German Turks

Caught Between Two Worlds

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Turkish diaspora in Germany is caught between two political cultures as tensions between the two countries escalate.

  • Facts


    • There are around 3 million people of Turkish origin living in Germany, of which 1.4 million are eligible to vote in Turkey.
    • On April 16, Turkey is holding a referendum that would transfer massive powers from the parliament to the president.
    • A number of Turkish ministers have been prevented from holding campaign events in Germany to push for a yes vote.
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Serap Güler, a member of the center-right Christian Democrats and daughter of Turkish immigrants. Source: Frank Beer for Wirtschaftswoche

When Aziz Sariyar steps onto the stage in the Düsseldorf Congress Center, the audience expects to be bored with usual polite platitudes. It’s early March and hundreds of people who do business in the two countries have gathered together at the German-Turkish Business Forum. And that’s supposed to be the only subject today – business. But before things get started, it’s time for a round of applause for the chairman of the association, who, year after year, makes this unique network meeting possible, Aziz Sariyar.

Usually, one would expect just a few introductory sentences and that would be it. But Mr. Sariyar has something else in mind. “What unites us here isn’t the belief in a party, we stand for shared values like freedom of the press, freedom of religion and open markets.”

Now would be the moment for applause, but there is total silence. “Turkey cannot be allowed to further undermine the rule of law,” he adds. The silence becomes deafening. A couple of minutes later, Turkish Consul General Sule Gürel speaks and the mood is completely transformed. She demands Germany do something about the high degree of joblessness among Turkish youths. The clapping begins. She lashes out at the German export trade surplus with Turkey and the applause hardly dies down again.

The topic these days among Turks, Germans, and Turkish-Germans is never just business. It’s always about the complete picture. You’re leaving the path of democracy – you want to hold us down – and what about us? We’re stuck somewhere in the middle. Ever since the arrest of the German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel in Istanbul, tensions between the two countries have been escalating to unprecedented heights. Turkish politicians are being refused permission to make campaign appearances in support of a questionable referendum to strengthen the power of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and subsequently ignore scheduled meetings with their German counterparts. Mr. Erdoğan himself compares the Berlin government to Nazis.

Almost the only recourse left to those wanting to avoid the ever-louder political debate is political apathy.

A battle has broken out between two societies over 3 million people, who are called German-Turks or Turkish-Germans here, and Euro-Turks in Turkey. Three million, who, over the course of 50 years of migration history, have become an integral part of German society as well as a considerable economic factor. They mitigate the shortage of young people coming into the job market and form the bridge between two major national economies.

Mr. Erdoğan, however, sees them first and foremost as part of his electorate. A good 1.4 million people living in Germany are eligible to vote in Turkey, making Germany the third largest electoral constituency in the referendum on a new constitution on April 16.

In the past, a large majority of Turkish voters living in Germany voted for Mr. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, the AKP. In Germany, some wonder how more than a million people experiencing the advantages of democracy and a social market economy have become supporters of a would-be autocrat. Who are these people living and working among us? Or are they being looked at with a somewhat narrow perspective?

Ahmet Kalayci and Özer Özkan know which side they are on. The strong side, they say. Both men grew up in Germany, and now run a construction company in Duisburg. But that isn’t what brought them to Cologne this February evening. Mevlüt Çavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, will be speaking at the Senats Hotel. The two men stand outside the door smoking cigarettes. “I’m very impressed with the way the economy in Turkey has developed under Erdoğan,” says Mr. Özkan, “which is why I am also certain he will get a majority in the referendum.” His business partner goes even further. “Many Turks in Germany are realizing they are being misinformed here. When we travel to Turkey, we see how it’s getting better there. And here they talk badly about Turkey while the cities and roads are decaying!” Mr. Kalayci believes many people with Turkish roots will leave Germany to live a better life in Turkey. “And Germany wants to prevent that, that’s why you’re badmouthing our country and Erdoğan.”

These ideas provoke contention that can currently be read daily in German newspaper commentaries. Viewed objectively, they reveal the changing ties German-Turks’ have to their two countries. “The first generation of migrant workers, like my parents, were used to being ignored by all sides,” says Serap Güler, a member of the center-right Christian Democrats and daughter of Turkish immigrants. “For the Kemalist elite in the homeland, they were all Anatolian farmers who no one missed. And, in Germany, they were guest workers who no one was responsible for.”

Detlef Pollack, chair of Sociology of Religion at the University of Münster, was the first to specifically examine this phenomenon in a study last year. More than 50 percent of German citizens with Turkish roots said that despite making every effort, they have never been recognized as fully fledged members of society. At the same time, 40 percent of those polled believed they were getting “their fair share” in German society – almost twice as many as among East Germans. “A real dilemma of identity is revealed there,” says Mr. Pollack.

Songül Göktas-Rosati’s job ought to be one big crisis. She is the head of Öger Tours, a subsidiary of the travel company Thomas Cook responsible for Turkey, a country that sporadically reports drops in bookings of over 40 percent. Nevertheless, says Ms. Göktas-Rosati, Öger Tours, 80 percent of whose tours go to Turkey, continues to make a profit. “That is primarily, because of the German-Turks, who continue to travel with us.”

Her company is only one of many that depend on this group. Since the 1990s, banks with Turkish roots have been pushing more forcefully into the German market. Germans and Turks are currently depositing about €10 billion, or around $10.7 billion, in Turkish banks in Germany. Food companies founded by migrants in Germany have long played a defining role in Turkey, since Germany is the Turkish economy’s most important trading partner.

The children of former immigrants also play a major role in the German economy. According to transnational trade association Atiad, they have founded more than 100,000 companies, creating 500,000 jobs in Germany. A study by the German government-owned development bank, KfW, found that among people of migrant backgrounds, who are in any case much more likely to found a business than other Germans, Turks make up the largest group by far, at 22 percent.

If doing business between two worlds can be lucrative economically, socially things are more complicated. In the world of national states, commitment to one of those nations is part of the basis for business. With growing economic and political clout, Turkish-Germans have finally become a highly-contested commodity, like binational soccer stars. Once they’ve picked a team, players are expected to act like missionaries – as ambassadors of Western values on the Bosporus, or as witnesses north of the Alps to the greatness of the new Turkey.

By 2008, the Turkish president had discovered for himself the power of that choice. It was the first time he came to Germany for an election campaign event. Even then, Mr. Erdoğan had to endure much criticism in Germany. Because although he encouraged his supporters to study hard in school and strive on the labor market, he warned against assimilation. Yet it was another part of his speech that left an impression on German-Turks. He addressed them as “brothers and sisters,” as fully fledged citizens of his country. If they had problems here, he’d take care of them.

“There, for the first time, I felt accepted as part of a society – namely the Turkish society,” recalls CDU politician Ms. Güler. Mr. Erdoğan later allowed German-Turks to cast their votes from consulates in Germany, and, little by little, a network of polling stations grew up. Parallel to this, the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD) was established in 2004 as a political forum to mobilize AKP supporters, supplementing a network thus far run through mosque associations. Although the UETD disputes any direct connection with the AKP, it organizes and promotes appearances by Turkish ministers.

At the same time, Turks living abroad were given equal rights to purchase property in Turkey, and the AKP lowered the price the German-Turks had to pay for exemption from military service. German-Turks are among Mr. Erdoğan’s most dependable voters. Around 60 percent have regularly voted for the AKP in recent elections. However, voter turnout among German-Turks didn’t rise above 50 percent, meaning the results alone are a minor achievement. But mobilizing German-Turks is supposed to have a resonating effect back in the homeland. Mr. Erdoğan is keen to show Turks at home just how badly their brothers and sisters are being treated in Germany.

“Nowadays I can often hardly keep myself from asking, if it isn’t your fault and everything is really so fantastic in Turkey, why don’t you just move there?”

Serap Güler, CDU politician and daughter of Turkish immigrants

“In particular, those who have been left behind economically while the economy around them booms gladly assume this role,” says sociologist Mr. Pollack. This explains part of the enthusiasm for Mr. Erdoğan among German-Turks. German Federal Employment Agency statistics show that people of Turkish origin with German passports – meaning those who are not eligible to vote in Turkey – are approximately as well educated and integrated into the job market as people of other immigrant backgrounds. Those with Turkish passports are significantly worse off, with the lowest level of education and the highest rate of unemployment. Only 2 percent of Germans between the ages of 26 and 35 do not have a high school diploma; among the Turkish citizens living in Germany it is over 13 percent. Over 92 percent of Germans in the same age group are gainfully employed, but only 82 percent of Turkish nationals.

No wonder many in this group gladly assume the role of victim, support Mr. Erdoğan and praise Turkey’s merits. “This lived propaganda has actually been increasing in recent years,” says CDU politician Ms. Güler, “and nowadays I can often hardly keep myself from asking, if it isn’t your fault and everything is really so fantastic in Turkey, why don’t you just move there?”

Barbaros Özbugutu and Tahsin Isin could be case studies for this orchestration of German-Turkish Erdoğan fans. Mr. Özbugutu grew up in Nuremberg. Mr. Isin comes from Leverkusen. After college and a couple of years of professional experience, they decided to set up a company in Istanbul providing payment systems for companies. They reject, however, the suggestion that they emigrated out of political conviction. “We simply saw a good opportunity here in Istanbul,” says Mr. Özbugutu. In any case, the two are an exception rather than the vanguard of a trend. The number of German-Turks who move to Turkey has remained stable, and low, for years. Each year, around 15,000 German-Turks choose to take the road back. Fewer than 3,000 are second- or third- generation. This suggests that when over a quarter of German-Turks say in surveys they want to move back to Turkey, the statement should be taken as a political one.

Mr. Özbugutu and Mr. Isin see tensions between the two countries arising primarily from cultural misunderstandings. A man in shirt-sleeves banging a verbal fist on the table and, to make matters worse, wearing a moustache, can only provoke uproar in Ms. Merkel’s politically correct Germany.

It’s a common argument from German-Turks in Germany, and shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly. And Germany must embrace a little self-criticism if it wants to understand Mr. Erdoğan’s huge popularity here.

For example, the accusation that Germany supports the Kurdish terror organization, the PKK. Ms. Güler, the CDU member of the state parliament in Düsseldorf, is reminded daily that there is something to this accusation. “We have had to walk through a construction site now for four months to get to parliament,” she says. The reason is a dozen PKK sympathizers stormed the building and staged a sit-down strike in the foyer. Now, a new security area is being created. “Just imagine what would have been going on here if it had been Turkish nationalists or right-wing radicals,” Ms. Güler muses.

It is such concrete, often personal, anecdotes that leave many German-Turks with the feeling there is a double standard in this country. Many claim the tortuous path to dual citizenship is also an arbitrary act. Almost the only recourse left to those wanting to avoid the ever-louder political debate is political apathy.

When a political exchange suddenly erupts on the stage at the German-Turkish Business Forum, Sebat Mönce rolls her eyes for a moment. Ms. Mönce works as a physician in Hanover. Together with a friend, she wants to promote a local German-Turkish radio station beyond Lower Saxony. “I have friends with Kurdish roots, Yazidis, and also some who lean towards the opposition,” she says. “We used to talk about politics occasionally, but now there are always arguments. I completely avoid the subject and probably won’t vote in the referendum, either.”

This article first appeared in WirtschaftsWoche, the business weekly and sister publication to Handelsblatt. To contact the authors:


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