Germany's Second Doubts About Its Turkish Immigrants

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Mr. Erlich was formerly an HNN intern. He is pursuing a Masters degree at the BMW Center for German and European Studies, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

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At the beginning of his class, Herr Michna makes it clear that it was a big mistake on Germany’s part to bring so many guestworkers (Gastarbeiter) from Turkey, and the question now is how to best fix the mistake. Michna begins by showing his students pictures of radical Islam from the front pages of several popular German magazines and newspapers. He mentions September 11th and the recent death of Theo Van Gogh. The problem of immigrants as Herr Michna frames it is existential in nature: either integrate the immigrants in society or face death by radical Islam.

An employee with the Social Ministry of the State of Hessen, with the confusingly German title of Leiter des Referats Zuwanderungspolitik und Landesausländerbeauftragter, Herr Michna picked me up from my office to attend his university class on German immigration politics he teaches for future state employees. Fortyish, with a receding hairline, although without a hint of grey in his hair and an observant Catholic, Herr Michna plays the part of the typical German Beamte, or state civil service employee.

Driving between the sleepy state capital of Wiesbaden and its largest city, Frankfurt am Main, I began to discuss with Herr Michna the comparative problem that we have in the United States. Conservative estimates believe that eight million illegal immigrants reside in the United States, mainly from Mexico. Herr Michna quickly retorted that the Mexicans are Catholic; the Turks, Michna continued, are Muslims. Furthermore, the Turks in Germany are not the educated elites from Ankara or Istanbul but come from the Anatolian Plain, a place that has not taken on the trappings of modernity and remains a cultural backwater. Michna explained that he had visited the Anatolian plain and witnessed life there firsthand. He could not believe that Turkey may join the EU.


Starting in the 1950s, to feed the post World War II economic miracle, Germany signed bilateral agreements with poorer Mediterranean countries to import guestworkers to fill vacant positions in the booming industrial economy. The first guestworkers came from southern European countries, mainly Italy, Croatia, Spain, and Greece. As these sources of labor dried up, the German authorities moved further afield. In the 1960s and 70s millions of Turks came to work in Germany. This Turkish population soon overtook all of the other guestworker populations and today 2,375,000 people of Turkish origin live in Germany and comprise approximately thirty percent of all those of foreign descent.

At the outset the Germans expected the Turks to leave and the Turks expected to return to Turkey. However, the political situation in Turkey was unstable and many Turks soon built a life for themselves in Germany and no longer expected to go home; children went to school and families bought property. The longer the guestworkers stayed in Germany, the more the guestworkers were treated as foreigners in their native Turkey. Furthermore, a complicated set of international agreements later backed up by the German courts decided that the Turks had a right to stay in Germany and could not be deported unless they had committed serious crimes. Until recently, however, Turkish immigrants and their German-born offspring could not acquire German citizenship.

As the German economic miracle ground to a halt in the 1980s, industrial jobs dried up and the famed German social state moved closer to the edge of bankruptcy. The Turkish population as well as other guestworker communities, not possessing the educational or linguistic skills to enter the modern economy, began to suffer extraordinarily high rates of unemployment and draw heavily on the German welfare state. Currently, the foreigner unemployment rate stands at approximately 21%, more than double the already high national average. The guestworkers' reliance on the welfare state has undoubtedly increased German antipathy toward its Turkish population, who are seen in the eyes of the German as the"typical foreigner," and has strengthened the German viewpoint that the Turks are moving away from integrating into German society, renouncing the trappings of Western life in order to create what the Germans term Parallelgesellschaft, or parallel society. Germans continually say that the problem in Germany is that you see third and fourth generation immigrants of Turkish descent still speaking Turkish on the street, something you only see in the most sealed off of American communities such as the ultra-orthodox Jews and the Amish.

Two recent threads have recently brought the long simmering immigration question Germany (which in the eyes of the Germans means the Turkish debate) to a roiling boil. First, September 11th and the recent death of Theo van Gogh, has brought the presence of militant Islam to the attention of German authorities, and many Germans have become acutely aware of the religious difference between themselves and their immigrant population. The focus on Islam has directed attention towards a spate of honor killings that has outraged a German public, which feels that Islam oppresses women and does not allow them the freedom of choice. The media, for instance, has jumped on a recent case in Wiesbaden, a sleepy town of 200,000 where, in order to defend the honor of the family, a brother shot his sister after the sister decided to marry an ethnic German. Such kind of behavior is unfortunately all too normal. At a party recently, I spoke with a doctor who fulminated against what he sees in the urban hospital where he works in Mannheim. The doctor repeatedly stated that he had lots of Turkish friends and was not a nationalist but could not abide the Turkish women he saw daily who had been beaten to a bloody pulp by overzealous husbands. Such a perspective explains the European intolerance of the headscarf. Like this doctor, many Europeans do not believe that Muslim women are exercising their right to religious freedom by donning the headscarf, rather they see it as a political symbol that signifies oppression of women by the Islamic male patriarchy, which denies these women the right to learn German and interact in society and openly condones the physical abuse of women.

Second and more importantly in relationship to German history, in 2000, the government passed a revolutionary law that allowed for jus soli, or the territorial citizenship principle. Even after reconstruction of the German state after World War II, Germany continued to grant citizenship based on the ethnic classification of someone as German in contradistinction to France, which has for most of it modern history possessed a civic notion of nationality. This differentiation has led scholars such as Rogers Brubaker to claim that Germany can only conceive of itself as an ethnic nation. Indeed, an ethnic self-conception has not been abandoned by the mainstream conservative Christian Democrats in Germany, who still often claim that Germany is not a land of immigration (kein Einwanderungsland).

Nevertheless the liberal red-green coalition passed a law which allows for both jus sanguinus and jus soli, and non-ethnic Germans can now gain citizenship through birth or long-term residence in Germany . Under the new law many Turkish guestworkers have obtained German citizenship. Even the new citizenship laws, however, have not shed the vestiges of Germany’s past, and the citizenship laws, in their overly complicated and convoluted language, represent Germany’s tortured relationship with its own self-identity and the problematic definition of what German is.

In Germany one has the sense that even integrated Turks can somehow not be German, an experience that would not have been foreign to the hundreds of thousands of Jews, who, before the Holocaust, were never made to feel quite welcome as Germans no matter how hard they tried to assimilate. A highly-educated, incredibly bright German woman of Turkish origin in her mid-forties who has live in Germany since was nine and now runs a successful program for immigrant women told me that when she was promoted to manager at a German firm, all her ethnic German colleagues would scrutinize everything she wrote to see if there was an error in the text. She continually had to prove herself because her German colleagues did not believe she was qualified for the job. When there was an error in something she wrote, her colleagues would whisper that she was not fit for the position.

The citizenship laws were a political compromise, and the price of allowing Turks and other foreigners to obtain citizenship included a much more proactive stance towards integration on the part of the government. Among other things, prospective citizens must take 650 hours of language instruction as well as demonstrate knowledge of the German constitution. Those, however, who do not wish to acquire citizenship often remain ignorant of German law. More importantly, in order for Turks to naturalize they must demonstrate that they have renounced their Turkish citizenship, and since 2000 they must sign a document stating that they will not acquire a second citizenship. If they do acquire a second citizenship, they immediately lose their German one. Before 2000, many Turks, when they renounced their Turkish citizenship, were told by the Turkish embassy that they could reacquire Turkish citizenship after they obtained their German citizenship.

The German government, in the context of highly politicized elections, however, has begun to enforce the denaturalization of those Turks who reacquired Turkish citizenship, and it is estimated that approximately 50,000 Turks have lost their German citizenship. Approximately a third of these denaturalized Germans, re-applied for Turkish citizenship when it was still legal, but the acquisition took so long that they received only after the new law had passed. This denaturalization of a minority population eerily echoes Germany’s past sins. Citizenship has always signified the equality among residents before the law. Non-citizens have always had a secondary status. As Hannah Arendt so lucidly describes in the Origins of Totalitarianism, the first thing that the Nazis did in order be able to carry out its plans for the Jewish population was to strip them of their citizenship because non-citizens do not have rights.

While non-citizens have many more rights than they once had and the German government’s actions toward the Turkish population has nothing to do with Nazi ideology and what Nazis did to Jews, stripping people of their citizenship is certainly no way to go about integrating them into society. In the German state, where the government plays a much more central role than in the United States, thousand of jobs that are unrelated to the government in the United States, require German citizenship. I listened to the story of a man who had studied to be a pharmacist in Germany; he was going to have to give up his job, because he had reacquired Turkish citizenship. Apparently, under German law, pharmacists must be German citizens. By enforcing such rules, the German government will only cause more resentment, an attitude that was palpable in one of the meetings held to inform the Turks of their situation that I attended.


Seventeen university students filed into the classroom. They looked similar to a group of students attending state university in the U.S. Most of them are in their late teens or early twenties with the necessary tattoos and piercings. Judging from their names and accents, however, none of them is of other than German origin. This is an interesting fact given that more than 50 percent of those who live in Frankfurt have immigrated their within the last several decades and do not speak German as their first language. Those, who will control the future of the immigrant populations, have very little interaction with them.

In typical German style, this three hour class has been whittled down to 45 minutes because Herr Michna must attend a conference. However, this week Herr Michna wishes to leave his students with one important fact: the third generation is the most important. In his trip across the United States, he claims that officials continually told in the third generation it’s, “Princeton or prison, Yale or jail.” What the Germans want of the Turks, however, remains unclear.

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Brooke Landrus - 12/6/2007

I've been to both Germany, Turkey and various other countries. Living in New York, I don't undertand how you can actually say that only Turkish 3rd generation and "sealed off" communities in America speak their native tongue when there are well over twenty national hispanic channels. Overhearing conversations in Manhattan, I do not hear a lot of English. My parents were born in Turkey and I enjoy going there for vacation and their complain is Germans buying land in Turkey, so this goes both ways. You cannot expect somebody to come to your country, pay them measely wages, have them live there for a lifetime and expect them to go back "home" after they become useless to you. People aren't to be discarded. Do not repeat what happened in France! Germans have had a problem with other cultures for some time now and while I respect their nationalistic attitude, I have to look down on their "I'm holier than thou" attitude. Without these workers, educated or not, Germany would not be such a string country today. Instead of sticking to the past, they should look to America for the future. Although our Hispanic immigrants are still in the lower wage bracket then caucasians, the gap is narrowing and they easily assimilate, not because they're catholic, which I might add is NOT the largest group of religion in America, but because we see them as humans and they feel welcome in America. The successful Turkish-German woman is a perfect example of why Germany will not benefit. If I was in her situation, I would pack my bags, get a nice seaside villa in Istanbul and work at a Turkish company who will appreciate me for my abilities and not discriminate. If that happened in America, a person could sue, but of course we're more civilized....All in all Germany should really wake up. Being nationalistic never got them anywhere fifty years ago so they should look at other options. I just thank God my parents chose America instead of Germany. And please tell the Herr that Germany is NOT God's gift to the world. There are a LOT of ghettos, backwards people, goats there too, such as the rest of Europe. Thanks for the article I personally thought Germans were more civilized now but I guess I was wrong. I guess I won't be buying a porsche, bring on the corvette.

sabri h Caliskan - 5/25/2007

I believe still be allright if german community put them inside instead of isolating them in poor housing complexses. Result Germany created a monster inside. They are not same people who arrived 30-40 years ago they came here for work. I am not sure even you call them as a turk anymore.

Here is the lesson from the story.
If you don't accept them they become your biggest enemy.

So, Turkey hasn't been accepted to full EU membership despite the longest waiting member, long before easter europe contries. Because of racist concerns, turks, muslims etc... Here we are Turkey is in the edge of becoming religous coutry.
I am not sure what happens 2-3 million people in Germany but Europe will be more troubled if a islamic ruled Turkey stands next with 71 million population.
Be hurry, helped Turkey before they trap in islamic nations. Don't cry later domino effect Turkey became a risk to europe instead of buffer.

Carolin Brinkmann - 8/17/2005

Comment removed at the request of the poster.