The Turkish soul of Germany

Post-war West Germany, geared towards economic take-off, suffered from labor shortages for factories eager to operate at full capacity. The federal government therefore devised a plan to import for a limited time to foreign workers, who would be known as gastarbeiter (guest workers). Thousands of men and women of various nationalities have arrived under different bilateral agreements, among them also Spaniards, but the group which, due to its current number, has a deeper imprint on German society is that of the Turks.

Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of the Germany-Turkey agreement of October 30, 1961, which, “in the interest of the systematic recruitment of Turkish workers for the Federal Republic” (this is how the text of the agreement begins), led to the fact that they currently live in this country 2.8 million people of Turkish origin. It is a deep, complex, difficult link, full of chiaroscuro, over which racism and discrimination still hang, but which has contributed to the economic development of the country and the diversity of its society, in addition to having provided stories personal successes.

First generation. Sevim Basalan and Coskun Tas at the Ford plant in Cologne, where they both worked, next to a 1960s Ford Taunus

María-Paz López / Clean

Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, the scientific couple behind the BioNTech/Pfizer anti-covid vaccine, are the children of Turkish immigrants, as is political ecologist Cem Özdemir, who in 1994 became the first member of the Bundestag of Turkish origin, and who now rings for minister in the next coalition government. All three are between 54 and 56 years old and belong to the second generation, born in Germany or arriving in early childhood.

Most of the Turks were employed in the mines of the Ruhr area and in the factories of North Rhine-Westphalia. Sevim Basalan, a 76-year-old pensioner, was 24 when in 1969 she embarked on a three-day trip on a rickety chartered train – the toilets weren’t working, so she avoided eating and drinking – Istanbul to Munich until working as guest seamstress . “I thought Germany was like Cologne, where my sister and brother were already working, but I was sent to a town near Ravensburg; I worked there for a year and it was hard to be alone,” Basalan told a small group of German and foreign journalists.


Serap Güler, 41, of the second generation of Turks in Germany, is in the Bundestag

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We are in the Ford car factory in Cologne, the first to employ Turkish workers, and where the young seamstress was hired in 1970 for the car upholstery department. “I met my brothers like that in Cologne, there were a lot of compatriots here, then I got married and never considered going back to Turkey,” says Basalan, mother of three daughters born in the Rhine town. .

Ford’s factory assembly lines were then running non-stop. In the 1960s, they produced, among other things, the Ford Taunus FK 1000 model. formerly also a Ford employee. in the sales department. Taş did not come as gastarbeiter In the strict sense. “I was already playing in Turkey, I was even in the national team, and I came to Germany alone, because through a sports journalist from Cologne I contacted the president of Cologne and I knew that ‘there could be a place for me,’ he explains.

Sevim Basalan, dressed in the traditional way and her head covered with a headscarf, swears and perjures that she never had a problem wearing a veil. Coskun Tas assures that he was never discriminated against until, as a footballer, his team’s board of directors did not field him in the final because he was not German. “I felt stuck inside, not wanting to train anymore; I decided that football in Germany was over for me,” he says, still injured.

In 1961, 60 years ago, the FRG signed the Turkish “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) agreement

Both say they are satisfied with their life in Germany, but studies, documents and interviews indicate that many other Turks have heavy experiences. In 1985, the book spread (Far below, published in Spain with the title Scapegoat ), by journalist Günter Wallraff, caused a sensation in Germany. Four million copies of this shocking report on discrimination and abuse have been sold in the German-speaking world to
the one Wallraff disguised himself with a mustache and dark contact lenses becoming the Turkish Ali. He worked like that for two years in terrible jobs.

“Social advancement exists, and more people of Turkish origin now have a secondary or higher education, but problems of discrimination persist; our studies show that eight out of ten respondents of Turkish origin say they experience exclusion at least once a year,” says Caner Aver, 46, a professor at the Center for Turkish Studies and Research on Integration (ZfTI) from the University of Duisburg – Essen, and himself the son of Turkish immigrants.


Blogger Merve Kayikci, 27, is Gastarbeiter’s third-generation granddaughter

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Aver, a social democrat member of the city council of the Rhine town of Essen, recalls that “even today, many children of Turkish origin find it difficult to get their teachers to sign the recommendation required to go to the Gymnasium”. German secondary education has several levels, with the Gymnasium being the highest.

Ugur Sahin, the architect of the anti-covid vaccine, obtained this recommendation as a child thanks to the intercession of a German neighbor, but not the politician Cem Özdemir, who was only able to access a higher diploma at the adulthood through another school route. Among the second generation, they cite the luck of having had a Deutsche Oma (German grandmother) nearby, as they call this kind figure – grandfather, neighbor, teacher – who defended children at school or corrected homework. But not everyone was lucky enough to come across someone like that.

Much of the ethnic Turkish community has thrived, but there are still instances of racism and exclusion

“The first generation worked very hard, many now say proudly: ‘I didn’t miss a single day because of sick leave’; it’s sad and unfair, because what happened is that even if they were sick, they would continue to work”, laments Serap Güler, Christian Democrat CDU deputy, during a rally at the civic center Ehrenfeld in Cologne. “Most thought that one day they would return to Turkey, but in the end very few did,” recalls this 41-year-old parliamentarian, whose father worked in the mine. In 1973, the FRG government banned new hires, and between 1980 and 1983 it created financial incentives for these workers to return to Turkey; German unemployment had risen.

The descendants of gastarbeiter Turks are increasingly raising their voices to claim that their grandparents or parents worked hard and contributed to the general prosperity of Germany, and of course no one gave them anything. In 1990, in a garage in Essen, a group of Turks began to collect objects and testimonies, and from these archives was born the future Domid Migration Museum in Cologne. Redevelopment work on the industrial warehouse that will house it will begin in 2023 and the museum will open in 2025.


Photos of three generations of Turkish men in Germany, in the archives of the future DOMID migration museum in Cologne, October 7, 2021

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“My grandparents never told me what their hopes were, my parents did; I was then the only student with an immigrant background at the Gymnasium, I did not feel in my place,” says blogger Merve Kayikci, 27, from the third generation. “Sometimes I wonder if I should go to another country; I spent some time studying in Denmark and there they saw me as German, no more, not here”, continues Kayikci, who wears a headgear but says he considers that “one can be a good Muslim without wearing of sailing”.

On the religious question, the Center for Turkish Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen has found in its research that the observance of the Muslim faith remains stable across generations. And he also detected that the emotional bond with Turkey is very intense, even in grandchildren, who often only know Turkey by hearsay or on vacation.

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But this is combined with a relatively general feeling of belonging to the German. “On October 3, we celebrated, as every year, the day of German unity to celebrate reunification”, explains MP Serap Güler. Well, for me, it is more important to celebrate October 30, when the agreement with Turkey was signed, because that is the origin that people like me can celebrate on October 3.

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‘Gastarbeiter’ of other nationalities

The 1961 agreement between West Germany and Turkey to bring gastarbeiter Turks to German Factories was modeled on the first such agreement, signed on December 20, 1955, with Italy to supply Italian workers to the German economy. Germany signed more similar bilateral agreements with other countries: in 1960 with Spain and Greece, in 1963 with Morocco, in 1964 with Portugal, in 1965 with Tunisia and in 1968 with Yugoslavia then still existing.

Strike by 'Gastarbeiter' of various nationalities at the Ford factory in Cologne in 1973, in a photo from the archives of the future DOMID Migration Museum

Strike by ‘Gastarbeiter’ of various nationalities at the Ford factory in Cologne in 1973, in a photo from the archives of the future DOMID Migration Museum


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