What Integration Means For Germany's Guest Workers

The Debate Over Multiculturalism Alienates the Immigrants Germany Needs Most

On October 30, 1961, Germany and Turkey signed a recruitment agreement that would change German society inexorably for decades to come. The agreement brought hundreds of thousands of Turkish Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, to Germany to work in coal mines and steel factories, providing a vital and inexpensive labor supply that fueled the country's booming postwar economy. Today, there are as many as three million people of Turkish heritage living in the country, making up Germany's largest ethnic minority.

On Sunday, Germans will mark the fiftieth anniversary of this recruitment agreement with commemorations and reflections on immigration and its legacy. "The new German history began 50 years ago," an article last week in Süddeutsche Zeitung read. Germany has become "multicultural," the article continues, "whether one likes the word or not." Yet half a century after the first Turkish guest workers arrived, Germany remains uneasy, if not downright schizophrenic, about the role immigration has played in the country. The anniversary comes amid what has been an especially fraught time in an incessant German debate about the integration of immigrants and their descendants, including senseless political attacks on Multikulti, a German nickname, often uttered with a hint of derision, for multiculturalism.

But, worryingly for Germany, if the divisive political rhetoric is poised to accomplish anything of lasting significance, it will be to alienate many of the most successful and well-educated Germans of diverse backgrounds -- those in the best position to help fix many of the problems ailing German society.

Germany's policy toward its immigrants and their descendants has made an about-face since the turn of the millennium. Even through the beginning of the 1990s, that policy revolved largely around the expectation that guest workers would return home. Prominent right-leaning politicians such as Chancellor Helmut Kohl made a mantra out of saying that Germany was not a land of immigration. Government policies focused on the "return readiness" of guest workers, which meant that little emphasis was placed on language training, and in the 1980s guest workers and their families were offered cash to return to their country of origin. German-born children of guest workers were often ineligible for citizenship, resulting in a generation of foreigners born and raised in Germany.

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