Citizenship under attack –  Some parallels between Weimar Germany and Brexit Britain


by Professor Sam Whimster


If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word “citizenship” means.” (Mrs May, Conservative Party Conference, Birmingham. October 2016.)


Did the Prime Minister really say that? Yes she did, and it caused a visceral shock to many. If you are one of the 3 million plus EU nationals in this country, it was a blow to the solar plexus. It’s official, you are regarded by Mrs May as a second-class citizen. And it leaves the fate of the million plus Brits living in the European Union up in the air.

Prior to the EU referendum last year, we were able to think of ourselves as European Union citizens, together with our own national citizenship. We could travel to any EU country, no customs barriers, and live or work in that country. We were also entitled to the welfare benefits of that country. If we stayed a long time, there were European-wide agreements on work, health, pension rights, family and business law. These were long term rights reflecting life-course decisions made by millions of individuals. At a stroke these legal guarantees were put into suspension.

But there was another more unsavoury aspect of the Prime Minister’s statement. A ‘citizen of the world’ is the literal rendering of the Greek derived word ‘cosmopolitan.’ For those with longer memories, especially emigrées from Nazi Germany, cosmopolitan was a term of abuse: not a true German, a rootless migrant, in particular a Jew. Cosmopolitan was code for anti-semitic. This was the euphemism used before the rise of Hitler, at which point anti-Jewish prejudice became explicit and violent.

Did nobody in Mrs May’s entourage not know of this ghastly connotation? Probably not, even though it’s standard knowledge for those with A-level history on modern Germany. They were tuned to the infra-dogwhistle politics of anti-immigrant sentiment. That was the audience they were broadcasting to, as the Conservative Party manoeuvred to scoop up the UKIP vote. In attracting UKIP voters, the respectable – and not at all nasty – Conservative Party were legitimating the policies of a party on the fringe of British politics.

These issues were discussed at an event ‘Weimar Germany and Brexit Britain’ organized by the Federal Trust, held at London Metropolitan University on 31 May. Professor Austin Harrington (University of Leeds) introduced his book, German Cosmopolitan Social Thought and the Idea of the West. Voices from Weimar (Cambridge University Press, 2016). He said his book was ten years in the making and he had no inkling that parallels could be drawn between the events of Weimar and Brexit. Weimar Germany, the republic constituted on progressive lines after the collapse of the German Empire in 1918, succumbed to the Hitler regime in 1933. None of this was inevitable – which is the usual interpretation by historians.

Weimar started out with some big hitters on the intellectual side, middle class lawyers, academics, businessmen, as well as the Social Democrats who had been suppressed under the Empire. Harrington drew attention to how leading thinkers creatively adapted to the end of the Wilhelmine Empire where, as academics, they were comfortably lodged but without any real influence on the Prussian ruling class. The issue for them was how to preserve a sense of German identity while at the same time recognizing the wider framework of Europe. As with Prime Minister May there was a negative critique of cosmopolitanism, the ‘citizen of nowhere’. This was the reactionary, anti-semitic, anti-republican discourse that believed exclusively in the renewing force of German nationalism. For the defenders of Weimar like Ernst Troeltsch, Alfred Weber, Heinrich Mann and other leading lights there was instead a ‘concrete’ cosmopolitanism where it would be possible to be transnational without having to renounce the national. The national is not eroded but on the contrary it is enhanced.

Taking this point, what happens when the national is not enhanced? The precondition of concrete cosmopolitanism is the sense of being comfortable in one’s own nation. When membership of a nation, being a citizen of a nation, gives a declining return, then the added sense of the transnational becomes less convincing.

T.H Marshall’s Citizenship and Social Class, published in 1950, is the classic work on the development of citizenship. Taking Britain as his main example, he identified three ascending stages of citizenship.

  1. Civil citizenship emerged in the 18th century – ‘liberty of the person, freedom of speech, thought and faith, right to own property and to conclude valid contracts, and the right to justice.’
  2. Political citizenship emerged in the 19th century- ‘the right to participate in the exercise of political power, as a member of a body invested with political authority or as an elector of the members of such a body.’
  3. Social citizenship, developed through the 20th century – ‘ the whole range from the right to a modicum of economic welfare and security to the right to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society.’ i.e. the welfare state and social democracy.


T.H. Marshall took Britain to be the paradigm, but the Kaiserreich and Weimar Republic are very striking, almost a reversal of the British sequence. Bismarck introduced welfare rights before complete universal civil and political citizenship. Max Weber (elder brother of Alfred) bitterly and continuously complained about the repression of full political citizenship rights and career under an imperial system which felt entitled to reduce all of the nation to ‘Untertanen’.

The Weimar Constitution of 1919 created full civil, political and social citizenship rights at a stroke. It made citizens out of subjects. Art 1 reads ‘Political authority emanates from the people’. Art. 151 reads ‘The regulation of economic life must be compatible with the principles of justice with the aim of attaining humane conditions for the existence for all’. Social insurance and welfare rights were legislated for, and this gave impetus to, for example, the Bauhaus project of design and social housing.

Citizenship was an acquired right, won through the participation of the masses in the war. Max Weber changed his stance during WW1 from the demand for proper liberal parliamentarism to constitutional democracy. He did this on the basis of the right of returning soldiers to be treated as human beings and as full members of the German nation. His ‘The Rights of the Homecoming Warrior’ (‘Das Recht der heimkehrenden Krieger’) appeared in the  Frankfurter Zeitung in March 1917. The same thing happened in Britain in 1945, which changed Britain from a society divided by status distinctions into a nation of citizens divided by class. Also the collapse of British Empire made the old status hierarchy unviable and triggered a creative reform of British politics.

The political sociologist Michael Mann has commented; ‘… the nation has been the way in which the mass of the population participated for almost the first time in history in the life and power of a whole society. The nation became real because democracy, the welfare state, mass mobilization warfare – in short citizenship – became real.’ (Michael Mann, States, War and Capitalism. Studies in Political Sociology, Basil Blackwell, 1988, p. 184.)

These are instances of active citizenship, earned through the contribution of everyone to national purpose and national survival. In Britain it was called the postwar settlement, and this carried with it the understanding that governments did not renege on the deal. But renege they did. In Weimar this was, in part, due to force of circumstances: unemployment, the impossible economic conditions of Versailles Treaty, but also unforced errors of Havenstein at the independent Reichsbank devaluing the currency a trillionfold, and Bruening’s austerity programme. In Britain the pledge on full employment was irrevocably broken by the Thatcher government, and no one probably needs reminding of Osbornomics and its consequences.

How does citizenship regress? We have to remember that citizenship does not replace the antagonisms of status and class with the unanimity of a citizen nation. Marshall noted that ‘Citizenship and capitalism were still at war, but it was institutionalized rule-governed warfare.’ (quoted in Mann, p. 189.)

Now what happens when basic economic and social citizenship rights are removed? To an extent the sense of national community can be upheld through an appeal to patriotism, which was of course decisive for the first Thatcher government and the Falklands War. If anyone doubts this, Peter Stothard’s recent memoir, The Senecans, makes it plain just how dependent the Thatcher government was on this spike in nationalism. A twisted echo of which was put out by Michael Howard recently in his call to arms to defend Gibralter. De-industrialization and the removal of the legitimate and institutionalised representation of collective interest (through trade unions) drives citizenship into reverse, going back down the previously won stages.  Patriotism – without new enemies – becomes residual and turns into ‘ressentiment’. Citizenship at this point turns negative or passive, expressed by the curious concept of a rent – a declining rent – on citizenship. Incomers – in this defensive view of the world – stand for the dilution of previously hard won citizenship rights.

‘Ressentiment’ is a concept coined by Nietzsche at the end of the 19th century. It means the resentment of the powerless, a destructive psychological force denied political redress. Sullen, seemingly apathetic, it is a collective mood easily overlooked, as the Westminster political class have found out to their cost. Of course, it should have no place in mature social democracies, whose ultimate justification is that all interests are represented and responded to in the political process.

So, this is the analysis and explanation of the expansion and regression of citizenship from the stance of political sociology. Once citizenship regresses, it becomes harder to sustain a sense of transnational citizenship. Instead we see the abrogation of existing civic, political and social citizenship.

Under EEC and EU membership, since 1973, transnational citizenship rights have expanded massively, not least because of the success of a customs union and a reasonable use of tariffs in an aggressive global environment. These rights have complexified with the flows of people across national EU borders, to an extent that we should also be talking about life-course rights of individuals in all their present and future family and work arrangements. On 24 June 2016, EU nationals and Brit residents in the EU woke up to find they had no long term security, and their categoric citizenship rights had become bargaining chips. As the EU citizen Dr Tanja Bueltmann tweeted from Northumberland, on reading of the Juncker – Theresa May meeting this May: ‘It is disgusting. Deplorable. Inhuman. What did we do to deserve this treatment? We are your doctors. We pick your fruit. We build your houses. We teach your children. We care for you when you are sick. We make you coffee. We cry with you. We laugh with you. We love you.’

The parallels between Weimar Germany and Brexit Britain are that bad things happen when citizenship rights are reneged on, in particular full employment and economic security. People are rendered helpless, they suffer a loss of esteem, their votes have no leverage, and their anger and resentment seek an object in the immigrant and the non-British. (I leave aside the empire recidivists in this analysis, a cohort now very vocal but, ultimately, residual.)

Tragically, this anger was directed at the European Union, with EU nationals in the UK most unfairly taking the hit. Citizenship is a categoric right not a bargaining chip. Everyone should now push for citizenship rights being affirmed before all other Article 50 negotiations start. We cannot afford to allow concrete transnational rights to be abrogated.


Professor Sam Whimster is editor of the journal Max Weber Studies. He is based at the Global Policy Institute at London Metropolitan University.