Sixty years of Turkish immigration to Germany

Turkish guest workers in an emergency shelter at Volksdorfer Strasse 39 in Hamburg - Barmbek. In the foreground of the picture is a Turkish woman with an umbrella and in the background three Turks are carrying a sofa. - July 1970 (Photo by Hans G. Lehmann / ullstein bild via Getty Images)
6 min read
25 November, 2021
In-depth: Turkish workers were invited to Germany to help rebuild post-war society. Decades later, Germans of Turkish descent are the country’s largest minority and familiar faces in all walks of life, from sport and science to music and film.

The air raid bunker underneath platform 11 at Munich Central Station is a concrete basement built to protect the citizens of Munich from Allied bombing raids during World War Two.

By 1970, 25 years after Germany’s surrender, the shelter had taken on a new role: a processing hall for the thousands of foreign workers brought from Southern Europe and North Africa to keep the machinery of West Germany running as its post-war economy boomed.

On 30 October 1961, the Recruitment Agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and Turkey was signed, an agreement that changed the face of Germany. Following Italy, Spain, and Greece, Turkey was the fourth country to sign such a deal, allowing its young, single, male workers to stay in Germany for up to two years, get trained in manual jobs and, theoretically, return home with new skills. 

Workers arrived at Munich Station before being sent onwards to cities like Mainz, Cologne, and Frankfurt with their newly signed contracts as painters or factory and construction workers. 

"On 30 October 1961, the Recruitment Agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and Turkey was signed, an agreement that changed the face of Germany"

“Istanbul is such a beautiful city,” Adalet Günel remembered in 2011, 40 years after she arrived at Munich train station as a worker from Turkey. “But the bunker was hideous. I had expected something completely different.”

In Turkey, workers applied for the scheme at a liaison office, where they were screened by local authorities and interviewed for potential roles.  

After the 70-hour journey from Istanbul, the new arrivals were hurried into the cold, damp basement, where they were given food, a processing number and, importantly, an employment contract.

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Six years of war and a booming economy had left West Germany, and the rest of Northern Europe, with a severe labour shortage, something these new arrivals were here to counter.

Between 1961 and 1973, around 867,000 Turkish guest workers travelled to Germany, of which around 500,000 returned to Turkey. Decades later, with over 2.75 million people, Germans of Turkish descent are the country’s largest and most visible minority, familiar faces in all walks of German life, from sport and science to music and film.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier looked back on 60 years of Turkish immigration at a ceremony in Berlin last month. “We needed them,” he said to the crowd at Bellevue Palace. “And the country owes them a great deal.”

In-depth Matt
A wildcat strike at Cologne's Ford factory in 1973 by Turkish labourers to protest poor working conditions. [Getty]

'Guest workers'

The Turks disembarking at Munich Central Station were expected to stay in Germany for no longer than two years, a limitation authorities hoped would prevent them from settling permanently. 

Because of the temporary nature of their stay, Germans called them Gastarbeiter, or guest workers. The term had roots in the later years of the Nazi period, when foreign civilians were employed in the regime’s war economy, such as Italians who worked in munitions factories.

By the 1970s, sociologists began to criticise the tag “guest worker”. In 1972, the public radio station WDR held a competition to find a more suitable word and received more than 32,000 entrants.  

Because they were not expected to make a life in Germany, Turkish workers were rarely taught German or encouraged to integrate, often staying in dormitories with their countrymen with little contact with Germans. Lacking the local language, integration into wider society was often impossible.

“One day, after I got home from work, there were two new courses: a German course and a Turkish sewing course,” said Ayşe, an 80-year-old interviewed for a film called Gleis 11, which celebrates the first wave of workers. “I hurried to the sewing course. It was a mistake that follows me today. Why didn’t I choose German? Maybe we wouldn’t have become so dependent on others.” 

"Because they were not expected to make a life in Germany, Turkish workers were rarely taught German or encouraged to integrate"

Even today, across Germany, many essential administrative tasks can only be done in German, leaving many immigrants dependent on bilingual neighbours, friends, and contacts.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were migrant-only classrooms, where children were often held back from the best schools. In Germany, students are separated according to their perceived ability.

Uğur Şahin, the Istanbul-born son of Turkish immigrants and co-founder of BioNTech, which developed one of the first Covid-19 vaccines, was recommended to attend a vocational school (where students are prepped for manual jobs) by his primary school teacher.

He was only sent to a higher-ranking Gymnasium, which prepares students for university studies, after a German neighbour protested.

In-depth Matt
In the town of Solingen, Germany on the night of 28th May 1993, four German youths set fire to the home of a Turkish family, killing five, including three children. [Getty]

This legacy of inequality in education remains. Students with at least one parent without German citizenship are less likely to attend university. 

In 1964, Germany scrapped the two-year limit for workers, as it was deemed too costly and time-consuming to constantly rehire and train replacement workers. Years later, family reunification visas allowed workers to bring their families to Germany, further boosting Turkish immigration.

"The influence and acceptance of Germany's Turkish community is growing, but it's the frequent target of far-right attacks"

Household names 

Germans of Turkish descent remain the country’s most visible minority group. The country spends billions of euros every year on döner kebabs, a Turkish invention and one of Germany’s favourite street foods.

Footballers like İlkay Gündoğan, Emre Can, and Mesut Özil are global names, while rappers of Turkish descent, such as Haftbefehl, Gringo, and Ufo361, rank among Germany’s most popular hip-hop artists. In September, 18 politicians of Turkish descent were elected to federal seats, while actors and TV presenters with Turkish roots grace German screens every night.

Many are the children of workers who arrived between 1961 and 1973, including Bülent Gürler, a prominent house DJ best known as Butch. His father was a worker at an Opel car factory near Mainz and died, Gürler says, of cancer caused by poisonous chemicals they used.

“The way I grew up was different,” Gürler told The New Arab. “At the time, my mum couldn’t speak German, because [she] expected to go back to Turkey. And I was the only Turk in my class.” 

Immigration from Turkey, especially out of its rural south, also rapidly increased the prevalence of Islam in Germany, which, after France, has Western Europe’s largest population of Muslims. An estimated 70 per cent of Germany’s 5.3–5.6 million Muslims have a Turkish background. There are now at least 3,000 mosques in Germany and dozens of Turkish Islamic associations.

The influence and acceptance of Germany’s Turkish community is growing, but it’s the frequent target of far-right attacks. Between 2000 and 2007, the NSU white supremacist cell murdered eight men of Turkish descent.

"Germans of Turkish descent are the country's largest and most visible minority, familiar faces in all walks of German life, from sport and science to music and film"

A gunman also murdered four Turkish-Germans in a far-right attack in Hanau that killed ten people last year. German media frequently uses the term parallelgesellschaft, or parallel society, to describe the Turkish community, which by now is well into its third and fourth generations.

“I feel at home here,” said Osman, an 86-year-old who appeared in the Gleis 11 film and came to work in Essen in 1963.

“In Turkey, I’m also a foreigner. I hardly know anyone there outside of my generation. When we’re in Turkey, they say I’m German. And here, I could have ten German passports and I’ll always be a foreigner. But that doesn’t bother me.”

Matt Unicomb is a news and culture journalist based in Berlin, where he's currently the online editor of Exberliner

Follow him on Twitter: @MattUnicomb