“Heimatlose Ausländer” – Exploring a ‘Forgotten’ Legal Category

“The passport is the noblest part of a human being. Nor does it come into the world in such a simple way as a human being. A human being can come about anywhere, in the most irresponsible manner and with no proper reason at all, but not a passport.That’s why a passport will always be honoured, if it’s a good one, whereas a person can be as good as you like, and still no one takes notice.”
(Brecht 2019)

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

During the Second World War from his exile in Finland, Bertolt Brecht reflected on how passports and legal statuses govern the lives of those they are assigned to. As this year marks the 70th anniversary of the UNHCR and Refugee Convention, we would like to take this moment to shed the light on the legal category of “Heimatlose Ausländer”[1] which was also introduced 1951 but which today is almost forgotten (Alexopoulou 2020). In the following, we will take a closer look at the legal category and the meaning of this specific passport (see picture) in the specific German context.

The legal category of “Heimatlose Ausländer” was introduced in 1951 by the West German state under the “Gesetz über die Rechtsstellung heimatloser Ausländer im Bundesgebiet (HAuslG)”. While in some aspects the status of “Heimatloser Ausländer” placed its holders on an equal basis with German citizens, they were neither given the right to vote nor were they allowed to form any political associations (§ 13 HAusIG). As such, this status of legally ascribed in-betweenness, positioned its holders neither as full citizens nor outsiders: 

“The passport was good for nothing, so to speak. You had more disadvantages than advantages. And you had no citizenship. You were… “ [2] explains a former status holder.

This ambiguous term was introduced at the precise time when responsibility for the large and diverse population of Displaced Persons (DP) in the Federal Republic of Germany was transferred from the Allied Forces to the West German state. The Allies had used the term DP to refer to a diverse group of people, mainly from Eastern European regions and many of them Jewish survivors of concentration camps, stranded in West Germany as a result of forced displacement and forced labour during WWII. It stands to reason that the renaming of DPs at this historic moment to “Heimatlose Ausländer”, was no coincidence. Rather, scholars such as Jacobmeyer (1985) have suggested that his move was the result of deliberate decision making by West German authorities to obscure the underlying reasons and responsibilities for these people’s displacement by the Nazi regime. Although officially people who were ascribed the status of “Heimatlose Ausländer” were entitled to apply for citizenship after seven years, today, there are still more than 1400 people [3] living with this legal-administrative status in Germany.

In our ongoing research project, we explore how people who at one point held the status of “Heimatloser Ausländer” experienced this status and how it affected their everyday life and placemaking. Focussing on the legal status of “Heimatlose Ausländer” in West Germany allows us to gain a deep understanding of its meaning for former and current status holders and to identify the continuities and ruptures in the legal categorization of people arriving in Germany as a result of persecution and conflict. What does this particular status tell us about participation and citizenship in 20th century West Germany and how does it impact legal categorization of people arriving in Germany as a result of persecution and conflict today? 


Alexopoulou, Maria (2020): Deutschland und die Migration. Geschichte einer Einwanderungsgesellschaft wider Willen. Ditzingen: Reclam.

Brecht, Bertolt (2019): Bertolt Brecht’s Refugee Conversations (Romy Fursland, Trans.). Edited by Tom Kuhn. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Egger, Simone (2014): Heimat. Wie wir unseren Sehnsuchtsort immer wieder neu erfinden. München: Riemann Verlag.

Jacobmeyer, Wolfgang (1985): Vom Zwangsarbeiter zum heimatlosen Ausländer. Die Displaced Persons in Westdeutschland 1945–1951 (= Kritische Studien zur Geschichtswissenschaft, 65). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht

[1] Literal translation: homeless aliens. However, we argue that this translation does not accurately capture the notion of the German term “Heimat” which is not so much bound on actual housing and place, but has multiple dimensions of meanings which cannot be summarized into one definition. “Heimat”, whose etymological history goes back to the 11th century, can be bound to memories, feelings of belonging, social ties, places of longing (Egger 2014), but has also often been used for national interests. We therefore opt to not translate the term “Heimatlose Ausländer” here as to not distort its’ complicated meaning in the German language.

[2] Interview with former status holder, Munich 09/13/2018.

[3] Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis), 2021: Table 12521-0007. GENESIS V4.3.1.U2 – 2020.

Picture ⓒ private archive Thiel


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