Multicultural Germany Class: Week 1, Guest Workers

This post is the first in a series that will give weekly summaries of the discussions taking place in the UC Berkeley undergraduate seminar “Multicultural Germany.” Each week’s discussions will be summarized by a different student in the course; this week’s post is by Sara Sellami:

1955 marks the year West Germany started the guest worker program. It was created through a contract signed by the German Minister of Foreign Affairs and his Italian counterpart in which Italy agreed to send workers to West Germany. The reason for the agreement was the high demand for workers in Germany; the unemployment rate was very low due to what was called the Economic Miracle (Wirtschaftswunder), a boom in the German economy after WWII. One of the reasons for this boom was the huge US investment put into Germany in 1947 through the Marshall Plan. US money was given to Western European countries, including West Germany, to help them recover from the war and to prevent communism from spreading to them. Another factor explaining the need for a bigger workforce was the increase in birth control use, which contributed to the decrease of the German birth rate after the post-war baby boom.

Italy, however, could not provide enough workers, and other contracts were signed in the 1960s with Spain, Greece, Turkey, Portugal, Tunisia, Morocco and Yugoslavia. An article published in the Spiegel on April 24th, 1960, reports that workers were brought in through recruitment offices where they underwent a medical examination and were asked questions about their jobs and qualifications. The interstate contract was obviously biased towards West Germany, so why would Italian or Turkish workers agree to go through this process and work in another country away from their families? It turns out that workers were allowed to send home all the money they earned. All the countries that signed the contract were poorer than West Germany, and foreign workers had a higher income there than in their homelands.

The history of guest workers is well represented in the German movie Almanya – Welcome to Germany. This comedy from 2011 and directed by Yasemin Şamdereli focuses on the story of a German-Turkish family, the head of which, an old man named Hüseyin, is a former guest worker. The story revolves around the family’s vacation in Turkey. The present is intertwined with the family’s past as Canan, Hüseyin’s granddaughter, decides to narrate her grandfather’s personal story as the one million and first guest worker. The strong point of the movie is its depiction of the family’s story and how it is linked to Germany’s history. It appeals to the collective memory by taking materials from archives and integrating them into the family’s photo-album. The film also aims to connect with a wide audience of Germans and Turkish-Germans, and this goal is achieved by the clever use of languages. In Canan’s narration, Turkish is replaced by German, so that her little cousin Cenk can understand everything, and German is replaced by plain gibberish. It creates what Brecht called an alienation effect: German people can hence experience what guest workers felt and acquire a critical distance from their own prejudice.

It clearly appears that Germany is now much more aware of the situation of its foreign workers than before. The change in the terms used to talk about foreign workers is proof of this. Before and during the Third Reich, the term Fremdarbeiter (literally “foreign worker”) was used; during the Nazi period it referred to forced foreign workers. After WWII, the term Gastarbeiter (guest worker) replaced Fremdarbeiter. However, as German newspapers later pointed out, these workers were not actually treated as guests. Today, ausländische Arbeitnehmer is the politically correct phrase used to refer to foreign employees. This interesting change of terms emphasizes the change in attitudes towards migrant workers in Germany, and perhaps the country is now starting to embrace immigration as part of its history.


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