Reviewed by Claudia Koontz (Department of History, Duke University)
Published on H-German (June, 2008)
From Guests to Strangers
At the turn of the last century, Georg Simmel memorably distinguished between a "guest" (Gast) and a "stranger" (Fremdling). Unlike a guest, who comes today and leaves tomorrow, a stranger comes today and stays tomorrow. Millions of foreigners arrived in the postwar Federal Republic of Germany to meet the demand for cheap labor during the economic miracle. They were not guests because they stayed. But they could not be called Fremdarbeiter because that term carried dark connotations of slave laborers, or Zwangsarbeiter, during two world wars. They remained Gastarbeiter. Rita Chin makes this connection between economic emigration and the tainted past of wartime practices central to her account of the economic and cultural conditions that shaped the lives of Gastarbeiter in Germany and of intellectuals from "migrant backgrounds" who responded to those conditions. Gracefully written, archivally grounded, theoretically informed, and intellectually engaged, Chin's book is a model of historical scholarship
The work is also very well written. In an inspired move, Chin opens and closes her account with a motorcycle. In 1964, dignitaries from the government and trade unions gathered in the Cologne railway station to honor the one millionth guest worker to arrive in Germany with a ceremony that included giving him a motorcycle. This motorbike returns in her conclusion, when Chin describes how in the 1990s researchers traced this motorcycle to its original owner's homeland, Portugal, restored it, and included it in the museum exhibit to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Federal Republic. Between these bookends Chin constructs her narrative around four turning points. The first two were clearly demarcated: 1955, when the FRG inaugurated the labor contract process, and 1973, when the recruitment policy ended. The third change occurred with the cautious acceptance of integration in the 1970s, when as Chin puts it, "West Germany ... became a 'no immigration country' with lots of immigrants" (p. 199). During the fourth phase, beginning roughly with Helmut Kohl's election in 1982, disputes about a multi-ethnic Federal Republic flared up with new intensity, only to be submerged within the debates about German-ness that followed reunification. "What began as a policy initiative to fuel the economic miracle," she writes, "ultimately became a much broader discussion about the parameters of a distinctively German brand of multiculturalism" (p. 14). Chin folds labor migration, political alignments, debates in print media, and migrant writers' cultural production seamlessly into a narrative of German identity marked by the "foreigners" in their midst.
Chin notes several unique facets of German postwar policy toward foreign-born workers. First, she bluntly observes, the "importation of guest workers took place in a country where the preceding regime had attempted to eradicate its minorities" (p. 10). Second, from 1955 to 1990, more non-citizen residents lived in Germany than in any other western European country. Third, unlike other west European importers of labor from abroad, Germany had no pool of former colonial subjects from which it could recruit labor in the 1950s. To acquire an adequate supply of workers, the West German government negotiated labor contracts with foreign governments (Italy, Portugal, Spain, Yugoslavia, and Turkey) that set the terms for working conditions, wages, transportation, and housing.
And yet, despite these differences, Germans faced paradoxes similar to those encountered by other western Europeans. For example, the halting of immigration caused the numbers of immigrants to escalate rapidly because families wanted to reunite before the ban went into effect. As elsewhere, opposition to immigration cut across conventional political alignments. For example, in 1983, a law with a name redolent of Nazi language, the "Act to Promote the Preparedness of Foreign Workers to Return," passed with the support from all political parties (p. 198). The program offered 4,500,000 immigrants financial incentives to leave Germany; fewer than 500,000 took advantage of the promise. Chancellors Helmut Schmitt and Helmut Kohl, who disagreed on most issues, nonetheless concurred that Germany was not a nation of immigration (kein Einwanderungsland). Of course, the xenophobic Right opposed immigration, but so too did many trade unionists and liberal-leaning academics, like Hans-Ulrich Wehler. Nevertheless, committed individuals formed ecumenical and bipartisan organizations to promote immigrants' human rights and social welfare. In the Federal Republic, as in other western European settings, contrasting goals might produce similar programs. Projects to strengthen Turkish culture, for example, could be endorsed in order to prepare "Turks" to return to their "homeland," but they could also be seen as a way to enhance mutual respect among ethnic Germans, Turks, and other minorities.
Chin navigates through this complex history and concludes that the features that had made the Federal Republic look unique in the 1960s actually mean that it "now looks more and more like the rule rather than the exception" (p. 270). Because immigration policy evolved independently of a colonial heritage and in the shadow of the Holocaust, Germans eschewed race-based discourses of immigration and thought in terms of what George Frederickson terms "cultural essentialism," which currently characterizes debates about western Europe and its others. In one respect, however, Germany did remain distinct. Until 2000, naturalization depended on jus sanguinis, not jus soli, a circumstance that has contributed to the unusually high numbers of resident non-citizens in Germany. Not even second- or third-generation "Turks" who spoke only German qualified for citizenship under this rule, while Russian-speaking immigrants with German family trees received virtually instant citizenship. Although opinion polls have consistently shown Germans display less pride in their homeland than other western Europeans, nevertheless the concept of the Volk has remained the silent default in legal discourses about who really belongs and who does not.
Unlike most scholarship on Gastarbeiter, Chin's study explores not only legislation and labor policy and right-wing politics, but situates foreign workers within a broad multi-cultural context. This perspective enables her to track hostility among New Left activists and members of organized labor in mass market print media, film, and literature. (She excludes popular music and television.) Her sensitivity to gender facilitates her ability to account for shifts in public opinion and academic research about first- and second-generation "Turkish" Germans. For example, after describing progressive attempts in the early 1980s to expand the image of the Gastarbeiter beyond that of a male manual laborer by writing about women, children and families, Chin documents how quickly this impulse was eclipsed by the stereotype of immigrant women enclosed in the domestic sphere at the mercy of patriarchal fathers and husbands. The speed with which this image was adopted revealed the limits of toleration not only in mainstream media, but also among feminists and other progressives. She closely reads not only literature but film. Although she does not mention Helma Sanders's film Shirins Hochzeit (1976), Chin emphasizes the role of films like Tevfik Baser's 40 qm Deutschland (1985) and fiction like Heinrich Böll's Gruppenbild mit Dame (1972) in shaping attitudes toward Turkish immigrants (p. 173). Her readings of poetry, novels, nonfiction, and films identify themes that other scholars overlook, and her interpretation of contemporaneous critics' reception brilliantly captures the ambiguities at the core of the Gastarbeiter question. To take only one example, her discussion of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's breakthrough second film, Katzelmacher_ (1969), which uncritically depicted working-class hostility to foreigners, reveals the avant garde's ambivalence about migrants.
As she explains in her lucid introduction, Chin's inquiry crosses disciplinary lines because legal status, political positions, and cultural representations constantly transform the meanings of core terms in the Gastarbeiter discussions. Key to this realization is the insight that "[i]deological struggle [occurs] through market mechanisms" (p. 21). A small number of initiatives created openings in academic culture for German language literature written by immigrants (Ausländerliteratur); a few dozen "foreigners" devised strategies to make their voices heard to broad audiences. Acknowledging that elite intellectual life made little direct impact on the lives of ordinary Germans of Turkish origin, Chin makes a convincing case for studying integration as discourse as well as policy. Migrant elites shaped mainstream views (p. 99) when they appeared on talk shows, wrote for the mass market press, and read their works in public venues. At several points Chin calls attention to writers who use the bridge as a trope to characterize cultural initiatives to mediate between two communities. Chin conveys the excitement of intellectual life at the margins of two cultures, but she also quotes writer Zehra Çirak's comment, "Bridges are where it gets coldest" (cited on p. 222).
Artists and writers from "migrant backgrounds" balanced their individual creative impulses against their desires to be published, which meant conforming to mainstream culture consumers' curiosity about the strangers in their midst. In the 1980s, authors like poet Saliha Scheinhardt and filmmaker Tevfik Baser won audiences' attention in part because they upheld stereotypes of Gastarbeiter as clueless, alienated, and/or backward--portraits that had "potentially reactionary consequences" (p. 189). In defining a niche for themselves as "migrant" German authors, intellectuals and artists broke into the literary marketplace, but simultaneously reinforced notions of difference. The Chamisso Prize awarded to outstanding works of Ausländerliteratur epitomizes their dilemma because it represented difference within the canon of German-language literature. Chin comments, however, the "winners were part of the canon but not part of the polity" (p. 140).
How to move beyond ascribed identity and join the polity? Chin selects three individuals who mapped out very different trajectories. Çirak, a second-generation migrant, thought of herself as an assimilated cosmopolitan and wrote poetry devoid of ethnic references. Then, in 1983, a Rowohlt editor suggested that she write about her life in a foreign country. Appreciating the opportunity of breaking into the culture market place, Çirak accepted the editor's formula and was marketed as a mediator between two cultures. A very different calculation catapulted Akif Pirinçci to best-seller status. Although some of the characters in his first novel came from Turkish backgrounds, they acted just like ordinary German teenagers. Despite some critics' dismissal of Tränen sind immer das Ende (1980) as kitsch, it became a mass market hit. To underscore his refusal to serve as a role model for any minority at all, Pirinçci made the protagonist in his next novel, Francis (1993), a shrewd cat who solves a mystery with the help of his feline buddies. Chin notes that Pirinçci "both engaged in very clever self-promotion and exercised his iconoclasm as a kind of intervention in the received wisdom about what constituted German art and literature" (p. 233). Zafer Senocak, who was raised in a literary milieu and attended the University of Munich, won the Chamisso Prize for his translations and poetry. As a cultural commentator who rejects the concept of any genre defined by essentialist attributes, whether "migrant," "woman," or "foreigner" (p. 237), he reaches a wide audience of educated Germans. In many of his essays he asks all Germans to meditate on their shared history across ethnic differences. Chin's revisionist study underscores the urgency of his message.
Although this is a paradigm-shifting book, the author's voice is quiet. Rather than announcing her revisionist claims and accosting interpretations she criticizes, Chin signals her originality quietly. She calls attention to features of literary works that critics have ignored (as in the cases of Baser and Scheinhardt). Too many historians, she suggests, have read Ausländer fiction as ethnographic fact. Keenly aware of the debates about the public sphere, Chin expresses her dissent as a promise "to complicate the leading critiques of Habermas" (pp. 17-19). Having summarized conventional interpretations of the feline protagonist of Francis, she responds, "[i]t seems to me, however, that one might draw precisely the opposite conclusion" (p. 232). Discussing putative German uniqueness, she observes simply that "a number of arguments push against this portrait" (p. 270). Chin's understated originality makes her book a pleasure to read.
Chin has made a major contribution to our understanding of postwar Germans' quest for identity. Most scholars working in this area emphasize the Holocaust, the economic miracle, Ostpolitik, and/or political activism, and mention Gastarbeiter only in passing. Chin, however, casts the Gastarbeiter question as the core constitutive element of the master narratives that define Germany today: "At the most fundamental level, the struggle over what it means to be German is precisely what the guest worker question was always about" (p. 265).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Claudia Koontz. Review of Chin, Rita, The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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