In November of 1979, I was born on a US Army base in Wurzburg, Bavaria, West Germany. My father was an American soldier and my mother was a German housewife.
After a few years of bouncing back and forth between the US and Germany at the behest of the Department of Defense, our family finally settled in Augusta, Georgia. My dad retired from the Army there in September of 1989. To give that date some perspective, just two months later, in November of 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. In my middle school library an ocean away from Germany, a quarter sized piece of concrete from the famous barrier was put on display in a glass case. East Germany dissolved itself and melted with West Germany into the Federal Republic of Germany.
Back then, internet access was not yet a thing, air travel could only be booked through a travel agent, and your plane ticket was a piece of cardstock tucked into a paper sleeve that was almost impossible to replace if lost. Debit cards? Nope, you wrote a check, or paid cash. Europe might as well have been on another planet. By the time I would see most of my German relatives again, another decade would pass, the Deutschmark would be replaced by the Euro, and the US military would close most of its bases in Germany. Through all of that change, my mom occasionally reminded me that I had until my 23rd birthday to decide if I wanted to retain my German citizenship. I always dismissed it as likely untrue, unrealistic or unnecessary, especially for someone who remembered little of the German language.
As I grew into adulthood, I became more enthralled by international travel and the worlds of design and business. I bought the five level Rosetta Stone software for German language as the idea of getting in touch with my German roots started to take on a new appeal. Germany was becoming an economic powerhouse, I was approaching an age where being closer to all of my relatives was becoming more important, and I had a desire to be more worldly. Then out of nowhere (this is where it starts to sound ridiculous), stories appeared in the news that actress Kirsten Dunst had become a Dual US/German Citizen. We were similar in age and circumstance, and I had grown up watching her grow up in movies from Jumanji to Bring it On to Marie Antoinette. I chuckled at the thought of bumping into her in a cafe in Berlin over Kaffee und Kuchen sometime in a distant, imaginary future. I thought that was as good of a sign from the universe as I was ever going to get.
That was October of 2011, and it prompted me to pursue proof of my German citizenship (a document called a Staatsangehörigkeitsausweis). The internet was full of sites where people spelled out their family histories and questioned whether the dual citizen option might apply to them. I quickly discovered (here) that because I had been born with both German and American citizenship, and had not chosen one over the other, I technically held both until I renounced either. The deadline for 23-year-olds my mother had always spoken of actually applied only to those born in Germany to two non-German parents.
For me, the application for proof of citizenship itself seemed fairly straightforward. It asked for basic personal information, a timeline of where I had lived and when, and proof of my German lineage. To ensure that I had all the correct documentation and was completing everything correctly, I enlisted the assistance of a lawyer in Germany. Hiring a $200 an hour lawyer seemed expensive and risky, but almost immediately proved itself to be a smart decision. Unbeknownst to me, proof of citizenship by birth had to come in the form of birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates and places of residence for all of my German relatives, back through my Great Grandparents. Since even my Grandparents had long since passed away, this proved to be a Herculean undertaking.
Armed with a pile of signed Power of Attorney documents and my mother’s birth certificate, the lawyer set out to discover my family history and find certified copies of three generations worth of documents. His plan was simple but brilliant: marriage certificates listed the name and birthplace of both parties, so he would simply act as my agent to request a copy of my Grandparent’s wedding certificate, and contact the towns listed on it to find copies of their birth and death certificates. Then he would use those to find the marriage certificate of their parents, and repeat. Old fashioned detective work!
The journey through small town record offices was neither fast nor easy. It lasted almost eighteen months and spanned family history that reached back to 1896. The only real setback was that all leads to my maternal Great Grandfather’s birth certificate turned into dead ends. With shifting borders, similarly named towns, and records kept in handwriting script, that came as little surprise.
In May of 2012, with all but that birth certificate, my application for determination of citizenship was submitted. The response was an acknowledgement of receipt, with a specific mention that inquiring about status would likely cause processing delays.
Six months later (December 2012), a request appeared for information about the addresses at which my maternal grandfather and maternal great grandfather had lived. Since we were unable to provide specific residence addresses for my Great Grandfather for the period between his birth and his marriage, it looked like the process might be completely derailed. My lawyer replied to the agent in charge of my case with the limited additional information we could muster from my relatives, and we waited. Six more months would pass with no word.
In May of 2013, my lawyer followed up by email about the status of my application, and was nearly instantly informed that his previous email had never been received. The agent in charge of processing my application reviewed the new information and decided to request a copy of my mother’s citizenship file from decades earlier to see if it might contain the missing information.
In August of 2013, my lawyer sent me this note:
I have just received a letter from the Bundesverwaltungsamt stating that they have ascertained your German citizenship – CONGRATULATIONS! – and that they will furnish us with the respective certificate (i.e. your Staatsangehörigkeitsausweis) once we have paid the corresponding administrative fee of EUR 25 to their account (you will find a copy of the letter attached as a .pdf).
Total cost for the attorney and document fees: $1,920.00 and 22 months.
About a month later, the document crossed the Atlantic and landed on my desk. The next step was to turn it into a passport.
With my birth certificate, Staatsangehörigkeitsausweis, passport photos cropped to European size (ordered online from persofoto), and a completed German passport application, I visited the office of the German Honorary Consulate here in New Orleans at the beginning of October 2013. The office was authorized to accept biometric passport applications and take fingerprints, which they then forwarded to the German Consulate General in Houston. From there, the applications were reviewed and sent off to Germany.
Four weeks to the day later, at the end of October, I received a call from Houston that there were two problems with my application: first was that my head was too small in the photos I had provided. Second was that, though my American birth certificate listed my German hometown as my birthplace, a German birth certificate was required. I quickly jumped online and ordered a certified copy of my German birth certificate from the city hall of Wurzburg. It arrived a week later and I resubmitted my passport application the next day.
My passport was issued on December 3, 2013. More on the perks and pitfalls of holding two passports to follow…