Turkish 'guest workers' (photo: dpa)
50th Anniversary German-Turkish Recruitment Agreement

The Long Road to Almanya

In October 1961, West Germany and Turkey signed a recruitment agreement setting out the conditions under which Turks were allowed to work in the Federal Republic. Although long-term residence was initially explicitly forbidden, contemporary Germany is now home to large numbers of people of Turkish origin. By Monika Carbe

Who remembers when construction work on the Berlin Wall began on 13 August 1961? Who remembers hearing the news on the radio, or the images on the Wochenschau news programme? If memories of historical caesuras such as these pale, then recollection of a more inconspicuous social transformation may be even more difficult.

That autumn, people were generally aware that a decision had been taken in Germany's then capital Bonn to bring foreign workers into the country. The labour recruitment agreement with Rome had been signed in late 1955, Italians were in evidence now and again in front of factories or at train stations, and since 1960 also Greek and Spanish workers, but who understood their language?

Arrival of Turkish 'guest workers' in Germany (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
"You go train station – there!" The arrival of Turkish guest workers in Germany was not generally welcomed by the local population, but instead was accompanied by xenophobia and animosity

​​And so it was that in the mid-1960s, hardly anyone paid much attention to the Turks who travelled to Munich and Stuttgart, Rüsselsheim and Cologne, Duisburg, Hamburg, Kiel or Berlin, unless they lived close to a plant run by a company such as Opel, Ford, Daimler-Benz or Siemens, or passed the guest workers' accommodation every day. The era of forced labour was finally over, and the term "Fremdarbeiter" or "foreign workers" was soon declared taboo in Germany.

So the "guest workers" lived mostly in barracks, sometimes in temporarily converted assembly halls which would otherwise have hosted shooting club events, or in former refugee camps that used to accommodate people from the SOZ, or Soviet Occupation Zone; it was viewed as sacrilege to talk of 'East Germany', an entity few were ready to recognise.

The Invisible Ones

Turks had been coming into the country for as long as people could remember, as students, graduates, emigrants or business people, they were familiar and in their flamboyant garments, once admired as envoys of the Ottoman Empire, as First World War allies. Following the founding of the Turkish state in 1923, they came – also during the Nazi dictatorship – in their greatcoats as political negotiators to Berlin. After much hesitation, the relatively young Turkish Republic decided to declare war on the Third Reich, on 23 February 1945.

Anyone following the news just under two decades later would perhaps have known that during the war, Turkey had granted asylum to many German political refugees. But the Turkish workers – people simply didn't see them. If there were encounters, then these would usually take the form of a German being asked the way and replying with gestures or a sentence in Tarzan-style German: "Du gehen Bahnhof – da!" ("You go station – there!").

This must have been humiliating for those men who lived in barely conceivable isolation, although they were part of a community born of convenience, if not solidarity. In her study "Nächstes Jahr kehren wir zurück" ("We'll go back next year"), Karin Hunn conducts a detailed appraisal of the situation of the workers from 1961 to 1984 and outlines the reasons for and the background to what were initially highly restrictive agreements: The first version of the treaty limited a Turkish worker's stay in Germany to two years and forbade any family reunification.

Dashed hopes

Turkish guest workers in a factory (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
The German-Turkish agreement on labour recruitment of 31 October 1961 intended for single Turkish men to live and work in Germany for only two years. At first, family reunions were forbidden. Later, these barriers were gradually lifted

​​Immigrants included graduates – and many women also came at the time, alone – and skilled personnel who travelled to West Germany to earn a living in a country they only knew from hearsay, books, newspapers and the radio. They took the train to Almanya without knowing whether they would stay. They started out as street sweepers or cleaners, because they couldn't speak the language.

Tradesmen came, and young people without any professional training. They wanted to try their hand at something in the far North, and then return to their homeland at some point in the future. It is a saga of hard toil and tireless ambition to get on in life, not to be left standing, to acquire further qualifications – and not just to do something for themselves, but also primarily to also do something for others.

Şener Sargut, born in 1942, an educationalist with decades of experience in socio-political work, was employed by the German government from 1965 to 1967 as an interpreter in Istanbul. He witnessed first hand how it was for the young men who were setting out to sell their skills and had to prove their suitability. It was an assessment along the lines of a military selection process.

Asked whether it would be true to say there were also many women applying to come to Germany in the first instance, he confirms: "Yes, that's correct. From 1964 the waiting lists for men were so long that young married women took the decision to leave their children in the care of their families and risk the trip, with a view to fetching their husbands later."

Education and training as an opportunity

This was the case for women from the provinces, you can look up their stories in the novels of German-Turkish writers like Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Feridun Zaimoğlu or Selim Özdoğan.

But emancipated young women from major cities such as Istanbul, who had graduated from secondary school but not managed to clear the extremely high hurdle in Turkey that is the university entrance examination, also seized the opportunity to seek recruitment. They ended up working for companies requiring staff with precise mechanical skills, in southwest Germany for example, or at Siemens in Berlin.

Many of them understood the existence as factory worker as one of the toughest lessons of life. And many stayed the course, persevered with the unfamiliar rhythm often until they were fit to drop and decided then to systematically master the language of their adoptive country. They crammed by distance learning or at evening school and studied, many of them social education, in order to be able to offer targeted assistance to their compatriots.

Koran school in Berlin (photo: AP)
Heterogeneous picture of society: It is difficult to categorize members of the Turkish and German-Turkish community according to traditional/religious, conservative, liberal, secular, or atheist labels

​​The women may have complained and wept initially, but then they pulled themselves together to offer their families – or themselves alone – a better future. Many men were also deeply disappointed, provided they did not despair at the social bleakness. How much they had hoped for, how much they had heard about this blessed land in the North, before they set off!

Even before the churches of the two nations, the German Federation of Trade Unions and welfare organisations had begun to use publicity campaigns to draw attention to the plight of the foreign workers, the migrants took steps to help themselves. As early as 1965, one of the first Turkish community centres in West Germany, the "Halk Evi", was founded in Frankfurt, modelled on comparable institutes founded in Turkey by Ülkü Schneider-Gürkan, Ali Sait Yüksel – later a professor of international commercial law – and Lamia Üçer.

The community centres soon became a meeting place for workers and emigrants who – primarily before and after the military putsch of 12 September 1980 – had suffered persecution in Turkey. As the years went by, those running the centres developed a broad palette of educational opportunities for adults and young people.

Adult education centres also began offering German courses. But according to Şener Sargut, it wasn't until the 1970s when people came to the realisation – supported by the adult education centre associations in the individual states and their umbrella organisation, often in cooperation with the Goethe Institute – that German had to be taught in small, manageable groups in which course participants from different countries and social backgrounds could learn together regardless of educational background.

Old values, new challenges

Alongside the community centres and other secular organisations in which students, artists and workers joined forces to ensure that Turkish art and culture should not be forgotten in exile and to promote further creative activity, it is also essential to mention the religious associations that founded the Sunnis, Alevites and other confessions of Islam.

They functioned independently of Turkey's religious authorities, which maintained a watchful eye on utterances during Friday prayers at the makeshift mosques that had been set up with the endorsement of the Turkish state. However, the content of sermons being held in the backyard mosque rooms of the religious cultural associations remained within the confines of the relevant community.

The recession triggered by the oil crisis led to a halt in the recruitment of foreign workers in November 1973. At this point in time, there were 712,000 Turks living in West Germany. But just a year later, one of the clauses of the 1961 agreement was relaxed: family reunification was legally possible after 1974, although it was a process fraught with red tape. Special regulations were also introduced for certain sectors of the economy, for example the catering trade.

Integration class in Leipzig, Germany (photo: picture-alliance/ZB)
A new coexistence of generations: "Today, a variety of voices can be heard among three generations of Turks, who live, work, and study in both urban and agricultural milieus," writes Monika Carbe

​​In some states, Turkish as a mother tongue was taught in primary and some secondary schools; although this only created a limited basis for child integration. In families where the father worked around the clock and the mother as a cleaner, neither parent was in a position to concern themselves with their children's schoolwork; it was often the case that older children were assigned responsibility for their younger siblings.

In the early 1970s, Şener Sargut had drawn attention to the fact that young people – who were already experiencing conflict between the opposing norms and values of Turkey on the one hand, and those of West Germany on the other – would only be granted a positive future in Germany if the government introduced appropriate educational programmes. Education was urgently needed as a measure to prevent crime, he warned.

It was an appeal echoed by many other committed educationalists and sociologists and aimed at the relevant offices. With some success, as social ministries in the individual states – supported by politics and business – gradually made funds available for targeted educational programmes.

Taking the lead from universities, which ran courses in intercultural education and German as a foreign language for trainee teachers, many institutions such as welfare organisations soon followed suit, running courses in literacy and German, as well as seminars offering vocational guidance to foreigners with a special focus on Turkish youngsters.

Trends since 1989/90

Anyone concerned with the pressing questions presented by Turkish immigration since the fall of the Berlin Wall, whether in theory or in practise, never tires of referring to the difference between separation, integration and assimilation and – after what is now 50 years – drawing attention to comparable developments in traditional immigration countries.

Today, some 15 percent of Turks and German-Turks living in Germany are members of Muslim organisations in a variety of confessional hues; within the German-Turkish population there are barely definable boundaries between traditional-religious, conservative, liberal, secular and atheist groups – and an active student community that demonstrates a variety of different trends.

Most of the Turks and German-Turks in Germany are as heterogeneous as society itself and politically and socially inconspicuous, says the political scientist Atila Karabörklü. Born in 1968, he is a long-term resident of the Rhine-Main region and devotes much of his time, not just as part of his job but also as a volunteer, to promoting the idea of coexistence as something quite natural.

Apart from the Turkish community centres, which are as enterprising as they ever were, there is a relatively high number of secular German-Turkish professional organisations, clubs and associations. This is evident from continually updated reports carried out by the Centre for Turkish Studies in Essen.

It was once said that West Germany should become pluralist, and today's Germany is indeed diverse and protean, despite all the prophecies of doom. The three generations of Turks who live, work and study in the big cities and the provinces are indeed polyphonic. But this cultural diversity would appear to be under threat since reunification, as rightwing extremists stoke hatred of Turks and extreme nationalist Turks stoke hatred of Germans.

A social schism of this nature can however be prevented, again through awareness campaigns and a targeted, state-sponsored programme offering education and professional training to young people and adults of Turkish origin – in the interests of Europe and international relations.

Monika Carbe

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung/Qantara.de 2011

Monika Carbe is a writer, journalist and translator living in Frankfurt. Her special focus area is Turkish literature and the literature of migration in Germany.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp

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