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

Turkish immigrants have been coming to Germany since the 1960s, but for many years Germans assumed the "guest workers" would return home one day. The country's refusal to face up to the reality and the lack of a proper immigration policy led to today's integration problems.

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.

By , Andrea Brandt and


If only things had gone as well for others as they did for Ismail Tipi. He was 13 and didn't speak a word of German when, in 1972, he stood, nervous and miserable, in the main train station in Munich after arriving from Turkey. He missed his friends, the sea near his hometown of Izmir and his grandparents, who had raised him for the last four years.

Tipi is just one of millions of Turkish immigrants in Germany, and yet his story is unique nonetheless. After he had spent five years attending school in Turkey, his parents brought him to Germany to live with them in the southern city of Regensburg, where his father had been working for electronics giant Siemens since 1968.

Today Tipi is a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and a representative in the Hesse state parliament. He is also an active member of the volunteer fire department and serves as the integration official for the local sports club. He is actively involved in his town's historical association and in a group that does fundraising for his daughter's high school.

Failures and Misunderstandings

If the lives of a significant portion of Turkish immigrants were even remotely similar to that of Ismail Tipi, no one in Germany today would be discussing the integration problems of Turks and Muslims or Thilo Sarrazin's bizarre theories on the genetic makeup of various ethnic groups. But it is precisely the roughly 3 million Turkish immigrants living in Germany who, according to studies by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, are less effectively integrated on average than other immigrant groups. They are more likely than others to be poorly educated, underpaid and unemployed.

Anyone seeking to fathom the reasons for these discrepancies will uncover a decades-long history of failures, misunderstandings and missed opportunities, shortsighted political strategies and a recurring and stubborn tendency to ignore reality. "Germany has only had an intensive integration policy for about 10 years," says Rauf Ceylan, an expert on immigration and religion.

Ismail Tipi, the CDU politician, believes that both Turks and Germans have been fooling themselves for far too long. "It was an illusion to believe that we were all just guest workers and would eventually go back to Turkey."

'At the Prime of Their Labor Capacity'

The illusion began on Oct. 30, 1961, with the signing of a labor recruitment agreement between West Germany and Turkey. Similar agreements already existed with Italy, Greece and Spain, but the West German economy was booming and the demand for labor seemed endless. After receiving vaccinations and passing a medical fitness test, hundreds of thousands of Turks boarded special trains in Ankara and Istanbul and were taken to Germany. The workers arrived in Munich and were then distributed among the country's industrial zones.

The government and the economy were ecstatic over the Turkish guest workers, who were "between 18 and 45, at the prime of their labor capacity," boosted tax revenues and social security contributions and made a "substantial contribution to increasing production levels."

Thus, it came as no surprise that Josef Stingl, the then-president of the Federal Labor Agency, was practically euphoric when, in November 1969, he greeted the 1-millionth "guest worker from the southeastern European region" at Munich's main train station. The 24-year-old Turk from Konya in central Anatolia was given a television set before being shipped off to a factory in Mainz near Frankfurt, and Stingl used the opportunity to announce that Germany needed many more like him to maintain its course of strong economic growth.

German companies were mainly interested in semi-skilled or unskilled laborers for poorly paid, unpopular jobs on assembly lines and in shift work. Poor, remote regions of Turkey were the preferred recruitment areas. At the time, no one in Germany cared much about the fact that many of the new arrivals could hardly read or write, making it difficult for them to participate in German society. The guest workers were expected to live together in newly built dormitories near the factories where they worked, and return to their native countries after working for a few years.

Delaying the Return

But none of this was effectively regulated. A "rotation clause" intended to limit a foreign worker's initial stay in Germany to two years was removed from the German-Turkish treaty in 1964, partly as a result of pressure from German industry, which was loath to pay the costs of constantly training new workers. Besides, the Turkish immigrants had proven to be reliable workers who made fewer demands than their German counterparts but were no less productive, according to a 1966 report by the Confederation of German Employers' Associations (BDA).

Many Turks repeatedly delayed returning home. The economic and political situation was uncertain in Turkey, a country plagued by a series of military coups. Still, almost all of the workers assumed that they would eventually leave Germany and return to their families, says Tipi. "Some of our friends kept their packed suitcases under the bed or on top of a closet for 10 or 15 years, so that they could leave at a moment's notice." Many Turks worked in factories that employed interpreters, making learning German seem unnecessary.

Tipi's parents, on the other hand, moved out of the Siemens dormitory early on so that they could live among Germans in a Regensburg suburb. When they brought their son Ismail to Germany in 1972, his father immediately enrolled him in a local football club, hoping that he would learn the language as quickly as possible by playing football with the neighborhood children. "My father used to say: Wherever you make your living, that's your home," recalls Tipi. Because of his parents' efforts, Tipi enjoyed an enormous advantage over other Turkish children his age, who attended school in classes made up primarily of children of other Turkish immigrants.

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