Handelsblatt Explains

Why German Turks are Numerous, Divided and Bitter

Demo von Erdogan-Anhängern in Köln
Flying the flag in Cologne. Source: DPA

Turkey and Germany have what you might call a special relationship. And yet the two countries have recently been at loggerheads. The verbal feuding took another turn for the worse in the run-up to Turkey’s referendum on April 16, in which Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to give himself even greater (some say autocratic) powers as president. Mr. Erdogan wanted to send Turkish politicians to Germany to whip up support among the Turks who live there but retain the right to vote in their mother country. Local German governments banned these rallies, citing security concerns. That led Mr. Erdogan to accuse the Germans of “Nazi” methods, which in turn caused outrage in Germany. It is just one of many points of tension.

But why would Turkish ministers even get the idea of hitting the campaign trail in Germany, a sovereign foreign country? And why is this controversy so awkward for Germany?

The answer lies in Germany’s enormous Turkish diaspora. About four million people living in Germany are of Turkish origin – the largest such concentration outside the homeland. The population has its roots in West Germany’s “economic miracle” in the post-war years. Booming but running out of labor, West Germany turned to southern Europe to attract workers. Recruitment deals with Spain, Italy and Greece failed to satisfy demand, so in 1961 the country turned to its former ally Turkey. Still smoldering from a coup and suffering an overheating economy, its government jumped at the chance of getting juicy remittances in hard currency. A deal was agreed under which Turks aged 18 to 45 were invited to come to West Germany for two-year spells as Gastarbeiter, or “guest workers.”

Behind the scenes, big business was pulling the strings. The likes of Volkswagen, Siemens and Bosch needed cheap, low-skilled workers to man their factories. So they deliberately recruited in poor rural areas of Turkey. Many recruits could not read or write. In Germany they were often housed in on-site dormitories.

Nonetheless, the Turks kept coming. In 1964 the government removed the two-year limit; later it allowed workers to bring their families too. Many Turks decided to stay for good. As the writer Max Frisch famously put it: “We asked for workers, and human beings came instead.” By the time West Germany stopped its hiring program in 1973, during the first oil shock, 700,000 Turks had arrived.

Türkische Gastarbeiter auf dem Düsseldorfer Flughafen
In pursuit of the German Dream: Turks at Düsseldorf airport in 1970. Source: DPA

But Germany — unlike America, Canada and many other Western countries — has, then as now, no proper immigration law that could have given these Turks hope of becoming citizens and integrating into society. So the Turks, though Germany’s largest minority group today, remained largely segregated from German mainstream culture.

Turks today tend to earn lower wages than Germans do, and their children are less likely to attend university. Many practice Sunni Islam in mosques funded by DITIB, an organization run by the Turkish government that also sends their imams from Turkey. About a third of Germany’s 3,000 mosques are part of this DTIB network; critics view them as Erdogan’s propaganda arms.

But the religious fault lines within Turkey also exist among the German diaspora. Thus many Turkish schools and research foundations are loyal to conservative Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen (accused by Mr. Erdogan of masterminding last year’s attempted coup). Many such Gülenist institutions report espionage and intimidation by other Turks, originating both within Germany and in Ankara. The majority of German Turks appear at least sympathetic to Mr Erdogan’s attempt to stamp out the Gülen network.

Many Turks in Germany in the second or third generation have of course become German citizens. But Germany alienates many of them too. It allowed dual citizenship for children born to Turkish parents in Germany only in 2000, and even then in a half-hearted way. In this year’s German election campaign, the center-right parties may try to reverse even this liberalization.

More than a third of the people in Germany who have a Turkish background, about 1.5 million, remain Turkish citizens and are thus eligible to vote in Turkish elections. This explains why Ankara sees Germany as a key constituency. And Germany does not want to alienate its largest minority, as France, say, has antagonized many people of North-African heritage. Moreover, Germany needs Turkey: for example, to keep up its end of a deal, negotiated by Angela Merkel, to keep refugees from crossing from Turkey to the European Union. Turkey used to need Germany too, above all, to keep alive its hopes of one day joining the EU. But as their bickering gets worse, the two sides sometimes seem close to giving up.

German Turks have developed their own traditions and subcultures, especially when it comes to food.

David Reay is an editor at Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: reay@handelsblatt.com