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Commentary: Why I Decided To Become A German Citizen After Brexit

"I've spent much of my life becoming German," writes British-born journalist Esme Nicholson.
Chelsea Beck
"I've spent much of my life becoming German," writes British-born journalist Esme Nicholson.

Having lived outside my native Britain for nearly 16 years, I recently lost my right to vote there. But I was still entitled to do so last June in the U.K.'s referendum on European Union membership.

When I awoke on June 24 to hear that my country had voted in favor of a Brexit, I felt bereft. So, like many other British citizens living in Germany, I decided to apply for German citizenship. I was determined to remain a member of the EU, even if the narrow majority of British voters were not.

Since 2001, I have been an EU migrant — the very type of person, or as it turned out, persona non grata, against whom much of the Leave campaign was pitted. While the xenophobic Brexit rhetoric was directed primarily at those, particularly from Eastern Europe, living and working in the U.K., I have never experienced such sentiment in Germany, where I have always felt welcome.

Britain has been a member of the EU longer than I have, so I've always been aware of something greater than just Britain, and I've always considered myself both European and British.

I have also benefited from EU membership my entire life — from studying free at the University of Salzburg in Austria to seizing the cultural, language-learning and career opportunities afforded by freedom of movement: the right to travel, work and live in 28 European countries.

Germany is the member state I came to in 2001 — originally just for a year, but it is where I have lived happily ever since.

So, in my own bid to "remain," I embarked on the bureaucratic path to obtaining a German passport. I met all the requirements for citizenship: I have been living in Germany for more than eight years, I pay my taxes and social welfare contributions and I speak the language fluently.

Nicholson, on a 2015 visit to the House of World Cultures museum in Berlin, has called the city home since 2001.
/ Courtesy of Esme Nicholson
Courtesy of Esme Nicholson
Nicholson, on a 2015 visit to the House of World Cultures museum in Berlin, has called the city home since 2001.

As I pulled together the required paperwork, I came across my A Level certificates, the British equivalent of a high school diploma. These certificates were my passport to attaining a bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. in German studies, as well as the language skills needed to seek work in Germany.

Funny enough, it was Theresa May who handed me these at my school graduation ceremony, back when she was just our local member of Parliament in Berkshire. May was previously in favor of remaining in the EU, but as Britain's prime minister, she's promising a "hard Brexit."

I also had to pass a German citizenship test, the first multiple choice exam I've ever done. As I turned in the test paper, I realized that I am probably better versed in the history, politics and constitution of Germany than of Britain. But considering I've reported on Germany for the best part of a decade, it would have been embarrassing had I not passed.

The whole procedure took just three months. When news of my forthcoming citizenship ceremony arrived in the mail in January, it caught me a little off guard. Suddenly, I was going to be German. None of my family are German, so what did this mean?

My parents and my brother were very happy for me and consider my decision a wise one. I wonder, though, what my late grandparents would have thought of my becoming German. My paternal grandmother, who spoke to me about the Blitz on just one occasion, never entirely understood my decision to live in Berlin, even if she accepted and respected it.

But Berlin has become my home. And once I'd digested the German authorities' decision to accept me as one of their own, it dawned on me that — perhaps unwittingly — I've spent much of my life becoming German.

I always attributed my fascination with German language and literature to my teachers and professors. But what really draws me to Germany, I've come to realize, is something central to the very essence of being German in this era "after Auschwitz."

It's the concept — or value, even — of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, which means coming to terms with the past, specifically the Nazi past. It permeates German society, culture and politics, in which questions are raised again and again about collective responsibility for the atrocities of the Nazi regime.

I first encountered this concept as a student, in the writings of Guenter Grassand Heinrich Boell. But I was surprised to find that German friends of my own age consider it a duty to deal with a past that they themselves did not live through. These friends' parents were the generation known as "1968ers" — West German baby boomers politicized by the student protest movement of the late 1960s. They questioned their own parents about what they did in World War II, and then passed on the responsibility to keep questioning to the next generation.

Now I see these same friends helping their own children try to comprehend the barbarity of the Holocaust and what it demands of civil society, democracy and humanity — to ensure it never happens again. And now that I am also German with full suffrage, I realize I share this civic responsibility.

Such diligent efforts to face up to the past are, perhaps, needed more than ever as Germany's populist right-wing Alternative for Germany — AfD — party whips up fears about the large numbers of refugees and migrants who have arrived in the past few years.

But even as right-wing populists like AfD member Bjoern Hoecke call upon Germans to stop atoning for their past, Germany's perpetual act of self-reflection is facing other challenges. Some argue that Vergangenheitsbewaeltigungis actually enabling the resurgence of the far right, which labels it as elitist political correctness. (Others suggest that Hoecke's comments are harming his party.)

I hail from a country where reckoning with the past is not part of the culture. Unlike German schoolchildren, who are routinely taken to see what remains of the concentration camps, I was, regrettably, taught nothing at school of the darker sides of Britain's colonial past.

Like many of my friends back in England, I have never been overtly proud of being British. The very idea of waving a Union Jack flag has always struck me as somewhat distasteful and conjures up old images of the far-right British National Party. I was raised to believe that modesty, even self-deprecation, is preferable to glaring displays of patriotism.

Nicholson vacationed on the Atlantic coast of Cornwall in her native Britain in 2013.
/ Courtesy of Esme Nicholson
Courtesy of Esme Nicholson
Nicholson vacationed on the Atlantic coast of Cornwall in her native Britain in 2013.

But perhaps this unease about national pride is another reason I found myself drawn to German culture. Many Germans, for obvious reasons, are not always proud of being German. Yes, since the country hosted the soccer World Cup in 2006, fans have lost this inhibition and wave their flags together with the rest of the world, but many Germans I know still feel uncomfortable at such a patent display of patriotism, even in the name of sport.

So, on the day of my citizenship ceremony last month, I arrived at the turn-of-the-century town hall in the Berlin borough of Neukoelln feeling somewhat detached from the process. That changed as soon as the service began.

I was one of 50 people from 22 different countries being granted German citizenship that day. We came from Ethiopia, Italy, Britain, Iraq, France, Turkey, Syria, Korea, the U.S. and beyond. A pianist and cellist played the national anthem for the country of origin of every single person there.

On hearing "God Save the Queen," my usual awkward reaction gave way to an emotion for which there is a very fitting word in German — Fremdschaemen — which means feeling shame on behalf of others. In this case, the shame I felt was on behalf of those who voted for Brexit because of — or in spite of — an ugly discourse about immigration.

Yet as soon as the duo moved on to the national anthems of others, many of whom were forced to leave their countries for fear of persecution, the musical offerings moved me. It was a touching gesture of respect, a respect that is enshrined in German Basic Law, the constitution to which we all had to pledge our allegiance before receiving our certificates from the district mayor.

Once we'd all been declared German citizens, we were required to stand and sing the German national anthem. It was the first time I've sung a national anthem of any country and I felt slightly uncomfortable doing so. Then again, so do most Germans I know.

But one anthem that day moved me to tears, and led me to cast aside my cautious misgivings about national pride. Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the EU's anthem, reminded me of my European identity and of the EU ideal that diverse nations and cultures work together for peace and prosperity.

I left the ceremony feeling a sense of hope that had diminished over the past year, on account of political developments across the globe. My quiet optimism was triggered by the mayor, who quoted the German Constitution:

"Human dignity is inviolable. ... All persons are equal before the law. ... No person shall be favored or disfavored because of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith or religious or political opinions. No person shall be disfavored because of disability. ... There shall be no censorship."

These words, more than the national anthems, were music to my ears. So was the knowledge that I now have a voice and will be able to vote in Germany's election later this year.

After the ceremony, the mayor cut slices of heavy rye bread and handed them out with salt, a traditional German welcome gesture.

I took my slice home, and spread Marmite on it. I may well be German now, but I remain a British citizen, too, and some habits die hard.

Radio journalist Esme Nicholson reports and produces for NPR's Berlin bureau. Her forthcoming book on the role of radio in Cold War Berlin, published by Peter Lang Oxford, is due out this fall.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 13, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story misstated Bjoern Hoecke's first name as Bernd.
Esme Nicholson
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