Citizenship in France, Poland and Germany

An exhibition exploring more than 200 years of the right to citizenship in Europe

October 04th, 2022
Maria Asklund, News from Berlin
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From July until January next year, the German Historical Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum, short DHM) is presenting the story of state citizenship in Europe in “State Citizenship. France, Poland and Germany since 1789”. The focus is on the states of France, Poland and Germany, three countries closely intertwined today but marked by conflicts in the past.

One of the main questions this exhibition asks us is: what does it mean to belong to and be excluded by a state? This is a very emotional question for many, as it focuses on a human right. Thinking back on the past 200 years of European history, beginning with the French Revolution in 1789, we are flooded with impactful historical happenings. In addition, only in the past years, the question of the right to citizenship has become more and more important with the recent waves of migration to Europe. According to the DHM, citizenship is something that can bring people together, but also create conflict. Who has the right to belong, and who does not have this right? How do we regard this in different parts of the world, within our society and on the most local level, inside of families?

It is a given that citizenship has the power to create nationalistic and political union. It is a means to create a distinction between those who do have the citizenship, and those who do not. This dichotomy then lawfully decides who belongs to a group and who does not. In a historic context, the DHM states that citizenship has been a vital feature of the modern nation state. People fought for the right to citizenship in order to participate and belong. The exhibition presents different groups and individuals in this context, for example women, but also minority groups. On the topic of the women’s rights movement, they present meaningful women in France, Poland and Germany. What structures did these women criticise? What were their demands? And what happened to them? Sadly, several of the women presented were brutally murdered for voicing their opinions. In this sense, we are reminded that citizenship is often taken for granted, and would not have existed without individuals willing to sacrifice their lives for it. Meanwhile, we reflect on protection by the state and the right to free speech today in modern day Europe. Who is given the right to voice their opinion today, and who is not?

Moreover, the DHM underlines that citizenship has contributed to the creation of the imagined shared national and collective identity. In fact, during the 19th and 20th century, citizenship decided who had the means to survive in different states. Exploring “the long 20th century”, the exhibition offers insights into the meaning of citizenship during a century of great challenges and horrors. Discussing German and French colonialism, postcolonialism with racist structures in modern day Europe, as well as the holocaust and Jewish identity, the exhibition showcases photographs, stories, images and artifacts that remind us of this important historic time. In fact, during the Nazi era, the most powerful means to political belonging was citizenships. But how quickly can citizenship be re-defined? This too is a question discussed by the DHM. When used in dictatorships to make a selection based on ethnic and political factors, things can quickly escalate.

Finally, “State Citizenship. France, Poland and Germany since 1789” underlines the meaning of citizenship and the power it has. How has the notion of state citizenship changed during the long 20th century, and what meaning does it have today? What has this journey of change contributed to? Today, it has a completely new meaning in the European Union. The question today is what role the individual’s right to state citizenship has in a supranational framework. Walking through this interesting and important exhibition, we learn about France, Poland and Germany, their differences, similarities and links to each other. Existing as neighbour states, these states are today intertwined through a history of conflict, but equally as important, close political cooperation.


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