Multicultural Germany Class: Week 2, Socialist Friends – Part 2

This post is part of a series in which students reflect on their discussions in the UC Berkeley undergraduate seminar “Multicultural Germany.” This week two students have written summaries of the past week’s sessions. This is the second post, written by Julia Schroeder: 

Just last week a Coca-Cola Super Bowl advertisement ignited an ongoing online debate regarding America’s multicultural image. In the advertisement the song “America the Beautiful” is sung in seven different languages, a tribute to America’s multiculturalism and diversity. America prides itself on being the melting pot and although some old-school Americans have not come to terms with this there is no denying that we are a country of immigrants, a country of equality and a country of freedom. Our identity as Americans is defined by many cultures, not just one. The idea of the American Dream has spread to other nations and continues to draw in millions of immigrants. Germany, on the other hand, had never been known as being a country of immigrants until it started the guest-worker program in the 1950s. The concepts of national belonging and identity, which are brought up in the debate about the Coca-Cola advertisement are also important when analyzing the status of immigrant workers in Germany.

Germany’s division in 1949 was not only a major catalyst for the guest worker program in both the east and the west, but also a time in which the migrant workers’ identity was redefined. East Germany was losing millions of its citizens to the west, making it especially important for East Germany to recruit migrant workers. East Germany made a point to differentiate their immigration policies from those of the west. Under the Socialist Unity Party (SED), in an effort to promote international solidarity, the guest workers were referred to as “socialist friends,” which they found less capitalist driven and exploitive. The east wanted to display their emphasis on human rights and took in North Koreans, North Vietnamese, Mozambicans and Cubans. In the east the workers were treated as equals and actively integrated by the Germans. The emphasis on solidarity was clearly practiced in the east whereas in the west it was less of a priority. In the early 1970s the press began to report on the Vietnamese guest workers and depicted them as ambassadors, who resided in the east’s “outpost for peace.”

In the article “What Status Do Foreign Workers Have Here” a DDR magazine directly compares the easts workers situation to that of the west. The west is described as “forcing to sell their labor power on the cheap… dependent…often fired without notice and deported” (1972). The article continuously calls the workers “friends” of the east and concentrates on the respect offered to the Hungarians and Poles in the socialist society.  In the article “How Do Foreign Workers Live in the GDR” a Vietnamese account says, “We feel at home.” However, it is important to take both sides into account when analyzing primary documents and to critically question the content. Who published the piece? What are the motives? What is the historical context? We must ask ourselves these questions in order to help us define what it meant and what is means today to be German. To put things in perspective we can ask ourselves what does it mean to be American after viewing the Coca-Cola commercial. Has Germany followed the United States approach and become a melting pot?

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