“Made in Germany: Identity and Memory” by Jung Woo Park

Last Tuesday, we had the opportunity to watch the film Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland, a German comedy film about a former Turkish guest worker. The film was very interesting, not only because it deftly wove comedy into the history of the Guest Worker Program, but also because it reminded me of another film about a Korean guest worker in Germany, Ode to My Father. Although the two films seem very similar in content, a closer look into the films reveals a significant difference in focus between the two. Almanya focuses more on the identity of the Turkish guest worker in Germany because the Turkish workers had difficulties integrating themselves into German society. On the other hand, Ode to My Father focuses more on the memory of the guest workers’ sacrificial labor for Korea because their labor helped the nation recover from its traumatic devastation of the Korean War.

Almanya begins with the words, “I have the ‘economic miracle’ to thank for being ‘made in Germany” as Hüseyin’s granddaughter explains how Hüseyin came to Germany. While Hüseyin is having financial difficulties supporting his family of five in Turkey, he comes across a newspaper article that said Germany was looking for workers. Hearing that someone was able to earn money by working in Germany, Hüseyin leaves for Germany as a guest worker. Soon after he returns to Turkey, Hüseyin feels the need to take his whole family to Germany. Yet, when Hüseyin sees that his children quickly adopt German culture, Hüseyin becomes concerned that they would lose their Turkish identity. In response, Hüseyin takes them to Turkey for summer, and even when the children have become much older, Hüseyin insists the whole family to take a trip to their summerhouse in Turkey.

Watching Almanya reminded me of the film Ode to My Father. Like Almanya, this Korean film follows the life of Duk-soo who also goes to Germany as a guest worker. After losing his father during the Korean War, Duk-soo has to support his mother and two siblings. When his brother gets accepted to the most prestigious university in Korea, Duk-soo struggles to find a way to earn more money for his brother. When his friend shows him a newspaper article that there are opportunities to work as miners in Germany, Duk-soo leaves for West Germany, where he works hard in the mines and sends most of his money to his family back in Korea. Despite the difficult work, numerous injuries, and dangerous working condition, Duk-soo endures the hardship to fulfill his promise to his father – to take good care of his family.

Clearly, these two films – Almanya and Ode to My Father — are similar. The protagonists in both films saw the advertisement for the guest worker program in newspapers. Both went to Germany as guest workers, and both were motivated by financial needs to support their families. Moreover, both films follow a similar pattern of tracing the life and experiences of the guest workers as they are told to their descendants.

Despite the evident similarities, a crucial difference in focus distinguishes the two films. Almanya seemed to focus largely on the issue of identity. While Hüseyin clearly sees working and living in Germany as beneficial to his family, he constantly fears that they might lose their Turkish identity. Hüseyin tries hard to remind his family, if not himself, of their Turkish identity by taking trips to Turkey and buying a summerhouse in Turkey. When his wife applies for German citizenship and passports, he has a nightmare in which he is required to abandon his own culture and “become German” through ridiculous means such as promising to eat pork. Hüseyin’s grandson also struggles with his identity between being Turkish and German, exemplifying the struggle of identity not only for the Turkish guest workers themselves but also for their descendants. On the other hand, Ode to My Father seems to focus mainly on the memory of the guest workers in Germany. The film opens with Duk-soo’s granddaughter asking him, “What does ‘memory’ mean?” Ode to My Father also emphasizes the difficulties that Duk-soo had to go through in order to support his family back in Korea, highlighting the memory of the sacrifice of Korean guest workers to Germany.

This significant difference in focus seems to stem from the different experiences of the Turkish guest workers and Korean guest workers to Germany. For Turkish workers, immigration and identity were a major concern because many Turkish guest workers wanted to stay in Germany, but Germany did not plan to integrate them.[1] Even until the beginning of the 1990s – nearly 40 years after the signing of recruitment agreements between Germany and Turkey, Germany expected the guest workers to return to their countries. Prominent leaders of Germany such as Chancellor Helmut Kohl emphasized that Germany is not a land of immigration, and government policies encouraged guest workers to return to their country by offering cash. It was not until the beginning of the new millennium that German politicians finally began to accept the immigrants as evidenced by their policies to offer language training and citizenship to children of guest workers born in Germany. Throughout the years, the Turkish population — the largest minority in Germany – has faced many difficulties integrating into German society and has had to deal/grapple with the question of identity.

While the issue of identity was crucial the Turks who wanted integration into German society, the issue of memory was central for Koreans. At the beginning of the 1950s, Korea experienced a brutal war when Soviet-backed North Korea attacked the pro-Western Republic of South Korea. The ensuing three years lead to many deaths, division of many families, and the devastation of the economy. After the war, South Korea tried hard to revitalize its devastated economy and sought help from many foreign countries. The President of South Korea Park Chung Hee made an agreement with West Germany to send guest workers in return for a loan that would allow Park to rebuild the economy. Many Koreans felt indebted and thankful for the Korean guest workers who not only volunteered to work in difficult and dangerous mines but also sent almost of all of their money back to Korea. When Park visited Germany, he made an emotional speech expressing deep gratitude to the Korean guest workers who had to endure harsh labor “because Korea is so impoverished” and encouraged them to continue doing their “part to end poverty in Korea so that the next generation doesn’t experience what we are going through now.”[2] For Koreans, the memory is still strong today. The current President of Korea Park Geun Hye delivered a speech and a letter thanking the Korean guest workers for their sacrifice, highlighting their contribution to the Korean economy.[3]

The difference in focus is evident in the titles of the films themselves. The word Almanya means “Germany” in Turkish. Just as the word Almanya means Germany but is still a Turkish word, Turkish guest workers in Germany struggled with the issue of identity between being Turkish and German because it took a long time for them to integrate into the German society. On the other hand, just as the title Ode to my Father refers to the eulogy of Duk-soo who went as a Korean guest worker in memory of his promise to his father, it is also a tribute of the current generation in Korea to their fathers’ generation in memory of their sacrifice that allowed Korea to recover economically. However different their experiences and circumstances may be, both Turkish identity and Korean memory have the Guest Worker Program to thank for being “made in Germany.”

[1] James Angelos, “What Integration Means for Germany’s Guest Workers: The Debate Over Multiculturalism Alienates the Immigrants Germany Needs Most,” Foreign Affairs, 28 Oct 2011, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/europe/2011-10-28/what-integration-means-germanys-guest-workers (Links to an external site.)

[2] Kang Hyun-kyung, “When Park Spoke, Everyone Cried,” The Korea Times, 8 Dec 2013, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2013/12/116_147609.html (Links to an external site.)

[3] Woo Kyung Im, “The Guest Workers who went to Germany as miners shed tears as they gaze toward their mother country,” Donga Ilbo, 6 Oct 2015, http://news.donga.com/3/all/20151006/74016636/1 (Links to an external site.)

  • Jung Woo Park


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