At home: Turkish Germans relax in a park in Berlin in 1975 © Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

Turkish Germans are finally finding their voice

Sixty years after Germany opened up a temporary guest-worker programme for Turks the younger generation is still struggling to find its place
March 30, 2021

Scores of young Turkish men in sober suits move towards the train that will take them to Germany, while their wives and mothers cry on the platform. A few days earlier, these hopefuls had been bare-chested as their teeth and bodies were checked by German doctors to ensure they were strong enough for the physical work awaiting them. Those that pass the test feel immense pride: “I am Ylmaz Atalay from Çorum!” announces one, gazing wide-eyed into the camera in footage originally shot by Turkish state television. 

Atalay was among the first Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, to leave a poor part of Turkey for West Germany’s booming post-war economy and a better life. The deal signed in 1961 by Ankara and Bonn sparked an enormous migration between two countries that shared little in terms of culture, religion or prosperity. It changed not only the workers’ lives, but also the nature of their new country. By the end of the first year, 5,623 Turkish workers lived in Germany. When the scheme officially ended, in 1973, there were 900,000. Now the Turkish-German community, comprising the original migrants and their descendants (about half of whom are German citizens) numbers nearly three million, constituting the biggest minority group in the country.

Most of those original migrants spent their working lives in low-paid, backbreaking jobs on assembly lines and building sites, as well as in mines. Their descendants include global successes, such as Game of Thrones actress Sibel Kekilli and World Cup-winning footballer Mesut Özil as well as—most recently—the Covid-19 vaccine creators, the married couple Uur ahin and Özlem Türeci (whose parents were doctors) of BioNTech. 

But while such figures conjure up an immigrant rags-to-riches story, the truth for most is less romantic. As the 60th anniversary of the Turkish Gastarbeiter programme approaches, the younger generation is struggling to find its proper place. In 2021, Turkish Germans are still among the least integrated, least educated in the country. At the same time, the effects of German xenophobia remain pervasive. Many young Turkish Germans are angry that even after three generations, they don’t appear to fully belong.

During the 2015 migrant crisis, Chancellor Angela Merkel famously chose to “open the gates” to mostly Muslim Syrian refugees. Yet five years before, in 2010, she had taken a very different tack, pronouncing the failure of German multiculturalism—in which Turkish Germans provided the single biggest element of diversity.

Was she right the first time? And if so, who is to blame? With hindsight, the seeds of today’s problems were sown in those early days of the Gastarbeiter—compounded by decades of short-sighted strategies and misconceptions.

The Gastarbeiter were never meant to stay. In the 1950s, West Germany invited Italian, Greek and Spanish guest workers to feed the engine of its voracious post-war economy. When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the net was cast wider to make up for the loss of cheap East German workers. Turkey had no particular affinity with Germany, but the latter was a rare country that the Ottoman Empire had not gone to war with in the previous 150 years. Germans had bankrolled and built railways in Anatolia. The two countries were allies in the First World War and Ankara stayed neutral in the second. Turkey had willing workers and high unemployment, so a deal was struck—and with it came the beginnings, for Turks, of German upward mobility.

In theory, each worker was hired for a specific job for a maximum of two years. In practice, employers soon tired of the inconvenience of rehiring and retraining more Turks, so the limit was dropped. Later on, family reunions were permitted and wives and children joined their husbands.

In spite of these changes, the transience inherent in the original scheme had consequences. The guest workers were not taught German or other skills needed to integrate and thrive. At the time, neither side thought this mattered much. The workers mostly settled in crowded hostels in industrial hubs and rarely socialised with outsiders. Their children, who as the years went by were increasingly German-born, nonetheless studied in Turkish schools in Germany, with the aim of returning back “home” one day.

For some, it was like a gap-year adventure. Nazire Severson, now 69, left a civil service job in Mardin, southeast Turkey, when she was 21, applying on a whim with her sister. Before the journey, they received from Turkish officials organising their transport a bag with sandwiches, a banana, a pair of jeans and instructions on how to use German toilets. “Arriving with no German [in 1973] we had no idea how to get to our factory,” she tells me. “We got lost. Eventually a Turkish man put us on a train. We cried all the way. We hadn’t set foot outside Mardin before,” she says, laughing at the memory. “The scary-looking Meister in the factory set tough targets. I found it easy, but my sister kept fainting.” Severson made watches and packaged chocolates in factories, sold insurance and worked for a furniture brand, as well as Siemens and Bosch. She went dancing with Yugoslav and Greek colleagues and taught herself German. Once, between jobs, she slept in Stuttgart train station. Her sister went back, but Severson stayed for a further 20 years before returning to Turkey. 

It was always a utilitarian exchange: a 1973 BBC documentary described Gastarbeiter as “industrial raw material.” For its part, Turkey hoped its workforce would send money home to help its ailing economy, and eventually bring useful skills. Workers saved to prepare for a comfortable life in Turkey. The ultimate ambition was to go back in a Mercedes.

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Uur ahin (left) and Özlem Türeci, co-founders of BioNTech, are a Turkish-German success story © Felix Schmitt / Focus / eyevine

After the 1973 oil crisis, which badly affected German heavy industry, Berlin closed the programme to new arrivals—but was surprised when the existing Turks didn’t go home. There was no mystery. Turkey had recently been blighted by a series of coups, ethnic unrest and economic disappointment. Indeed, the migration continued in a new form, as a stream of Turkish dissidents including leftist and Kurdish refugees began seeking asylum in Germany. As it became clear that the “guests” would become a permanent part of the nation’s landscape, an anti-foreigner movement—a taboo in a country ruined by racist nationalism only a generation earlier—began to emerge. “The German government did not know what to do. It was a political sensation,” historian Ulrich Herbert of Freiburg University tells me.

Poorly educated Turkish migrants were primed for exploitation. Investigative journalist Günter Wallraff spent two years in disguise as an unqualified Turkish worker. German society was shocked by his 1985 bestseller Ganz Unten (translated into English as Lowest of the Low), which described horrific racism and unprovoked attacks. He had earned a pittance, worked without protective equipment in dangerous environments and lived in social isolation. Wallraff found that the workers were treated like disposable tools. Some were trafficked by gangs. The book had an impact and Germans began speaking to their Turkish neighbours for the first time. 

Reunification in 1990 produced yet another wave of pressure. “There was huge chaos,” says Berlin-based sociologist Gökçe Yurdakul, author of From Guest Workers into Muslims. “East Germans needed work and West Germany had to provide factory jobs for them. Helmut Kohl’s government offered compensation to Turkish workers so they would go.” The contrast with British multiculturalism here is striking. A generation after the beginnings of mass immigration in the UK, subsidies to encourage repatriation were occasionally discussed, but only on the right-wing fringes.

Severson—who arrived under the original guest worker scheme at 21—was among the tens of thousands who left Germany at this time, along with her family. She was tempted by the 10,500 mark payment and wished to live closer to her extended family. But years of hard work had also left her with disabling back pains; many other Turkish German workers also suffered long-term health issues. 

For those who stayed, racist attacks increased. In one especially shocking case in 1993, five members of a Turkish family, including children, were killed when four neo-Nazis burned down their home in Solingen, the birthplace of Adolf Eichmann. In response to such attacks, Turkish vigilante groups were formed. Progressive mainstream politicians began championing greater rights for migrants, but Germany did not accept that it was a “country of immigration” for many years.

After 9/11, Turkish Germans were suddenly viewed not so much as Turks but as Muslims—potential objects of fear as well as disdain, but also people who had to be “managed.” Yurdakul said that German efforts to work with and fund Muslim organisations had the unintended consequence of encouraging the less devout to become more visibly religious, so as to appear more authentic representatives of their community: “To access the funding, I know of at least two people who grew beards.” 

But if resources were thrown at “community engagement,” it was hardly enough to compensate the Turkish community for a rising mood of fear and resentment among the majority. In 2010, a Social Democratic Party politician and Bundesbank board member, Thilo Sarrazin, published a book called Deutschland Schafft Sich AbGermany Abolishes Itself. It argued that Germany’s post-war approach to immigration had been wrong, and that it now had to restrict Muslim immigration or be overwhelmed. Described to me by one of the first Turkish Germans to enter politics—the Green Party’s Özcan Mutlu—as having “opened a real Pandora’s box,” it fast became a “Bible for xenophobes.” Later it was an inspiration for Alternative für Deutschland, which was founded in 2013 principally as an anti-euro party, but soon descended into far-right chauvinism. 

“After 9/11, Turkish Germans were viewed not only as potential objects of fear, but also as people who had to be ‘managed’”

The book had such effect because it tapped into real resentment: in 2010, 30 per cent of Germans thought the country was overrun by migrants. Politicians felt like they had to respond. Which brings us to Merkel’s remark that multiculturalism had “utterly failed,” and her suggestion that Germany needed to step up its integration programme. 

The long-serving Chancellor has a curious role in Germany’s immigration story. She has personally cleaved to her Christian Democratic Party’s socially conservative instincts—for example, although she catalysed the vote that legalised gay marriage, she voted against the reform. On multiculturalism, as recently as 2013, her government’s dual citizenship reforms excluded swathes of Turks. At the same time, though, she championed immigrant forums and cross-cultural outreach. 

And then there was her groundbreaking approach to Syrian refugees, allowing in one million of them in 2015—a policy which, she told parliament, was informed by the mistakes made with Gastarbeiter. She threw open Germany’s borders with the words “wir schaffen das” (“we can do this”). Crucially, she backed integration programmes from day one. She encouraged vocational training, mandatory language lessons, fast-track work permits and financial incentives for company traineeships. Though there have been inevitable teething problems, there are also signs of hope: in this September’s general election, former law student Tareq Alaows hopes to become the first Syrian in the Bundestag.

Some battles have always been exported from Turkey—Kurds and leftists versus Turkish nationalists, secularists versus Islamists, and so on. Now the divide is pro- and anti-Erdoan: the controversial President’s embrace of Turkish Germans as potential voters has angered Berlin and damaged the minority’s image in the process. A new group of exiles arrived after Erdoan started jailing opponents, following the attempted coup in 2016. They haven’t all been welcomed by the more settled Turkish community, half of which supports Erdoan. Some dissidents say they have been threatened by locals. In December, German-born boxer Ünsal Ark was stabbed after wearing a T-shirt criticising the President.

Many Germans don’t understand why Turkish Germans, who mostly vote centre-left in Germany, back the hardline conservative in Ankara. There may be a simple answer: German Greens and Social Democrats are relatively generous to migrants, but Erdoan nurtures a mythical, welcoming motherland image that is seductive to those feeling alienated.

This alienation is starting to be properly analysed only now. Seyran Bostanc, 34, is a doctoral candidate based in Berlin whose grandparents originally came from Turkey. In a dexterous mixture of English, German and Turkish, she explains how it was only when she wrote a masters thesis on racism in education that she fully understood the discrimination she had faced at school. “My son is five. He’s already understood how the world functions—that German has positive and Turkish negative connotations. I hope he won’t struggle as I did. He has educated parents, more capital, more privilege than we did. But I despair that I still won’t be able to protect him from experiencing discrimination.”

Even for national treasures, the mood can turn sour. When Özil was photographed posing with Erdoan in 2018, German football officials attacked the supposedly conflicted loyalties of the pious Muslim who didn’t sing the national anthem properly—and who, despite being one of the most talented players of his generation, had lost form playing for Germany. Özil quit the national team, accusing the president of the football federation of racism. “I am German when we win, immigrant when we lose,” he said. When he joined Istanbul’s Fenerbahçe this year, a newspaper referred to his “return to Turkey.” Born in North Rhine-Westphalia, Özil has never previously lived in Turkey. “When the Erdoan picture happened German people said, ‘we suspected he wasn’t really ours and here’s the proof,’” said Hac-Halil Uslucan, Professor of Modern Turkish Studies and Integration at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Most Turkish German backstories include an element of “othering.” Ylmaz Atalay, the Turk proud to be moving to Germany who we met at the start of this piece, was once rejected by a landlord who didn’t want a Turk in his flat. Cem Özdemir, former Green Party co-leader, still receives death threats from the far right. Turkish names don’t help on job applications. One successful professional told me she was spat at. Another was called a cockroach. Zeynep Korkmaz Aslan, a language teacher who moved to Turkey as a teenager but has now returned to Germany, was disdained in German schools and called “snooty” in Turkish ones. Her oldest child, a top student in Turkey, was automatically placed in a low-achieving school in Germany. “Old assumptions about Turks being bad students persist,” Korkmaz Aslan told me sadly, making it harder to raise standards.

In noisy debates about integration, such voices get lost. “There is a fog of misunderstanding,” says Aydn Bayad, who is working on a new government-supported Bielefeld University study on migrant social cohesion. “Both countries are trying to make political manoeuvres around Turkish Germans, but nobody has actually sought their views.”

As the debate about migrants becomes noisy, young Turkish Germans are becoming bolshy too. Turkish rappers use the insults thrown at them in their lyrics. More sensitive to discrimination and implicit bias, a new generation is less tolerant of injustice. They join groups such as the pro-diversity, anti-racism Neue Deutsche Organisation. Uslucan says this is not a sign of failure, but success. It’s the integration paradox—the more integrated a group actually is, the more keenly it feels prejudice. “The first generation wasn’t bothered about being second-class citizens,” he says. “My parents don’t watch German TV or read the newspapers so don’t know what’s said about them. But 15-year-old Mehmet thinks he should be treated the same as Rolf or Sabine.”

The post-2016 arrivals—scientists, writers, artists, academics—have formed an instant community of educated Turkish migrants who ought to integrate fast. Can Dündar, former editor of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet who now lives in Berlin, told me he was busier than ever thanks to Germans’ interest in Turkey and Turkish Germans.

The diversity of this group—illiterate elderly migrants, workers, professionals, social elites and the left behind, Alevis, Sunnis, Kurds and Turks—has long rendered it problematic to treat them as a single undifferentiated mass, even though that is how the discussion is often framed.

Even so, “the Gastarbeiter taught Germany that being a one-way society only for blonde Germans is not the only option,” says academic Ulrich Herbert. And today, finally, the contributions of Turkish migrants are increasingly acknowledged in Germany—more varied food, entrepreneurialism, a more diverse arts scene—more, in other words, of everything humanity has to offer. As the dramatist Max Frisch wrote: “We called for workers, but people came.”