[Politics] Attitudes towards Citizenship: What does it mean to be German?

In the German history, the discussion of immigrants and their identities has never stopped. For the ethnic German community: being a member of Germany does not make oneself a German. Different narratives and different perspectives, including May Ayim, Riem Spielhaus, Riem Spielhaus and Yasemin Samdereli, all emphasized the contrast between voice of majority and minority and accentuated on the difference between being a German citizen and being a German. The “German-ness” is defined not by citizenship but by one’s appearance, degree of assimilation asserted by the majority. Moreover, this imbalance of power also established the idea of generalization of ethnic minority.

“Resistance” myth — “us” fighting against Germans? The recollection of things done by us to others during the war ware conveniently lost.
Western Europe: “foundation” myth — collective amnesia. Nazism was a strictly German phenomenon? Western Germany has been effectively denazified? Those who ought to be punished had been?
Eastern Europe: “revolutionary postwar transformation” myth — double zombification due to guilt over the communist era itself. Mismenory of communism also lead to mismemory of anticommunism.
New myth: taboos — unpleasant truths were replaced by a single beautiful lie. Interregnum between false myths and unknown truth.

In order to discuss the problem of naturalization through immigration without confusion, a clear distinction of terms between citizenship and nationality should be made. This is often misleading because in some incidents, citizenship and nationality are interchangeable. However, citizenship is the legal purposes of staying within the country while nationality is acquired mostly by descent or by birth. In other words, citizenship can be changed while in contrast to nationality, is inheritance from parents and cannot be changed. This is crucial to our discussion because in the following examples, they are legal German citizens while their nationalities may vary.

For example, written by May Ayim, the context of “1990, Home/land and Unity from an Afro-German Perspective” deals with the discrimination against black starting from the unification of East and West Germany in 1990. Although May has a citizenship of Germany, the sense of belonging suddenly disappeared. What distinguish her from the rest of the “Germans” is, as a matter of fact, merely appearance. As May said,

“Like other black Germans and immigrants, I knew that even a German passport did not guarantee an invitation to the East-West festivities.”

In her writing, a blond, blue-eyed woman from Brazil is never viewed as a foreigner in any kind and people would hold strong belief that she must be somehow related to Germany in her family history. While for May, it is not the case: she had to constantly worried and protected herself from racist attacks and violent assaults because she looked differently from the rest of ethnic Germans. Thus, having the citizenship does not necessarily mean one is considered as a member of the German mainstream society, especially when the celebration of GDR and Federal Germany focused on mainly the “White Germans”. As May as pointed out, because of her skin color, she has been intentionally and unintentionally left out of the party, “as though Germany were exclusively white and the center of the world.” Thus, Germans easily identify one person as one of their own through the most direct image — race and ethnic group at the period of time. Rather, immigrants often is provided a “Preferential Treatment” as a altered form of discrimination despite the experiences of blatant racism. May mentioned one specific example where regardless the usefulness of their speech, black men and women are given unlimited time to speak in a conference. Yeast Mounk in “German, Jewish and Neither” also brought the idea of “philo-Semitism” on the table, revealing that people are “being to nice to him”.

Thus, immigrants such as May are distinguished from the larger part in various form. As an African descendant, who living in 20th century Germany, May believed that compared with German citizenship, the unfair treatment and being viewed as a “foreigner” separates her from the rest of the society. There is an invisible wall between them that seems impossible to break.

While in the movie Almanya — Willkommen in Deutschland directed by Yasemin Samdereli, it introduced a more acceptable answer to the gap between German Citizenship and being a German: cultural differences. As the characters Opa and Oma are trying to be German citizens, director used an exaggerated form of externalization of Opa Huseyin’s mind to depict the struggle he faces, such as differences in customs and religions. This also served as a wall to divide a citizen of Germany and a German. Unlike their smallest son Ali, they could never emerge into the mainstream culture because of their nationality, including the history and experiences. And even after they obtain their German citizenship, Huseyin still in every occasion, identify himself as a Turkish. While in the meantime, after living in Germany for over thirty years, they are accustomed to certain german lifestyle and become less “Turkish” in a sense.

Almanya — Willkommen in Deutschland

So whether the identification of belonging is based on individual has to end with a question mark. How does the environment act as a factor in the sense of belonging and being a German? Although during the naturalization and transition from one country to another, there might be collapses and identity reconstruction. Yet, in numerous circumstances, the concept of “German-ness” and what does it means to be German are defined by the society rather by the inner self. It is seemed that in the movie, as long as one is accustomed to the German culture, they are assimilating into the mainstream society. But for May, race is an indispensable part of identity. Hence, another question rises: who is the invisible hand that control all of this?

As “How The Turkish Workers Should Behave And Defend His Character In a Foreign Country” by the Turkish Labor Placement Office has demonstrated, as a guest worker, assimilation is viewed more important than integration. And this imbalance of two forces — the majority of ethnic Germans and the “intruder” — creates frictions and disagreement.

What creates this imbalance? For one, after the economic boom (Wirschaftswunder) from the 50s to the 70s, guest workers (Gastarbeiter) were invited to Germany. In this case, they are viewed as “poverty migration” in contrast to today’s “elite migration”. The difference in economical situation is the first reason of this imbalance. The quote

“We asked for workers. We got people instead.”

by Max Frisch could be illustrated as an example. The verb “asked for” constitutes a sense of descending manner in the first place. Thus, it is for the man in power to determine the “German-ness” of an immigrant. And this might be the reason that while making great efforts, yet Turkish is a major cultural community that is segregated into their own “ghettos” in major German cities. The views are mostly arbitrary, causing the problem that identities, rather than a freedom of choice, are now imposed by others; more specifically, the authorities or the group with greater people with more resources have a larger voice of determining.

We could compare this idea with the definition of art. For arts, someone in authority or a great artist has to say it is a art for it to “be art”. The decision is always held in the hand with those in power. Therefore, despite ethnicity, and other factors such as nationality, a regional cultural difference, ancestry and language, the most important reason is the cycle of disempowerment. And because of some ignorance of those majorities, construction of unified identity for the immigrants as well as other illusions raises. For example, religion such as Islam are becoming the most important identities and that Muslims and Germans are on the opposite side of the table (from the ethnic Germans’ point of view).

Not only does the Muslims’ identity are constructed, credited to the majority of the society, from Riem Spielhaus’s “Religion and Identity: How Germany’s Foreigners Have Become Muslims”, it is indicated that this continues to create a sense of “self-admiring”. One could conclude that another reason why definition of “German” is given by the White Germans is that, being in the majority seems to have given them the right be more superior than the other group and the right the criticize foreign ideology. They have defined the social normative as well as the boundaries of their circle in relation to the outside group. As a form of consumption on minority, sometimes the superior ones could be on the moral high ground, seemly legitimate and morally defensible, yet unjustifiable to judge the behavior of others.

In the meantime, confirmation bias continue to play a part where white Germans only look for negative behavior by the minority and contribute it only to their identity, widening the gap between having citizenship and being German for immigrants and increasing the prejudices against foreign religion such as Islam. It is also the case for the Roma people. The vast majority is largely influenced by literature, media, thus creating a single story from the entire community, even though the definition of that group of people is still unclear.

As Helmut Kohl’ has once stated that “Germany is not an immigration country”, majority of German does not considered themselves as being a multicultural environment in the first place. As immigrants came in, the emotion evoked simultaneously is enlarged. This system of ideas and ideals rooted in the heart of the German people even though they could hardly denied that the immigrant population is growing at a higher rate, making up a large proportion of the population of Germany. Therefore, in order to continue to remain in the dominant power, ethnic Germans draws a line to distinguish themselves from the minorities through disempowerment, marginalization and homogenization. And thus if one has a non-German ethnicity, fluent German, well-accustomed with German culture or a German citizenship does not make one German; rather, one has to be German, the artist itself, to define his or her “German-ness”.


  1. May Ayim. “1990, Home/land and Unity from an Afro-German Perspective.” Blues in Black and White. Trans. Anne V. Adames. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2003 [1993]. 45–59.
  2. Riem Spielhaus, “Religion and Identity: How Germany’s Foreigners Have Become Muslims” Internationale Politik (2006): 17–23.
  3. Almanya — Willkommen in Deutschland (2011), dir. Yasemin Samdereli
  4. Daniel Strauss. “Roma in Europe.” Romanistan: Crossing Spaces in Europe. Documentation of a Conference held in Vienna 25–26 November 2011.
  5. “Working Guests.” Germany in Transit: Nation and Migration 1955–2005. Ed. by Deniz Gokturk, David Gramling, and Anton Kaes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007,22–47.
  6. “The New Guest Workers: A German Dream for Crisis Refugees.” SPIEGEL ONLINE www.spiegel.de 2 February 2013. Accessed 16th April. 1–9