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Lange: Citizens And Duality

For several months this year, twenty students at my former high school in Germany immersed themselves in questions of citizenship. They puzzled over what it means to be a citizen of a country, whether it is primarily a matter of where you vote, or simply a matter of loyalty, or a sense of belonging. And if you belong to more than one country – then what?

Many of these students belong to an awkward legal category known as “option children” – option, because they are required to opt for, or choose, between being a citizen of Germany or the country their parents came from.

You see, Germany’s legal landscape these days is a compromise between the two pre-dominant models that nations use to define who is their citizen.  Some countries, like the United States, consider a citizen anyone who was born on their soil.  By contrast, Germany has traditionally awarded citizenship on the basis of descent - people basically inherited their citizenship from their parents.

Ironically, within this framework you could encounter in the same classroom students who were born in Germany and spoke perfect German, but whose parents or even grandparents had come from Turkey, and who were therefore not German citizens - and students who spoke at best broken German, but had a German name and German nationality – thanks to ancestors who had settled in Eastern Europe generations ago and returned to Germany after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

A major legal overhaul did away with this irony, and German law now awards citizenship to anyone born in Germany whose parents have been legal residents for at least 8 years.  However, it also strips these young people of their German citizenship if they do not renounce their other citizenship by the time they turn 23. Dual citizenship is explicitly not an option for them under the current legal framework.

Those who oppose dual citizenship often argue that it diminishes loyalty to the country a person lives in.  My own experience does not bear this out. Since becoming a U.S. citizen I’ve felt a much greater sense of connection with both of my countries, Germany and the U.S. Forcing me to give up my German citizenship would not have made me a more loyal or committed U.S. citizen.

We’ve just observed the 154th birthday of Burlington-born philosopher John Dewey, who viewed citizenship in terms of responsibility both to oneself and to public welfare - interestingly, he referred to this as our dual citizenship role.   Dewey also felt that active, engaged education is essential for democracy.

The students at my former high school presented their findings at a panel with parliamentarians from each political party, and were awarded the “prize for learning and experiencing democracy” for their work.  And while the issue is particularly salient for Germany’s half million “option children”, we can all benefit from contemplating the meaning of citizenship, whether we identify as Turkish-Germans, German-Americans, seventh-generation Vermonters, or some other branch of the human family tree

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