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Germany's other forgotten workers

DW's Erkan Arikan
Erkan Arikan
November 10, 2019

30 years on, we know not everyone gained from German reunification. Easterners were not the only ones who felt they lost out — the "guest workers" of the former West should also be counted among them, says Erkan Arikan.

Turkish guest workers in an auto factory in Cologne, Germany in 1964
Image: picture-alliance/CPA Media Co. Ltd

Thursday, November 9, 1989. I turned on the Berlin television news just after 7.30pm, out of habit. When the host announced the incredible news that the Berlin Wall was coming down, like so many others I was overwhelmed by a feeling of joy and relief.

As a child of guest workers, I had spent my childhood near Bernauer Strasse in the Berlin district of Wedding. I grew up with the Wall. In the mid-1970s, neighbors had told me about their families forced to live on the other side of it. Their stories are still etched on my memory.

So it was only natural that, in the late evening of that November 9, I went with my friends to my childhood street, Bernauer Strasse, to be part of this historic moment. All night we cheered the people crossing the border into West Berlin. They were wonderful, unforgettable moments. To this day, recalling them brings tears to my eyes.

Guest workers' integration shelved

Starting in the mid-1980s, (West) Germany put a lot of effort into integration. Language courses and sports clubs helped guarantee that people learnt German and integrated into German society. I'd even like to claim that many "guest worker children," like myself, had the opportunity to move out of ethnic minority neighborhoods in metropolitan areas and become what people like to call models of successful integration.

Read more: Turkish guest workers transformed German society

It should not, however, be underestimated that there were also many people who had sweated blood simply in order to achieve a modicum of success within these parallel societies. Some children of guest workers even succeeded in making a career in national politics, like the Social Democrat Leyla Onur, the first Bundestag member with a Turkish background, or the Green party's longtime chair, Cem Özdemir.

As I see it, though, 1990 brought a shift. The whole of Germany was suddenly completely focused on what it referred to as the "new federal states." Guest workers of Turkish origin, who had been right at the top of the integration scale, suddenly lost their status after the fall of the Wall. The government was doing all it could to ensure that the "green pastures" then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl had promised became reality, including the introduction of the "solidarity tax" to help promote the regions of the former East.

DW's Erkan Arikan
Erkan Arikan leads DW's Turkish deskImage: DW/B. Scheid

We "foreigners" paid it, too. We still do. Guest workers of all backgrounds played a significant part in turning Germany into the major power it is today. But what happened then? How were the guest workers treated? Suddenly, almost overnight, they were declared to be "migrants," and told it was up to them to make something of themselves. As far as integration was concerned, the support they had previously received gave way to a series of demands.

We are always being told that many people, not just in the east but also in the west, feel left behind. This is very true. Many of them hoped that German reunification would bring better times for them personally, and they were disappointed. People in both the east and the west fell by the wayside. And many of them were migrants, who were abandoned during the unification process. My impression is that the integration of guest workers was simply shelved. Voters in the former East who were now supposed to have a better life were suddenly more important than the integration of people with foreign roots into this new, united German society.

Read more: 30 years later, Germans divided on unity legacy

Meaningful integration a long way off

There has been a great deal of philosophizing about what would have happened to the former guest workers, and to today's migrants, if the Wall hadn't fallen. Can I even imagine such a thing today? Do I want to imagine it? Yes — we're allowed to speculate about this as well. If the integration of people with foreign backgrounds had continued in the same way at the end of the 1980s, we might well now be in a similar situation to those the Netherlands, Belgium or France.

Those countries recognized early on that guest workers were no longer guests; they wanted to, and should be able to, put down roots and become part of mainstream society. Perhaps if we had done this, we would now have cabinet ministers with names like Öztürk, Al-Omari, or Kovac. German stock index companies would have members on their supervisory boards not only from Austria or Switzerland, but with Iranian, Syrian, or Turkish roots. Perhaps we would even have a state-run broadcaster run by a director from a Maghreb country. Or a chancellor of Turkish descent who, after 50 or 60 years of separation, would be the one to seek German reunification.

All speculation. We will never know. What we do know is this: For decades after the Berlin Wall fell, the German government essentially put on ice all efforts at integrating those from and with roots outside German borders. And that is something that should never have happened.