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Who is 'a person'?



Governments progressively define who people are, what they may do, where they may go




Michael H. Levin


A person consists of body, soul and a passport.

-- Russian proverb, c. 1920s [1]


I confirm by my signature . . . that I am a Jew. [2]


Starting May 1, the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles will begin issuing a REAL ID Driver License that will replace your current driver license and require a one-time revalidation of source documents [such as your passport, birth certificate, or residence papers]. This will enable us to ensure your identity and current residency and issue a federally compliant license. [3]



How modern nations deploy entrance or exit visas, transit or residence permits, internal or national passports to define a “person” has a long history. These documents have been used to confirm class or race superiority; grant or deny social benefits; and single out dissidents, Jews, and other people(s) seen as moral or ethnic threats. 


Anna's pink Nazi-era national Jewish Kulturbund (“Culture League”) ID card (below) is an example. These cards were valid for “Jews-only” and applied to performers as well as audiences. They had to be shown to enter any Kulturbund event. They could be swiftly rescinded if police discovered a Kulturbund member had one Jewish grandparent, and thus was not a “full Jew.” [4]






The Third Reich did not invent such restrictive documents. Its models included Tsarist internal passports and entry limits spawned by the Anglo-American eugenics movement. The Tsarist goal was to suppress internal unrest by revolutionary Jews or other “undesirables.”  The eugenics movement separately meant to preserve white Anglo-Saxon dominance by stopping waves of “mongrels” from flooding Britain and America. It led to the 1921-1924 U.S. Immigration Acts that barred entry by Asians and largely shut down immigration from Central, Eastern or Southern Europe. [5]


But use of such “paper wall” restrictions stretches much farther back.


* * *

In the early Western Renaissance, papers rarely were needed to tell who or what a person was. (“She” generally did not enter the picture.) People were “marked by their body” -- bound to land or a village they seldom left, personally known to their community, or readily identified by accent, dress or bearing. Tonsured traveling monks or branded criminals who crossed these lines often literally were marked. “Passports” (for, say, Medici bankers or Papal emissaries) were simply badges or short letters requesting safe conduct, sealed by local notables. [6]


This approach changed with the rise of literacy, printing and mercantile commerce. Change accelerated after the sensational 16th century case of the imposter “Martin Guerre,” who assumed Guerre’s village place and lived several years with Guerre’s wife. [7] 


In Guerre’s case proof of identity was driven by individual after-the-fact criminal-justice concerns. A different method was needed to detect wrongdoers in advance or prove someone was a repeat offender.


The Bertillon system developed in the 1850s seemed to serve. Its detailed physical measurements – for example, distance from eye to lip – could reproducibly identify unique individuals. Broadly adopted in 1880s Paris, then refined with photographs, “Bertillonism” spread rapidly. [8] It was incorporated in  late Imperial Russia’s internal passport (propiska) regime.  The Soviets soon expanded these passports to parcel out general freedom of movement, access to food or entrance to cities, assuring pervasive state control. [10]
















* * *

Fingerprints eventually superseded physical measurements for criminal-justice purposes. [11]  But as states more generally sought to track all their citizens for benefit eligibility or other non-criminal aims, papers became the person they identified. For government purposes, a person did not exist without them. [12]


This global version of identity papers initially was used to control “the lower orders.” [13] Laborers, religious nonconformists, traveling peddlers, and circus or other performers – especially wandering “gypsies” – became subject to stringent town-by-town registration. [14]  Even during the pro-commerce “period of paperless movement” (1860–1914) when most Western European countries abolished formal passports, required “workbooks” -- really, worker-books -- subjected their bearers to police registration, signatures of every employer, and lists of towns visited. 


In 1905 Britain adopted its first explicit exclusionary law in fifty years, barring entry of East European Jews fleeing Tsarist pogroms. [15]  By 1912 bourgeois indignation produced French laws mandating a hundred-page pass for entire Romany families. The Carnet anthropométrique contained physical measurements plus fingerprints and photographs of each family member, down to children age two. [16]


Great War paranoia over spies, sedition and draft evaders ended the rest of “paperless movement.” After 1914 a burst of ‘temporary emergency’ measures imposed identity constraints at and within national borders to keep all travelers, subjects or citizens out or in. These measures expanded and tightened with the rise of militant ethnic nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s. 


Similar measures remain in place today. Indeed, DNA-typing and optical iris scans represent a return to medieval roots, where identity once more is “read off the body.”



[1] Quoted in David Lyon, “Under My Skin: From Identification Papers to Body Surveillance,” in Documenting Personal Identity (“Documenting”), pp. 291-310. 


[2] Anna Burstein Bieler-Suwalski, Leipzig Jüdischer Kulturbund photo-ID membership card, 1935-36


[3] Washington DC Department of Motor Vehicles, 2018.


[4] For a personal history of the Kulturbund, see Martin Goldsmith, The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany (John Wiley & Sons, NY, 2000).


[5] Entry barriers created by the 1924 Act largely remained in place till 1964. 


[6] E.g., Valentin Groebner, “Describing the Person, Reading the Signs in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe: Identity Papers, Vested Figures, and the Limits of Identification, 1400-1600,” Documenting, pp. 15-27.


[7] Documenting, various. “Guerre” eventually was detected (because his foot was the wrong size), tried and executed for fraud and adultery, though his case has continued to resonate. See, e.g., The Return of Martin Guerre (1982), ; .


[8] See Martine Kaluszynski, “Republican Identity: Bertillonage as Government Technique,” Documenting, pp. 124–138.


[9] From See also


[10] See Marc Garcelon, “Colonizing the Subject: The Genealogy and Legacy of the Soviet Internal Passport,” Documenting, pp. 83–100. 


[11] See, e.g., Anne Joseph, “Anthropometry, the Police Expert, and the Deptford Murders: The Contested Introduction of Fingerprinting for Identification of Criminals in Late Victorian England”; Pamela Sankar, “DNA-Typing: Galton’s Eugenic Dream Realized?” Documenting, pp. 164-183, 273-290.


[12] “The proof of [recognition] is not identity per se but a sign which stands for the authentic object and that object only. Without this [sign] difference cannot be resolved into identity; the [paper] token proclaims as unique an individual which cannot on its own make good its uniqueness.” Jane Kaplan, “’This or That Particular Person’: Protocols of Identification in Nineteenth-Century Europe,” Documenting, pp. 49–66 at 52-53 (emphasis added).


[13] Aristocrats or high Tsarist officials did not need them. In fact, until the 1860s the British Foreign Office refused to issue passports with person-specific details, viewing personal data as insulting. Instead, it relied on recommendations from commercial banks or the old-boy network of Foreign Secretary staff. 


[14] Along with exorbitant stamp charges and constant harassment. See, e.g., Andreas Fahrmeir, “Governments and Forgers: Passports in Nineteenth-Century Europe,” Documenting, pp. 218-234; Leo Lucassen, “A Many Headed Monster: The Evolution of the Passport System in the Netherlands and Germany in the Long Nineteenth Century,” id. pp. 235-255.


[15] This “departure from Britain’s earlier laissez-faire attitude toward immigration came about only after long years of opposition to an Aliens bill. The 1905 law was adopted against a background in which the term immigrants had become synonymous with Jews, ‘a group so undesirable that they were compared unfavorably with the despised Irish and categorized as close to the Chinese.’” John Torpey, “The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Passport System,” Documenting, pp. 257-270 at 258.


[16] “Close supervision, incompatible as it is with the life of bohemians and Romanies, will have the effect of removing them from our territory,” one French Senator declared. Kaluszynski, above, Documenting pp. 129-137 (quoting 1911 address to French Senate by Pierre Etienne-Flandrin).

Anna's 1935 National Kulturbund membership ID card

Anna Bieler-Suwalski, National Kulturbund membership card, 1935:

 "I confirm I am a Jew"

(Collection, Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History)

Papers Please Inc: Imperial Russian internal passport, c. 1910

.Imperial Russian propiska with Bertillon identification data, issued 1910 [9]

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