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Review June 2023

Citizenship and belonging in Europe

Review by Orel Beilinson
Struggles for Belonging: Citizenship in Europe, 1900-2020 by Dieter Gosewinke
Dieter Gosewinkel, 2022
ISBN 9780198846161
544 Pages
Published by: Oxford University Press
Passport with stamps open on a table Photo by ConvertKit on Unsplash

In July 2022, I spent a month in Tel Aviv waiting for an Austrian visa. Citizenship was in the air. Climbing to the third floor, I encountered a few visa applicants in a room packed with Israelis claiming an Austrian passport. A friend, an Israeli Jew whose parents acquired Hungarian citizenship, asked for my help with some forms. His family was worried about Hungary’s future in the European Union and wondered whether their genealogy would suffice for an Austrian passport, for which they would gladly renounce the Hungarian one. Preparing for the fifth round of parliamentary elections in four years, many friends promised to take their second passports and go. A Serbian journalist, a more ardent Zionist than most Israelis, called me for clarification: are there so many Palestinians living in Israel with no path to citizenship?

Citizenship is just as hot a topic for academics. Dieter Gosewinkel’s Struggles for Belonging: Citizenship in Europe, 1900-2020 synthesizes the abundant historiography magisterially: its 75-page bibliography is packed with sources in English, German, French, Russian, Polish, Czech, and occasionally Italian. Guided by his linguistic prowess, Gosewinkel follows Germany, France, Britain, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia from their last imperial decade to the eve of Covid. The narrative tempers T. H. Marshall’s optimism from 1949: while citizenship guaranteed “protection, equality, and freedom” for some, it was a vehicle for “colonial, gender, and political discrimination” against others (p. 1). 

Gosewinkel would have had enough on his plate even had he chosen the narrowest definition of citizenship, the right to a passport. This “external” side of citizenship conforms to the Israelis’ understanding of their citizenship in various EU countries. These differing passports are collectively termed “European citizenship” in Israel. Gosewinkel’s study focuses on the rights citizenship affords within a state, not only in the context of migration. Casting a web so widely allows its author to reexamine critical moments in the junction between European political and social history in the twentieth century. This “probe into a history of Europe,” as Gosewinkel calls it, carries the additional task of bridging Western and European histories. A noble undertaking, indeed.

Starting around 1900, Chapter 1 portrays the Russian, German, French, and British Empires as waning empires but strengthening states. Historians of the Habsburg Monarchy – left out of this chapter – might protest the depiction of the Czechs and the Slovaks as seeking “escape [from] the bonds of the Austro-Hungarian double monarchy” (p. 15). In the double process of empire- and nation-building, “a distinction between a national majority as state or titular nation and minorities within the nation-state or empire was often drawn and sharpened.” Common victims were often Jews, who “as ‘nomads’ were genuine ‘others’” (p. 16). In the next couple of paragraphs, Europe’s states towards 1900 became not only ethnic and nationalistic but also “interventionist and social,” “military” and “auditing” states (p. 17). To fulfill all these roles, “a wave of codifications on nationality” cracked down on “the liberality of the nineteenth century” (p. 19). Citizenship came to offer more rights but accessing citizenship became, in a way, more complex.

Or complex in a different way. Though not articulated this way explicitly, Gosewinkel’s choice of women and Jews as case studies throughout the book encapsulates a process that began long before 1900. “Dependent” people – women, children, domestic servants, apprentices, and journeymen, among others – struggled to receive the “internal” rights of citizenship in nineteenth-century Europe. Constitutions gradually liberated the dependent and the propertyless, giving them the right to vote and facilitating their inclusion in insurance schemes (among other things). Similar processes unfolded in the “New World,” too. The disenfranchisement of women was among the last vestiges of this centuries-long political order. Coinciding with this trend was the rise of a new exclusionary philosophy steeped in racial and nationalist categories. Yet, as Chapter 1 makes clear, it was not about nation or race per se: each case study exemplifies a different way to keep foreigners out.

“A friend, an Israeli Jew whose parents acquired Hungarian citizenship, asked for my help with some forms. His family was worried about Hungary’s future in the European Union and wondered whether their genealogy would suffice for an Austrian passport”

In this respect, the Jewish case is more of a nineteenth-century anomaly. Jews began the nineteenth century forbidden from some European states, recently welcomed to others (sometimes begrudgingly or unsurprisingly), and at the center of fierce debates over their capability for citizenship in yet others. Gosewinkel’s discussion of the Jews as inorodtsy, the fifth estate in Imperial Russia’s elaborate social classification, makes their aberration clear. The inorodtsy, literally “of different descent/origin/kind,” was a hodgepodge of ethnic groups seen as radically different in terms of civilization. Jews were titled as such in 1835, although they were not nomadic or concentrated in Asia. How the legal category translated to social reality differed. After the Revolution of 1905, for example, the lot of some inordotsy improved while the rights of others (such as the Kyrgyz) were eroded. The narrative jumps from the problem of inorodtsy to the Western provinces, for example, and the treatment of Poles. It hints at important processes like “internal colonization” without exploring their meaning. Eventually, these trees are secondary to the forest: the Russian Empire was gearing to replace hierarchical subjecthood with individual citizenship. Yet the trees the narrative exposes betray a much more complicated picture, which is not fully understood even within the specialist historiography of the Russian Empire.

The short chapter on First World War and the 100-page chapter on the interwar period are compelling. The idea that citizenship in nation-states was correlated with nationality kept nascent international organizations busy. Equally time-consuming was the transformation of statelessness from legal fiction to reality. Hannah Arendt’s definition of citizenship as “the right to have rights” gets the crux of the change right: there were ever more rights internally, but there was suddenly a space for “outlaws”, for people with no rights. Considering internal processes, the Soviet Union expectedly emerges as the anomaly. Its class-based criteria were more malleable than the overt racial alternative of the Third Reich. Already in 1918, it liberated women from subsumption under their husband’s citizenship upon marriage. Similar moves in Britain and France were partial and gradual until after the Second World War. And yet, Chapter 3 also shows a trend toward convergence. While class-based criteria did not subscribe to genealogical determinism, social class was “biologized” around Stalin’s purges, forcing children to share their parents’ fate (p. 117). The importance the immutable, such as lineage and ethnicity, became apparent throughout the continent as the Nazi Empire spread. 

The Soviet Union appears in complementary ways. In Chapter 3, the focus is on the creation of all-Union, class-based citizenship that quickly became less anomalous than its revolutionary potential would have allowed. Thus, for example, the Leninist equalization between foreign workers and Soviet citizens was removed. Chapter 4 treats the Soviet Union as an empire that “did not leave the path of discrimination and degradation the Tsarist Empire had beaten.” It is especially here that the discussion, again, seems rushed. As the author notes, the “internal multinational heterogeneity” celebrated initially turned out to be a “hindrance” in the 1930s (p. 219). Both chapters focus on the narrower experience of Stalinism’s pinnacle within the broader Soviet repertoire. Theoretically equal citizens, non-Russians became victims more often. In wartime, they became internal enemies. But was nationality equal to citizenship? 

Chapters 3 and 4 demonstrate that citizenship was most important and contested under authoritarianism. This is certainly true for Gosewinkel’s positive assessment of Czechoslovakia, for example. Gosewinkel also accords efficacy to the League of Nations. It was only in its demise in 1938 and the “tightening of authoritarian and anti-Semitic government policy” that 75,000 Poles, almost exclusively Jews, were rendered stateless (p. 124). The Nazis treated Poles as colonized natives; the Soviets suspected their Poles to be enemies. Massacred by both sides, the Poles were particularly well aware of how administrative categories can cost human lives. After the war, Poland and Czechoslovakia hesitated to grant citizenship to their German and Germanized population. To overcome their ethnicized past, they had to prove loyalty, cultural affinity, or true Polishness underlying a Germanized facade. New criteria, like “anti-fascist” past, rescued the potentially declassed. Few contested the states’ right to sweep people out while keeping their property.

Chapter 5 shows how these postwar years also marked the turn of the pendulum. The competition for labor in Europe’s reconstruction made naturalization for desired categories of workers easier. The language of human rights protected individuals: it created an alternative, supranational codification that came closer to Arendt’s “right to have rights.” Long-term residence permits allowed non-citizens to enjoy social rights hitherto limited to citizens, even if states retained the prerogative to grant and deny them mostly at will. One reason for this development is certainly the horrors of the preceding decade, but also the need for working hands. That rights were extended, of course, did not assure a good time. Jews in Eastern Europe after 1945 and forced migrants from the former colonies both suffered. 

For Gosewinkel, this reality “perpetuated—albeit less drastically—the anti-Semitism prevailing when the ethnicization of citizenship in Europe was at its peak” (p. 267). Anti-Semitism prevailed before the ethnicization of citizenship, and the social acceptance of “citizens” on paper was hardly de-ethnicized. This sentence, which I am sure the author would accept, marks the limitations of a largely top-down approach. And yet, this top-down approach gets the job done. It engenders a convincing framework for understanding how attaining citizen rights changed over the century. The narrative is triumphalist: while the challenges were not entirely overcome, 1989 marked a final stride towards convergence. The new status quo protected individual rights as human rights and extended the institutional protection of the EU to both Czechia and Slovakia, though not to any direct successor state of the Soviet Union. No ending is truly happy, but the end of the story is relatively so.

Relativization also concludes Gosewinkel’s “West-East” exploration. He shows “no development paths distinct to East or West” and that, in some respects, “Eastern Europe was ahead of Western Europe” (p. 425). Such aspects include women’s and aliens’ rights. Gosewinkel does not deny that such progress was quickly succeeded by one of the most brutal and consistent uses of citizenship deprivations. And yet, he is reluctant to portray liberal citizen rights as emanating from the West eastward. An Eastern Europeanist like me could hardly find this goal objectionable. The conceptualization of the West-East axis, however, is too thorny to allow such judgments. The author is willing to give credence to the hypothesis that ethnicity mattered more in Eastern Europe, for example. How would the narrative look if the author chose Hungary or Romania instead of Czechoslovakia, Austria with its Slovenes, or Switzerland with its Italians?

Struggles for Belonging rightfully garnered acclaim and praise. It is an authoritative synthesis of a tremendous corpus few would have been able to master. My criticism, therefore, should not detract from this achievement. It is better read as a comparativist’s earnest engagement with an important cause. Downplaying the Habsburg Empire (if including Poland and Czechoslovakia) and deflating some of the Russian/Soviet complexity are, I believe, illuminating weaker points of the narrative. In particular, it seems to me that the ordinary experience of the non-Russian ethnicities and their mixed descendants (not under high Stalinism or during the Second World War) eluded the narrative. The experience of inorodtsy remained too undeveloped and yet central. But we are on the right track. Thanks to this book – and many other recent works, not least by Emily Greble, Milena B. Methodieva, and Adrienne Edgar – we are closer than ever to comprehensive master-narratives that account for Europe’s immense diversity.

Orel Beilinson is a comparative historian of Europe and Eurasia at Yale University. He is currently completing his dissertation, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me: Coming of Age in the Other Europe,” as a Junior Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. His work currently focuses on social stratification, education, and the family in the age of industrialization. From this emphasis, an article called “Social Stratification and Career Choice Anxieties in Nineteenth-Century Central Europe” was recently published in the Journal of Social History.