Statelessness: A modern history
Harvard University Press, $72.95 pb, 318 pp
‘Half a Jew’s life is consumed by the futile battle with papers,’ wrote Joseph Roth, in The Wandering Jews (1937), his little-known collection of essays written not long before the Holocaust. ‘The struggle for papers, the struggle against papers, is something an Eastern Jew gets free of only if he uses criminal methods to take on society.’ Faced with police demanding to see ‘exotic, improbable papers’, the Eastern Jew who possesses too many troublesome names, inaccurate birthdates, and no proper nationality to speak of is sent packing, ‘again, and again, and again’.
In no other period had papers and passports mattered as much as they did after World War I. As Roth accurately observed in his travels around the ghettos and shtetls of Jewish Europe, ‘a human life nowadays hangs from a passport as it once used to hang by the fabled thread’. Roth was referring to human beings who constituted the Jewish ‘problem’, those without papers or passports, unwelcome in whichever country they had left and to whichever they fled. But the death rattle of the Russian, Habsburg, German, and Ottoman empires in the wake of World War I produced tens of millions more heimatlosen, people without the security of a political home, whose presence gave rise to complex questions about what it meant to live as non-citizens on the margins of new nation states, without the protections granted by citizenship. It also threw into sharp relief the definition and powers of state sovereignty. Was it up to the nation state to determine who was entitled to citizenship within their borders, or could a new international order become the arbiter of a new system of rights and protections?