In a deeply personal essay, writer PETER GUMBEL explains how the waning of national identities, combined with Brexit, has led him to reassess his own sense of who he is.
November 9 is a day heavy with significance for my family: on that date in 1938, my maternal grandfather was arrested in his German hometown during the Kristallnacht pogrom.
Nazi stormtroopers smashed Jewish-owned homes and stores and burned down the synagogue in his town of Cottbus, near Berlin, just as they did throughout the Reich that night.
My grandfather was released ten days later thanks to strenuous intervention by business associates, and he and my grandmother fled Germany for England, where they started a new life.
Tragically, his sister could not join them and perished in Auschwitz.
This year, 82 years later, I commemorate those distant events with a new perspective: I recently acquired a second passport, a German one.
Before the 2016 Brexit vote, it never occurred to me that I would one day want one.
But the referendum and the rise in anti-European and anti-foreigner sentiment that accompanied it left me angry and feeling orphaned.
It was no longer possible to be both British and European.
I thus made a conscious choice to connect with my historic roots.
British by birth, I am European by heritage and conviction, and I now have an unambiguous European nationality to prove it.
Researching my family’s story for a book made me acutely aware of two major shifts that have taken place since my grandparents’ flight to England eight decades ago.
The first is the rather surprising reversal of roles, with Germany now the beacon of hope in Europe at a time when Britain is mired in a destructive pursuit of national exceptionalism.
The second is the waning relevance of national identity itself in our digital age.
Today, thanks to extraordinary advances in mobility, we have become citizens of everywhere.
That may sit badly with some people in the UK, but it is a cause for celebration.
The role reversal is most evident when viewed from the perspective of my family story.
The Britain my grandparents were so desperate to reach seemed open and generous of spirit, a country that shared their humanistic values.
My grandparents and parents were stateless during the war but became naturalized British citizens in 1946, once it ended.
My grandfather wrote to a friend soon thereafter, praising the “generous hospitality and nearly unrestricted freedom” they enjoyed as migrants.
Britain today looks very different: petty, peevish, unwelcoming, and – in some quarters – overrun by prejudice.
The Home Office is making life difficult for Europeans living and working in Britain, and openly boasts on social media about ending freedom of movement, as though that were a cause for rejoicing rather than shame.
Even Britain’s long-standing democratic traditions are wobbling, as Boris Johnson’s government chooses to break international law by reneging on agreements it signed less than a year ago.
That sort of behaviour attracts unwelcome attention: the rating agency Moody’s cited the diminished quality of British executive and legislative institutions when it downgraded the UK’s credit rating last month.
Germany, meanwhile, has largely replaced Britain as the hope-bearer in Europe.
Chancellor Merkel’s 2015 decision to let in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Africa sparked dissension in other European capitals, yet it symbolised the decency, tolerance, and respect of others which have come to characterise Germany today.
The role reversal is manifested in other ways, too. Today, Berlin is the cool place to be for creative talent.
It is Germany that stands up for core democratic values, and whose chancellor did not hesitate to remind Donald Trump of what they are. And Merkel’s low-key but competent handling of the Covid crisis stands in sharp contrast to the messy British response: the UK death toll from the pandemic is more than four times larger than Germany’s.
As a second wave rolls over Europe, Germany again is quickly putting in place tangible measures to contain it, even as Britain once more fumbles.
The citizens of everywhere point is no less important than this role reversal. Brexit and the pursuit of national exceptionalism that it implies fail to take into account the essential importance of mobility in today’s world.
The Schengen accords have made Europe resemble a single geographical area more closely than at any time in modern history, meaning that I can live and work anywhere on the continent, and my daughters can study where they please (one of them is currently in Madrid).
For my grandparents, who had to wait anxious months for authorisation to leave Germany, such freedom would have been unimaginable.
If anything, Covid has made us appreciate this mobility all the more by depriving us of it, for now, through quarantines or outright bans on cross-border travel.
Britain lost out by not joining Schengen in the first place, and younger generations will be penalised by the loss of their ability to study and work with ease in the rest of Europe.
The new mobility affects not just us personally but the very prosperity of our society.
The fall of the Berlin Wall coincided with the beginning of an explosion of cross-border trade in goods, services, and finance that has been an indispensable engine of the European and global economy ever since.
Britain has been a major beneficiary of this interconnectedness, especially but not only its financial services, a critical source of British income and wealth.
If there is no Brexit deal by the end of the year, as seems increasingly likely, the economic consequences will be painful indeed. Already, foreign direct investment has fallen sharply, from almost $200 billion in 2016 to just under $60 billion in 2019.
Brexit and the populism that fuelled it are anachronistic in another way, too: in our tech-fuelled age, national identity itself has lost some of its relevance, notwithstanding the surge in populism embodied by Trump and Brexit.
The history of the past half century has seen a flowering of many other types of identity, including gender, sexuality, race, and even eating preferences.
The internet and social media have amplified and accelerated those trends: today we join or build online communities based on our centres of interest rather than our geography.
In many ways, our passwords for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are more important than our passports for defining who we are and with whom we associate.
To be clear, I am not predicting that the nation itself is about to crumble, even if we are now citizens of everywhere. I also don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of Germany.
It still gets a lot of things wrong. Its empathy and solidarity with the economic and financial plight of other Europeans has limits.
It also has its own political extremists who spew intolerance to foreigners and have gained ground electorally in Eastern Germany. And of course, the stain of the Third Reich lingers, even today, eight decades later.
As a family, we can never forget the humiliation and suffering my grandparents endured, and we mourn those who perished.
Yet it is also important to acknowledge that Germany has gone to great lengths to atone for those disastrous 12 years from 1933 to 1945.
Eight decades after my grandparents fled Germany to start a new life in the UK, I am sure they would be heartbroken to see Britain turns its back on Europe – and I believe they would not only understand but also applaud my decision to become German.
- Peter Gumbel is a Paris-based writer and journalist. His book, Citizens of Everywhere, is published in the UK this month by Haus Publishing.
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