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Coal mining as a melting pot

December 21, 2018

There have always been people from many different countries working together in Germany's mining sector. But integration in the coal mining sector didn't go smoothly right off the bat.

Group of miners from the Prosper-Haniel mine near Bottrop
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Heyder

In mining, it doesn't matter where you're from, what color your skin is or which god you pray to. That's what the miners in the Ruhr, the big mining region in western Germany, say. After all, you're hundreds of meters underground, where it's pitch black except for the weak glow of the pit lamps and coal dust makes every man look the same.

There's no room for ego trips. Everyone needs to be able to rely on each other. If one miner makes a mistake, it can have deadly consequences for another.

It is partly because of this feeling of solidarity that the integration of people from abroad in Germany worked better underground than it did on the surface. But the process was still not without initial mistakes.

Read more: How Germany's coal phaseout is becoming an international movement

Still from the film 'Das Wunder von Lengede' ('The Miracle of Lenged')
Miners have to be able to rely on one another down the pitImage: picture-alliance/United Archives/S. Pilz

Polish 'colonies' in Germany

It all began in the 1870s with the first wave of workers from abroad. After the foundation of the German Empire, the economy was on a rapid upswing. The booming heavy industry's hunger for energy needed to be fed. The Ruhr, with its seemingly inexhaustible black coal reserves, was of vital importance to the young, ambitious nation.

New, large shaft mines and ironworks were built. But the German labor market could not provide enough workers: "human resources" for the big mine barons.

The gap was filled mostly by Polish-speaking immigrants from the Prussian eastern provinces and present-day Poland.

Up to the First World War, roughly 450,000 Polish-speaking workers came to Germany. In some mines, they made up more than 60 percent of the workforce. Some cities saw the formation of what amounted to Polish-language colonies.

"The Polish workers and Polish-speaking migrants had their own association structures, their own newspaper, their own trade union, their own bank," historian Christoph Seidel of the History of the Ruhr Foundation told DW. "It was a pretty strongly closed-off world."

And entrepreneurs and politicians had no integration strategy, which was probably no coincidence: For the most part, the formation of parallel societies "was also a reaction to the government's increasingly anti-Polish policy," explained Seidel.

In addition, German miners looked down on Polish-speaking immigrants. Some parts of the Ruhr saw cultural and religious conflicts between mostly Protestant Germans and conservative Catholic immigrants.

Read moreCan Poland end its toxic relationship with coal? 

The 'age of coal' comes to an end in Germany

Return to the homeland

After the end of the First World War, most Polish-speaking immigrants moved to the newly created Polish nation-state or other European coal-mining areas. Only about a third of them remained in the Ruhr area in the 1920s. They assimilated more strongly than before and became an integral part of the Ruhr, which was increasingly shaped by immigration.

In the 1950s, the next major phase of immigration began. With the help of the Western Allies, the German "economic miracle" was created, partly among the ruins of the Second World War. The Ruhr was looking for manpower once more. In 1955, Germany began recruiting so-called "guest workers." Agreements were made with Italy, Spain and, in 1961, with Turkey. The Turks quickly developed into the strongest migrant group.

Read more: Turkish integration in Germany: A long road

Four Turkish miners
Turkish miners formed a large part of the workforce in the pitsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Schulte

Coming and staying

"It was assumed that these workers were migrant workers who would come to Germany to work in the mines for half a year or a year and then return to Turkey," according to historian Seidel.

That was why integration measures beyond the workplace were lacking.

"The migrant workers were not paid much attention in the 1960s," Seidel said.

This changed only in the 1970s, when it became clear that the supposed migrant workers had come to stay. Germany's entrepreneurs and politicians had learnt from past mistakes and changed their thinking. There were family reunifications, the introduction of permanent residence permits and the naturalization of guest workers.

The newly founded Ruhrkohle AG offered its now-indispensable foreign employees language courses, legal advice and training programs. Turkish-language company newspapers and football clubs became important factors in promoting integration.

Read more: Hambach Forest: Battleground for climate action 

Moroccan miners with white protective cream on their faces
Moroccan miners, seen here wearing protective cream, also worked in German coal minesImage: picture-alliance/H. Ducklau

Integration through housing policy

These also included a new housing policy that prevented the kind of ghettoization that had occurred with the Polish-speaking workers.

"The mining industry had abundant company housing," said Seidel. When the Turkish miners brought their families to Germany, "they needed housing where their families could live. And so Turkish miners' families were integrated into the company's own residential estates." When assigning the apartments, the owners made sure that German and Turkish tenants were mixed.

This was the first time that Turkish miners had long-term prospects in Germany. As a rule, their children received an apprenticeship at Ruhrkohle AG. They were treated like local employees, who were, however, increasingly leaving mining because they no longer saw a future in the crisis-ridden industry.

The Ruhr area had been completely transformed into a melting pot of cultures, with its very own language — a mixture of German dialects and foreign words.

When the historian Seidel gives lectures at the Ruhr University in Bochum on the subject of miners today, his students often include the grandchildren of former Turkish miners, he says.

"The tensions in society over the subject of migration since the 1970s and 1980s have also been reflected in mining," Seidel admitted.

But in general, he added, one could say that "things have gone much better in mining than in other areas, at least as far as the integration of Turkish employees into the industry is concerned."

Read more: West Germany's Yugoslavian guest workers: Come for a year, stay for a lifetime 

50 Years of Turkish Guest Workers in Germany

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