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How the World Gave Up on the Stateless

Over 10 million people are stateless today. Why have governments failed to help them?

Allan/London Express/Getty Images
Polish refugees en route to Canada at the outbreak of World War II

For almost a decade, Josef Ben-David was stateless. The son of a Jewish elementary school teacher in Czarist Russia, he hated his native country, where prevalent antisemitism made his life impossible. After World War I, violent pogroms ransacked his town; he survived one of them by disguising himself as a Christian priest. The trauma led him to embrace Zionism, and in 1921 he embarked on a long and arduous trip to Palestine. To Josef’s misfortune, however, one of the towns where he stopped during the journey was suddenly occupied by Poland as part of the region’s border disputes. And there was no end to the legal misery inflicted by the Polish state: The town clerk’s office confiscated his Russian documents after deeming them to be fake, but it also refused to grant him residency or traveling rights in Poland due to xenophobic policies that were designed to exclude Jews, Ukrainians, and other minorities. Without these legal documents, he was trapped, lacking both permission to stay and permission to leave.

Statelessness: A Modern History
by Mira L. Siegelberg
Harvard University Press, 328 pp., $42.00

And so, for eight years, Josef joined the ranks of the stateless, the masses who lacked legal ties to any country. Like many others who had lost their citizenship, he could not work or travel legally and he lived in abject poverty. It was only in 1929 that his nightmare came to an end. His older brother, who had arrived in British-ruled Palestine a few years earlier, managed to procure him new documents, and within a few months, Josef walked off a train in Jerusalem and found work as a carpenter. That the fulfillment of his Zionist dream entailed calamity for the country’s native population did not particularly bother Josef. In the 1930s, he joined the Irgun, a nationalist underground that sought to secure Jewish dominance through terrorist attacks on (among others) Palestinian civilians. The lesson that Josef drew from his own experience was not about solidarity with the dispossessed but about the overriding need to avoid the horror of exclusion. He thus shed no tears in 1948, when the creation of the state of Israel—during which he served in the military—granted him citizenship while rendering hundreds of thousands of Palestinians landless and stateless.

Josef, who was my great-uncle, does not appear in historian Mira Siegelberg’s illuminating and rich Statelessness: A History. But his story captures the book’s expansive sweep, drama, and dark ironies. Statelessness became ubiquitous during the first half of the twentieth century, when governments’ obsessions with controlling and crafting their populations often led them to strip certain groups of citizenship. Siegelberg powerfully traces an array of ambitious campaigns to eradicate statelessness, as diplomats, scholars, and activists across Europe and North America sought to empower international organizations over state governments or attempted to make citizenship a universal right for all humans. Yet these efforts, Siegelberg argues, ultimately failed. By the 1960s, jurists and politicians had given up on their quest to modify or restrict state power. They accepted governments’ total authority to bequeath or deny citizenship. Ever since, global elites have treated statelessness not as an urgent problem to be solved but as a sort of natural disaster: an uncomfortable fact of life that can’t be altered.

Statelessness, then, charts the creation of our own world. Over 10 million people are stateless today, and governments seem hell-bent on increasing their numbers: India is considering a plan to strip citizenship from millions of Muslims, the United States recently established a special office to denaturalize immigrants, and thousands of children of refugees from the Syrian civil war are born into statelessness in Europe. Siegelberg’s book is a chance to reflect on the nature of the struggle for equality, its past failures and future prospects. Is the binary between the stateless and the citizen the most stubborn barrier to an egalitarian future, as previous reformers believed? Or does a more equal future lie in dismantling the hierarchies within citizenship itself?   

Until the early twentieth century, most white Europeans and North Americans thought about statelessness as a strange anomaly. “Civilized” societies, countless diplomats and jurists mused, rested on basic legal rights, and these could only be realized if individuals were formally members of existing states. In the era’s racist and colonial imagination, the dichotomy of citizenship and statelessness often served to distinguish the West’s “advanced” societies from the “savageness” of Africans, Asians, and Native Americans. While Euro-American regimes endowed all their people with some legal status, argued many thinkers, the rest of the world was a wasteland of lawlessness and statelessness, and in dire need of imperial tutelage.

So when the threat of statelessness seemed to appear in their midst, Western elites mobilized. In 1878, for example, Europe’s great powers forced Romania to grant its Jewish population legal protection. If the Romanian government stripped Jews of their citizenship, wrote the influential Swiss jurist Heinrich Bluntschli, the rest of the world had to ignore this decision and treat them as Romanian citizens. Similar beliefs also informed the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 1897 in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, the case that enshrined the constitutionality of birthright citizenship. A “man without a country,” the justices wrote, “is not recognized in law.”

The aftershocks of World War I, however, shattered this consensus. As revolutions and political upheavals engulfed Europe, countless people lost their legal status. In 1921, on the heels of their victory in a bloody civil war, the Bolsheviks revoked the citizenship of all Russian émigrés who fled the Red Army into exile. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of people, scattered from Geneva and Paris to New York, were rendered stateless. Just as punishing were the new states of Eastern Europe, like Poland and Hungary, which emerged at the war’s end from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Eager to consolidate their national “character,” their governments rushed to exclude minorities. Poland, for example, extended citizenship only to people who could show that their ancestors fought for Polish independence in the nineteenth century, a brazen move that barred Ukrainians, Germans, and others.

These events triggered a conceptual revolution. Although European and North American elites remained convinced of their superiority over the rest of the world, they also concluded that the creation of a stable postwar order would benefit from embracing the existence of statelessness. The League of Nations, whose leaders were eager to combat communism, countered the Bolsheviks’ measures with a legal innovation. Rather than insisting that the Russian émigrés were still citizens of Russia, it issued unprecedented documents that granted them traveling and residency rights under the protection of the League. These “Nansen passports,” as they became known (named after Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian polar explorer who administered their distribution), continued to be recognized by all the members of the League until the 1940s.

While those dispossessed from other states did not receive such documents, local courts still granted them some special protections. In 1921, for example, Max Stoeck, a German émigré living in London, sued the British government for confiscating his property. The Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended World War I, had allowed the victors to claim the possessions of Germans in their territories as war reparations. But in a precedent-setting ruling, a British judge determined that because Stoeck lost his original citizenship, he was stateless, rendering the expropriation of his property illegal.

In the most compelling parts of Statelessness, Siegelberg brilliantly reconstructs how these improvised measures appeared in parallel with an ambitious intellectual movement to remake citizenship. Across Europe, thinkers sought to ensure rights for all people, regardless of their legal status or nationality. The émigré Russian jurist André Mandelstam, for example, called for the expansion of the Nansen passports to any person who lost government protection. He argued that international society should guarantee individual rights and supersede the authority of national governments. Others, like the influential Austrian jurist Hans Kelsen—the main architect of Austria’s post­–World War I constitution—used statelessness to articulate a universal and inclusive vision of citizenship. In groundbreaking publications, he explained that even democratically elected governments had no basis to tie legal status to ethnicity or history; all who resided within a country were equally entitled to citizenship.

There were, of course, glaring blind spots in these attempts to establish universal rules for citizenship. While Statelessness doesn’t dwell on this issue in as much detail as it could, these plans remained confined to the North Atlantic world, and the reformers’ lofty campaigns and publications said nothing about equality or citizenship for colonial subjects. Nevertheless, in the landscape of white Euro-American thought, Mandelstam’s and Kelsen’s arguments were innovative in their bold challenge to national sovereignty. They also resonated with many readers: Their ideas helped inspire a generation of scholars and politicians who spent the 1920s tirelessly convening conferences, signing petitions, and publishing books and articles advocating for far-reaching reforms on behalf of the stateless. League officials occasionally supported these efforts; so did some feminist organizations.

A broad and diverse crowd, then, sought to remake the rule of international politics on behalf of people like Josef. And for a moment, it seemed their goal was within reach—a goal, it turns out, that neither Josef nor the rest of the world shared.

The failure of these reformers was not preordained. If anything, it seemed like the price of unmitigated sovereignty was becoming even more evident in the 1930s, when acts of brutality around the world—from Nazi Germany’s stripping of citizenship from Jews to Japan’s violent assault on China—created more than a million new stateless people. French jurist Henri Donnedieu de Vabres, who would later become one of the judges in the Nuremberg trials, explained in 1935 that statelessness was by nature an international affair. It thus had to be controlled by transnational organizations.

Yet fail the reformers did, and spectacularly so. Even though many diplomats accepted Mandelstam’s and Kelsen’s claim that statelessness was a valid legal status, they ignored the rest of their theories and accepted existing states’ authority over citizenship. In some of her book’s most depressing parts, Siegelberg details how participants in international conferences in the 1930s buried hopes for reform. In scenes that are eerily similar to United Nations summits on climate change today, officials from around the world gathered to coordinate the necessary regulation of citizenship laws, only to agree that it was someone else’s job to relinquish control over citizenship; for their own countries to do so was unimaginable. As British diplomat Mackinnon Wood asserted, the eagerness of other regimes to exclude members of their populations was unfortunate but perfectly legal according to international codes. 

Indeed, a series of international agreements solidified this logic. The Convention on Nationality Law (1930), signed by dozens of countries, clarified that no authority could infringe on a state’s internal rules. Participating states even used the convention to expand their denaturalization powers. America’s 1940 Nationality Act, for example, stipulated that naturalized U.S. citizens automatically lost their citizenship if they lived abroad. 

This meant that the trauma of World War II did little to curtail states’ ability to determine their populations’ lawful status. The tragedies at Auschwitz and Hiroshima were not followed by international cooperation and human solidarity but by a harsh world order premised on national sovereignty, one in which statelessness continued to flourish. Few recognized this fact more viscerally than officials at the newly created U.N., who in 1945 were tasked with handling the massive number of refugees produced by years of global violence. Unlike their predecessors at the League of Nations, they did not even consider issuing international passports. Their efforts instead focused squarely on relocation and nationalization: Poles were sent to Poland, Italians to Italy, and so on, where local authorities were to decide their fate.

What is more, the global triumph of decolonization in the subsequent two decades completed the nation state’s hold on global politics. Though some anti-colonial leaders, such as Senegalese thinker and politician Léopold Sédar Senghor, hoped to build a transnational federation in Africa, empires were ultimately replaced by states, which took full control over their population’s legal status. Even political theorists who earlier rejected the state’s authority now conceded it was not likely to be surpassed. Hannah Arendt, one of the era’s most prominent commentators on law and politics, abandoned her earlier interest in federations and claimed that citizenship in a state was the basis for political life.

Siegelberg’s account offers a sober corrective to dewy-eyed stories in which the formation of postwar international institutions like the U.N. curtailed state-inflicted cruelties. In her telling, the opposite was the case: International bodies embraced an even more exclusionary conception of citizenship, dealing a final blow to any chance for reform. A landmark decision by the International Court of Justice illustrates this trend: In 1955, the court ruled on the case of Friedrich Nottebohm, a German businessman who lived in Guatemala but was deported in 1943 as an enemy alien after Guatemala joined the war against the Nazis. In 1939, however, for the hefty price of 37,500 Swiss francs, Nottebohm had purchased citizenship from Lichtenstein. This, Lichtenstein’s officials claimed, made his deportation illegal. Yet the justices in the Hague dismissed Nottebohm’s ties to Lichtenstein as insubstantial and invalid. Citizenship, they claimed, was not simply a financial or legal arrangement but a “legal bond having as its basis a social fact of attachment, a genuine connection of existence, interests and sentiments.” Like Polish authorities in the 1920s, the court concluded that the quality of one’s social attachment to a country was a legitimate and necessary prerequisite for legal status. This meant the citizenship was not a basic right but a privilege that could be denied. 

There’s an almost unbearable tension between the sanitized language of international law and the gruesome world in which statelessness proliferated. And perhaps for this reason, these sections in Siegelberg’s book can leave the reader wishing she said more about the relationship between ideas and reality. What political forces shaped all these conventions and legal cases? What were their political consequences? Siegelberg meticulously and impressively reconstructs the documents that entrenched statelessness. But she also leaves important questions hanging: Was the Convention on Nationality Law a major event in international history, or did it merely ratify decisions already made by political leaders? How many people were ultimately impacted by the court’s Nottebohm decision? 

Whatever role international conventions and courts played in the process, Siegelberg convincingly shows how the postwar decades made statelessness a permanent feature of global politics. Governments the world over continued to strip individuals of citizenship, and jurists increasingly nodded in lethargic approval. As the years passed, efforts to challenge this reality slowly fizzled. Peter Mutharika, a legal scholar and the future president of Malawi, ruefully noted in 1976 that the problem of statelessness increasingly seemed to bore international audiences. 

The ugliness of this reality was painfully clear to the Palestinians vanquished by Josef Ben-David’s military unit, who in 1948 fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries. Over the decades, the U.N. has issued many statements on their behalf, but few beyond the General Assembly’s hallways seemed to care. Israel continued to deny their right to return to their homes, while Syria and Jordan refused to grant them citizenship. Their anguish also passed to new generations. Seven decades after their exile, their descendants still live in camps today, devoid of legal status.  

It is hard to finish Siegelberg’s book without feeling deflated. If those who fought against statelessness failed, it tells us, it’s because they faced an insurmountable challenge: They could not overcome the nation states’ historic triumph as the “sole legitimate organizing unit of global politics.” This reality also rendered their main tactics—international conventions and conferences—almost comically useless. The representatives who gathered in them did not work for humanity but for their respective governments, whose authority they mostly reaffirmed. Even international statements that sought to protect the stateless, such as the U.N. Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (1961), were ultimately toothless. Roundtable discussions in Geneva are simply no match for immigration officials with guns and armored vehicles and the xenophobic masses that support them. 

Yet the reformers’ failure also had other roots, which Statelessness does not reflect on. Siegelberg’s emphasis on legal and political discussions inadvertently reproduces some of her protagonists’ conception of citizenship and statelessness as opposites in a binary. Indeed, Mandelstam, Kelsen, and others who fought to eliminate statelessness viewed citizenship as the source from which all other rights flowed. They may have diverged on whether it could be administered through international or national bodies, but they agreed that citizenship determined people’s fundamental existence. In this vision, the world was divided between those who basked in the sun of citizenship and those who languished in the shadows of statelessness. Formal legal rights were thus the ultimate prize, the Holy Grail of world politics.  

But citizenship has rarely been the key to equality, and not only because states could so easily revoke it. After all, some of the world’s strictest hierarchies flourished within existing citizenship regimes and were sustained by mechanisms beyond naturalization laws. Black Americans under Jim Crow were U.S. citizens, but they lived under segregationist brutality. For much of the twentieth century, women in Japan, Russia, and France could hold passports but were harshly discriminated against by property, labor, and family laws and were long denied the right to vote. In Israel, Josef and his descendants made sure that Palestinians who did not flee in 1948 and who became Israeli citizens did not enjoy the full protection of the state. A flurry of zoning codes, discriminatory hiring policies, and public underinvestment schemes sought to preserve their status as a second-tier population and still continues today. The world’s main fault lines were therefore not just between citizens and the stateless. Full legal status did not look the same in all places or for all peoples, and its acquisition was only sometimes a solution to injustice.   

The twentieth century’s most far-reaching emancipatory movements, therefore, did not focus only on obtaining citizenship but also on transforming the social and economic order in which citizenship existed. Struggles for gender equality, social democracy, and racial justice, which unfolded in parallel to the fight against statelessness, aimed to uproot the social, cultural, and political sources of inequality, often within states and their citizenship regimes. Their leaders viewed citizenship not as the ultimate shield from injustice but as a valuable social and legal status. This was also why, unlike Statelessness’s main protagonists, they complemented the fight for formal legal equality with other forms of action, such as challenging cultural representations or campaigning for material redistribution. They articulated broad social visions that went beyond the legal code, visions that helped them to galvanize mass mobilization. Passports alone were never going to eliminate the miseries of the stateless. This task was always going to require overcoming the animosities that led to their exclusion in the first place, even if this path defied universal prescriptions.

This, at least, was the lesson that other members of my family drew from their history. Among them was my father, Oliver Grünberg, whose German-Jewish parents were stripped of their citizenship by the Nazis in 1935 and later fled to South Africa. Just as Josef came to find life in Czarist Russia unbearable, Oliver grew to hate his native country and its racist apartheid regime. Upon turning 17 in 1964, he migrated to Israel, which he naïvely envisioned as a progressive experiment (an image fed by Israeli broadcasts to the Jewish diaspora), and became a citizen upon arrival. Unlike my great-uncle, however, Oliver dedicated his life to protesting its exclusionary politics. I have vivid childhood memories of accompanying him on visits to Palestinian villages, where he recorded people’s stories of their relatives, many of whom lived stateless and in exile. My father joined them in protest marches, where calls for the refugees’ return blended with demands for economic equality. When I asked him about these activities—as a child of Israel’s ethno-nationalist educational system, they were hardly intuitive—he answered that all of us share a destiny. We eat the same food and drink the same water, he said: Citizen or not, we prosper or sink together.