VIEWPOINT: Marriages of convenience in times of crises

VIEWPOINT: Marriages of convenience in times of crises

Irene Messinger

Marriages of convenience have always been used as a means of survival in times of crisis. During WWII women from the Third Reich entered into marriages of convenience to escape the Nazi regime. Today asylum seekers from outside Europe use such marriages to enter Fortress Europe. These parallels open up a number of interesting questions. Which sort of people – defined in terms of gender, class, citizenship and sexual orientation – now and in the past have had the legal opportunity to benefit from the institution of marriage? How do state actors use political and moral debates to hinder these kinds of marriages? As an Austrian political scientist with a focus on migration history, I will discuss the phenomenon marriage of convenience (MOC) using examples from two countries, the UK and Austria, over two time-periods, during WWII and today. This comparative approach across time and space will highlight both differences and similarities and offers fresh perspectives to old issues. (1) The sources I will draw on are archival material, police files, and interviews with contemporary witnesses, newspaper articles and biographies.

People in general marry for a number of reasons: couples, when asked, most commonly give romantic love and sometimes children as their reasons. Other motives are less often mentioned, such as social, economic and other benefits that seem socially acceptable. And then there are benefits that are kept secret in the face of restrictive immigration regimes, such as residence and work permits. In some relationships, the reasons for marriage are mixed. However, the foreign spouse will often be suspected to have paid for the marriage. For refugees and asylum-seekers, marrying an EEA (European Economic Area) citizen can be a life-safer, as it was for hundreds of women who fled the Nazi regime. So, why am I writing only about women using MOCs to escape the Holocaust?

Gender (in)equality in citizenship laws
Marriages of convenience (MOC) were a strategy open only to women because under the patriarchal marriage and citizenship laws of the time, it was only men who conferred their nationality on a spouse. Moreover, only women automatically assumed a foreign nationality or a secure status in a country of exile through wedlock. As a result, this kind of marriage could only be used by women as a way of escaping Nazi persecution. With their newly acquired citizenship women had better chances of reaching a safe place, whilst others who successfully fled to countries of exile such as the UK, were not allowed to work and enjoyed a precarious legal status. By marrying a British national they could improve their living conditions considerably and ensure a right to stay. In March 1939, one journalist described MOC as a reaction to crisis: “An industry has also grown up around the very distress of the Jews, namely, the industry of marriages bought and sold. All English readers would have seen reports of cases where foreign Jewesses paid foreigners to marry them in order to acquire another nationality and be beyond the reach of immigration bans and business hindrances”. (2) MOC was thus a topic of public debate.

Today, refugees and others from less privileged parts of the world try to gain access to Europe, including the UK. Each European state defines the minimal requirement for entry and a longer-term stay based on nationality, education, age and financial means. The refugee’s need for protection is less important. Migration management has its own logic to define who is “wanted” and who is not; and this holds true for refugees, too. Marriage migration is one of the few possibilities left under restrictive asylum and migration regimes. And it is no longer just women who can benefit from a MOC. In 1983, Austria and the UK introduced new citizenship laws. One of the changes (besides many regulations making it harder to obtain a new citizenship) included a woman’s right to pass on her nationality to her husband. Today, citizenship law formally recognises gender equality. But it is also harder than before to marry simply in order to acquire a new nationality or permanent residence rights, which now requires endurance and financial resources. But is / was MOC affordable for anyone?

Class differences and distinctions
Without question, though often forgotten, class plays a crucial role in migration. Where migration happens under duress rather than voluntarily, the migrant often loses social status. In the Nazi era, it was mostly women from the middle and upper classes who had the financial means and (political) international networks to pursue a MOC.

A visa as a domestic servant was one of the few ways for single women to enter into Britain. There already was an established tradition of Austrian women working as domestic servants in England. After 1938, even wealthy people used these emigration paths. There are stories of higher-class refugees having to learn how to do domestic work before emigrating having had domestic servants doing that job in their homes. Having arrived in England, some encountered appalling conditions, but it was hard to change jobs, as refugees in general were not allowed to work. MOC was a way out of one dependency, but with the risk of entering another.

The situation under the Nazis is comparable to the current position of refugees in most Western countries: they, too, are not allowed to work during their stay, though some are highly educated and their qualifications devalue while they wait for a positive response to an asylum application. If they need to earn a living on the informal job market, they get access to precarious, low-paid and dangerous jobs only. The marriage market might be more promising in the medium term. But whom to marry?

Transnational matchmaking
Transnational networks are and always were important in finding a partner, whether genuine or a partner of convenience. My sample of 100 MOC couples from WWII shows: they used their family, religious, political, ethnic or queer community networks to marry someone from within that very network who had a foreign nationality. Sometimes these groups would overlap.

Such networks are still used to find a partner today. In Austria, many Austrians with Yugoslav or Turkish roots marry someone from their parents’ or grandparents’ country of origin. Generally, such couples are not suspected of undergoing a MOC as the authorities believe in the plausibility of intra-ethnic relationships. Taking a more global view, bi-cultural marriages in Austria in recent decades have been mainly between Austrian men and Asian women and between Austrian women and African men. For the Austrian authorities, a lower income Austrian woman marrying an African asylum-seeker matches their stereotype of a MOC, attracting police investigation and is often challenged in court. The image becomes self-fulfilling. The far more frequent case of an Austrian man marrying an Asian woman rarely attracts suspicion. It is evident that authorities use different yardsticks in assessing transnational marriages, with police working to highly gendered and racist stereotypes. What happens if one person is or was gay?

Homosexuality and traditional family expectations
During the Nazi era, homosexuality was a crime, not only in the German Reich but also in various other European countries including the UK, at least for male homosexuals. Lesbian sexuality – often less visible – was at the time not recognised and therefore also not seen as a crime. Being married was part of a “normal” adult life. Single men (and women) were viewed with suspicion. Some homosexuals married, in some cases entering a MOC with a female refugee, while hiding their sexual orientation. The most prominent MOC is probably between Erika Mann and W.H. Auden. Her gay brother and his friends were supportive in finding a husband, and some other members of the anti-fascist cabaret group “The Peppermill” followed her example. These homosexual men could benefit from such an arrangement, at the same time making a political statement against Hitler while opening up new spaces for women.

In our heteronormative world today, a wedded pair is still usually portrayed as a woman and a man. But homosexuals who were previously excluded from marriage fought hard for decades to be able to enter into the institution of marriage. It is a relatively new development: In 2014, same-sex marriages were legalised in the UK, whereas in catholic Austria this ‘holy institution’ is still reserved for heterosexuals. Homosexuals have been able to enter into a “registered partnership” since 2012.

But legal acceptance does not go along with acceptance in all parts of society. Within traditional ethnic communities, “coming out” is still a very taboo matter and some families would never accept that. Therefore, even today, in certain cultural contexts, homosexuals may be inclined to marry to hide their sexual orientation for fear of family and/or community reprisals. Especially British Asians and Muslims highlight the fact that marriage is considered to be the biggest life event and that homo-marriages are not usually readily accepted. On anonymous websites such as GayLesbianMOC or in groups like SaathiNight one can look for a perfect match, reaching a global audience. On the one hand MOC is used as a pragmatic way to allow homosexuals to live the life they want.

On the other hand, it is a crisis for the LGBT community if all members from minority communities are in the closet.

MOC at the heart of all evils
The political debate on MOC is very emotional and often depicted as a threat to public security. In the same way as the fear of terror is utilised to erode fundamental rights, the topic of MOC is used to restrict immigration laws. There are two main narratives regarding the states’ response to MOCs: the first one emphasises the crisis the country is heading for in respect of values like marriage and family and the need for a moral gatekeeper. The second and stronger narrative objects to high numbers of MOCs and focuses on security and immigration. Conservative political circles argue that both problems can only be solved with strict legal sanctions to prevent marriages involving a non-EEA-member and limiting immigration in general.

Flexible moral crisis
An example from 1940 shows that MOC is a flexible term and concept to be filled with whatever causes moral outrage. The official police statistic list the number of MOCs between 1921 and 1940 in two tables: one for “Prostitutes” and one for “Refugees and Others”(3). The first table shows 199 cases with predominantly French women. The second table contains 30 cases only, nine each from Germany and Austria. These comparatively low numbers – the first case dates from 1937 – indicate little interest in MOCs among refugees but a strong focus on the issue of marriages with alleged sex workers, which corresponds with the discourse on “White Slavery”. The marriages of French sex workers with their British pimps were seen as MOCs and a cause for concern.

In 1940 and still today interpretations vary regarding which relationships are seen as genuine and which are seen as ‘deviant’ and ‘suspicious’, according to ethnic and gendered stereotypes. The EC Handbook refers to various trigger factors which can assist in investigations by member states. In the UK, the Home Office tries to examine the nature of the marriage. There are many articles and studies about these inspections and about interviews that invade the private and intimate sphere of the couple. To stay below the radar, partners in relationships with a non-EEA member – even where the relationship is genuine – try to conform to traditional patterns of a marriage and matrimony.

Where one partner is dependent on the other for his or her legal status, this can lead to exploitation. Possible repercussions are blackmailing, (sexual) violence, forced cohabitation to keep up the pretence of a happy marriage. Part of moral gatekeeping is not only to label some marriages as morally unacceptable, but also to create the image of a position in need of protection, thereby creating a moral imperative to react and protect these migrants. The victimization of certain groups is part of a politics of pity and a politics of control.

MOC as security problem
Little research has been done into MOCs in the countries of exile during WWII. As the report from 1939 indicates (see above), everyone seems to have known about the practice, but fairly little was done to prevent it. However, individual reports in autobiographies or oral history interviews do show examples of police investigations at the registry office and also after the wedding.

Today, MOC serves to legitimise anti-immigration measures, especially concerning ‘family unification’ migration. The allegedly high number of marriages of convenience is used to arouse fear of and opposition to uncontrolled and unlimited immigration. In the UK, a headline in the Daily Express stated: “Sham marriages have increased by almost 850% and authorities ‘are overwhelmed’” To find out whether there is reason for concern: let’s check the official data. The Home Office, answering information requested on how many cases have led to an investigation and a subsequent deportation, show about 50 cases for 2015/16 (with a detailed interpretation). The situation in Austria is similar: Austrian courts found 25 cases to be guilty of a sham marriage.

Many states have implemented new laws to regulate marriages involving a non-EEA spouse. In 2006 in Austria and in 2012 in the UK, similar new measures were introduced to prevent MOCs: high financial thresholds, a longer probationary period before permanent residency (5 years instead of 2) and a proof of language competence.

What we see in the regulation of family migration is the adoption of criteria more commonly associated with economic migration. Even for genuine relationships and families, life can feel like a Kafka plot. Not being able to fulfill all the requirements has forced some British families into exile.

Concluding Thoughts
In both periods under review, the crises have been global, accompanied by war and drastic changes in political systems. The women from the German Reich, like refugees today, acted decisively to escape from crisis regions and from traditional roles in societies. In order to secure or remain safe in exile, some entered into a MOC. Now as then, MOCs existing on paper only are arranged within various networks. Some are paid for; some are entered into as an act of solidarity. In both time-periods, prevailing official and social attitudes along gender, race and class lines shaped state interventions and created legal dependencies.

Marriages of convenience subvert traditional concepts of marriage and undermine immigration regimes. The politicisation and ethnicisation of MOC is used to enhance the ability to exclude or remove unwanted immigrants and refugees. All across Europe, family migration is increasingly the specific target of restrictive policy reforms.

Differences in how these kinds of marriages are perceived are revealing and point to underlying moral reasoning of the times. Most people today would regard the MOCs entered into by Jewish women escaping Nazi-persecution as a legitimate or justifiable strategy, while present-day asylum seekers are widely condemned for the same practice. This highlights a moral duality as in both periods the MOC is one of the few remaining escape routes in a time of crisis.

(1) This abbreviation MOC is quite common in online platforms where people are looking for a perfect match.
(2) Reed Douglas (1939), Disgrace Abounding, p 137.
(3) Dossier “general file on marriages of convenience 1937-1942” in The National Archives London, MEPO 3/1092.


Irene Messinger is a political scientist whose award-winning PhD thesis and book deals with MOC in the Austrian Alien Law (2012) from an intersectional perspective. 2013-2016 she was focusing on MOC during the Nazi period. In 2017, she will publish the commented memoirs of Anita Bild, a persecuted Viennese dancer who continued her career in the UK due to a MOC in 1939. Her research agenda focuses on Migration Policies and Migration Research, as well as Biographies, Gender and Social Justice. She teaches at the University of Vienna and at the University of Applied Sciences, Department for Social Work.