Features

Becoming German has helped me understand Brexit

16 June 2018

9:00 AM

16 June 2018

9:00 AM

In the end, after all the waiting, the document didn’t look like much — a sheet of A4 paper adorned with a German eagle, and one of those tongue-twisting Germanic compound nouns beneath it: Staatsangehörigkeitsausweis. At last, my Certificate of German Citizenship had arrived. How did I feel? Elated, tearful, overjoyed. It was at this moment that I finally understood how so many Brexiteers must have felt when Britain decided to leave the EU.

When Britain voted Leave I was distraught, but I wasn’t at all surprised. For anyone with eyes and ears, it was clear that a great many Britons were passionate about leaving, and that a lot of Remainers were merely lukewarm. Yet now I’ve become a German citizen, I have a far better sense of the patriotism that drove that vote, and the determination to honour it. For the odd thing is, I’ve always felt patriotic about my German heritage in a way I’ve never felt about my British roots. Now, when my Brexit-eer friends say it’s not just about the money, I know exactly what they mean.

My father was born in Dresden during the second world war, and survived the destruction of that city as a child. His German parents separated during the war, and in 1945 he ended up in Hamburg with his mother, while his father, a German soldier, languished in a British POW camp. In Hamburg my grandma met a British soldier, a journalist called Gerry Cook. When Gerry returned to London she went with him, and took my father with her. My father took Gerry’s surname, forsaking his German surname, von Biel. I never knew my German grandfather (he died when I was a child) and my German grandma never liked to talk about her life before the war. I adored my adopted grandpa, Gerry, and loved listening to his stories of journalistic derring-do. My English family have given me everything. My German family gave me next to nothing, just a few tall tales and dusty heirlooms. Yet for some reason I can’t quite explain, I feel German to the core.

I stumbled into journalism just as the Berlin Wall came down. I travelled around Eastern Germany, where my father’s family had fled from in 1945, and tracked down my German relatives, now scattered across the globe. My German grandfather, I discovered, had been cast out of his Junker family after being imprisoned for insurance fraud. I also tracked down the Jewish man whose life he saved, by hiding him in his Berlin apartment and helping him escape to Switzerland. As a result of several articles I wrote about that great escape, my German grandfather was posthumously recognised as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s World Holocaust Memorial Centre. How-ever the other things I learnt about him were a lot less admirable. It taught me that human nature is never black and white.


The same could be said of Germany, the land of Goethe and Beethoven — and the Holocaust. I’ve become a citizen of the Bundes-republik, a nation created in 1949, but my father was born into a very different Germany, and any German with any sensitivity or sense of history can never forget the country’s horrific past. Born out of the ashes of a disgraced and defeated Fatherland, the Bundes-republik has been an incredible success story. However all of us who belong to it still live in the shadow of the Third Reich.

During the past 30 years, I’ve travelled to Germany more times than I can count, and I’ve seen the best and worst of that complicated nation. It’s made me realise that patriotism is a complex emotion, not the blind devotion I used to think it was, when I watched Britons singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ at the Last Night of the Proms and wondered when they were going to get a life. Now I know it’s more like the love you feel for the members of your family — fully aware of all their faults, but loving them all the same.

Naturally, these patriotic feelings aren’t unique to Britain. I’d say they’re fairly fundamental to most people’s sense of who they are. During my travels around Germany I’ve met lots of patriotic Germans. During the World Cup or the Olympics they love cheering on their fellow countrymen. They fly their flag more often than we fly the Union Jack. They don’t see Europe as a threat to their national sovereignty. Rather, like so many Europeans, from Latvia to Luxembourg, they tend to regard the EU as its guarantor.

This isn’t the way most Britons see it, and now I’ve got my German citizenship I get that. I’d always wanted dual citizenship, but before Brexit there didn’t seem much point. My British EU passport gave me virtually the same rights in Germany as a German one. Brexit changed all that, of course, and the Leave vote prompted my quest to acquire the citizenship my father had been born with. But what began as something purely practical soon became much more emotional. I wanted a German passport, not an EU passport. I wanted to be German, not merely European. Why was that? It’s hard to say, but I’ve heard similar stories from several British friends of mine who’ve acquired Irish passports lately, even though they were born in Britain, and have always lived in Britain, and will probably always live here, like me.

In his influential book, The Road to Somewhere, David Goodhart defined the difference between those people with a strong sense of homeland and those people who feel at home anywhere. I reckon he’s on to something, but I think his final judgment is way off. I believe we’re all Somewheres. It’s just that some of us, quite a lot of us, have more than one Somewhere. Some of my British friends feel purely British, some feel British and Irish, some feel British and European. The EU is bad at lots of things, but it’s been pretty good at accommodating those ambiguous feelings of mixed nationhood, whether in Northern Ireland or the Basque country or South Tyrol or Alsace.

Now I’ve got my German citizenship, I feel more relaxed about Brexit. Whether or not it’s best for Britain, it’s probably best for the EU. I guess you could say that makes me both a Europhile and a Brexit-eer. I’m not a citizen of nowhere: I’m a citizen of Britain, and Germany. If I had to choose, I think I’d choose Germany — but I hope I never have to make that choice.

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