Greek Gastarbeiter

Introduction: Greek migration to Germany after 1945

by Ulf Brunnbauer

In 2010, the German media published stories and reports on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the German-Greek agreement, which regulated the recruitment of workers from Greece by Germany. Typical titles of these articles and features were: “From Gastarbeiter to Fellow Citizen”1, “Kalimera Germany”,2 or “Once Gastarbeiter, Today University Graduate.3 Greek immigration to Germany was presented as a success story at a time when Greece received only negative press in Germany due to the evolving Greek sovereign debt crisis. As we know, one of the consequences of the financial crisis was a severe strain in the relations between Greece and Germany, as the governments of both countries accused each other of pursuing ineffective policies in an effort to save Greece from bankruptcy. In the context of this often nasty debate, in which the yellow press and populist politicians articulated vicious stereotypes, the Greeks “Gastarbeiter” migration to Germany suddenly received a lot of attention. They were seen as living testimonies to the fact that the relations between the two countries were not always characterized by animosity, but that there had been episodes of cooperation to their mutual benefit. In April 2015, German Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier even invited twelve Greek-Germans to an exchange of ideas at the guest house of the foreign ministry. The guests included a jazz saxophonist, a scientist, a manager, a designer of automobiles and a doctor. They were presented as manifestations of the, “density of the relations between Germany and Greece, of the professional success and successful integration of Greeks in Germany.”4

These media items and political activities were a useful reminder of one of the most important immigration movements, in terms of numbers, to Germany after World War Two. When immigration is debated nowadays in Germany, hardly anyone speaks of the Greeks – which is probably a good thing because migrant groups typically attract public attention only if seen as ‘problematic’ (that is, not integrated) by the majority population. Were it not for the ubiquitous Greek restaurants, one could easily overlook the fact that Greeks constitute one of the largest communities of foreigners in Germany. By December 31, 2015, the German statistical office counted 339,931 Greek citizens living in Germany, representing  the fifth largest group of foreign nationals (the largest group being Turkish citizens, of which more than 1.5 million live in Germany) in the country. If those Greeks who now hold German citizenship were to be included in the tally, then the number would certainly be higher. The fact that half of the Greek citizens currently living in Germany have been doing so for 25 years or more, is indicative of the timing of Greek migration to Germany. The average duration of a migrant’s stay in Germany was 24.9 years for Greek citizens, which highlights the permanent nature of their migration to Germany.5

Arguably no other development has created such lasting social and cultural ties between Greece and Germany like that of the massive emigration of Greeks to West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. Approximately half a million Greek citizens went to work in Germany during that period. Many returned, but many also stayed and were joined by new immigrants from Greece, such as in the 1980s, following the country’s entrance into the European Community in 1981, or since 2008. Greeks were, of course, not the only migrants who came to Germany in that time. They were part of a broader movement of economic migration from the poorer southern European countries to the continent’s more affluent northern states, which had experienced an unprecedented economic boom since the early 1950s. Germany was the main recruiting country, as it was in desperate need of labour for its rapidly growing industry and service sectors. Migrants were to fill the gaps left by the many war deaths. These gaps were amplified, as highlighted by Kleomenis Boltsis in his essay, by the unwillingness of the West German government and society to support employment of German women. On the other hand, there were many reasons to leave Greece – a country not only devastated by German occupation and the civil war that ensued, but also one of poor economic prospects especially in the rural areas. Thus, economic needs brought together two countries, despite the fact that less than twenty years earlier Germany had invaded Greece and submitted it to a brutal occupation, leaving behind a deeply traumatized society.

Greek workers, like migrant workers from the other southern European states, contributed greatly to post-war German prosperity. Yet officially they were considered only “guests”; the German government did not want to grant them permanent residence. It preferred a rotation mechanism by which migrant workers would work for one or two years in Germany, then go back to their home country and, if there was still a need for foreign labour, be replaced by new workers. The temporary nature of the intended migration was the essence of the recruitment treaty. The governments and administrations of the two countries saw migration only from the point of view of economic benefit. Migrant workers were welcomed as long as there was a need for their cheap labour and their willingness to do “dirty” jobs. In 1973, for example, as a result of the oil  shock, Germany (like other recruiting countries) stopped the recruitment of new workers and began to implement policies that intended to facilitate their return. Not the integration of immigrants, but the preservation of their “return capability”, was the policy of the day. Ignoring the obvious, Germany did not consider itself a country of immigration at that time. Officially, migrants were seen as easily disposable production input factors. The German legal framework for migrants was, accordingly, off-putting. In a similar vein, the Greek government regarded the emigration of so many of its citizens as a convenient way to solve some of its most pressing problems, such as the alleviation of poverty in villages and the creation of enough jobs for its young people, for which it had no good answers. The military dictatorship was actually happy that emigration provided a social safety valve and that many sympathizers of the left departed, not to speak of political refugees. At the very least emigrants were seen as a source of money: they saved hard and sent many Deutschmarks back to their families, whom they had left at home. What can be better for a government than a constant stream of inflowing money for which it had to spend not a single Drachma?

Yet, both governments had not taken into account that migrants were real people with their own dreams, goals, fears and expectations. The two essays in this section attempt to elucidate the life-worlds and experiences of migrants. Valentin Kordas takes an ethnographic perspective and presents the migration story of one migrant. He also throws light on the importance of migrant associations as a way to socialize, but also to form links with Germans. Kleomenis Boltsis takes a more sociological approach demonstrating that migrants had to navigate through political interventions and difficult conditions. What the essays make clear is that people were ahead of governments. Migrants began to integrate into Germany long before this became official policy; they formed close links with Germans and tried to organize their interests, acts which were not foreseen by the government. Migrants came for a variety of personal reasons and once in Germany led lives that all possessed specific features. Looking behind aggregate statistics and the articles of an agreement, we see people who faced many difficulties in an environment that was completely new and alien to them. They would not even find aubergines to be able to cook their favourite dishes! But they were resilient. They wanted to improve their lives and to give their children the chance for an even better life. In that process they changed – and they helped to change Germany. Boltsis and Kordas show that migration should not be romanticized, too severe are the feelings of home-sickness, exclusion, alienation and insecurity. But they also describe the power of “ordinary” people to make something of their lives, against all odds, and eventually to force the state to accept them.



Greek immigrants in Germany

An Odyssey of Travel and Work. A Greek Migrant Worker’s Life