It all started 50 years ago today, when the Berlin Wall was still being built to physically split a divided Germany. The western part, deprived of the eastern labor force, needed workers to achieve what was commonly called an “economic miracle.”
Turkey was available to offer what the Germans needed: cheap labor. On Oct. 30, 1961, a labor migration agreement was signed by Turkey and Germany in the Western German capital of Bonn. About 2,500 Turkish citizens took up the chance to work in Germany at first. They were called “Gastarbeiter,” a term meaning guest worker, and they were expected to return after their service was completed. “We wanted a labor force, but human beings came,” Swiss writer Max Frisch once said while describing his country’s immigration story, but his words fit the situation of the Turks in Germany as well. After 1961, Turkish workers began to start lives Germany, bringing their families from Turkey.
Since the beginning of the journey with 2,500 workers 50 years ago, the number of people of Turkish descent has grown to exceed 2.5 million in Germany today. Up until recent decades, most considered them just foreigners living in Germany. Only in 2005 did Germany acknowledge being an immigrant country with a new law on its immigrants.
While the first generation of Turks in Germany, who mostly arrived from then-underdeveloped Anatolian towns, faced hardship in integrating into a different society with a different culture and language, the later generations who were born into the culture and learned the language had to confront a different challenge: recognition as equal citizens in the country where they were born and raised.
“We, the first generation, had much difficulty -- even in finding food,” says Erol Reis. It was not poverty that brought Reis, a former football player, to Germany; it was his young soul looking for adventure. He came to Germany in 1969, following a friend who signed up on a list of youths heading to Germany for work.
“They checked us [for health conditions] in Taksim. Even if people were missing one tooth, they first fixed it and came for the examination. We got X-rays taken,” he says, adding: “They immediately accepted my application. We, 56 people, came with an examination. We were qualified workers. Many unqualified people also came.”
Like thousands of fellow Turkish citizens, he worked at Ford in the German city of Cologne.
“There were many Turks at Ford. There were 65,000 people when I first arrived and more than 40,000 of those were Turks in the 1970s,” he says.
People from Turkey were not the only foreign workers in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. However, according to Reis, they differed from other foreign workers in terms of their desire to keep their lifestyles and spirit of enterprise. “Until we came here, there was not even a place to worship, let alone a mosque. When Turks came, places of worship and mosques also came. Before us, people from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were here,” he explained.
The first generation of what were called guest workers did not leave Germany. Instead they began to bring their own culture to Europe and their families came with them in later decades.
Businessman Şaban Çıtlak’s journey in Germany started in 1974 with a bit of dishonesty. Çıtlak’s uncle brought him to Germany, claiming the boy was his son, but their lie only survived for four years before some friends from the same Anatolian village informed the German authorities about the falsehood after a fight between them.
Since he had to change his ID card, he was called to fulfill his military service in Turkey again. “I had done my military service with the previous ID, but we fixed this, too. I didn’t have to go to the military a second time,” he said.
Çıtlak is an entrepreneur smart enough to turn the liabilities of being an immigrant into an asset and started his own company to return the bodies of deceased people to their homeland. His service includes taking the bodies and sending them to wherever they will be buried in accordance with the person’s faith. However, he did not come up with the idea himself. A friend of Çıtlak’s once struggled for 10 days to transfer his father’s body to Turkey and afterwards decided to start a business in Berlin to transport bodies. His friend’s business was closed when he passed away and Çıtlak decided to open a new one in Berlin called Vatan Cenaze (Vatan Funeral Company). He travels to Turkey once a year to visit his family.
Thinking that integration has been achieved is ridiculous’
The status of later generations born in Germany remains a hot debate, although half a century has passed since the Turkish workers moved to the country. Union of German-Turkish Jurists Chairman Korkmaz Özman points out that immigrants do not occupy high-level posts in German state institutions in Berlin.
Özman, a lawyer who graduated from Berlin’s Freie University, is the youngest of four. He says they were all born in Germany and received a university education. The constant exemplification of troubled immigrants’ stories when Germany’s immigrant societies are in question makes him uncomfortable. “When you talk about integration, you only show the bad examples. The good ones are never shown. I cannot accept that. There are hundreds of university graduates of Turkish descent, but they are not employed,” he says.
Özman applied to nearly 400 high-level posts in state institutions in Germany but was never invited for an interview. He was later accepted to a lower post, but he is now seeking to start his own business.
“They act like the third generation of Turks do not study, but that is not the case. Turkish parents want their children to succeed. The third generation speaks German very well,” he added.
Rising profile of Turkish immigrants
While their parents came to Germany from İstanbul’s Sirkeci train station with nothing but a bag of luggage 50 years ago, later generations of Turkish immigrants are leaving their mark on German society. After boarding the train in search of a job in Germany in 1961, Turks are now also giving out jobs. The number of Turkish employers has risen to 70,000 since 1961 and they provide employment for 360,000 people.
Politicians of Turkish descent affect the politics of Germany, while Turkish immigrants also shape cultural life in the country. These influential people include Cem Özdemir, co-leader of Germany’s Green Party; Bilkay Öney, the Baden-Württemberg integration minister; internationally renowned moviemaker Fatih Akın; and author Feridun Zaimoğlu, to name a few.