“Tolerated but not Accepted”: Gastarbeiters amid Germany’s Far-Right Surge
Arghawan Farsi 22 March 2024

I’m drinking chai and eating köfte, while we still don’t feel at home here,” rapper Apsilon sings on stage at one of Berlin’s largest protests against the rise of right-wing parties. Particularly, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) has been gaining votes, notably following the influx of migrants and refugees in 2015. With a turnout exceeding 150,000 people, the demonstration mirrors the diversity of Berlin itself. Rainbow flags, socialist factions, grassroots groups, social workers, and activists united in front of the Bundestag to take a stand against right-wing extremism.

Speakers from organizations such as Omas gegen Rechts (“Grandmothers against the Right”), young activists from East Germany, and climate activists are invited to take the stage. Apsilon himself is a 24-year-old rapper from Berlin whose grandparents immigrated from Turkiye in the late 1960s and worked in a factory to help rebuild the war-ravaged capital. On stage, he sings about never feeling quite at home in Germany.

My friends and I, standing in the crowd, understand this feeling well. Despite all being born and raised here, our immigrant background, our non-German names, and our appearances have left us, along with millions of others living and growing up in Germany, wrestling with a kind of identity crisis. As Apsilon sings, I observe diverse groups around me, all cheering and singing along, and I wonder how the far right has gained such popularity despite German culture being constantly shaped by Germans, immigrants, and Germans of foreign descent. The emergence of the first “German döner” shops in Amsterdam, Dublin, and Prague stands as a testament. The mere fact that a dish brought over by Turkish immigrants is now dubbed German should serve as sufficient evidence to deter right-wing parties from fomenting hate and fear against second, third, and fourth-generation immigrants. Or is it still not enough?


Talking about identity in a döner shop

A few days later, walking through the streets of Neukölln, a vibrant neighborhood in the heart of Berlin where I live, I stop at a nearby döner shop and talk with Ali, who works there. Ali is not his real name as he prefers to stay anonymous. His grandparents also moved to Berlin in the early 1970s to help rebuild the country by working in factories, commonly referred to as Gastarbeiter or “guest workers”.

Migration scholars have long emphasized that Germany has been an immigration country for most of its existence. The first Gastarbeiter came from Italy and Greece right after World War II, and from Turkey from the 1950s onwards, to rebuild Germany’s war-ravaged cities. The booming economy of the 1960s greatly facilitated the economic and social integration of the migrants. To put the migration flows in numbers, about 50 million people entered Germany after the 1950s, and more than 40 million people left the country during the same period. The book Germany, the Country of Migration by Lobna Jamal and Mirza Odabaşı empirically demonstrates that migrants are the backbone of Germany, emphasizing that the country thrives on the diversity and plurality of those who have come and will come to live in the country.

“My grandma always talks about the hard work she did when she came here. She told me that they worked in the factories together with Germans, but were paid much less,” says Ali as he prepares a falafel döner. “Even though my grandparents have lived here for over 60 years, they never really felt welcome, they were never given the opportunity to take language classes or to vote. Sometimes my grandpa asks me why it is still like this, they came here and did the hard work, the cheap work that the Germans did not want to do, so they stayed in lower positions and the Germans could get higher paying ones. We did their hardest work, but are still treated as barely tolerable.”

I ask Ali if his grandparents ever thought about returning to Turkey. “No, even though they had to face so much, they wanted their children and grandchildren, my dad and us, to have a chance for a better future here, and after a while, you do feel like you can’t go back. Even though they tell me that the situation was always precarious and that the hate speech and discrimination have never really stopped.”


The Correctiv investigation

The catalyst for the protests was an in-depth investigative report by the independent outlet Correctiv called “Secret Plan against Germany.” Their investigation unveiled a controversial meeting in late November 2023 in Potsdam, a city in eastern Germany near Berlin. The meeting was attended by several high-ranking members of the AFD party, members of the Conservative Christian Party (CDU), wealthy businesspeople and police-known Neo-Nazis and ultra-right fascists. The most startling and pivotal aspect of the revelations from this meeting was the unanimous decision among the participants for a plan of “remigration”.

This term, coined and utilized by the AFD for several years in its election campaigns, refers to the endeavor of “purifying” German society to a narrowly defined notion of Germanness. This means excluding any person who lives in Germany but does not adhere to its traditionalist views. At the Potsdam meeting, all participants discussed the systematic deportation of not only first-generation migrants and refugees but also second- and third-generation migrants, social workers who assist them, and anyone identifying with leftist ideologies. Through the discussions, attendees drew up budgets for these plans and discussed methods of physical intimidation.


Today, 22 million Germans have a migration background, with many being the children, nephews, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Gastarbeiter from Southern Europe, Vietnam, and Turkey who came to Germany after World War II. The generations that have remained in Germany since then are an integral part of German society and are also crucial to the country’s ability to sustain itself in the face of an aging population.

The revelation of this investigation not only sparked public outrage but also led to various counter-demonstrations against the AFD. However, for many migrants who have been living in Germany for several years or were born there, the revelations were not surprising. As children of immigrants, colleagues, friends, Ali, his family, and I, have all sensed the growing resentment against migrants, refugees, and social workers in recent years. What is particularly concerning, however, is that the AFD is now openly embracing its links to neo-Nazis and the ultra-right.


Feeling part of Germany – an unattainable dream?

“Do I feel like a German? No. But do I feel like a Turk?” Ali continues, “For a long time, I thought I was Turkish, even though I went to school here. But with every visit to our relatives in Turkey, I understood that I was something in between, which made me sad, I was around 20 when I realized it. Now I have just accepted it and when people ask me, I just say I am a Berliner.” However, there is a constant feeling of being observed: “It’s like an invisible eye is watching you, waiting for you to do something, just to say, aha, look at the mistake you made, this is proof enough that you are not a part of this country, you are just tolerated!”

Ali’s cousin, who lives in a smaller village, will vote for the AFD despite being of Turkish descent. I enquire about his reasoning. “There’s been an asylum center there for a few years, and from what I’ve heard, the villagers have a problem with the refugees. My cousin fears that the bad feelings they have towards them will be extended to him, so he supports the AFD, hoping that the center will be closed and that he can continue to live there without fear.”

The phenomenon described by Ali is commonly referred to as “pulling the ladder up.” It describes the social phenomenon wherein a tolerated minority group within the majority group feels threatened by another minority, leading to feelings of competition and hostility. “I’m glad that it is not like that here, I’d never vote for the AFD, and they won’t drive me out. After all, we all know that they also eat döner before going home”, Ali remarks with a hopeful laugh.


The story of Semra Ertan

The structural discrimination minorities face in Germany is not a new phenomenon. One older yet significant example is the story of Semra Ertan, a poet who publicly immolated herself in protest against systemic discrimination by German institutions. Semra Ertan, born to Turkish guest workers who lived in Hamburg, expressed her desire to pursue writing in 1976. However, in Germany, she encountered barriers such as being unable to grammar school or obtain an academic degree. One of her most renowned poems, “Mein Name ist Ausländer” (My Name is Foreigner, written on November 7, 1981), was included in school textbooks in Turkey. On the eve of her death, Semra Ertan contacted NDR and ZDF to recite her poem and advocate for the rights of foreigners to live and be treated with dignity. According to the media, in this call, she also announced her intention to commit suicide by self-immolation citing the increasing xenophobia in the Federal Republic of Germany as the motive for her decision to die in front of the German public.

The challenges endured by Gastarbeiter and their families, particularly in the years following the Second World War, remain insufficiently addressed in public discourse. These experiences explain the shortcomings of Germany’s plans for “integration” and why many second and third-generation migrants still struggle to feel that Germany is their home. As noted by Jewish scholar Max Czollek, German society has yet to fully reckon with its history, and a critical look inwards should be the first step in the right direction.



Other sources: 

Demos gegen Rechtsextremismus: Wie geht es weiter? – ZDFheute

“Junge Alternative” darf als extremistisch eingestuft werden | tagesschau.de

Rüstungsprojekte in Deutschland: Wo es hakt – ZDFheute

Gomolla, M. (2023). Direkte und indirekte, institutionelle und strukturelle Diskriminierung. In Handbuch Diskriminierung (pp. 171-194). Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.

Schraff, D., & Pontusson, J. (2023). Falling behind whom? Economic geographies of right-wing populism in Europe. Journal of European Public Policy, 1-29.

Cover photo: Protesters attend a demonstration against racism and far-right politics on February 5, 2024, in Frankfurt am Main. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)

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