Brit Hugh Williamson had put off becoming a German citizen, despite living there for 25
years and having a German family. Then the EU referendum result propelled him to act.
I’m a Brit living in Berlin, but on 5 January I became German, picking up my citizenship
certificate at Schöneberg town hall. Neatly, this is the same building where John F Kennedy
declared in 1963: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Now, I’m also a German Berliner!
When I did the necessary German citizenship test in October, another British guy and I left
the exam together. “Are you another Brexit victim?” he asked.
Am I? I certainly thought I was, in the early hours of 24 June. I postal-voted remain, and felt
cut off from a country I no longer understood. I felt insecure about my future as a non-EU
citizen in Germany. So, victim? Actually, not really. I’ve realised that by becoming German,
Brexit has a silver lining. This is how it happened.
25 July 2016
I arrive early at the citizenship section of the town hall and wait for Frau Mittag (“Mrs
Midday”), responsible for surnames starting with “W”. I’ve lived in Germany, with a few
breaks, since 1992. My wife and kids are German. Yet I have always been rather worried
about how becoming German would change me, so never thought seriously about doing it,
until 24 June. I was comfortable on the outside of German society, looking in.
Frau Mittag is friendly, mid-50s. We chat, she notices I speak German and says she won’t
insist on an official language test. A good start. She gives me the application forms, the long
list of necessary documents, and tells me citizenship costs €255. Not cheap.
I ask if many British people are applying post-Brexit? “Yes, there’s been quite a wave,” she
says. And she warns: “Without it (after Brexit), you’ll have to apply for a residency permit,
which may not be easy.” A useful incentive! “And you can keep your British passport.”
“That’s important to me,” I say, as if she is already an old friend.
Back at the town hall and I am an hour too early for my appointment. Time for a coffee in the
wood-panelled basement canteen and a moment to reflect: how German am I? More than I
realise. I use my crumpled German driving licence – with a picture from 1992 – as my ID.
I’m comfortable with the national rituals – celebrating Christmas on 24 December,
holidaying on Baltic sea islands and ski slopes in Bavaria. During the World Cup, I try to
cheer for England but cheering for Germany comes more naturally (and not just because they
win more). Thinking of a map of the country, I realise I’ve visited all 16 federal states. I feel
at home here.
I hand over my dozen documents to Frau Mittag – payslips, my wife’s payslips, birth
certificate, kids’ birth certificates, mortgage arrangements. Now the unofficial language test.
She gives me a blank piece of paper. “Just write a few sentences about your summer
vacation.” I do so. It feels like the first day back at school. She reviews it briefly and seems
I sit down at home with an extra document Frau Mittag gave me – my commitment to the
German constitution. Serious stuff; the first sentence says the country’s “free, democratic
basic order is the basis for the peaceful co-existence of people in Germany”. It lists human
rights, sovereignty of the people and equality between men and women as core values. I
agree with them but it feels like a big step to commit in a formal way. I realise that I avoided
citizenship partly to avoid grappling with such pledges. I think it’s a British thing. I sign
News comes that Germany’s Greens are standing up for us Brits! They propose a law to
speed up citizenship applications for the 107,000 Brits in Germany. I’m realising Brexit has
pushed me to make a decision I would have felt comfortable with years ago. Signing up to the
constitution feels OK, especially in these difficult times. This summer has seen minor
terrorist attacks in Germany (another major attack happened at a Christmas market not far
from my home on 19 December). It’s a time when politicians are urging us to beat the
terrorists by holding on to democratic values. With citizenship I can also vote in national
elections, which feels very grown up.
Do I feel less British by also being German? Yes, if it’s the new “Brexit means Brexit”
Britain; no if it’s the Britain deep in my soul – my family, my upbringing, my culture.
My citizenship test is looming. Samples of the multiple choice questions are passed around
the breakfast table. Even my 13-year- old daughter, usually too cool for such things, says the
questions are “really simple”. German bureaucracy helps: all the right answers to the possible
300 questions are on an official website.
Test day. Butterflies in my stomach. Throwback to school: small tables in rows, turn over
your papers, you may begin. First of 33 questions: when did Hitler come to power? 1933?
1936? Mild moment of panic. Old habits kick in. Leave it, return to it later. I plough on. The
rest are easier (what criminal punishments are allowed in Germany? Yes to fines and prison,
no to torture. Who has the responsibility to bring up kids in Germany? Right answer:
parents!) I decide for Hitler it’s 1933, get up and leave.
My test results arrive: 100% correct! My best exam score ever.
Post from Frau Mittag. She wants details of my wife’s parents, and her grandparents, to prove
she is really German. One question asks: did her grandad fight in Hitler’s Wehrmacht army?
He did, but would she be less German if he didn’t? Another town hall trip to drop off the
5 January 2017
Citizenship day! I’ve heard I shouldn’t expect a ceremony, no mayoral handshakes. But it
still feels special, especially with my wife accompanying me. Frau Mittag asks me to read a
pledge of allegiance to Germany (sitting down, no hand on heart – what a disappointment).
She hands over the certificate and declares me now a “citizen of Germany”.
My wife and I celebrate in a nearby cafe. In this moment, Brexit feels a long time ago. And
Germany feels a bit more like home.
Anyone for a Beck’s?