Turkish Germans in the Federal Republic of Germany: Immigration, Space, and Belonging, 1961-1990
The decades following the end of the Second World War proved a particularly dynamic period of migration across the globe, and the Federal Republic of Germany, through its postwar labor recruitment programs and relatively liberal asylum policy, became the home of millions of immigrants in the latter half of the twentieth century. Through the introduction of a guest worker program, the West German government sought to rebuild and improve its economy, while avoiding the creation of long-term immigrant communities. When the FRG extended the guest worker program to Turkey in 1961, Turkish workers soon grew to constitute the largest national group of foreign workers in the country.
Many of these Turkish workers extended their employment in West Germany, brought over their families or married and formed new families, and settled into residential neighborhoods, forming multigenerational ethnic communities. This development flew in the face of the FRG’s and Turkish government’s original intentions, and necessitated both Western German and Turkish communities acknowledging the “other” as their neighbor. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the increasingly visible Muslim populations in West German cities shifted attention and concern to their religious differences, further stoking the debate over the meaning of immigrant integration.
Focusing on the ethnically-mixed Wedding neighborhood of Sprengelkiez in Berlin, Turkish Germans in the Federal Republic of Germany: Immigration, Space, and Belonging, 1961-1990 explores the history of Turkish immigrants and their children from the early days of their participation in the postwar guest worker program to the formation of multigenerational communities. Both German and Turkish sources help to uncover how the first and second generations created spaces of belonging for themselves within and alongside West German society, while also highlighting the factors that influenced that process, from individual agency and community dynamics to larger institutional factors such as educational policy and city redevelopment projects. Studying interactions at the workplace, in the home, in the neighborhood, at school, and in places of worship, reveals that spatial belonging was profoundly linked to local-level daily life and experiences.
Within each chapter, I trace how particular spaces developed over time, often starting with the influences and activities of the first generation, and then exploring how those sites changed in response to the increasing participation of the second generation. In the case of Sprengelkiez, the growth and diversification of the Turkish-German community led to the creation of new spaces that ranged from increasingly homogenous socializing to cross-cultural engagement. In the late 1980s, for example, West Berlin’s city government turned its attention to Wedding, aiming to continue its program of redevelopment (Sanierung) in the district’s more run-down neighborhoods. When their neighborhood fell under the city’s gaze, several residents, alarmed at the scale of the plans for demolition, reached out to their neighbors — both Germans and immigrants — and launched a forum for collective action against it. The first generation Turkish immigrants who took part played an important role in the physical reshaping of their neighborhood, and forged ties to their neighbors based on shared interests and experiences.
The neighborhood as a space served as a rich site for Turkish-German youth in terms of gender expectations and cross-cultural engagement as well. A small group of German women with backgrounds in education decided in the early 1980s to open a community center, the Sparrladen, in Sprengelkiez with the goal of providing a space where immigrant children could learn the language and social skills necessary for success in school and society. Initially, the center’s founders planned on a German-language-only environment with equal participation from the German and immigrant children of the neighborhood. However, the Turkish parents, to the founders’ bemusement and occasional frustration, began to consider the Sparrladen “their center,” and Turkish regularly mixed with the German spoken there. Young Turkish-German women, in particular, utilized the center as a place in which they could create their own space of belonging apart from the gender expectations of their Turkish neighbors and, to an extent, the cultural assumptions of their German neighbors. Gendered assumptions about the propensity for trouble-making, however, prompted the Sparrladen’s founders to not make similar space available for young Turkish-German men.
Turkish Germans in the Federal Republic of Germany shows how critical historical developments can be and are made by seemingly normal or powerless people in the course of their daily lives. While West German politicians argued about immigration policy and minority cultural elites posited new ways of understanding identity in an increasingly multicultural society, working-class Turkish immigrants and their children were making their homes and religious spaces and remaking their workplaces, schools and neighborhoods to fit their needs. Those interactions not only shaped the growing Turkish-German community, it ultimately worked to reshape postwar German history.
Sarah Thomsen Vierra, Turkish Germans in the Federal Republic of Germany: Immigration, Space, and Belonging, 1961-1990, Cambridge University Press 2018.
About the author
Sarah Thomsen Vierra teaches history for New England College of Henniker, New Hampshire. She received her doctorate in European history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and was granted the Fritz Stern Dissertation Prize by the Max Weber Foundation’s German Historical Institute Washington in 2012. In addition, she has contributed chapters on West Berlin’s Turkish community, the influence of the Cold War on the guest worker program, and migration in modern German history more broadly to edited volumes. Her research interests include migration, ethnic and religious minorities in European society, and everyday history.
Citation: Sarah Thomsen Vierra, Turkish Germans in the Federal Republic of Germany: Immigration, Space and Belonging 1961-1990, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.03.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18161.