Turkish Immigration to Germany A Sorry History of Self-Deception and Wasted Opportunities

By , Andrea Brandt and

Two young Muslim women walk by a pub in the Berlin neighborhood of Neukoelln draped in a German flag during the 2010 soccer World Cup: A lack of a proper immigration policy in Germany in the past led to today's problems with integration.
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Two young Muslim women walk by a pub in the Berlin neighborhood of Neukoelln draped in a German flag during the 2010 soccer World Cup: A lack of a proper immigration policy in Germany in the past led to today's problems with integration.

Part 2: The Rise of Immigrant Neighborhoods


Politicians tolerated but did not endorse or support such integration efforts. On the contrary, when the oil crisis threatened to stall the economy in 1973, the guest workers were suddenly seen as an economic burden. Then-Chancellor Willy Brandt's coalition government of center-left Social Democrats and liberal Free Democrats enacted a moratorium on the recruitment of guest workers, which, paradoxically, led to an increase in the numbers of foreign immigrants.

Fearing that life in Turkey would be not what they expected if they went home, and that they would never be able to return to Germany, many Turks decided to stay and, to be on the safe side, brought their families to their adopted country. But because they needed more space, the Turks began moving out of the dormitories and into cheap apartments in neighborhoods near the factories, which the Germans gradually vacated. This led to the rise of immigrant neighborhoods like Marxloh in the western city of Duisburg and Neukölln in Berlin, which are now seen as the strongholds of so-called parallel societies.

By the mid-1970s, says Freiburg-based contemporary historian Ulrich Herbert, there was a conspicuous "trend toward permanent residence" and, along with it, toward "the transformation of guest workers into immigrants." But according to Herbert, German politicians reacted either wth helplessness or by proposing contradictory plans. For example, while foreigners already in the country were to be "integrated," the official policy until the late 1990s was to "promote the desire to return home," at times by offering the guest workers monetary rewards of up to 10,500 deutschmarks (€5,400).

A Generation of Bilingual Illiterates

Many schools introduced supplementary lessons in Turkish, not to promote bilingualism but to prepare the children for a future life in Turkey. An "unconditional integration into the German school system" was not desired. The result, says Herbert, was a generation of "bilingual illiterates" who were fluent in neither the language of their parents nor that of their German fellow students. Their employment prospects were slim.

As German industry modernized and companies began demanding better qualified workers, the drawbacks of the practice of recruiting Turks largely from the uneducated classes became increasingly apparent. These "black Turks," as they are called by the elites in Istanbul and Ankara, are also popularly viewed in Turkey's major cities as unsophisticated, conservative and deeply religious.

While pious immigrants from Anatolia and their offspring shaped the image of Turks in Germany, countries with a more far-sighted immigration policy, like the United States, brought in well-trained specialists. In Britain, for example, Turks are considered well integrated. "They adapt to the British lifestyle, are generally very fluent in English, are involved in local politics and practice a moderate form of Islam," says Sara Silvestri, a social scientist at the University of Cambridge.

Xenophobic Rhetoric

The Germans, on the other hand, were increasingly at odds with their Turkish immigrants. Their presence, and that of a large number of asylum seekers, triggered an ongoing political debate that fluctuated between the Green Party's demands for a multicultural society and a "right of residence for all" and the crudely xenophobic rhetoric of large segments of the CDU. "The foreigners' return to their native countries must be the rule and not the exception," Alfred Degger, the then-head of the CDU in the state of Hesse, said in 1982. In Degger's view, it was "not immoral to demand that what is left of Germany be reserved mainly for the Germans." Manfred Kanther, interior minister in the cabinet of then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, expressed similar views in the 1990s.

The dispute came to a head in early 1999 when Roland Koch, the head of the CDU in Hesse at the time, campaigned against dual citizenship during the run-up to a state election, while voters lined up at CDU campaign booths to "sign petitions against the foreigners."

Today, more than a decade later, integration policy has more supporters across party lines. Armin Laschet, a CDU politician in the western city of Aachen, was one of the first conservatives to advocate a non-ideological commitment to immigration, and in 2005 he became the state of North Rhine-Westphalia's integration minister, the first such post throughout Germany. "The discovery of integration policy marks the end of a decades-long collective denial of reality," says Laschet today.

Symbol of Integration

In 2006, then-Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble sounded out the prospects of Islamic religious instruction during a conference he held on Islam, and even Roland Koch, the governor of Hesse until recently, introduced German classes in his state for preschool children from immigrant families.

Some experts derive a sense of optimism from a completely different segment of society. Religious studies professor Rauf Ceylan, for example, is pinning his hopes on Mesut Özil, a young footballer of Turkish descent who played on the German national team at this year's soccer World Cup and became a favorite of the fans. Such images, says Ceylan, "are at least as important in promoting integration as all of our academic and political ideas put together."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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