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1962: An Italian Gastarbeiter family in Walsum (this woman's husband is a miner working for the German Walsum Mines
Italian Gastarbeiter working in the Coal-mines of western-Germany (1962)
Italian Gastarbeiter working in the Coal-mines of western-Germany (1962)
Italian Gastarbeiter - 'factory worker' in the Rhineland
Italian (Gastarbeiter) children in school

Gastarbeiter (plural, "Gastarbeiter") (German pronunciation: [ˈɡastˌʔaɐ̯baɪtɐ]) is German for "guest worker" (literal translation). It refers to foreign or migrant workers, particularly those who had moved to West Germany (BRD) mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, seeking work as part of a formal guest worker programme (Gastarbeiterprogramm). Similarly, the Netherlands and Belgium had a parallel scheme called the gastarbeider programme. Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland had similar programmes called arbetskraftsinvandring (workforce-immigration).

East Germany (DDR) had a similar programme and referred to the workers as "Vertragsarbeiter".

These programmes mainly came about as a result of the severe labour shortage in continental Northern Europe following World War II and political pressure from southern European countries[citation needed], Turkey[1] and the USA[citation needed].

Historical background[edit]

During the Nazi era the term Gastarbeiter was created, but Fremdarbeiter (German for foreign worker) was largely used. This term had negative connotations and thus Gastarbeiter was used after the war.

West Germany[edit]

Irish guest workers are recruited, left: Ministerialdirektor Haeften, right: Irish ambassador Warnock

During the 1950s and 1960s, West Germany signed bilateral recruitment agreements[2] with Italy on 22 November 1955, Spain on 29 March 1960, Greece on 30 March 1960, Turkey on 30 October 1961, Morocco on 21 June 1963, Portugal on 17 March 1964, Tunisia on 18 October 1965, and Yugoslavia on 12 October 1968.[3][4] These agreements allowed the recruitment of Gastarbeiter to work in the industrial sector for jobs that required few qualifications.

There were several reasons for signing these treaties. First of all, during the 1950s, Germany experienced a so-called Wirtschaftswunder or "economic miracle" and needed laborers.[5] The labour shortage was made more acute by the creation of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, which reduced the large-scale flow of East German immigration virtually to zero overnight. Secondly, the Federal Republic saw it as a form of developmental aid. It was hoped that the Gastarbeiter would learn useful skills in Germany, which could help them build their own countries after returning home.[1]

The first Gastarbeiter were recruited from European nations. However Turkey pressured the Federal Republic to allow its citizens to become guest workers.[1] Theodor Blank, Secretary of State for Employment, was opposed to such agreements. He held the opinion that the cultural gap between Germany and Turkey would be too large and also held the opinion that Germany needed no more labourers because there were enough unemployed people living in the poorer regions of Germany who could fill these vacancies. The United States, however, put some political pressure on Germany, wanting to stabilize and create goodwill from a potential ally. The German Department of Foreign Affairs carried on the negotiations after this, and in 1961 an agreement was reached.[6][6]

After 1961 Turkish citizens (largely from rural areas) soon became the largest group of Gastarbeiter in West Germany. The perception at the time on the part of both the West German Government and the Turkish Republic representatives was that working in Germany would be only "temporary." The migrants, mostly male, were allowed to work in Germany for a period of one or two years before returning to their home country in order to make room for other migrants. Many[quantify] migrants did return, after having built up savings for their return.

Until very recently, Germany was not perceived as a country of immigration ("kein Einwanderungsland") by both the majority of its political leaders and the majority of its population. When the country's political leaders realized that many of the persons from certain countries living in Germany were jobless, some calculations were done and according to those calculations, paying unemployed foreigners for leaving the country was cheaper in the long run than paying unemployment benefits. A "Gesetz zur Förderung der Rückkehrbereitsschaft" ("law to advance the willingness to return home") was passed. The government started paying jobless people from a number of nations, such as Turks, Moroccans and Tunisians, a so-called Rückkehrprämie ("repatriation grant") or Rückkehrhilfe ("repatriation help") if they returned home. A person returning home received 10,500 Deutsche Mark and an additional 1,500 Deutsche Mark for his spouse and also 1,500 Deutsche Mark for each of his children if they returned to the country of his origin.[7][8]

The agreement with Turkey ended in 1973 but few workers returned because there were few good jobs in Turkey.[9] Instead they brought in wives and family members and settled in ethnic enclaves.[10]

In 2013 it was revealed that ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl had plans to halve the Turkish population of Germany in the 1980s.[11]

By 2010 there were about 4 million people of Turkish descent in Germany. The generation born in Germany attended German schools, but some had a poor command of either German or Turkish, and thus had either low-skilled jobs or were unemployed. Most are Muslims and are presently reluctant to become German citizens.[12][13] Germany used to have a Jus Sanguinis, a Latin term for "right of the blood." This is a policy by which nationality or citizenship is not determined by place of birth, but by having an ancestor who is a national or citizen of the state. It contrasts with Jus soli (Latin for "right of soil"), which can be found in some other countries such as the United States. According to the Jus Sanguinis, children born to Gastarbeiter were not automatically granted citizenship; instead they were granted the "Aufenthaltsberechtigung" ("right to reside") and might choose to apply for German citizenship later in their lives. German citizenship was granted to persons who had lived in Germany for at least 15 years and fulfilled a number of other preconditions (they must work for their living, they should not have a criminal record and other preconditions). Nowadays the Jus Sanguinis has been modified. Children of foreigners born on German soil are now granted German citizenship automatically if the parent has been in Germany for at least eight years as a legal immigrant. As a rule those children have the additional citizenship of the home country of their parents. Those between 18 and 23 years of age must choose to keep either German citizenship or their ancestral citizenship. The governments of the German States have begun campaigns to persuade immigrants to acquire German citizenship,[14] which has become much easier now that people must have lived only 8 years in Germany rather than 15.

Those who have German citizenship have a number of advantages. For example, only those holding German citizenship may vote in certain elections. Also there are some jobs that may only be performed by German citizens. As a rule these are jobs which require a high identification with the government. Only those holding German citizenship will be allowed to be a schoolteacher, a police officer, or a soldier. Most jobs however do not require the person to hold German citizenship. Those who do not hold German citizenship, but the "right to reside" will be granted most rights every citizen has. They may attend schools, receive medical insurance, be paid children's benefits, receive welfare and housing assistance.

In many cases the Gastarbeiter integrated neatly into German society. Dietrich Tränhardt did some scientific work on the integration of the Spanish Gastarbeiter. While many Spanish that came to Germany were illiterate peasants, their offspring were successful when it came to academic achievement (see: Academic achievement among different groups in Germany) and did well on the job market. Spanish were also very likely to marry Germans, which can be counted as a sign of assimilation. According to a study in 2000, 81.2% of all Spanish or partly Spanish children in Germany were from a Spanish-German family.[15]

There were some, and still are, tensions in German society, because Muslim immigrants feel they have been religiously discriminated against. For example, while the Christian churches are allowed to collect church tax in Germany, Muslims cannot do so because they are not as yet organised in a corporative association (which is sometimes criticised as forcing Christian organisation-style on non-Christians). While German universities have educated Jewish, Catholic and Protestant clerics and religious teachers, in the past none of the German universities offered education for Muslim teachers and clerics. However, today such university courses exist.[16]

Also Muslims were often not pleased with the fact that the Christian cross is a common item to be found in German classrooms, and used to be more so. The fact that most schools offer Catholic and Protestant religious education and ethics but no Islamic religious education has also been criticised (especially because religious education is compulsory, replaceable by ethics). Students are allowed to wear a normal headscarf in school, however in 2010 a Muslim student sued a Gymnasium headmaster, because she was not allowed to wear a Khimar in school.[17]

East Germany[edit]

A guest worker from Cuba, working in an East German factory (Chemiefaserkombinat "Wilhelm Pieck"), 1986

After the division of Germany into East and West in 1949, East Germany faced an acute labour shortage, mainly because of East Germans fleeing into the western zones occupied by the Allies; in 1963 the GDR (German Democratic Republic) signed its first guest-worker contract with Poland. In contrast to the guest-workers in West Germany, the guest-workers that arrived in East Germany came mainly from socialist and communist countries allied with the Soviets and the SED used its guest-worker program to build international solidarity among fellow communist governments.

1990: Vietnamese costermonger in Gera

The guest workers in East Germany came mainly from the Eastern Bloc, Vietnam, North Korea, Angola, Mozambique, and Cuba. Residency was typically limited to only 3 years. The conditions East German Gastarbeiter had to live in were much harsher than the living-conditions of the Gastarbeiter in Western Germany. They had to live in single-sex dormitories.[18] In addition, contact between guest-workers and East German citizens was extremely limited; guest-workers were usually restricted to their dormitory or an area of the city which Germans were not allowed to enter. Sexual relations with a German led to deportation.[18][19][20] Female Vertragsarbeiter were not allowed to become pregnant during their stay. If they did, they were forced to have an abortion.[21]

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification in 1990, the population of guest-workers still remaining in the former East Germany faced deportation, premature discontinuation of residence and work permits as well as open discrimination in the workplace. Out of the 100,000 guest-workers remaining in East Germany after reunification, about 75% left because of the rising tide of xenophobia in former East German territories.[citation needed] Vietnamese were not considered legal immigrants and lived in "grey area". Many started selling goods at the roadside. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin wall most Vietnamese were granted the right to reside however and many started opening little shops.[19]

After the reunification Germany offered the guest workers $2,000 and a ticket home if they left. The country of Vietnam did not accept the ones back who refused to take the money, Germany considered them "illegal immigrants" after 1994. In 1995 Germany paid 140 million $ to the Vietnamese government and made a contract about re-patriation which stated that repatriation could be forced if necessary. By 2004 11,000 former Vietnamese guest workers had been repatriated and 8,000 had been re-patriated against their will.[22]

The children of the Vietnamese Gastarbeiter caused what has been called the "Vietnamese miracle".[23] As shown by a study while in the Berlin districts of Lichtenberg and Marzahn, Vietnamese account for only 2 percent of the general population, they make up 17 percent of the university preparatory school population of those districts.[24] According to the headmaster of the Barnim Gymnasium, a university preparatory school that has a focus on the natural sciences, 30 percent of the school's freshmen come from Vietnamese families.[23]


Today, the term Gastarbeiter is no longer accurate, as the former guest worker communities, insofar as they have not returned to their countries of origins, have become permanent residents or citizens, and therefore are in no meaningful sense "guests". However, despite the fact that many of the former "guest workers" have now become German citizens, the term Ausländer or "foreigner" is still colloquially applied to them as well as to their naturalised children and grandchildren. A new word has been used by politicians for several years: Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund (German term for: people with an immigration background). The term was thought to be politically correct because it includes both immigrants and those who, being naturalized, cannot be referred to as immigrants—who are colloquially (and not by necessity xenophobically) called "naturalized immigrants" or "immigrants with a German passport". It also applies to German-born descendants of people who immigrated after 1949. To emphasize their Germanness, they are also with quite a frequency called fellowcitizens, which may result in calling "our Turkish fellow citizens" also those who are foreigners still, or even such Turks in Turkey who never had any contact to Germany.

Gastarbeiter, as a historical term however, referring to the guest worker programme and situation of the 1960s, is neutral and remains the most correct designation. In literary theory, some German migrant writers (e.g. Rafik Schami) use the terminology of "guest" and "host" provocatively.

The term "Gastarbeiter" lives on in Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Slovene languages, generally meaning "expatriate" (mostly referring to a second generation from the former Yugoslavia or Bulgaria born or living abroad). The South Slavic spelling reflects the local pronunciation of gastarbajter (in Cyrillic: гастарбаjтер or гастарбайтер). In Belgrade's jargon, it is commonly shortened to gastos (гастос), and in Zagreb's to gastić.

In modern Russia, the transliterated term gastarbeiter (гастарбайтер) is used to denote workers from former Soviet republics coming to Russia (mainly Moscow and Saint Petersburg) in search of work. These workers come primarily from Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, and Tajikistan. Also for a guest worker from outside Europe, from China, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia. In contrast to such words as "gastrolle" (гастроль, сoncert tour), "gast professor" (invited to read the course at another university), which came to Russian from German, the word "gastarbeiter" is not neutral in modern Russian and has a negative connotation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Gerling, Vera: Soziale Dienste für zugewanderte Senioren/innen: Erfahrungen aus Deutschland, ISBN 978-3-8311-2803-7, S.78
  2. ^
  3. ^ Germany: Immigration in Transition by Veysel Oezcan. Social Science Centre Berlin. July 2004.
  4. ^ Kaja Shonick, "Politics, Culture, and Economics: Reassessing the West German Guest Worker Agreement with Yugoslavia," Journal of Contemporary History, Oct 2009, Vol. 44 Issue 4, pp 719-736
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b Heike Knortz: Diplomatische Tauschgeschäfte. "Gastarbeiter" in der westdeutschen Diplomatie und Beschäftigungspolitik 1953-1973. Böhlau Verlag, Köln 2008
  7. ^ S. Dünkel (2008) "Interkulturalität und Differenzwahrnehmung in der Migrationsliteratur", p. 20
  8. ^ IAB: "Gesetz zur Förderung der Rückkehrbereitschaft von Ausländern"
  9. ^ Stephen Castles, "The Guests Who Stayed - The Debate on 'Foreigners Policy' in the German Federal Republic," International Migration Review Vol. 19, No. 3, pp. 517-534 in JSTOR
  10. ^ Gottfried E. Volker, "Turkish Labour Migration to Germany: Impact on both Economies," Middle Eastern Studies, Jan 1976, Vol. 12 Issue 1, pp 45-72
  11. ^ Spiegel Online: "Kohl Defends Plan to Halve Turkish Population," 2 August 2013.
  12. ^ Katherine Pratt Ewing, "Living Islam in the Diaspora: Between Turkey and Germany," South Atlantic Quarterly, Volume 102, Number 2/3, Spring/Summer 2003, pp. 405-431 in Project MUSE
  13. ^ Ruth Mandel, Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany (Duke University Press, 2008)
  14. ^ zuletzt aktualisiert: 14.09.2009 - 15:02 (14 September 2009). "NRW-Regierung startet Einbürgerungskampagne: Mehr Ausländer sollen Deutsche werden | RP ONLINE". Retrieved 2010-10-13. 
  15. ^ Thränhardt, Dietrich (4 December 2006). "Spanische Einwanderer schaffen Bildungskapital: Selbsthilfe-Netzwerke und Integrationserfolg in Europa" (in German). Universität Münster.
  16. ^ Die Zeit, Hamburg, Germany (23 December 2009). "Religionsunterricht: Der Islam kommt an die Universitäten | Studium | ZEIT ONLINE" (in German). Retrieved 2010-10-13. 
  17. ^ Die Zeit, Hamburg, Germany (5 February 2010). "Schülerinnen im Schleier: Umstrittener Dress-Code in der Schule | Gesellschaft | ZEIT ONLINE" (in German). Retrieved 2010-10-13. 
  18. ^ a b Stepahn Lanz: "Berlin aufgemischt - abendländisch - multikulturell - kosmopolitisch? Die politische Konstruktion einer Einwanderungsstadt". 2007. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag; p. 113
  19. ^ a b taz, die tageszeitung (25 January 2010). "Vietnamesen in Deutschland: Unauffällig an die Spitze". Retrieved 2010-10-13. 
  20. ^ Pfohl, Manuela (1 October 2008), "Vietnamesen in Deutschland: Phuongs Traum", Stern, retrieved 2008-10-18 
  21. ^ Karin Weiss: "Die Einbindung ehemaliger vietnamesischer Vertragsarbeiterinnen und Vertragsarbeiter in Strukturen der Selbstorganisation", In: Almut Zwengel: "Die Gastarbeiter der DDR - politischer Kontext und Lebenswelt". Studien zur DDR Gesellschaft; p. 264
  22. ^ Minority rights group international. World directory of Minorities and Indigenous people --> Europe --> Germany --> Vietnamese
  23. ^ a b Die Zeit, Hamburg, Germany. "Integration: Das vietnamesische Wunder | Gesellschaft | ZEIT ONLINE" (in German). Retrieved 2010-10-13. 
  24. ^ Von Berg, Stefan; Darnstädt, Thomas; Elger, Katrin; Hammerstein, Konstantin von; Hornig, Frank; Wensierski, Peter: "Politik der Vermeidung". Spiegel.


  • Behrends, Jan C., Thomas Lindenberger and Patrice Poutrus, eds. Fremd und Fremd-Sein in der DDR: Zu historischen Ursachen der Fremdfeindlichkeit in Ostdeutschland. Berlin: Metropole Verlag, 2003.
  • Chin, Rita, The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  • Chin, Rita, Heide Fehrenbach, Geoff Eley and Atina Grossmann. After the Nazi Racial State: Difference and Democracy in Germany and Europe. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.
  • Götürk, Deniz, David Gramling and Anton Kaes. Germany in Transit: Nation and Migration 1955-2005. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
  • Horrocks, David, and Eva Kolinsky, eds. Turkish Culture in German Society Today (Berghahn Books, 1996) online
  • Koop, Brett. German Multiculturalism: Immigrant Integration and the Transformation of Citizenship Book (Praeger, 2002) online
  • Kurthen, Hermann, Werner Bergmann and Rainer Erb, eds. Antisemitism and Xenophobia in Germany after Unification. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • O'Brien, Peter. "Continuity and Change in Germany's Treatment of Non-Germans," International Migration Review Vol. 22, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 109–134 in JSTOR

External links[edit]