Turks in Germany
Are they a bridge or an obstacle to Turkey’s EU membership?
Looking at the Turkish population in Germany as a possible bridge or an obstacle to Turkey’s EU-membership is an interesting way to approach to this group. Though it is not a very sensible one –a group cannot be qualified in such a simple way and also all interpretation depends on the point of view on both the group and the individual. It is indispensable to take into consideration the life and the history of the Turks in Germany. But also the relation between German Turks and Germans and the relation between Turkish Turks and German Turks are important factors when it comes to the role that this group of people can play during Turkey’s accession process.
History of the Turks in Germany and their situation today
Due to the outfall of population and to a decreasing number of immigrants and refugees from the East because of the newly built up Berlin Wall, after-war Germany was in urgent need of workers. As there were more open jobs than unemployed people, the German government reacted by recruiting workers in the south of Europe (mainly 1955 – 1968). After the first group of workers had come from Italy and the next ones from Spain and Greece, in 1961, Germany also made a contract with Turkey. It is important to consider that none of the members of the two groups (Germans, Turkish workers) would have thought that they would stay longer than two years, as it was stated in the recruitment treaties. This partly explains why at that time no steps were taken, considering the integration of these people. It also explains why the foreign workers did not consider it necessary to approach the Germans. Reasons why so many Turkish people stayed were on the one hand that the money they earned was not enough for starting a new business in Turkey. On the other hand, the German economy did not want to lose skilled workers and employ new ones who would have to be trained. In addition to that, the children of Turkish workers who were either brought to Germany in the course of family reunification or who were born in Germany started to go to school and parents did not want to interrupt their education.
However, there were also Turkish people who went back to Turkey during times when the German economy went down. For instance in 1966/67, those who lost their jobs went back to Turkey, but in many cases, they came back to Germany when the economic situation had improved. 1973 is a very important year, as Germany stopped the recruitment of foreign workers. During the recession of 1974/75 and 1981-1984, Turkish workers preferred to stay in Germany, due to fear of not to being allowed to come back to Germany. From 1974 on, Turkish workers made increasingly use of family unification as is their right according to the European Convention on Human Rights. Today only one quarter of the people of Turkish origin came to Germany as workers, while 53% immigrated as family members and 17% of the adult Turks were born in Germany. 2.4 million people with Turkish origin now live in Germany, 1.88 million of which have Turkish citizenship and 400000 applied German for citizenship in order to get legal security and to participate politically. They present the largest foreign population in Germany and they live mainly in areas with high industrialization because this is where the first generation found their jobs.
Nowadays there is high unemployment among the Turks (25.5%) because many of their jobs in industry were cut. But there is also a rising number of Turkish that are self-employed. Problems that this group is facing can be family problems when it comes to tradition vs. modern western lifestyle, language problems for school children and the fact that education is on an average not as high. Unfortunately, many parents prefer their children to help them and do unskilled work rather than learn a profession or study. On the other hand, many parents want higher education for their children. If we consider that most Turkish families in Germany come from a working class background, the number of children who go to university is surprisingly high. Socially, the Turkish are well integrated into German society, participate politically and in the entertainment sector but also find many Turkish organizations, religious and non-religious ones, many of which meet their needs.
The relation between Turks and Germans
As the biggest foreign population, Turkish and people of Turkish origin are strongly shaping the image of most German cities. Döner has become traditional German food. Turkish politicians are campaigning for German and Turkish voters. The Turkish present TV shows, they are in the movies and they win prizes for Germany. During the enthusiastic celebrations of the Football World Cup, Turks supported the German team together with the other Germans. But the public opinion also sees the dark sides. Integration problems, criminality amongst the youth, honor killings and fear of “foreign infiltration”. The ever ongoing debates are either mainly over assimilation versus a Turkish parallel society or a German “leading culture” versus multiculturalism, which reflect these two sides of the medal.
There is a feeling of strangeness that can be observed on both sides. Generally, this is due to differences in religion and culture, but also to a general unawareness of “the other”. This can result in the following basic reactions: Rejection of the strange and unfamiliar from the side of the Germans and a strong concentration on religion and tradition from the side of the Turkish. This can be seen as a vicious circle. Turkish people who feel rejected may react with defiance, in other words, they don’t feel accepted and therefore do not “want to be accepted”. As a reaction, Germans often feel that the Turkish don’t want to be integrated. This unfavorable behavior on both sides often results in misunderstandings.
In terms of the collective identity of Turkish immigrants in Germany, it can be said that while relations to Turkey are maintained, the centre of reference still remains Germany. Generally, they have a positive attitude towards German society but are socially referring to the group of Turkish immigrants. Most of the Turkish say that they have contact with Germans, mainly in their neighborhoods or due to living in mixed families. Interestingly, prejudices on both sides are less where people live in areas that are strongly shaped by immigrants. However, Turkish people are experiencing discrimination, mainly when looking for a house or a job. Still, most say that this does not happen to them. Turkish people are also victims of September 11th because people often equate Islam with Islamist and Islamist with Terrorist. This can be seen as an unfortunate side effect of the events in the USA because it strongly affected the reputation not only of the Turks in Germany, but of all Muslims in Europe. This is strongly enforced by the media.
The relation between Turkish Turks and German Turks
First of all, a relation requires contact between the two groups and a mutual exchange in some way in order to be established. The main bounds between German Turks and the Turkish are a common family background and the descent from the same origin. The cultivation of their relationship is mainly realized by one-sided visits from Germany to Turkey as the visa restrictions for Turkish make visits from Turkey difficult. However, many second or third generation Turks hardly know Turkey and also their accent is often recognizable as not purely Turkish. For many Turkish it is therefore difficult to see them as true Turks.
On the other side, the affection of the German Turks to the Turkish country, culture and people is extremely high. Not feeling fully accepted by the German society, they identify strongly about their Turkish roots and feel rather Turkish than German. Especially in the first generation there are some who guard the wish of going back to Turkey. However, only few undertake this step, because their family and their life are now in Germany.
Often, the general opinions in these two groups are very general and not very well reflected. Depending on the level of education and on the open-mindedness of the individual, people are more or less prejudiced against the other. While prejudices exist on both sides, the resentment seems to be stronger on the Turkish side.
Are the Turks in Germany a chance or an obstacle to Turkey’s EU membership?
For the public opinion, Turkish people in the EU and especially in Germany are very important, as they represent Turkey in Europe and Europe in Turkey. As an important minority, they have to be considered during the accession process of Turkey to the EU.
But without acceptance on either side, being accepted neither as German nor as Turkish, Turks in Germany can have difficulties being heard. In fact, most Turks in Germany are in favor of Turkey’s EU-membership for several reasons and could have a very positive influence on the accession process, if relations between the two other groups were better.
Unfortunately the supposed immigrant problem, which is strongly enforced by the media, causes Germany, but also Austria, France and other EU-countries to be against Turkish EU-membership. Especially since September 11th, this became a rising tendency. With a stronger emphasis on the positive achievements during the integration process, Turks in Germany represent a chance for Turkey’s EU accession process. A successful integration of Turks in Germany could even work as a model for the integration of Turkey in the EU.
An interesting role can also be played by German Turkish university graduates. Most Turkish students in Germany do business studies or engineering, both of which can be applied in many fields where there is still much work left for Turkey in order to meet all EU requirements. If Turkey employed these people, maybe on a temporary basis, they had the advantage of having skilled people at hand, who are familiar with European Law and Economics, but at the same time speak Turkish and are familiar with the country.
Turkish adults nowadays have a strong power as electoral voters. Even though they are often rather conservative, they tend to vote for the Social Democrats (SPD). In contrary to the governing Christian Democrats (CDU), the Social Democrats are rather in favor of Turkey joining the EU. With more Turkish people participating politically, they could have a considerable impact on the accession process.
As said at the beginning, the question whether the Turkish in Germany are a chance or an obstacle to Turkey’s EU-membership, can only be answered if the point of view is defined. Depending on the attitude how this topic is approached, they can be both, being at the mercy of the governments, the EU politicians and the European media – often in some sort of collaboration. Currently, media is rather being used to deepen the gap than to build a bridge. Metaphorically speaking, the Turks in Germany are a pending bridge, floating freely between Turkey and the EU, not being attached to either bank. It is sad, that there cannot be found a better way to take advantage of the chance that the Turks in Germany present for the EU and for Turkey.
Henrike Hochmuth, Researcher at ISRO, European Studies Expert
Furlong, Ray (2004): German Turks Question EU Fate. BBC News, <http://www.turkishweekly.net/articles.php?id=32>.
Sackmann, Rosemarie and Schultz, Tanjev, 2001: "Wir Türken . . ." Zur kollektiven Identität türkischer Migranten in Deutschland. Published in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte (B 43/2001), <http://www.bpb.de/publikationen/ZQI05S.htm>.
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 Şen, Faruk (2002): Türkische Minderheit in Deutschland. Published in: Türkei, Informationen zur politischen Bildung (Heft 277), <http://www.bpb.de/publikationen/7LG87X.html>.
 Schulze, Birgit and Königseder, Angelika: Türkische Minderheit in Deutschland, published in: Vorurteile, Informationen zur politischen Bildung (Heft 271), <http://www.bpb.de/publikationen/IN6RK6,0,0,Vorurteile.html>.
 European Convention on Human Rights, Art. 8.
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