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Cambridge University Press
The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany

The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany

by Rita Chin


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The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany

This book provides the first English-language history of the postwar labor migration to West Germany. Drawing on government bulletins, statements by political leaders, parliamentary arguments, industry newsletters, social welfare studies, press coverage, and the cultural production of immigrant artists and intellectuals, Rita Chin offers an account of West German public debate about guest workers. She traces the historical and ideological shifts around the meanings of the labor migration, moving from the concept of guest workers as a "temporary labor supplement" in the 1950s and 1960s to early ideas about "multiculturalism" by the end of the 1980s. She argues that the efforts to come to terms with the permanent residence of guest workers, especially Muslim Turks, forced a major rethinking of German identity, culture, and nation. What began as a policy initiative to fuel the economic miracle ultimately became a much broader discussion about the parameters of a specifically German brand of multiculturalism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780521690225
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 08/31/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 294
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Rita Chin is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. She previously taught at Oberlin College, Ohio. She has received fellowships from the Social Science Research Council and the German Academic Exchange Service, as well as grants from the American Historical Association and the American Philosophical Society. She was recently awarded a fellowship from the Fulbright Program to participate in the German Fulbright Commission's seminar on Muslims in Germany and France.

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The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany
Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-87000-9 - The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany - by Rita Chin


The One-Millionth Guest Worker

On 10 September 1964, fewer than twenty years after the end of the Second World War, the one-millionth guest worker arrived in the Federal Republic of Germany. His name was Armando Rodrigues, and he came from the village of Vale de Madeiros in central Portugal. Like the hundreds of thousands of labor migrants who preceded him, Rodrigues moved to West Germany to work in its factories. He was part of a massive foreign labor recruitment program, which began in 1955, to ensure a continuous supply of manpower for the postwar economic miracle. With limited prospects for employment in his homeland, he applied to the Federal Republic as a guest worker and eventually obtained an assignment. His plan was to return from West Germany after a few years with more money than he could save in a lifetime of labor at home. Forsaking family, friends, and familiar surroundings, Rodrigues embarked on a forty-eight-hour train journey into the unknown.

   In many ways, Rodrigues fit the typical profile of a guest worker entering the Federal Republic during the mid-1960s. He came alone, leaving his wife and two children in the village. At age thirty-eight, he cut an impressive figure – strong, well-built, in the prime of his life. He possessed precisely the kind of vigorous male body thatWest German government and industry officials sought to fuel the boom economy. Rodrigues was part of a vast wave of workers from the rural regions of southern Europe, including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, and Yugoslavia. But he did not belong to a dominant national group within the broader demographic spectrum of recruitment. During the 1950s, Italians constituted the largest percentage of workers, while from the late 1960s on, Turks outpaced all other nationalities, eventually coming to personify the very image of the guest worker in German public discussions of migration.

   Before his arrival, Rodrigues’s journey followed the same anonymous trajectory experienced by most guest workers on their way to the Federal Republic. First he traveled within his home country from his village to the urban center where an auxiliary branch of the German Federal Labor Office (Bundesanstalt für Arbeit) had been opened. Next he filed an application for work, underwent physical tests, and endured a long waiting period until he received a job assignment. Finally he embarked for West Germany on a train reserved exclusively for guest workers, with a ticket paid for by his future employer. In Rodrigues’s case, however, the endpoint of the migration journey was far from ordinary. Once the train carrying twelve hundred Spanish and Portuguese workers pulled into the station on the outskirts of Cologne, Rodrigues was whisked away from his countrymen by German officials, led across the platform, and positioned in front of flags and laurel trees for a photo opportunity. These “strange men,” according to press reports, “presented him with a bouquet of carnations and steered him to the seat of a motorcycle. ‘This belongs to you,’ they said. ‘You are the one-millionth guest worker in the Federal Republic.’”1 As newspaper photographers’ flashbulbs went off, a workers’ band from a Cologne cable factory struck up the German and Portuguese national anthems. Journalists on the scene claimed that Rodrigues’s fellow passengers let out a cheer: “Viva Alemania!”2

   This public fanfare signaled a new kind of self-consciousness about the scope and significance of Germany’s massive labor recruitment. The event was planned and staged by the Federal Organization of German Employers’ Associations, with a host of industry dignitaries and government representatives (including the Minister of Labor) in attendance. Using the celebration to highlight the program’s indisputable success, these officials emphasized the crucial role of the guest workers in the triumph of the economic miracle. “Without their collaboration,” declared the president of the Employers’ Association of the Metal Industry, “this development is unthinkable.”3 The thrust of the message was that West German prosperity directly depended on foreign laborers such as Rodri- gues and that recruitment was working out well for all involved.

   In 1964, government and business leaders had little sense of the labor migration’s long-term social and cultural impacts. Again and again they insisted that guest workers would return home once the economy no longer required supplementary manpower. But, in fact, many foreign laborers chose to remain and eventually sent for their spouses and children. By 1990, well over five million migrants claimed permanent resident status, making West Germany home to the largest foreign population in Europe.4 This demographic transformation included a second and third generation, which had been born, raised, and educated in Germany with little or no immediate knowledge of their nominal homelands. In practical terms, if not according to official rhetoric, the Federal Republic had become a “country of immigration.”

   It is important here to consider a second level of historical meaning in the Rodrigues celebration, what might be described as the ideological construction of the guest worker in rhetoric and imagery. Indeed, the very need for a public performance – the fact that German industry and government leaders felt compelled to convince the public of the recruitment’s vital importance – suggests that the larger historical significance of the migration cannot be reduced to labor shortages, policymaking, and demographic shifts (even though early government officials certainly tried to do so). It was this media spectacle at the Cologne train station, in fact, that crystallized the initial official position on the guest worker question, conveying very specific messages about the role of foreign laborers in West Germany.

   A Deutsche Presse-Agentur photograph (Figure 1), taken at Rodrigues’s arrival, documents the event. It shows Rodrigues perched on top of the gleaming new motorcycle, surrounded by a crowd of applauding German dignitaries. Among these officials is the president of the Employers’ Association of the Metal Industry, who leans against a podium and prepares to deliver a speech. This carefully scripted scene presents Rodrigues as the guest worker par excellence: he stands for the 999,999 imported

   Armando Rodrigues atop the motorcycle presented to him upon arrival at the Cologne-Dietz train station for being the one-millionth guest worker in the Federal Republic. Courtesy of dpa/Landov.

   laborers who have come before him, but he also serves as an ideal type. He is mature, but still young enough to perform the hard work that will be required of him. Neatly yet humbly dressed, he looks like a man of modest means who will apply himself industriously to the job ahead. The fact that the pageant took place at a train station – as opposed to a factory or worker barracks – underscores his status as a transitional, mobile figure who is not permanently rooted in West German society. The motorbike serves as Rodrigues’s metaphoric vehicle on the road to prosperity, a promise of the material benefits available to all hardworking recruits. This object simultaneously symbolizes the Federal Republic’s phoenixlike recovery from wartime destruction and an emerging era of affluence. Above all, the scene suggests a mantra of mutual benefits: government leaders would maintain national prosperity, business leaders would obtain much-needed manpower, and guest workers would gain access to a higher standard of living.5

   By its very nature, this public performance served to exclude any of the social and cultural issues that might have undermined the overwhelmingly positive representation. There is no indication here, for example, of the physical dislocation, separation from family, or fear of the unknown that Rodrigues had undoubtedly experienced on the way to Cologne. There is no sign of the strenuous labor, cramped living quarters, meager wages, and social isolation that await him after the ceremony. There is no explanation of Rodrigues’s life before his arrival or what he hoped to gain by coming. There is no hint of potential workplace conflict, xenophobia, or public anxiety about the presence of hundreds of thousands of foreigners on West German soil. The media event at the train station, in short, offered a highly circumscribed view of the guest worker question. And the photograph itself reinforced the ideological frame constructed by German officials, quite literally cutting off Rodrigues’s past and future. The most famous journalistic image of the guest worker program thus represented the recruitment as a mass-cultural moment of smiles, applause, gift giving, and optimism.

   Reports of this remarkable event appeared in virtually every newspaper across West Germany, including regional papers such as Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and nationally distributed papers such as Frankfurter Rundschau, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Der Tagesspiegel, as well as the highly popular national tabloid Bild-Zeitung.6 Rodrigues, in turn, quickly became the labor migration’s first national icon. This transformation of labor policy into mass-cultural spectacle cut in two directions. On the one hand, the replication and distribution of the photo all over the country served to disseminate an official narrative of recruitment on a dramatic new scale. For the first time, Germans had a common image – and explanation – of the process that was reshaping the nation. On the other hand, mass circulation carried with it at least the possibility of further ideological complexity.7 In stark contrast to the hundreds of thousands of nameless, faceless recruits who had come previously, here finally was a guest worker with a public persona – a human being rather than a statistic in a labor report. This process implicitly led to a much more specific set of questions: Who was Rodrigues? What motivated him to leave his homeland for Germany? How was he experiencing his new life as guest worker?

   The event, in other words, marked the beginning of a truly public and increasingly multivocal dialogue on the guest worker question in Germany. This is not to suggest that there had been no public comments on the recruitment previously. As soon as the first labor treaty went into effect, the federal government’s Press and Information Office issued regular bulletins about foreign workers, replete with statistics and figures that provided economic justification of the program.8 Popular news magazines such as Der Spiegel also started to publish sporadic articles on the labor recruitment and guest workers.9 Nor do I mean to suggest that ideological struggle and contest began only in the mid-1960s. Italian recruits, for instance, founded the newspaper Corriere d’Italia for their own guest worker community a decade earlier. And from the very start, workers from multiple backgrounds commented on their day-to-day experiences in letters home, in diaries, and within their ethnic enclaves. A 1998 exhibition on the history of Turkish emigration held at the Ruhrland Museum in Essen included pages from the journal of a Metin Çaglar, documenting his arrival in Germany in December 1963.10 By the end of the 1960s, small numbers of minority writers who had come to the Federal Republic as migrants began to question the specific terms of public debate, self-consciously re-presenting the guest worker as something more than a beneficiary of the postwar economic boom or a victim of industrial capitalist exploitation. In the photograph of the one-millionth guest worker, then, we can begin to see the intersection of the three major trajectories that comprise the central themes of this book: the labor migration itself, the public discourse and debate surrounding the migration, and the emergence of a primarily Turkish minority intelligentsia dedicated (at least initially) to critiquing what could be said about guest workers.

Guest Workers in West German History

The national debate about the postwar labor migration has often treated the presence of guest workers as tangential (an issue of manpower and labor markets) rather than central to the primary concerns of the Federal Republic. In this respect, the media event around the 1964 arrival of Rodrigues served as part of a larger containment strategy to limit public discussion of guest workers to the issue of mutually beneficial economics. For precisely this reason, it has been difficult to recognize just how crucial the migration has been to the definition and disposition of West German society. Despite such efforts to contain the impacts of guest workers, I argue that the foreign labor recruitment program ultimately produced the opposite effect, a broader and much more consequential debate about the parameters of German identity and the prospect of a new multiethnic nation. Guest workers, in other words, were never marginal to the core concerns of German society. Rather, these migrants occupied a central place in the most important and enduring question of the postwar period: How would West German national identity be reconstituted after the Third Reich?

   In this sense, the postwar labor migration served as the Federal Republic’s primary route into the more heterogeneous demographic and cultural landscape we now often describe as the New Europe. In France and Great Britain, such heterogeneity was inextricably linked to the collapse of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century empires, which fed the movement of long-standing colonial subjects into the metropole. West Germany’s late twentieth-century diversity, however, did not result from its abbreviated colonial experience. Instead, it grew out of a federal response to economic crisis that targeted foreign populations with which Germans were mostly unfamiliar. The migration of guest workers after 1945 ultimately created the conditions for a major and largely unexpected social-historical transformation – a multinational, multiethnic German society.

   It is important to be clear here that the practice of employing foreign labor in Germany was by no means new. Between 1880 and 1914, the eastern agricultural regions and coal mines of the Ruhr valley relied on Poles from Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to supplement the native workforce.11 And during both world wars, Germany exploited tens of thousands of foreigners as forced labor (Fremdarbeiter) to keep industrial production going while its own men fought at the front.12 Nevertheless, there are crucial distinctions between these earlier uses of foreign labor and the post-1945 guest worker recruitment. Poles entering Germany as seasonal workers during the 1880s, for instance, had specific historical and cultural ties to Prussian Poles, who possessed German citizenship as a result of the Polish partitions at the end of the eighteenth century.13 By contrast, no group of guest workers in the Federal Republic had long-standing connections to Germany. And at least one major group was perceived as a qualitatively different population: Turks came from a country outside of Europe, practiced a non-Christian religion, and possessed a non-European ethnicity. As far back as the early modern period, in fact, Turks had been understood as the primary social and cultural Other that served to define and consolidate Europe as a historical whole.14 Furthermore, unlike Fremdarbeiter, culled from foreigners already in Germany such as Polish seasonal laborers (in the case of World War I) or enemies and prisoners of war (in the case of World War II) and compelled against their will to work, postwar Gastarbeiter (guest workers) came to the Federal Republic voluntarily, with employment and residence permits, under the protection of bilateral recruitment treaties.15 These crucial differences, along with the fact that the post-1945 importation of guest workers took place in a country where the preceding regime had attempted to eradicate its minorities, produced a unique situation in which the development of a multiethnic society seemed particularly improbable.

   This book explores the postwar labor migration and its consequences over a thirty-five-year period, concluding with German reunification in 1990. It is a history that includes a number of crucial milestones. The first and most obvious came in 1955, when the Federal Republic formalized its program of importing foreign workers by signing a labor recruitment treaty with Italy. This agreement set out the legal parameters and procedures for West German employers hiring Italians and became the model for subsequent treaties with other southern European nations. It initially offered work permits for one year, establishing an expectation that foreign laborers would be sojourners. At this point, the central concern of government and business leaders was to keep the economic miracle going, which led them, in turn, to advocate recruitment unequivocally, emphasizing labor statistics and productivity levels in their public presentation of the program.

   Another important turning point was the 1973 oil crisis and the economic recession it provoked. In response to rising unemployment, the Federal Republic halted the labor recruitment program and encouraged guest workers to go back to their countries of origin. Efforts to reduce the numbers of foreigners, however, inadvertently produced a net increase in alien residents. Faced with the prospect of restricted access to Germany, many foreign laborers – especially Turks – applied for visas so their families could join them. During the same period, migrant intellectuals, such as the Turkish-German poet Aras Ören, began to enter the national debate about guest workers, publishing texts in German that challenged the predominant stereotypes and assumptions about foreign laborers.

   A third pivotal moment occurred in the late 1970s. It was at this time that West Germany first acknowledged the continuing presence of over two million foreigners and initiated a formal policy of “integration.” This new era of self-conscious integration witnessed a number of important developments involving demographics and representation. The federal government’s policy shift reframed the guest worker question as a vital domestic concern, rather than merely a problem of economics or labor, and spurred a growing public interest in the lives of guest workers. Such an orientation helped create a market for so-called Ausländerliteratur (foreigner literature), a genre which German academics originally constructed and promoted as a tool for integration. By the middle of the decade, moreover, Turks had replaced Italians as the largest group of foreign settlers, a trend triggered in part by the establishment of the European Economic Community. The EEC’s policy of granting citizens of member states reciprocal labor rights meant that Italians (and eventually Spaniards and Portuguese) could work in the Federal Republic without special permits and thus come and go quite easily. Turks, by contrast, were reluctant to leave, fearing that they might not be able to return. This demographic pattern, coupled with the government’s new emphasis on integration, produced a kind of misremembering of the labor migration’s early history. The multinational character of the guest worker population increasingly receded as the somewhat more alien cultural and religious practices of Muslim Turks took center stage in policy debates and public discussions.16 It was around this moment, too, that migrant artists such as the author Saliha Scheinhardt and film maker Tevfik Başer began to focus their texts more squarely on women and gender relations, inadvertently fueling doubts about the capacity of Turks to adapt. In all of these respects, the advent of self-conscious integration policies produced fundamental tensions around the long-term impacts of migrants on a society that continued to describe itself as a “nonimmigration country.”

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

1. Aras Oren and the 'guest worker' question; 2. Minor(ity) literature and the discourse of integration; 3. Gender and incommensurable cultural difference; 4. Towards a German multiculturalism.

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"The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the Federal Republic’s history and acquainting themselves with longstanding debates over migration and German national identity." -Phil Triadafilopoulos, German Politics and Society

"For decades now, Turks and other “foreigners” have had a ubiquitous presence in German society. And yet, these populations have rarely figured into narratives of postwar Germany as such or conceptions of German identity. Rita Chin, in her superb The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany, seeks to change all" - Jeremy Varon, Central European History

"The book is valuable for those interested in post-1945 German and European history generally, contemporary literature, labor policy, and cultural integration." -Choice

"In this intelligent and well-written book, Rita Chin analyzes the public discourse surrounding the so-called guest worker question in postwar West Germany from the start of the official recruitment program in 1955 to the present." -Frank Biess, Journal of Modern History

"This is a timely and eloquent exploration of what is surely the most debated issue about German society, culture, and identity today: the increasing reality of a multicultural society." -Diethelm Prowe, The Historian

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