Turkish immigrants in Berlin


Berlin is transforming from the “special zone” of the Cold War that it once was into a multicultural metropolis more typical of the twentyfirst century. The city’s social diversity already began increasing before the fall of the Wall, but greatly increased after unification in 1990. Today, the 13.3 percent foreign-born population share of Berlin is among the highest of all European capitals.

Turkish immigrants have been coming to Germany since the 1960s, but for many years Germans assumed the “guest workers” would return home one day. The country’s refusal to face up to the reality and the lack of a proper immigration policy led to today’s integration problems.


The history of modern post-war immigration started in the German Federal Republic of the mid fifties with the recruitment of labour, above all in the countries around the Mediterranean. In many areas of German industry workers were needed who could not be found on the German labour market. The illusion began on Oct. 30, 1961, with the signing of a labor recruitment agreement between West Germany and Turkey. Similar agreements already existed with Italy, Greece and Spain, but the West German economy was booming and the demand for labor seemed endless. After receiving vaccinations and passing a medical fitness test, hundreds of thousands of Turks boarded special trains in Ankara and Istanbul and were taken to Germany. The workers arrived in Munich and were then distributed among the country’s industrial zones.

The government and the economy were ecstatic over the Turkish guest workers, who were “between 18 and 45, at the prime of their labor capacity,” boosted tax revenues and social security contributions and made a “substantial contribution to increasing production levels.”

German companies were mainly interested in semi-skilled or unskilled laborers for poorly paid, unpopular jobs on assembly lines and in shift work. Poor, remote regions of Turkey were the preferred recruitment areas. At the time, no one in Germany cared much about the fact that many of the new arrivals could hardly read or write, making it difficult for them to participate in German society. The guest workers were expected to live together in newly built dormitories near the factories where they worked, and return to their native countries after working for a few years.

Many Turks repeatedly delayed returning home. The economic and political situation was uncertain in Turkey, a country plagued by a series of military coups. Still, almost all of the workers assumed that they would eventually leave Germany and return to their families.


In Cosmopolitan Anxieties, Ruth Mandel explores Germany’s relation to the more than two million Turkish immigrants and their descendants living within its borders. Based on her two decades of ethnographic research in Berlin, she argues that Germany’s reactions to the postwar Turkish diaspora have been charged, inconsistent, and resonant of past problematic encounters with a Jewish “other.” Mandel examines the tensions in Germany between race-based ideologies of blood and belonging on the one hand and ambitions of multicultural tolerance and cosmopolitanism on the other. She does so by juxtaposing the experiences of Turkish immigrants, Jews, and “ethnic Germans” in relation to issues including Islam, Germany’s Nazi past, and its radically altered position as a unified country in the post–Cold War era.

Mandel explains that within Germany the popular understanding of what it means to be German is often conflated with citizenship, so that a German citizen of Turkish background can never be a “real German.” This conflation of blood and citizenship was dramatically illustrated when, during the 1990s, nearly two million “ethnic Germans” from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union arrived in Germany with a legal and social status far superior to that of “Turks” who had lived in the country for decades. Mandel analyzes how representations of Turkish difference are appropriated or rejected by Turks living in Germany; how subsequent generations of Turkish immigrants are exploring new configurations of identity and citizenship through literature, film, hip-hop, and fashion; and how migrants returning to Turkey find themselves fundamentally changed by their experiences in Germany. She maintains that until difference is accepted as unproblematic, there will continue to be serious tension regarding resident foreigners, despite recurrent attempts to realize a more inclusive and “demotic” cosmopolitan vision of Germany.


Approximately 470,000 people of non-German nationality from around 190 countries live in the 12 districts of Berlin. They account for approximately 13% of the total population. The percentage of the population with a migration background comes to roughly 25%. The four largest migrant communities are as follows: around 200,000 people with a Turkish migration background, approximately 100,000 people who are part of “Russian Berlin“ (this figure includes immigrants from the successor states to the Soviet Union, including Jewish quota refugees or ethnic Germans), approximately 60,000 people from the former Yugoslavia and its successor states and just under 45,000 people of Polish nationality.

For decades Turkish migrants in Berlin have established themselves in the city. An entire Turkish Muslim community has been established so that even Turks with little knowledge of German can survive. Muslims in some neighbourhoods dominate the city streets, increasing their control over individuals. For example, should a Turk visit a Christian bookstand and take something, they are likely to be stopped just a few meters away and be spoken to by a Muslim onlooker.




(Eva Spirova)


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