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Looking Back at German-Italian Relations

A new exhibition in Germany takes a nostalgic look at the two-way surge of Italian migrant workers to Germany in the 1950s and sun-starved Germans to bella Italia in an era that came before the current transalpine rift.


Sun, fun and beautiful women -- Germans headed for Italy's sunny beaches in droves as far back as the 1950s.

German Chancellor Schröder may have cancelled his vacation to the sunny Adriatic coast in a huff, but he could still head to the west German mining town of Bochum for a touch of Mediterranean flair. Maybe even some reassurance that the current row with his Italian neighbors may be just a minor blip in otherwise robust relations.

With uncanny timing an exhibition has opened at the Zeche Hanover Museum in Bochum documenting a rather different Italian German story than the stormy one being played out on the political stage with discussions reduced to spaghetti and sauerkraut.

Under the rather unwieldy name "Naples-Bochum-Rimini: Working in Germany – Vacationing in Italy," the show takes a personal trip back to the 1950s when Germany signed a recruitment treaty in 1955 with Italy that resulted in two simultaneous migratory waves that could hardly have been more different: while Italian "guestworkers" came in droves to Germany seeking work in the industrial Ruhr region, the postwar German economic miracle had the first vacationers packing their bags and heading to Italy's sunny beaches.

Warm socks and a Vespa for Germany

With over 350 exhibits, the show documents the daily routine of Italians working in the mines, railway works and construction sites in the Ruhr region in the 1950s and presents kitschy holiday souvenirs from the first German vacations in Italy.

Museum spokesman Markus Fischer told Deutsche Welle that a large part of the exhibits stem from private collections. "We approached several Italians as well as Germans who still live in the area and they generously gave us personal items from that time such as razors and even a pair of socks lovingly knitted by an Italian mama for her son to keep him warm in the cold Ruhr region."

Ausstellung Arbeiten in Deutschland, Urlaub in Italien

Exhibition in Bochum

Other personal paraphernalia include immersion heaters bought by the Mazzarisis family to warm their cold home shortly after their arrival, a spaghetti machine that Don Cataldo carted with him over the Alps, dog-eared dictionaries and work contracts, the obligatory Vespa as well as a railway bench that was allegedly a popular haunt of the Italian migrant community.

Several fading and yellowed photographs also go back further in history and chart the long migratory tradition of Italian workers to Germany which began at the beginning of the 19th century, suffered under a period of forced labor during Nazi times in the early 1940s and then picked up again after the war as a flurry of advertising lured Italians to make a lucrative new beginning on the other side of the Alps. The Italian "guest workers" played an extremely critical role in the reconstruction of Germany after World War II.

Germans discover love for chic Italia

Meanwhile, paradise beckoned for German tourists, who were lured by colorful brochures touting Italy's virtues, romantic film posters and pop records. With increasing buying power and longer vacations, Germans flocked to Italy in droves during the 1950s. About four million Germans are estimated to have traveled to Italy in 1958 alone.

The exhibit's artifacts include glass vases, chic Italian shoes, snazzy sunglasses and entire photo albums -- all of which are designed to depict the way Germans took their vacations to Italy in Beetles and trailers.

Homesick and lonely

But it’s not just nostalgic and romantic documentation that the show deals with. The exhibition also shows the darker side of Italian migratory labor in Germany. Many workers were forced to live in cramped quarters in former army barracks, had to suffer insulting nicknames such as "Macaroni" and deal with clichés of being short-tempered and haughty.

Language problems and homesickness added to their misery with the result that there was hardly any contact between the Germans and Italians -- at least not in the beginning. The show also includes newspaper cuttings from the time that complained about the isolation of the southerners. "After work they are strangers. Italian guestworkers seek love and understanding," the daily Ruhr Nachrichten wrote in 1962.

Exhibition enjoys wide attention

Fischer said the last bit of the exhibition, titled "What Remains?," includes interviews conducted with both Germans and Italians in the Ruhr region to find out how their lives had turned out and encompasses biographies that couldn't be much different in terms of experience.

"What's left are plenty of human relationship, but also many Italian clichés that the advertising industry effectively exploits as well as many German stereotypes that still work the same way they did then," one of the exhibit's curators, Anke Asfur, told a German newspaper.

It isn't hard to find some truth in Asfur's observation, especially in light of the anti-German tirades of Italian ministers in recent days, in particular tourism minister Stefani’s derogatory comments about German tourists as "hypernationlistic blondes" that eventually led to the German chancellor scrapping his summer vacation to Italy.

A hotline and hate mail

The show’s organizers said they were pleased with the unexpected attention their exhibition has attracted and have even set up a hotline where people can phone in to vent their feelings about the current diplomatic row.

Fischer said they were also receiving an avalanche of E-mails from visitors, which ran the gamut from "apoplectic rage over the comments to exasperation at the chancellor’s stance." "But many are also moderate in their views," Fischer said. "But I do hope the exhibition will help to finally bring the spiraling row back to earth."

The exhibition, "Naples-Bochum-Rimini: Working in Germany – Vacationing in Italy," is on at the Zeche Hanover Museum in Bochum from July 12 to October 26, 2003.

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