The Metaphysics of Citizenship, Explicated 50 Years Later


Each day, there's a new drama in the papers or on TV about the complexities of citizenship — the yearning to acquire it, the frustrations of denial, the abuses and the benefits. Citizenship as status is one of the defining narratives of an identity laden and struggling global system of nation states.

As I and my children have sorted out our relationship to a world before the Holocaust, the metaphysics of citizenship has reached out and touched us decades after the conclusion of World War II.

In 1993, the Austrian government extended to its refugees an offer of renewed Austrian citizenship. The law required that the applicant should have been "forced to leave Austria as an Austrian citizen before 9 May 1945" because he or she "feared persecution" by organs of the National Socialist Party or the authorities of the Third Reich.

Not much had to be done. A small set of documents had to be assembled, and a short statement had to be signed. I was in the potentially entitled group: I had been born in Vienna in 1938, three months before Kristallnacht, and my family — my mother, father and I — had fled in 1939.

I had qualms about eligibility and qualms about applying — qualms that I explore in a recently published book, Objects of Remembrance: A Memoir of American Opportunities and Viennese Opportunities. I could ask myself whether I wished to become an Austrian citizen, and whether I was really legally and morally entitled under the program.

True, I had been ejected, and I would have feared persecution even if I, protected by my infancy, actually had not. And, I asked myself, was I technically an Austrian citizen before 1945? When I was born, Austria was already part of the Third Reich, and I was a German before I could become an Austrian. These were foolish concerns, linked to doubt about the meaning of an added citizenship.

I bypassed these concerns, prepared the paperwork and, in good order, received notice that I had become a citizen. But I learned of a specific quirk of my new status. One of my sons — an experienced journalist with a sense of the global future — wrote the Austrian authorities to find out whether he could be declared Austrian as the son of a citizen (which is the general Austrian rule).

Here the metaphysics of citizenship became interesting. My son received a polite letter from a government spokesperson that underscored the complexities of national recuperation: According to Austrian law, I had lost whatever citizenship I had had at birth when, as a 7-year-old living in Cincinnati, I became an applicant for U.S. citizenship.

I did not become an Austrian citizen again until 1997, when my revival occurred. In the years in between, including when my sons were born, the Austrian letter said that "your father held only the American citizenship." Therefore, no citizenship by birth for offspring.

So it rested until 2007. My eagle-eyed mother, now just shy of 100, heard from her Viennese friend, the late Ulli Axelrod, of a new Austrian statute — one that restored, for qualified applicants, the citizenship that existed at their birth.

I could reapply, void my existing Austrian citizenship and be declared a citizen ab initio; under this citizenship, my status could descend to my children. This past November, the application was granted. My letter of notice said that now "you have been an Austrian citizen ever since your birth."

Both the initial Austrian offer and the later amendment may have been enacted as a way for Austria to regain some small reputational bonus, or it may have been part of a negotiation — an element of reparations policy. Or it might well have been a symbol of an actual changed attitude toward public responsibility, an authentic embrace of previous citizens. If Austria was seeking to do something positive, it was up to me to decide whether I would participate — collaborate, as it were — in this process of change.

Both times I applied for citizenship, I took what I deemed a pragmatic view. I was not to think of it as an agreement that suitable amends had been made. If anything, I was going to have some of the benefits of being a European.

I could go through favored lines in airports or qualify for jobs in Europe, or be a part of applications for funding from the European Union or the Council of Europe. I fought the idea that renewed citizenship would alter my emotional tie to Austria, but that may not be the case.

As to my son, he had no conflicts whatsoever. Sixty and more years removed from the end of the war, he was interested in the practicality of E.U. citizenship.

As for me, now, as an Austrian citizen, I have become what I always was, except for when I wasn't. And tiny steps of hidden repair take place. Such are the complexities of modern world statecraft.

Monroe E. Price is director of the Center for Global Communications Studies at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications.


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