(We are) The Citizens of Nowhere

Our Cologne Spotter & writer Marcel Krueger wrote and read a beautiful essay on the our November 2018 Spotters Weekend. We are very happy to have the honor to publish it on our blog. I was not the only one with tears in my eyes when it was read; it’s very close to many Spotters’ hearts.

Something I owe to the soil that grew –
More to the life that fed –
But most to Allah who gave me two
Separate sides to my head.
– Rudyard Kipling, The Two-Sided Man

In July of 2018, I attended a wedding. The groom is from Scotland and grew up in Germany, and his bride is French. The couple had met in London where they both worked, and now live with their small son in Vienna – so they invited family and friends to a small hotel in the foothills of the Wienerwald. At the wedding reception there were proud Scots wearing the colours and kilts of different clans, Austrians in traditional garb of Dirndl and Lederhosen and French people looking glamourous. There was even a whiff of Auld Alliance as the two fathers-in-law toasted and hugged each other after their speeches that night. On our table, my wife and I chatted with another multinational couple, from France and Austria; their two daughters speaking English, German and French. There were bottles of Iron Bru on offer and Austrian dishes on the menu, and later that night we danced to ‘Alors on danse’ by Stromae and ‘Get Off’ by Prince. The atmosphere was hopeful and full of affection and goodwill, the thing you get when you mix humans with red wine and happiness. The guests were happily engaging with each other and our different identities and backgrounds: kilted clansmen happily explained each part of their traditional garb to whoever asked, and the marriage witnesses joyfully poured glasses of the wines they had brought from France while explaining the terroir and grape varieties.

We are loosing the middle ground these days. Thanks to the populist nincompoops that are popping up on the right everywhere across Europe, it seems to me that in public discourse (especially on social media) one can only inhabit absolutist positions and origins in the present. One is either a ‘Fascist’ or a ‘Snowflake’, a ‘Traitor’ and part of ‘Project Fear’ or ‘Brexiteer’, ‘Gutmensch’ or ‘Nazi’. Moreover, the same applies to identity and heritage: one example is the recent discussion around former German national football player Mesut Özil. As the child or grandchild of Turkish migrant workers you have to declare yourself either German or Turkish, but no middle ground is allowed, and if you’re what in Germany even today is still called a ‘second generation immigrant’, you better shut up and dare no to talk about any every-day racism you encounter.

Thanks to aforementioned populist dimwits I am convinced that the threat of fascism in our time is a real and present one, and that over-proliferation of absolute labels and the insistence of taking sides is slowly but surely eroding the established rules of public discourse, of honest and open debate and the notion of argument and counter-argument that should be the norm in any democratic society. It seems the possibility of changing one’s mind and opinion is suddenly verboten. And god beware if one would declare to inhabit the middle ground an declare loyalty to two countries, two nationalities, two identities. Then people dispute that you are part of anything. In the Anglophone world, both politicians and writers have started to claim that ‘the citizens of nowhere’, as English writer Paul Kingsnorth, a sometimes controversial advocate of heritage, calls those on the middle ground in a 2003 essay, are all bland technocrats who want to replace cultural heritage and identity with ‘a planetary monoculture of malls, asphalt, brushed aluminium and sliding doors.’ This was foreshadowing a statement made by British premiere Theresa May in 2016 at the Tory party conference, where she said that ‘if you believe that you’re a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.’

The problem with such notions is that they assume there’s only ‘proud heritage’ which comes with a fixed identity, which in extremity (and often used in right-wing identity politics) assume that rights of determination lie solely with society and location of birth. It is this thinking, that othern of a vaguely defined group of ‘those up there’ or ‘those in Africa’, that unfounded fear of European technocrats or male refugees which is poisoning public discourse. Across the board there seems to be a knee-jerk aversion of any organisation, party or individual that declares to be, say, Polish and Irish at the same time. Kingsnorth argues that ‘placelessness and rootlessness create not contentment but despair. Ask an unwilling refugee; ask an alienated twentysomething working in a bank […]’ That is a bold claim: it claims that an Anatolian farmer can only ever be happy farming in Anatolia; never driving a taxi in Cologne. Underlying this is the conviction that identity is always linked to birthplace and related nation state, that heritage is set in stone, originating in a defined yet romanticized time period of say, Merry England after 1815, Ireland before the arrival of the Normans or a Germany frozen into a romantic ideal of 19th century nationalism.
And that is, if you allow me the expletive, absolute bullshit.
I am an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I’m British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European.
John Hewitt, The Clash of Identities, 1974

Despite that skewed public discourse, the lived reality for millions of people in Europe is a very different one. I am a German who has lived in Ireland for over a decade. I write this essay in a language that is different from the one I was born in and work with people from around the globe, both virtually and in a real-life office. Among my acquaintances and friends are Germans living in Dublin and Donegal, Liverpudlians living in Berlin, Dutch living in Athens, Greeks living in Munich, Turks living in Cologne, Syrians living in Brandenburg. I am not writing this list down to boast – instead it is a reminder for myself that, in a time when the question of identity and nationality (one that I thought was becoming obsolete) is for many people becoming important again, I live among people for whom balancing two identities and nationalities is not an issue. The lived reality for many people (and I include myself here – I applied for an Irish passport just recently) is that there is no question in balancing two or even three identities and origins. After 15 years of the European Union in its current incarnation, multi-identity lives are the norm across Europe today.

I am aware that I am privileged, both by the fact that I am a white male with a steady income and the one thing the that has made Europe one of the most peaceful places on the planet: freedom of movement. And that freedom allows me to travel and choose my place of residence and work throughout the European Union, which is a beautiful thing. Yet, of all the people I’ve met on my travels and of all my friends who live far away from the place they live in, abandoning their identity was never why they moved. Everyone comes from somewhere; and we bring our upbringing and heritage with us, regardless of the location on the planet where we may find ourselves. That goes for refugees from Somalia in Italy as well as for German bankers living in Japan. Regardless of the reason why anyone abandons his or her place of birth, may that be for work, for love, for safety, none of us leaves behind the values and traditions that we were brought up with to become an upward-mobile, all-consuming techno-globalist living in airport departures with oversized headphones on our heads.

Both May and Kingsnorth seem to be among those who think that the arbitrariness of birth automatically comes with a set of values and traditions. But no one determines their own identity alone, and no society wholly assigns an externally constructed identity to an individual. Nation states are by definition an abstract concept: one’s homeland, one’s Heimat, is never a country. It is always one’s circle of family, friends and acquaintances; and roughly a 50-100 kilometre radius around one’s home. Borders, countries, political allegiances can change overnight – a home we will always have. So every human on this planet comes from somewhere, from a place they call home; but who says that we have to stay there to become happy and safe? No, heritage and cultural origin are in constant flux, and this is beautiful. Some 120,000 adults received Irish nationality through naturalisation since 2011 alone, and I am quite looking forward to see how these new citizens of Polish, Romanian, Nigerian or German birth will define Irishness in the future.

I think there is a better definition of the Citizens of Nowhere though than the one of Kingsnorth and May, put forward in a book that, fittingly, is about a very specific place on this planet. The book I’m talking about is Jan Morris’ ‘Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere’, a lyrical history of the city and the author (who was born as John Morris) which picks up the theme of citizenry of nowhere in a very different light. She defines us as: ‘They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They may be patriots, but are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically.’

And it is exactly that, the negation of labels and deliberate choice of allegiance and heritage that defines us. Who can deny me the impulse of appropriating something that I have no family ties to? Of all the places in the world I feel most at home on windswept craggy islands battered by rain and snow, places I am completely unrelated to. I as a human being am able to equally cherish the folk tales of Eastern Prussia that my grandmother told me as much as the tales of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, an Irish saga that takes places in the landscape where I live and which I first read at 38. Does it diminish my appreciation of origin? Does my existence only have meaning when I’m physically in the place that is listed as place of birth in my passport Does my German passport forever prevent me from being assimilated into Irish society, like Jean-Luc Picard by the Borg? I hope not. That humans are capable of having two identities should not be a surprise to anyone in this constantly moving, globalised world of ours.

To paraphrase Jan Morris, if race is a fraud, then nationality is a cruel pretense. There is nothing organic to it. As the tangled history of Europe shows: it is disposable. You can find your nationality altered for you, overnight, by statesmen far away. And because of that fact, I’m acutely aware that inhabiting the middle ground does not make me better than those who want to embrace a particular culture or heritage alone. It just means that I might have a second set of experiences, of context and historical development that I can base my viewpoint on. And because of that I am able to embrace change more easily. It does not frighten me.

I am also aware that there is not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in my position. Many refugees long for the place they were forced to flee from, and no one desires to be a citizen of Nowhere for all times. But for now, for those of us who are of Nowhere, who belong to the middle ground this a badge of honour, not a shame. We are citizen of our street, our city, our country, of Europe and the entire globe. And from that vantage point, we see things more clearly. So yes, maybe we are citizens of Nowhere. But that Nowhere is not undefined, it is not Burger King and stainless steel elevators. For me and my friends it is indeed Europe that is our Nowhere, a place of many identities and cultures which we have learned to cherish by looking at one another. Instead of turning us against each other, it made us appreciate both our own inherited and adapted heritage even more. What is wrong with taking set pieces of one culture, bringing them with you and making them their own in a place completely unrelated? So yes, were are the Citizens of Nowhere, and maybe our capital is the Trieste of Jan Morris.

On the night of the wedding, every single speech that was made emphasized the fact that we were part of a European wedding, of the fact that while the guests not all shared the same language we could all agree that the others were no assholes; and how important it was to celebrate that love bond across cultures, languages and countries. And in the subtext, to me at least, it seemed as if every speaker warned us to be aware that at a point in the near future we, the Citizens of Nowhere, might in the minority. Let us not allow this. Having one country is good, having two is better. If you have three, the next round of drinks is on me.

Marcel Krueger has written too many books to all mention here (check here), but a few of his latest are Babushka’s Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps (IB Tauris, 2017), Berlin – A Literary Guide for Travellers (IB Tauris, 2016). He’s currently working on Iceland – A Literary Guide for Travellers (I.B. Tauris, 2019),

Last Changed Date: 2016-05-19 11:45:13 +0200 (Thu, 19 May 2016)