NOTE: The following history is all a preface to what I’m doing right now but feel free to skip ahead when your eyelids start to droop. All of my travel writing is primarily to preserve my own memories for myself and my children. While I’m gratified if others find it interesting (hello, you 3 people), I am in no way insulted if you do not.
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22 years ago, knowledgeable German friends, the Göldners, suggested I could obtain dual US/German citizenship by virtue of my father’s German birth in 1913.
In what would seem a procrastination record, but embarrassingly is not even a personal worst, it took 19 years for me to attain that goal.
It’s not all my fault — really. Since I first started visiting Germany again as an adult in 1979 (I had spent months there as a 5-year old with my mother), one of my joke lines has been, “The German bureaucracy grinds very slowly but it grinds extremely fine.” Getting anything official accomplished can get you thinking about resorting to hostages even faster than trying to understand your 4-page electricity bill. In the old days, everything had to be done in person. First, you had to find the correct bureau in the correct town. Appointments had to be made during the few hours of each work week that were designated for public contact. Required documents were often frustratingly hard to produce. Having been the joint owner, with my sister, of a property outside Berlin since 1990 — a weekend retreat owned for decades by my paternal grandparents but lost for 45 years to the East German government — I’m well acquainted with slamming into German brick walls.
It turns out German law allows dual citizenship in only one circumstance, when one parent is German at the time of your birth and the other is not. Luckily, this applies to me as I was born to my American mother in 1950 while my father was still German. It did not apply to my sister because he had become a US citizen (and thus was no longer considered a German by Germany) by the time she was born in 1956.
I long ago located the complicated form required to prove my German rights and filled it out, but the list of required, authenticated, and officially translated documents was daunting. These included birth, marriage, and passport documents dating back to the 1800s. Some of these were kept locally in churches and city halls — if they weren’t destroyed during World War II. It required a ton of research, letter writing, and phone calls in German, which I pursued very sporadically since I didn’t plan on visiting Europe for more than tourist purposes, anyway.
Then came 2016, when America culminated it’s 26 year descent into right wing insanity by doing the absurdly impossible — electing Donald Trump!
I was in London the night in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected. I spent a couple of hours in my frigid, cheap, closet sized, classically British hotel room debating whether I should abandon the US right there and then. I didn’t, but Reagan’s election left internal scars that were brutally reopened when nutcase American voters put the joke that was the Orange Tornado into the presidency.
An interesting aspect of the German dual nationality law is that people like me are citizens from birth, even though that has no practical effect until they document their status. So now, with Trump the president-elect, I’m suddenly looking for a possible place to jump if the US as we know it comes to an end. More important, once I prove my citizenship, it means my two children can show they were also born German citizens. When asked, they made it clear this was of great interest to them. German passports would give them the right to live, work, or study in the EU without having to ask for permission.
So then in 2017, I seriously got to work. I started collecting documents. With great help from my genealogy-expert sister, I figured out what towns and churches might be holding long forgotten records. I ordered some from Germany, others from the US, sent fees in Euros, and painstakingly built up the collection (most of the pain came as I sent money over and over) . The ones regarding my grandparents were particularly hard to get and remained an issue.
I had begun emailing a staff member of the German consulate in NY about various details: did he have a list of certified translators I could contact, did the back side of documents need to be translated, etc. After a long set of exchanges, he abruptly said, “Here at the consulate, we have the authority to issue German passports. Your case is straightforward, so we can issue one for you with only proof of your father’s German-ness and an interview in Manhattan. We don’t need certifications or translations, If you follow the other procedure, which is processed in Berlin, it can take years. A passport is proof of citizenship and we can issue it in weeks.”
I was stunned. I politely thanked him while muttering under my breath, “Shit, man. Couldn’t you have told me that 6 months ago and saved me a ton of effort and money?”
Since I had everything I needed, I made my appointment and was approved. I was at the consulate on the same day in 2019 I flew to South America for one of our long road trips in our Chile Subaru. Although the consulate website stated the interview had to be conducted in German, while I was there I saw others speaking English. This was important for Eric and Helene since neither of them speak German.
I had the passport sent to my son in Denver, who used it to apply for his own passport. This went smoothly and when his was eventually issued, he sent mine on to my daughter in California for her to use.
She likewise applied to the San Francisco consulate and encountered only one hitch. A cranky official with the personality of a thorn bush who apparently didn’t like the idea of Americans getting German citizenship objected that my 2019 passport proved I was a citizen but not that I was one when Helene was born. This had not been an issue in Eric’s process, so she suggested that the SF consulate could verify my lifelong status with the NY staff. The official tartly answered, “We don’t do that. You have to supply proof.” That position was apparently overruled because some months later that third passport was issued. The icing on the cake is that Helene finished the process by getting my 2-year old grandson a passport as well.
Unless German law is changed, all of my direct descendants will also be born as German citizens. Pretty cool.