German nationality law details the conditions by which an individual holds German nationality. The primary law governing these requirements is the Nationality Act, which came into force on 1 January 1914. All German nationals are citizens of the European Union (EU).
|Citation||RGBl at 583, revised as BGBl III at 102-1|
|Enacted by||13th Reichstag|
|Enacted||22 July 1913|
|Commenced||1 January 1914|
|Administered by||Federal Office of Administration|
|Reich Citizenship Law|
Federal Expellee Law
Any person born to a married German parent is typically a German national at birth, regardless of the place of birth. Children of unmarried couples in which only the father is German must be legitimised for them to acquire German nationality. Individuals born in Germany to two foreign parents may also receive German nationality at birth if at least one of their parents has lived in the country for eight years and is entitled to live in the country indefinitely (meaning any person with a settlement permit, or citizenship of another EU country or Switzerland).
Foreign nationals may naturalise after residing in Germany for at least eight years and demonstrating knowledge in the German language. Although non-EU/Swiss naturalisation candidates are expected to renounce their previous nationalities, the majority are granted permission to retain their old statuses.
The distinction between the meaning of the terms citizenship and nationality is not always clear in the English language and differs by country. Generally, nationality refers a person's legal belonging to a country and is the common term used in international treaties when referring to members of a state; citizenship refers to the set of rights and duties a person has in that nation. It can be possible for a non-national to obtain a degree of civil and political rights commonly associated with citizenship (e.g. residence or working rights) while it is also possible for a national to be prohibited from exercising certain rights (e.g. children barred from voting). In German, the term "nationality" (Staatsangehörigkeit) refers to state membership while "citizenship" (Staatsbürgerschaft/Bürgerschaft) describes a person's participation in national society.
Until the early 19th century, German lands constituted the core part of the highly decentralised Holy Roman Empire. Each of the roughly 1,800 individual political entities within the Empire had varying (or non-existent) definitions on who they considered to be members of their polity. "Citizenship" in this context was tied to a person's settlement in a particular municipality and individuals found outside of their ordinary places of residence could be deported to other parts of imperial territory.
The modern concept of citizenship, as a formal and legal relationship between an individual and a state that confers privileges to holders and a status that persists beyond continued territorial residence, emerged during the French Revolution. Following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, this model of citizenship was imported into the German territories that became part of the French-led Confederation of the Rhine, though any applicable legislation from this period was repealed in the 1810s shortly after French defeat in the Napoleonic Wars. Outside of this Confederation, Austria enacted its first codified regulations based on the modern citizenship concept in 1811.
As a result of the Congress of Vienna, the German Confederation was created in 1815 as a permanent replacement for the Holy Roman Empire and included virtually all of the former Empire's territory. This political structure was not a federal state and sovereign power remained with the 38 individual member states. Each state continued to hold jurisdiction over citizenship, but the vast majority of them passed no specific codified laws on the subject until the mid-19th century. Prussia enacted its first citizenship law in 1842. Other than through naturalisation, Prussian citizenship was only passed by descent from a Prussian father (or mother, if the parents were unmarried).
Confederal policy alignmentEdit
Any applicable contemporary legislation in the Confederation was inconsistent among the states and generally ineffectual at determining the citizenship of a particular person. State regulations often assumed the existence of some type of citizenship that a child would inherit from their father at the time of their birth. However, any person born in the 18th century who would have been a citizen of an area of the Holy Roman Empire that no longer existed as a political entity would have had an undefined status in state law.
Conversely, every state had concluded by the 1820s at least one treaty with some or all other members of the Confederation that detailed the deportation of undesirable persons without state citizenship and process of "implicit naturalisation". A German who resided in another state for at least 10 years was considered to have been naturalised implicitly in their new place of domicile. An implicitly naturalised father would have automatically passed his changed citizenship status to his entire family. In seven states, this process was extended to any alien who fulfilled the minimum residence requirement. These interstate treaties additionally clarified the position of persons with unclear status, who were granted the contemporary existing citizenship of their birthplace (if that was uncertain, then the place where they were found). Germans lost their state citizenship if they left state territory with the intent to reside elsewhere permanently, had obtained formal permission to emigrate, or otherwise continuously lived outside of their home state for at least 10 years.
Theoretically, the Constitution of the German Confederation created a common German nationality. Article 18 of the document detailed a set of basic rights for every German; any subject of a German state was entitled to freely purchase property in any part of the Confederation, emigrate to other states willing to admit them, enlist in another state's armed forces or civil service, and were exempt from a tax on emigration. In practice, the member states did not permit Germans from other states to freely immigrate into their territories, rendering these constitutional rights generally moot. The Frankfurt Parliament expanded on this idea of a unified German nationality; any state citizen of the short-lived 1848-1849 German Empire was also a German national, and all German nationals held the same rights as citizens of any German state.
Multilateral negotiations among the states resumed after the German Confederation was reconstituted in 1849. Prussia and 20 other states agreed on the Gotha Treaty in 1851, which lowered the residence requirement for implicit naturalisation to five years and introduced a formal distinction between emigration to other German states and emigration to jurisdictions outside of the Confederation. All German states had acceded to this treaty by 1861.
Unification and imperial lawEdit
The Confederation was dissolved in 1866 as a consequence of the Austro-Prussian War. Prussia formed a new union, the North German Confederation, consisting of all the German states north of the Main. The remaining southern states (excluding Austria-Hungary) were independent until their accession to the union during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Prussia's 1842 citizenship law served as the basis for federal nationality regulations, which were adopted that same year. The United States negotiated during this time a set of individual Bancroft Treaties with the North German Confederation, Baden, Bavaria, Hesse, and Württemberg for mutual recognition of each other's naturalised citizens.
Following North German victory against France, the Confederation was reformed into the German Empire in 1871. International bilateral agreements with the southern German states became superseded by imperial law. In the annexed region of Alsace–Lorraine, residents were allowed a choice between German and French nationalities. Individuals electing to remain French were required to permanently depart for France by 1 October 1872.
State citizenship remained principally important in almost all of Germany; imperial citizenship was held by virtue of holding state citizenship, which continued to be acquired in separate processes per state, and German passports listed a holder's nationality as Prussian, Bavarian, Saxon, or whichever label was applicable. However, because Alsatian-Lorrainers and white residents of German colonies were not domiciled in a federal state, they were simply "German". Colonial subjects (who held an unclearly defined legal status as Schutzgebietsangehörige) were never granted German nationality at large and any children of mixed-race heritage had to be officially approved for "European" status, subject to detailed examination of an applicant's heritage, education, professional background, and social standing.
The concept of a German nationality based on ethnicity and descent became a core principle in the 1913 Imperial and State Citizenship Act (Reichs- und Staatsangehörigkeitsgesetz). While prior regulations had maintained preexisting models of state membership through residency, this law made descent from German heritage the primary qualification for nationality. Before 1913, Germans who lived abroad for more than 10 years were automatically deprived of their nationality but after this reform, any former national who remained living overseas (as well as any of their descendants) to apply for German nationality with no specific requirements. Individuals who became nationals in this way were granted "direct imperial citizenship" rather than citizenship of any particular state. Germans could still be automatically denaturalised after extended residence overseas, but this could be avoided by registering for continued citizenship at a German consulate.
Interwar and Nazi GermanyEdit
After its defeat in the First World War, Germany lost control of several territories. France regained Alsace–Lorraine and all residents who had been French before 1870, as well as their descendants, automatically reacquired French nationality. However, any person descended from a German father or grandfather who was not previously French did not qualify for automatic reacquisition and were required to naturalise. Any person domiciled in Northern Schleswig on 15 June 1920 obtained Danish nationality, but could opt for reversion to German nationality provided that they elected to do so before 1923 and resettled in Germany within 12 months of their decision. Similarly, Germans who remained living in newly independent Poland and the Free City of Danzig became Polish and Danziger nationals.
Systemic exclusion of Jews and undesirablesEdit
The 1919 Weimar Constitution reiterated the same basic principles for nationality as in the 1913 law while additionally providing citizens with basic entitlements for protection by the government within and without Germany, and shielding them from extradition to foreign countries. As the country transitioned into a unitary state under Nazi rule in 1933, state citizenship was abolished as a separate concept and became subsumed into German citizenship as a whole. The new regime enacted the 1933 Denaturalisation Act which enabled the selective revocation of nationality from any person considered "undesirable" who had naturalised between 1918 and 1933. Although the Interior Ministry announced that this measure would first be implemented with the approximately 150,000 Jews from eastern Europe who were living in Germany at that time, the vast majority of these Jews had encountered great difficulty in naturalising under the Weimar government, meaning that they were not actually affected by this change because they remained foreign citizens. This change instead affected political dissidents who fled Germany after Hitler's rise to power, who subsequently had their nationality revoked.
In the subsequent years, Jews were progressively excluded from participation in German society with ever more restrictive regulations prohibiting their activity in core sectors of the economy. This culminated with the enactment of the 1935 Reich Citizenship Act, which created a tiered citizenship hierarchy; members of the Aryan race became Reich citizens (Reichsbürger), who held an elevated status over existing state subjects (Staatsangehörige). Reich citizenship could be acquired by obtaining a certificate of citizenship. Although Reich citizenship technically held no special privileges and non-Aryans remained state citizens who were entitled to state protection in theory, this law provided the legal basis for further depriving civil and political rights from people who were deemed undesirable. Jews were specifically barred from holding Reich citizenship, and they (along with Romanis) formally lost their right to vote in German elections on 7 March 1936. Further regulations in 1940 automatically removed state citizenship from individuals who became domiciled abroad; Nazi concentration camps were included in the definition of "abroad". All remaining German Jews who were permanently domiciled overseas were denaturalised under the Eleventh Decree to the Reich Citizenship Act on 25 November 1941 and lost their status as state subjects.
Territories incorporated into the ReichEdit
Austria was integrated into the German state following Anschluss on 13 March 1938. Austrians retained their existing citizenship until 3 July 1938, when all Austrians were granted Reich citizenship, regardless if they were resident in the country or not. Austrian nationality law was fully abrogated and replaced by German nationality law on 30 July 1939. Sudeten Germans living in the Sudetenland also automatically became Reich citizens when Germany annexed that territory following the Munich Agreement on 29 September 1938. Czech citizens in the Sudetenland were allowed to apply for Reich citizenship provided that they or their parents had resided in that area on or before 1 October 1910. However, this was subject to discretionary approval by German authorities and rejected applicants were required to depart permanently.
In the remaining Czech territory that was incorporated into Germany as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in 1939, Reich citizenship was only granted automatically to members of the Sudeten German Party. All other Czechoslovak citizens became Protectorate subjects, but ethnic Germans resident in the Protectorate could subsequently apply to become Reich citizens. Although Protectorate subjects did not hold citizenship and were excluded from employment in the government and armed forces, discriminatory policies based on Czech ancestry were never adopted to the same degree as they were for Jews. In fact, any Protectorate subject who had even distant German ancestry could apply for Reich citizenship, provided that they were willing to undergo a process of Germanisation and were not of Jewish descent.
Ethnic Germans in eastern areas directly annexed by Germany were granted Reich citizenship on 1 September 1939 if they were Danzig citizens or on 26 October 1939 if they were Polish citizens. Polish citizenship was completely abolished, and any person who did not otherwise become a Reich citizen was stateless. Poles who were selected to be forcibly Germanised were given Reich citizenship.
Cold War divisionEdit
Following its defeat in the Second World War, Germany was occupied by Allied forces. Austria was reestablished as a separate state on 27 April 1945 and any person of Austrian origin would have ceased to hold German citizenship from that date. Ethnic Germans in post-war Czechoslovakia were deprived of their Czechoslovak citizenship under the Beneš decrees, and more than 2.8 million affected people were deported to Germany. Similarly, 3.6 million Germans were expelled from Poland, including from former German territories east of the Oder–Neisse line. Germany itself was divided into two states in 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany, FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany, GDR).
In the initial period following the division of Germany, both German governments maintained the idea of a common German nationality. East Germany gradually asserted a separate legal tradition and nationality over the following two decades that culminated with the adoption of its own nationality law in 1967 divergent from pre-war regulations. By contrast, the West German government regarded itself as the sole continuation of the German Reich and continued to regulate nationality under the 1913 Imperial and State Citizenship Act, assuming responsibility for all former citizens of the Reich according to its 1937 borders. In line with West German non-recognition of a separate East German status, all NATO member states treated East German passport holders as stateless persons until the 1960s.
The continued application of the 1913 law allowed the West German government to claim East Germans as its own nationals and to issue passports to any who managed to flee East Germany. Former East Germans who left the GDR without obtaining permission from the authorities were liable to imprisonment on their return to East Germany until the two governments normalised relations with the 1972 Basic Treaty. The GDR subsequently acknowledged any East German who had left the country between 7 October 1949 and 31 December 1971 as having lost East German nationality. Following a general trend of anti-communist movements in Eastern Europe beginning in 1989, the Peaceful Revolution began the process of German reunification. East Germany ceased to exist on 3 October 1990 and its constituent states became a part of the Federal Republic.
Ethnic Germans who were displaced as a result of the Second World War were eligible for special resettlement and nationality acquisition. The Federal Expellee Law defines a qualifying person as any ethnic German who was domiciled in the former eastern territories of Germany, or in any area outside of pre-1938 German borders and were deported or forced to flee. This right to citizenship extended to any descendants of an ethnic German, as well as their spouses. Over 1.4 million people from Eastern Bloc countries resettled in West Germany under these provisions between 1950 and 1987. Special admission for ethnic Germans was restricted in 1993 following democratisation of Eastern Europe; applicants became subject to a German language requirement and an entry quota of 225,000 people, which was later reduced to 100,000 in 2000. Eligibility for citizenship through ethnic German background has since been limited to individuals born before 1993, effectively ending future resettlement.
West German involvement in European integration began in the immediate post-war period of the late 1940s. Initial cooperation was focused on the economy through the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation as a condition for receiving aid from the United States provided by the Marshall Plan. The political circumstances of the post-war climate created the circumstances that facilitated creation of further organisations to integrate Western Europe along common social and security policies. West Germany became a founding member of the European Communities (EC) in 1951, a set of organisations that eventually developed into the European Union (EU). West German citizens participated in their first European Parliament elections in 1979 and have been able to work in other EC/EU countries under the freedom of movement for workers established by the 1957 Treaty of Rome. GDR accession to the Federal Republic in 1990 did not affect German membership in the EC. With the creation of European Union citizenship by the 1992 Maastrict Treaty, free movement rights were expanded to all nationals of EU member states regardless of their employment status.
Acquisition and loss of nationalityEdit
Entitlement by birth or descentEdit
Children born within Germany automatically receive German nationality at birth if at least one married parent is a German national. Individuals born overseas to at least one married German parent are also German nationals, unless that parent was born after 31 December 1999 and is ordinarily resident in a foreign country; they may alternatively acquire German nationality if they would otherwise be stateless or their births are registered at a German diplomatic mission before their first birthday.
Children born in the country to two foreign parents since 1 January 2000 automatically receive citizenship at birth if at least one parent has habitually resided in Germany for at least eight years and possesses indefinite permission to remain. This usually means holding a settlement permit. EU citizens are automatically granted right of permanent residence after living in the country for at least five years. Children born in Germany to such parents between 1990 and 1999 also qualified for citizenship, provided that their parents had registered them for that status by the end of 2000. Minor children who are adopted by German citizens within the country receive citizenship at the time of adoption, while those who are adopted outside of Germany (regardless of age) may acquire citizenship at governmental discretion.
Until 1953, German women who married foreign men automatically lost their German citizenship. Consequently, children resulting from these marriages would not have been German citizens at birth. Even after 1953, citizenship by descent was as a rule mostly transmitted patrilineally. Only children of married German fathers and unmarried German mothers received citizenship at birth until this was again amended in 1975. Furthermore, children of unmarried German fathers born since 1993 must have their paternity formally established; those born before 1993 were additionally required to have claimed citizenship before age 23 and must have been resident in Germany for three years at the time of application. Individuals who had lost citizenship or were ineligible for it as a direct result of this previous legislative gender imbalance have been able to acquire citizenship by declaration for a ten-year period that began on 20 August 2021. Successful applicants obtaining citizenship through this pathway are not required to renounce any alternative nationalities.
Foreigners may naturalise as German citizens after residing in the country for at least eight years and possessing right of permanent settlement. This usually means holding a residence permit or citizenship of an EU/EEA country. Applicants must demonstrate proficiency in the German language, pass a citizenship test, declare loyalty to a free and democratic system, prove their self-sufficiency without state assistance, hold no criminal record, and renounce any previous nationalities. Persons convicted of racist, antisemitic, or xenophobic acts are permanently barred from naturalisation.
The requisite period of residence may be reduced to seven years for applicants who successfully complete an integration course or three years for spouses of German citizens who have been married for at least two years. Citizens of other parts of the EU and Switzerland are exempt from renouncing their previous nationality, and the requirement may be waived for those who cannot renounce their foreign status or would undergo significant hardship in doing so. About 110,000 people naturalised as German citizens in 2020, with over 63 per cent of them retaining their previous nationalities.
Relinquishment and deprivationEdit
German nationality can be relinquished by making a declaration of renunciation, provided that the declarant already possesses or is in the process of obtaining another nationality. German children who are adopted by foreigners and acquire the nationality of their new parents automatically cease to be German at the time of adoption. It is also automatically lost when an individual voluntarily acquires a foreign citizenship even if that person remains domiciled in Germany, unless prior governmental permission is granted to retain German nationality or the new citizenship is that of another EU country or Switzerland.
German children with multiple nationalities are required to choose between their German and foreign statuses before the age of 23 unless they have eight years of residence in Germany before age 21, attended a German school for six years, graduated from a German school, or completed vocational education in the country. Dual nationals who fail to make this choice are automatically stripped of their German nationality. If they declare their intention to retain German nationality, they are required to prove the loss of their foreign statuses by the age of 23, or may apply for permission to retain their other nationalities before age 21.
Citizenship may be stripped from a person who fraudulently acquired it within 10 years of that person having become a German citizen, or from dual nationals who engage in terrorist activities at any time or voluntarily serve in foreign armed forces without prior permission from the government. Since 6 July 2011, this permission is automatically granted to dual nationals of Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and EU/EFTA or NATO countries who serve in the militaries of their alternate nationalities.
Reclamation of nationality revoked under Nazi ruleEdit
Any person who had their citizenship revoked between 30 January 1933 and 8 May 1945 on political, racial, or religious grounds, and their direct descendants, are entitled to reclaim German citizenship. Until 2019, applicants qualified only if the primary claimant to German citizenship had that status rescinded through the 11th Decree Implementing the Reich Citizens Act (which stripped citizenship from all Jews domiciled abroad on 27 November 1941) or individually deprived under the 1933 Act on Revocation of Naturalisations and Deprivation of German Citizenship. These restrictions had prevented nationality restoration to: descendants of formerly German married women or unmarried fathers, children adopted before 1977 by qualified former German citizens, descendants of women who involunarily lost German nationality after fleeing the country and marrying foreign men, and descendants of former Germans who applied for nationality renunciation before being stripped of their status. These limitations were relaxed by ministerial decree by the Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community, and fully lifted when codified into legislation in 2021.
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