The word ‘Gastarbeiter’, as used in Germany, referred to one who was temporarily permitted to work in the country because they were of different origin, especially between the periods 1950 and 1970 (Can 73). After the Second World War, Germany faced severe labor shortage. It would allow many foreigners to top-up on the labor market as from 1950. However, Turkey’s citizens were not immediately welcome. There were many claims by the German government officials that Turkey had a different cultural background that would not merge with theirs (Can 74). After several persuasions, Germany, via a 1961 treaty, finally allowed Turkish citizens to migrate into their country. Germany even set a liaison office in Istanbul to enhance the process that would fill up for acute shortage of labor in Germany. One of the reasons for this workers’ deficit was that the Berlin wall was set between West and East Germany. As such, workers from East Germany could no longer access West German labor market. At first the Turks were neither allowed to come with their families not stay for longer than two years in a move meant to ensure they were only temporary guests (Can 91). However, the labor turnover, proving too expensive to maintain, saw the foreigners get allowed to stay more than two years, and later get the consent to come with their families. This paper discusses the issues of racial tension, identity and religion of the migrant laborers during the 1950s to 1970s with a focus on the Turks.



Based on their ‘foreign’ status, German-born Turks encountered a dilemma in terms of identity. They met with intolerance as well as prejudice (Steinberg 149). The Germans viewed them as inferiors and only gave them jobs that required unskilled labor. The locals (Germans) viewed the Turks as workers who were not supposed to mix with them. This was catalyzed by the fact that Germany did not consider itself a multi-cultural state. These workers were only supposed to assist Germany temporarily and return to their country of origin (Steinberg 150). The Turks did not have any specific identity. Early Turks had escaped from Greece to come to Germany in 1950s. The constitution of Western Thrace did not recognize such emigrants as citizens. On the other hand, Germany did not provide citizenship to foreigners, leaving the Turks in a state of quagmire.

Snapshot of Early Turks from Western Thrace

During the 1950s, Greece’s Turkish minority, especially those from Western Thrace, started to migrate to Germany (Steinberg 153). Together with other citizens from Greece, they had the intention of going back home after gathering the foreign fortunes. However, Greece, especially Western Thrace, initiated a new law, making the emigrants to stay in Germany. The legislation held that the people who had emigrated and whose ethnic origin was not Greek would cease to be its citizens. Discriminated against by this law, the Turks lost their Greek nationality. They were not accorded any hearing as there was prejudice against them. As such, having no citizenship, they remained in Germany, a ‘home’ where they experienced hostility (Steinberg 155).

The Germans on the other hand were not accommodating and only wanted the Turks in their country for economic benefit and at an arm’s length. They would not interact with them. In fact, many children born by the Turks could not speak German even after decades of residence as pointed out by Steinberg (159). Moreover, Germany did not recognize citizenship by birth if one was not of German ethnicity. As such, the Turks were left with no specific identity of their own.

Religion & Racial Tension

Steinberg (160) points out that even after the signing of the labor agreement in 1961, Germans saw the Turkish citizens as those who originated from an alien ethnic diversity. They grew in a secluded world. Routinely, they encountered mistreatment from employers as well as landlords who sidelined them on account of their nationality. They were only referred to as ‘Turkish Gastarbeiters’.

In that era, foreign laborers got employment majorly on the basis of unskilled as well as semi-skilled grounds (Peucker and Ceylan 81). The senior jobs were reserved for Germans. The subordinate jobs regarded as ‘unattractive’ were left for the Gastarbeiters. Because Germans could not mix with the foreigners, the Turks could not learn the German language or mingle with them, leading to a state of racial tension between the two groups, one as the superior one and another as the underdog who was viewed as the unfriendly alien (Peucker and Ceylan 82). Some elite Germans who knew about history associated the Turks with ‘Brothers in Arms’ in the first world war who were against German allies. However a majority of Germans did not know them beyond the status, ‘Turkish Gastarbeiters’.

As compared to racial and ethnic alienation, the aspect of Islam only emerged as a subordinate subject in discussions (Peucker and Ceylan 84). Racial tension as such took the frontline. With regards to Islam, Muslim participation as well as structures was based on the platform that these were only temporary workers; no permanent structures or establishments were therefore set up by the Turks who also viewed Germany as a temporary place as pointed out by Peucker and Ceylan 85). It should be noted that most of the Turks at this time had originated from Turkey as opposed to the early settlers from Western Thrace in Greece. These later Turks identified with Turkey as their home unlike the early immigrants who were denied citizenship in Greece.

More racial tension emanated when the ‘guest workers’ were allowed to bring their families along (Peucker and Ceylan 87). The Germans before their eyes saw the foreign ‘ethnic workers’ multiplying in their own country, creating some form of phobia that has lasted to the present times. In fact, Turkish children as well as adolescents were viewed as problematic (Peucker and Ceylan 82).

In essence, before 1970, the Germans did not recognize Islam as much as currently. On the other hand, the Turks were only temporary residents and stayed in work barracks, not establishing their religion permanently in Germany. Due to this, any attempt to bring up such issues was meant with fierce revolt from the German government and German society at large (Peucker and Ceylan 87). It was only after 1970 Islamic revolutions that permanent Islamic establishments were anchored. However, the Germans, taking stance against multiculturalism, brought about the racial tension status that is still evident in present-day Germany.


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