Death Ship Earth: On Mira L. Siegelberg’s “Statelessness”

May 7, 2021   •   By Hadji Bakara

Statelessness: A Modern History

Mira L. Siegelberg

IN 1926, a stateless German living in Mexico published a sensational novel, released first in Berlin as Das Totenschiff and then eight years later in the United States as The Death Ship. The author was B. Traven, most likely the pen name of Ret Marut (born Otto Feige), a German army deserter, anarchist, socialist, stage actor, and impersonator. Born in 1882, Traven was a citizen of an empire that disappeared in 1918, leaving him, like millions of others after World War I, legally stateless.

In The Death Ship, a naïve but good-hearted American sailor named Gerald Gales loses his passport and “sailor’s card” during a night of revelry. Left stateless, Gales wanders aimlessly across the borders of Western Europe, unable even to turn himself over to the police for lack of legal identification. Spotted by two cops in Rotterdam, the hapless American is asked for identification, which he doesn’t have. “Wha-a-a-t? You ha-a-a-ave no sailor’s card?” the cop responds. “Then you have a passport,” he asks. “No passport?” “Do you mean to say that you have been living on a mountain on the moon?” In the cop’s mind, to be sans papier is to be an alien: he simply can’t conceive of how an earthly creature could be without a passport.

Eventually Gales gets work on a decrepit steamer called the Yorikke, a boat populated by stateless sailors who are tortured, abused, and worked to death. As the American boards the ship for the first time, he notices a nihilistic dirge inscribed on the ship’s mast that doubles as a definition of the stateless person:

He is nothing and never.
He is too great for infinity,
Too small for a grain of sand,
Which, however small,
Has its place in the universe.
He is what has never been
And never thought.


Why did Traven insist that statelessness is so hard to imagine? In part, at least, because of the magnitude of its opposite. To imagine statelessness one must unimagine states, nations, and nationalities as the inalienable and even natural inheritance of human kind. And that prospect, as Traven’s novel foretold, became increasingly difficult over the course of the 20th century.

The difficulty of imagining statelessness is also at the heart of Mira L. Siegelberg’s Statelessness: A Modern History. Like Traven, many of the protagonists in Siegelberg’s story were born into a world of empires and imperial states and died in a world of nation-states and indivisible sovereignties. They didn’t so much live through the emergence of the modern nation as they did bear witness to the death of its alternatives. But whereas Traven explored this history from below, Siegelberg’s is a story told from above, from what she calls the “heaven of legal theory,” where the air thins out and the stench from the hold of the Yorikke is dissipated.

The basic outline of Statelessness is this. For about 40 years, between the outbreak of World War I and the acceleration of decolonization in the early 1960s, a “generation of jurists and international legal publicists from the former Russian Empire and the former Habsburg Empire” engaged statelessness as a fundamental problem of international order. They had skin in the game: “All faced the challenges of statelessness, exile, and emigration” themselves. Despite their common experiences, however, they rarely agreed on the meaning and consequences of statelessness.

The disagreements between these legal thinkers are Siegelberg’s focus. Across the book, she uses these sometimes arcane debates to show how the stateless were transformed first from figures of fiction and legal curiosity, to utopian cosmopolitans, to subjects of serious political concern, and eventually to a pitied but largely forgotten, and growing, class. But while Siegelberg has done more than any previous scholar in giving us the conceptual history of statelessness as a puzzle for international legal order, the book ultimately leaves us, and Siegelberg, seeking new “vocabularies” for “comprehend[ing] that which does not fit within the boundaries of states.”

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Before the mid-20th century, statelessness was often treated as a legal curiosity rather than a brutal political condition. Like Rip Van Winkle, stateless people in the late 19th and early 20th century were thought to have accidently slipped through a rip in the fabric of modernity. Legal experts debated whether such a person could exist. In the 1898 US Supreme Court case that enshrined the principle of birthright citizenship, it was determined that the “man without a country is not recognized in law.” Nevertheless, newspapers and legal journals sometimes reported on the existence of these strange human creatures without a country. But no political or legal alarm bells were set off by the specter of statelessness. Being without a country was not yet the abyss, and statelessness was as yet detached from rightlessness. Consequently, the idea could still conjure utopian visions of political autonomy and absolute freedom. As the Danish novelist Herman Bang wrote in 1906, to be stateless is to be the “Prince of no-country.”

Siegelberg’s book begins in these halcyon days before the coming of mass statelessness, with the story of Max Stoeck, the first person in the British Empire to be formally recognized as stateless. Stoeck was no refugee. A Prussian businessman and manager of a multinational corporation, he lived a prosperous and cosmopolitan life in London for over two decades — so prosperous, in fact, that Stoeck felt no need to legally naturalize in Britain. His was the utopia of elective disaffiliation. But the outbreak of World War I changed everything. As a German national, Stoeck was designated an enemy alien. His property was seized, his marriage dissolved, and he was thrown into a detention camp. Over the next six years, he and his lawyers did everything they could to prove that he was not a German citizen. In fact, they argued that he was a citizen of nowhere. Establishing that fact would liberate him from the status of enemy alien. When a British court finally recognized him as “stateless,” Stoeck welcomed it as a victory. As a stateless person, Stoeck had won a welcome reprieve from the punitive politics of modern nationalism.

The Stoeck case planted a seed in the international legal imaginary because it seemed to affirm a malleability ­— even a brittleness — in the ties between humans and nations. The very fact that the link could be severed and recognized by law lent ballast to the opinion that legal life beyond the state might exist in some positive form. Reactions to the ruling were mixed. For some, Stoeck’s official statelessness was an invigorating proposition. International lawyers who hoped to expand legal authority “beyond the confines of the state” seized on the case as precedent. The work going forward would be to formalize the rights that people like Stoeck could claim. Doing so would help usher in a truly cosmopolitan citizenship. Yet for others, the case induced a sense of anxiety. It introduced the possibility that a person could live not only without national affiliation but also “untethered from the law altogether.”

Was the recognition of Stoeck as a stateless person a step in the right direction for attaining true human freedom? Or was it a dangerous precipice that called for stronger legal guardrails? Whatever the case, the recognition of a legally stateless person had rattled the conceptual foundations of the international order and of modern sovereignty. From this point onward, as Siegelberg observes, statelessness would be increasingly acknowledged as something like a Pandora’s box of international law. Recognizing statelessness meant affirming a legal and political life outside the state; and recognizing a legal and political life outside the state meant fundamentally redrawing the boundaries of authority.

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World War I staged the first serious reckoning with statelessness because it dissolved central Europe’s empires and created populations of stateless people on an unprecedented scale. After the war, the task of assimilating and repatriating peoples without nationality fell to the newly formed League of Nations. In 1921, the League created the High Commission for Refugees and placed Fridtjof Nansen, a world-famous Norwegian polar explorer, at its head. Nansen was a strange choice to solve the puzzle of statelessness. Despite having little to no experience in either demography or diplomacy, the explorer was tasked with solving a problem of political membership and demography untold in modern history.

Unsurprisingly, Nansen came up with a quick fix: the “Nansen passport.” Carried by the likes of Hannah Arendt and Vladimir Nabokov, Nansen passports were issued to about 450,000 stateless peoples. Nominally, at least, they granted refugees the right to reside in or travel through sovereign states. For a brief moment, these holders of an international passport seemed to augur an emergent freedom from the state. The popular imagination seized on the image. Siegelberg tells the story of an exiled Russian aristocrat who traveled around the world in 1928, carrying only a Nansen passport and under the sponsorship of Shell Oil. In his memoir, the cyclist recalled how “all over the world I can always find others who speak my own language and who carry the Nansen passport, issued by the League of Nations to those who have no longer any country of their own.” “[A]nyone without a national identity,” Siegelberg writes, “represented the possibility of postnational cosmopolitanism.”

If there was really a language of the Nansen passport holder, though, it was laden with misery and disaffection. The reality of international semi-citizenship was far less glamorous. To carry the League’s passport and nothing else, Nabokov wrote, was to exist in a “dreary hell […] devised by European bureaucrats.” For all the freedom and security that the passport provided to individual refugees — and it was certainly not negligible — the documents were castles made of sand. As Siegelberg makes plain, while they officially granted the stateless the rights of travel and residency, the passports fell well short of ensuring equality. At best, they bought a temporary reprieve from a future reckoning with state power. At worst, they offered false security and limited protections, essentially creating and legislating an internationally mandated underclass.

Yet either despite or because of its weakness, the Nansen system inspired movements to reimagine citizenship. Siegelberg explains that, during the interwar decades, the space between the promise and the reality of the League’s solutions to statelessness became a laboratory for legal theorists to conceive of a truly international citizenship, full rather than partial. Working in and around the League, exiled Jewish Russian émigrés and early advocates of international human rights such as André Mandelstam pushed the organization to make good on the promise of an international passport by treating the stateless not as humanitarian wards of the League but as fully fledged political subjects and citizens in a reformed world system attuned to the limits of the nation and sovereignty. “A global community united by social solidarity,” they argued, “could ensure rights for all people, regardless of their national status.” Hans Kelsen, the preeminent legal theorist of his day, promoted a more state-centric solution. Legal theory and constitutionalism, Kelsen believed, could purify the state system and thus solve the problem of statelessness. To perfect or transcend the state? These were the questions raised by the specter of mass statelessness.

World War II laid waste to both propositions. Kelsen was kicked from country to country, his public lectures mobbed by fascist thugs who made a mockery of the rule of law he hoped to perfect. And as ever-larger populations of people were forced from their homelands, efforts to establish international protections for the stateless proved grossly inadequate, hampered both by the weakness of international institutions and the double-bind of potentially exasperating the crisis by creating an untenable form of international citizenship. If the League had taken responsibility for protecting individuals from states, Siegelberg explains, it could have played into the hands of the aggressors by giving them a legal dumping ground for their unwanted citizens. The alterative, though, led to an equally dismal situation. Providing no legal protection for the stateless, Hannah Arendt wrote in her essay “The Minority Question,” meant that their claims to rights and belonging “foundered on the existing and abiding fact of state sovereignty.” When it mattered most, neither the nation-state nor an international body could save the most vulnerable of displaced peoples from becoming rightless. For the midcentury stateless, the earth had become a death ship.

Astonishingly, however, the catastrophe of two World Wars failed to convince many international lawyers and policy-makers that statelessness was a cause of much concern. Although Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds that “[e]veryone has the right to a nationality,” the language of the article strategically avoids naming the stateless person as a subject of rights and responsibilities. And Siegelberg points out that the final article had been whittled from the much stronger language tabled by the French delegate René Cassin: “Everyone has the right to a nationality. It is the duty of the United Nations and Member States to prevent statelessness as being inconsistent with human rights and the interests of the human community.” The United Nations would stand against statelessness, but do little to remedy it.

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The British scholar Alfred Zimmern once described international lawyers as subsisting in a “permanent condition of malaise,” and it’s difficult not to be affected by some of that malaise by the end of this book. Siegelberg, for her part, has done a magisterial job of connecting strands of legal thought spread across countless archives, many languages, and swaths of legal journals that tend to repel interested yet uninitiated scholars (such as myself). Not only Siegelberg’s chapters but her footnotes are a gift to future researchers: a roadmap bequeathed through immense effort and generosity.

Yet no matter how deftly animated, the language of international law simply lacks color and dynamism. What’s more, its posture of neutrality often clashes with a topic as thorny and consequential as statelessness. Repeatedly during the 20th century, Siegelberg shows, “[t]he heaven of legal theory […] met the reality of humanitarian disaster.” And this fact raises the question of why we should dwell in this heaven so consistently. This isn’t to say that we should simply dwell in the “reality of humanitarian disaster” instead. As Statelessness makes abundantly clear, legal concepts of order and authority dictate lived experience. But the history of statelessness also exists in places between the legal and the lethal, and readers of Siegelberg’s book who are not specialists in legal history — and there will be many, given the importance of the topic — might find themselves wishing that more of that terrain was included in her story.

Throughout Statelessness, Siegelberg is generally reserved in her judgment of international law. At the end of the book, however, she acknowledges its limitations, turning briefly, and inevitably, to the contemporary realities of climate crisis and global migrations. “The boundaries of states are breaking down in new ways,” and these breakdowns cannot be seen “only in terms of a static vision of international order.” Given the new pressures on the boundaries of sovereign states, she asks, “[W]hat frameworks and vocabularies can we use to comprehend that which does not fit within the boundaries of states?” One place to look will be the language of metaphor. When Traven imagined the Yorikke, a death ship populated by the earth’s stateless peoples, he invented a figure for apprehending precisely “that which does not fit within the boundaries of states.” In reimagining the nation, we will need to draw on the work of legal thinkers but also on the voices of those who, in Traven’s words, have “never been thought.”

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Hadji Bakara teaches 20th- and 21st-century literature at the University of Michigan. He is the editor of a special issue of JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory on “Refugee Literatures,” and is completing Governments of the Tongue: A Literary History of Human Rights.