Greek immigrants in Germany

by Kleomenis Boltsis

The year is 1956. Peace is still something new in Greece. After a world war and a civil war that have left the country in ruins, the Greek government is trying to take establish its control over its citizens and to rebuild the national economy. At the same time, many Greeks have decided to go abroad, searching for a better future. This essay will sketch the mass-movement of migrant workers from Greece in the post-war period and will search for explanations of the experiene of migration. The focus will be on those who went to Germany – the single most popular destination country – and their experiences. The immigration of Greek citizens, who left Greece for Germany in the first post-war decades due to poverty, is probably the only case in the history of Greek-German relations where Greek culture and habits were genuinely transferred to Germany.


Migration from Greece to Germany

First some numbers: from 1956 until 1960, 162,000 emigrants left their homeland (52% of them travelled to America or to Australia). During the period 1961 to 1965, this number rose to 466,000 (the share of overseas emigrants decreased to 25%), and from 1966 to 1970 another 365,000 people departed the country (this time 38% across the Atlantic and to Australia). From 1971 to 1975 some 177,000 people left (36% to overseas destinations), while from 1976 to 1977 only 37,000 people (38% to America and Australia) emigrated. In these mentioned periods, the percentage of male (ages 20-44) emigrants is about 70% of the whole moving population.1 Official statistics recorded 603,300 migrant arrivals from Greece in West Germany between the early 1950s and 1974, when recruitment was officially stopped. Estimates of the total number of Greeks who moved to Germany, most of them temporarily, put the number at one million. Australia was the second most popular destination (170,700 migrants from Greece), followed by the United States (124,000) and Canada (80,200).2 Many of the young and most productive parts of the country’s workforce left Greece during these periods.

The migration of Greeks to Germany can first be examined in the context of the policies of the governments of both countries during this period. In 1960, Greece and Germany signed a bilateral agreement on the controlled and planned recruitment of workers from Greece. The main reason for the agreement was shared economic interests. At the time, Germany also signed similar agreements with other European countries: in 1955 with Italy, in 1961 with Turkey, in 1964 with Portugal, and in 1968 with Yugoslavia. In the post-war decades the German economy expanded quickly, with a plethora of investment possibilities in different sectors. This was primarily due to the large-scale destruction of production capacities during the Second World War, as well as to the money that came straight from the Marshall Plan. However, Germany also counted millions of dead workers, while women, who had entered industry massively during World War Two, had again been pushed out of industrial employment and into the domestic environment after 1945. West Germany, therefore, resorted to importing the workforce required for reconstruction and expansion of industry until the new generation of German workers could take their place.

On the other hand, the countries that “exported” labour, and in this particular case Greece, could smooth out the issue of unemployment that mostly tormented the rural areas. Coming out of a civil war, Greece found that the greatest economic damages it had suffered were in agriculture, as many crop fields had been burned and most of the country’s livestock had been seized for the needs of war. This led to great rural poverty, with some families having practically no income at all. A massive rural exodus was the consequence. While many Greeks left the country all together, large cities within Greece were also targeted as destinations for migrants, as they offered jobs in industry and services. This led to overcrowding in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1971, Greater Athens recorded 2.5 million residents in a country whose total population was 8.8 million. The substantial aid that Greece received from the Marshall Plan actually strengthened the disparity between cities and villages because it only offered funds for industrial development, excluding agriculture.

The migration of a family member helped the Greek state to secure the reproduction of the whole population in the countryside. It also led to the immediate improvement of the Greek financial system due to the money transferred by the migrants, sending back high amounts of foreign exchange. The Greek government also hoped that the migrant workers would return soon, this time as skilled workers, in order to help develop the domestic economy. Lastly, with the “export” of a part of the rural population, Greece hoped to avoid the emergence of civil unrest, especially in provinces with a “revolutionary past”. It was not a coincidence that the greatest support for out-migration was shown by the military dictatorship (1967-1974).

For these reasons, the Greek and German governments on March 30, 1960, signed the bilateral agreement “on the employment of Greek workers in Germany.” The then deputy prime minister of Greece, Panagiotis Kanellopoulos, stated on this occasion that, “Migration is God’s blessing for our country.” Indeed, many representatives of the Greek government presented migration as God’s blessing and urged youth to submit applications for employment abroad. Facilitators of migration quickly appeared in all large cities, collecting and carrying forward the application forms. Many deputies of the governing ERE3 and EK4 parties promised their voters a place on the list of candidates for emigration to Germany. Things, however, were not as pleasant (especially for the migrant works) as the Greek politicians described, especially at the dawn of the 1960s. In West Germany the workers were sentenced to a status of temporariness, hence the label “guest workers.” The German government wanted to maintain their “capability” to return and obstructed their integration. The first immigrants had the right to stay in Germany only until their employment contracts expired, and after that were forced to return to their homeland. At the time, Germany did not officially regard itself as a country of immigration.


Living in Germany

Until 1965, Gastarbeiters in Germany faced reactionary regulations for foreigners based on the “Aliens Police Ordinance” issued by the Nazi government in 1938, which had not been revoked in 1945. This ordinance stated that, “the stay of an alien in the territory of the Reich is allowed only if the person by its personality and the purpose of its stay guarantees that he will behave decently towards the hospitality that is provided to him”. In 1965, the ordinance was replaced by the new Law on Aliens. Hermann Höcherl, then federal minister of interior, stated in 1964 that the new law, which the government was preparing, would become an example of Germany’s liberal and democratic renewal. However, it seems that in the end the changes in the law were not so substantial.

Problems would occur on the Greek side as well. The Greek governments, led by the ERE and EK parties in this period, neglected the needs of the migrants and their families abroad. There was, for example, a lack of Greek language instruction at schools in Germany, there were only few opportunities for learning German, and the migrant workers had hardly any public places to meet. In addition, the Greek government sent its agents to places where Greeks gathered in an attempt to intimidate them. For example, in the mid-1960s a former member of the National-Socialist Party and major in the Wehrmacht, Emilios Niethammer, was appointed as honorary consul in the Greek consulate in Stuttgart. Under his guidance a group of fascists tormented Greek workers. Many incidents occurred, like the one on February 11, 1966, when a gang under the leadership of a certain Giorgos Hatzopoulos, who presented himself as an officer of the Greek Army, harassed Greek immigrants in the “Greek Centre” of Stuttgart. They ripped up Greek newspapers which were considered progressive, and distributed pamphlets that called the Greeks of West Germany to act “for the eradication of the communistic pest.”

However, not only government politics determined the conditions of life for the Greek migrants in Germany. Another important factor were their relations with the native workers. How did Germans treat the Greeks? To what degree were Greek immigrants integrated into German society? Did they participate in the trade unions? These are some of the salient question which shall be answered on the basis of documents, as well as interviews, which I conducted with Greek migrants.

From these sources it becomes clear that the immigrants faced many difficulties; they stayed in small rooms in groups of eight people or in booths; they accepted hard conditions and lived very frugal lives in order to save money which they sent to their families back home. Yet they suffered from insecure prospects for the future; because they only had the status of temporary guests on German soil, they were excluded from basic political and social rights. Their children lived in constant confusion, being torn between two countries without knowing either of the two languages well.

The workers were employed through contracts that only lasted for a year. The journey to Germany was almost always the same. Immigrants travelled by the ship “Kolokotronis” from Patra to Brindisi in Italy, and then moved north to Munich by train, or they took the “Akropolis Express” from Athens to Munich. At the beginning, guest workers had no opportunity to continue working in Germany. Under these circumstances there was no chance for integration or participation in the trade unions. Only once Greek workers established themselves on a permanent basis at the end of 1970s, did they manage to acquire rights in their jobs equal to those of their German counterparts. From then on, they engaged together in the struggle for better salaries and social welfare.

As was already stated, many Greeks left their homes not only because of the economic dead-end in Greece, but because of their political beliefs as well. Especially during the first years of the junta many left-leaning people abandoned their homes. Naturally, the Cold War affected their life in West Germany too. However, it appears that people who had learnt to fight for their rights in their homeland would continue to do so as immigrants as well, finding support among their German comrades. According to Antonis [insert hyper-link to interview], “it is sure that communists would eventually find themselves highly placed in the trade union hierarchy, if they decided to stay in Germany”.

The struggle of Greeks in German cities against the military dictatorship in Greece was remarkable as well. The Colonels’ coup d’état on April 21, 1967, was an event which upset the whole of Europe. Greek workers and students demonstrated in the main streets of German cities, protesting against the dictatorship in their homeland. Along with them, marched thousands of German antifascists, and at their head, the trade unions, many artists, intellectuals and immigrants from other countries. Only the Greek diplomatic authorities and other Greek civil servants – with the exception of Greek teachers in Germany – were obedient to the dictatorship from the very beginning. During the early years of the dictatorship, there was no famous personality of Greek political life who could rally the Greek immigrants, and most of the speakers at their gatherings were immigrants themselves, or students and scholars living in Germany. Among them, the men of art, such as Menelaos Lountemis, who came from Romania to speak at several rallies in Germany, played an important role in raising their spirits. Immigrants invited political refugees as guests, took them under their protection, and introduced them to their German colleagues. During the years of the junta many well-known politicians, professors, journalists, artists and anonymous fighters for human and political rights came to Germany, however, only if they managed to pass the strict controls of the Greek police. The German authorities, on the other hand, showed silent tolerance towards these people. Some Germans helped Greek political refugees to find a job; they gave them shelter and even helped them with the local administration. Such supporters include, for example, Rolf Pole, who would later be arrested in Greece “for helping terrorists,” or Otto Schily, who went on to become Minister of the Interior of the German Government.

Two radio stations, one in Cologne and the other in Munich, were connected not only with the life of the Greek immigrants in Germany, but also with that of the Greeks in Greece. The Greek broadcasts from Munich were a familiar voice for thousands of Greek families in Germany for decades. The other station to serve the Greek community was Deutsche Welle, which had been accompanying the Greeks in their own language since 1964. It broadcasted news from Germany and of course from Greece spreading it across the world. For Greek sailors, the “voice” of Cologne was the only contact with their country. The junta even made the two stations famous beyond German borders. Due to the suppression of Greek society, many considered Deutsche Welle to be the only reliable voice in Europe to bring objective news into Greece. Immigrants like Dimitris [insert hyper link to interview], who belonged to the Communist Party, of course also trusted a third radio voice, this time a Greek one: the “Voice of Truth”, which was the radio station of the then illegal “KKE” (Communist Party of Greece).

As time elapsed, matters took their own course. Greeks gradually learned the German language, advanced economically, and associated with the Germans. Greek music contributed significantly to the communication between Greek immigrants and Germans. It is noteworthy that artists received their first scholarships from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and created artworks inspired by life in Germany. Writers of the first and second generation presented the first pieces of Greek literature in Germany, though still written in Greek. Not long later that, though, the first Greek-German literary texts appeared written only in German.



Thus, despite the hard conditions, the Greek immigrants managed to adapt to the new way of life in Germany. They founded associations and created their own meeting places without being alienated from the local population, with whom they enjoyed very good relations. Greek media and documentaries used to present the life of the “Gastarbeiter” as horrible, akin to forced labour without any glimmer of humanity or hope. The truth is, however, that those who managed to overcome the first difficult years and decided to stay in Germany, lived decent lives.

The time of the “Gastarbeiter” came to an end for Greece in 1981, when Greece joined the European Economic Community (EEC). This allowed the citizens of Greece to travel freely to and from Germany, and even settle there if they desired. On the other hand, Germany no longer required as many immigrants as it had in the past. The “golden age” of the post-war boom had ended. Instead, the German economy was attempting to recover from the oil crisis of 1973, which had a huge impact on employment and average wages.5 In the late 1970s, we can observe a substantial decrease in the number of foreign workers in the Federal Republic. A vast amount of Greek migrants returned to Greece in the same period. Antony, however, had his own theory: the accession of the Greek socialists, PASOK6, to power, inaugurated for him a new era for Greece, an era of growth and improved living standards. So it seems.


  1.  These numbers are mainly taken from the Greek Statistic Service. We cannot be sure about the number of emigrants that returned in this period of time.
  2.  Chryssa Kassimi, and Charalambos Kasimis, “Greece: A History of Migration,” accessed April 27, 2015,
  3.  The National Radical Union ( Ἐθνικὴ Ῥιζοσπαστικὴ Ἕνωσις), ERE, was a Greek political party formed in 1955 by Konstantinos Karamanlis. It was a conservative, right-wing party which won three elections in a row (1956, 1958 and 1961). It was dissolved by the “Junta of the Colonels”.
  4.  The Centre Union (Ένωσις Κέντρου), EK, was a Greek political party created in 1961 by George Papandreou, the senior. It was a republican centrist union of smaller parties that won the elections of 1963.
  5.  Germany succeeded to overcome the oil crisis with a strict monetary policy. The result of this policy was an increasing, but comparatively low inflation rate on the one hand, but growing and persisting unemployment (Sockelarbeitslosigkeit) as well as a rapidly increasing public debt, on the other.
  6.  The Panhellenic Socialistic Movement (Πανελλήνιο Σοσιαλιστικό Κίνημα) aka PASOK is a social-democratic party which won the elections in 1980. In its first years of government, PASOK was connected with the idea of “change” and economic blossoming.