Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrived in Berlin on Tuesday to join the 50th anniversary commemorations of the labor pact that brought hundreds of thousands of Turks to then-West Germany to power its post-war industrial boom.
The Turkish-German deal, signed on Oct. 30 1961, was particularly significant for West Berlin, which just two months earlier found itself encircled by a wall built by East Germany's Communist authorities to prevent its citizens from slipping to freedom through the western half.
On Wednesday Chancellor Angela Merkel and Erdoğan will meet some of the first “gastarbeiter,” or guest workers, who made the long trip north to Germany, and who, contrary to expectations, stayed in the country. Today, the community numbers some 3 million, about a third of who have German citizenship.
The commemoration comes after a wealth of smaller festivals and events that have seen Germany saying an unprecedented thank you to its migrant laborers and that have brought home the realities of the hardships many suffered. “German citizens with Turkish roots play a crucial role in forging strong and friendly ties between the two countries,” Erdoğan said before departing for Berlin from Ankara's Esenboğa Airport.
Turks who arrived as guest workers and their families now play a key role in all areas of German life, he added.
One of those who came to Berlin from a suburb of İstanbul was Ferit Güçlü (75). He travelled overland to Munich and then flew on to West Berlin in 1962. “I had no idea beforehand that Berlin was divided. I was so shocked at how damaged the buildings were after World War II, everything was so broken. There was also all the barbed wire between east and west,” said Güçlü.
The first barricades, which went up secretly overnight, suddenly deprived West Berlin of thousands of workers who had commuted from the East, creating an urgent need for labor. Berlin had 284 Turkish inhabitants in 1961. Today it has 176,000 people with Turkish roots.
“The Turkish community is the biggest migrant group in Germany. … For the young Federal Republic they were very different in their culture and religion and that is why they didn't assimilate in the same way as guest workers from Spain or Portugal for example,” said Dirk Halm of the Centre for Turkish Studies and Integration Research in Essen.
Erdoğan has in the past sparked controversy with his messages to the Turkish community in Germany. During a visit in February Erdoğan addressed 10,000 members of the Turkish community in Duesseldorf and blasted what he saw as persistent European xenophobia. “Turks in Germany should integrate but not assimilate to the point where they abandon their native culture,” he said.
“I don't know what Chancellor Merkel thinks about Erdoğan's trip, but I don't think she is particularly delighted,” Turkish journalist Ertuğrul Özkök wrote in a column in well-known Germany daily Bild on Tuesday. “Erdoğan's last trip left was like a psychological ‘scorched earth' policy. He came and presented himself to a stadium full of Turks as if he was their chancellor and spoke about assimilation, that cannot have left good memories behind for Merkel, and these are still fresh,” he added.
Turkish and German officials are also expected to discuss Turkey's stalled bid to join the European Union, with the impasse having intensified after a spat over gas drilling rights around Greek Cyprus. Brussels said in a report last month that Ankara has made no progress in the last year towards fulfilling EU membership criteria. Ankara says it faces unfair treatment and the French and German governments are fundamentally opposed to its membership.
Turkey's EU bid is not the only thorny issue. Erdoğan caused uproar in Germany when he suggested last month that German foundations were indirectly funding the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), considered a terrorist organization by the EU.
Turkish Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek quipped a few days ago that there were twice as many members of the PKK and another terrorist organization in Germany as there were in the Kandil Mountains, the mountain range that lies between Turkey and Iraq from where the PKK has mounted deadly attacks on Turkey.