth century: statelessness and social defenselessness cause by mass expatriation, the expulsion of millions with the objective of ethnic cleansing and a “homogenization” of a country’s “national” population; the gradual exclusion of minorities from citizenship, with the aim of their disfranchisement and extermination; and the denial of citizenship to millions of immigrants by the receiving country.

The decision about who was considered a citizen of a European country in the twentieth century— and who was not—characterized the political self-conception of a country and its society: as an immigrant-welcoming society or as a closed community, as a polity defined by pluralistic values, or as an ethnocultural community, even a racial state. From the point of view of an individual, the status of citizen determined in many cases not only the quality of a person’s opportunities in life but also his or her mere chances of survival.

This book recounts the history of citizenship in Europe as the history of European statehood in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It does this from three vantage points: as the development of a legal institution crucial to European constitutionalism; as a measure of an individual’s opportunities for self-fulfillment ranging from freedom to totalitarian subjugation; and as a succession of alternating, often sharply divergent political regimes, seen from the perspective of their inclusivity and exclusivity and its justification.

The subject of the book is the history of citizenship in its twofold meaning. On the one hand, the text deals with the legally defined, formal status of belonging to a (nation) state, in other words, with the “external” aspect of citizenship, which in German is called Staatsangehörigkeit, or nationality. On the other hand, the text addresses the rights and obligations associated with the status of citizenship—the “internal” aspect of citizenship. It reveals the transformation of citizenship by examining the connection between its two aspects. Historically, nationality emerged as a mandatory requirement for access to the rights of citizenship. Belonging to a (nation) state and essential claims to its legal rights were closely linked. This nexus undergoes, as the book illustrates, a fundamental change in the course of the twentieth century. Basic rights due solely to citizens in the early twentieth century are also widely available for non-citizens in the early twenty-first century. But is this functional change identical with a change in conceptual meaning of citizenship and European statehood as a whole?

The European history of citizenship is discussed on the basis of six selected countries: United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Russia. In addition to their size and major political importance, these territorially contiguous states form a continuous developmental trajectory of political interconnection in conflict and adaptation that stretches across all of Europe and exemplifies the continent’s development as a whole. The book historically contextualizes the “short twentieth century” by choosing as its beginning the end phase of the European empires around 1900 and extending the narrative thread into the twenty-first century and the present.

The study examines the history of European statehood in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries through the lens of citizenship. It undertakes the synthesis of an extensive discussion about citizenship / Staatsbürgerschaft / citoyenneté in the historical, legal, and sociological literature in order to challenge the central theses of the following debates. In doing so, it comes to four conclusions. Contrary to an influential theory by Rogers Brubaker, it is, first, primarily not discursive idioms about the nation that determine the inclusive or exclusive character of citizenship. Rather, in the twentieth century it was changing politicosocial constellations—economic, demographic, and foreign policy interests and conjunctions—that defined the political form and practice of citizenship. Second, contrary to a dominant narrative, the history of citizenship in Europe is not told as the history of a qualitative decline of legal culture from Western to Eastern Europe. Instead, this frequently alleged gap is called into question. For the first time in historical literature on citizenship, this study reveals that transfer processes took part in both directions and that “progressiveness” did not have its origins in the West. This is done through the equal inclusion of the countries mentioned above into the comparison. Third, the book’s historical cross-section supports a critical review of the widespread theory of a convergence of the regimes of citizenship in Europe. Only a differentiated comparison of citizenship policies in Western and Eastern Europe, without a problematic focus on Western Europe, will be able to reveal the historical conditions of a Europeanization through law. The book argues that this implies the emergence of European citizenship. Fourth, I argue that the history of citizenship in Europe since the nineteenth century cannot be told as an exclusively European one. The politics of colonialism and the colonial practices of affiliation in the European powers’ overseas and continental colonial empires remained in effect well into the postcolonial policies of citizenship and migration. The colonial legislation, which established a racial hierarchy of belonging does not only represent the antipode to contemporary ideas of equality, it is also a legacy which still influences the policies of citizenship in Europe. In this sense, the book is a study about the historical substance and future prospects of a European citizenship in a globalized world.

The book spans a time period from the apogee of the European nation state to the current developments in present-day Europe. It covers debates and conflicts surrounding migration and integration, the meaning of national belonging both in peaceful as well as conflict-ridden regions of Europe and finally to the battles over security and freedom that are being fought in the name of citizenship from the French banlieues to the Ukrainian-Russian border.


Schutz und Freiheit? Staatsbürgerschaft in Europa im 20. und 21. Jahrhundert
by Dieter Gosewinkel
Suhrkamp, Berlin, 2016, 772pp.

Written by

Dieter Gosewinkel is Head of the WZB Center for Global Constitutionalism. He is also Professor of History at Freie Universität Berlin.
Website at the WZB

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