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A New German? Olympian Chris Kaman and German Nationality

Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008

The participation of the American basketball player Chris Kaman in the Beijing Olympics as a member of the German basketball squad has caused some eyebrows to be raised -- not least, those of Kaman's own father LeRoy. "You're not German," Yahoo Sports reports LeRoy telling his son: "You're an American citizen."

But the story of Kaman's blitz naturalization is not only one of a basketball mercenary in search of a chance for glory at the Olympics or of the German national team's desperation to find a usable center to line up next to star forward Dirk Nowitzki. It also reveals abiding peculiarities in the German conception of nationality that are little known outside of Germany and even less understood.

Chris Kaman has never lived in Germany, he does not speak German, and his only connection to Germany consists of some ancestors who emigrated from Germany to the United States nearly a century ago. The ancestors in question appear to be two great-grandparents -- or perhaps just one: according to the German weekly Stern, a great grandmother to be precise. Nonetheless, almost all the American press reports on the subject refer to "Kaman's great-grandparents" in general -- as if all eight of them set off together to found a German colony in the new world. (See here, for instance, from the Denver Post: "But his great-grandparents were from Germany, so that lineage got the Michigan native on the German team.")

For most Americans -- or, for that matter, Frenchmen or British -- to be able to claim citizenship on the basis of such a distant and tenuous connection to a country would appear absurd. But on the traditional German conception of what it means to form part of the German nation or Volk, it is so normal as to seem virtually self-evident. Thus it was reportedly none other than the German NBA star Nowitzki who, upon hearing of Kaman's supposed ancestral connection to his homeland, campaigned for him to apply for German citizenship.

In fact, the German language and German law make a clear distinction between "mere" citizenship -- a concept that is understood much as in other countries -- and nationality, which is understood rather in distinctly ethnic or "racial" terms and is treated as more fundamental than citizenship. The technical term for citizenship is Staatsangehörigkeit, which literally means "membership of the state." Staatsangehörigkeit is a strictly legal status. The technical term for nationality is Volkszugehörigkeit, which means "membership of" or, more literally, "belonging to" the nation [Volk]. Such "belonging" is not a legal status, but a sort of pre-legal, quasi-natural condition. Although it can be ascertained by other supposedly objective "markers" -- such as "language, education, culture" -- it is clear both from the details of German law and the practice of German immigration authorities that it is supposed essentially to be determined by "bloodlines" or ancestry [Abstammung].

The definition of German nationality in German law is contained in Article 6 of the so-called Federal Law on Expellees (German link) from 1953. Article 6, paragraph 1 reads: "A member of the German nation in the sense of this law is whoever has in his or her homeland avowed adherence to the German nation, to the degree that this avowal is confirmed by definite characteristics such as ancestry, language, education and culture." As so happens, this formulation reproduces nearly word-for-word that of a Nazi-era German Interior Ministry directive, which was issued on March 29, 1939, shortly after the German occupation of rump Czechoslovakia. The 1939 version, however, continues: "Persons of alien blood [artfremden Blutes], in particular Jews, are never such members of the [German] nation, even if they have hitherto described themselves as such." Between 1939 and 1945, under the direction of Heinrich Himmler's Reich Commissariat for the Strengthening of the German Nation, Nazi authorities attributed German citizenship to millions of supposed "ethnic Germans" [Volksdeutsche] in the occupied territories.

Still today, being recognized as a "German national" or "ethnic German" by German authorities can provide an entitlement to German citizenship. Thus, it is not only Chris Kaman who has been able to obtain German citizenship on the sole basis of having distant German or "Germanic" ancestors, but also, for example, some two million or so supposed "ethnic Germans" from Russia and other former Soviet republics. The latter are held to be descended from the German-speaking settlers who came to the Volga region on the invitation of Catherine the Great in the mid-18th century, i.e. long before Germany even existed as a state.

As one "Bikila" slyly notes in a comment to an article on Kaman in the German weekly Die Zeit, "For most of the 'Germans from Russia' [Russlanddeutschen] getting a German great-great-great grandfather inserted into their family tree was surely only a matter of some rubles." But even supposing the "ethnic Germans" from the former Soviet Union have in fact some Germanic ancestry, two and a half centuries and 8-10 generations after Tsarina Catherine's invitation, they are undoubtedly as a rule at least as much "ethnic Russian" as "ethnic German" -- and they are probably "ethnic" many other things as well.

German critics, like the history professor Wolfgang Wippermann of Berlin's Free University, have called for the ethnic notion of "nationality" or Volkszugehörigkeit to be expunged from German law. Instead, in 1999 the German Bundestag passed a much ballyhooed, but narrowly conceived reform of German citizenship law that left the ethnic notion of nationality untouched.

As consequence, German law and German public discourse continue to be haunted by a sort of myth of origins -- a racial myth, in effect -- that is profoundly anti-modern and whose consequences are brazenly discriminatory. Thus, for example, whereas Turkish immigrants who have lived in Germany for decades are required to renounce their Turkish citizenship in order to obtain German citizenship, supposedly "ethnic German" immigrants from the former Soviet republics and elsewhere in Eastern Europe not only have an automatic claim to German citizenship, but are permitted to retain the citizenship of their countries of origin as well. The discrimination, moreover, extends also to subsequent generations. As far as German authorities are concerned (German link), the German-born children of "ethnic German" immigrants may likewise hold the citizenship of their parents' country of origin without jeopardizing their German citizenship: a possibility that the 1999 reform of German citizenship law expressly denies the German-born children of Turkish and other "non-Germanic" immigrants. (The latter may hold dual citizenship so long as they are minors, but once they reach majority they are required by law to choose. If they fail to renounce the original citizenship of their parents, their German citizenship is withdrawn.)

Chris Kaman is not, incidentally, the first American basketball player to be accorded German citizenship in expedited proceedings in order to play for the German national team. In 2001, the American center Shawn Bradley was granted German citizenship under analogous circumstances shortly before the European basketball championships. Several ostensibly "ethnic German" athletes from Eastern Europe and Latin American have received similar treatment.

John Rosenthal is a World Politics Review contributing editor.

Photo: American basketball player Chris Kaman (Deutscher Basketball Bund).