Rebels against the Homeland: Turkish Guest Workers in 1980s West German Anthropology

In the 1970s, West Germans realized that Turkish immigrants were there to stay. After a warm welcome as formally recruited “guest workers” between 1961 and 1973, attitudes toward Turks quickly turned sour. Although over half of Turkish workers returned to Turkey as expected, hundreds of thousands brought their families and settled into what Germans began to denigrate as “parallel societies” (Parallelgesellschaften). By the 1980s, they encountered widespread xenophobia for their alleged inability to “integrate” in West Germany’s self-described “Christian,” “modern,” and “liberal” society. As today’s “refugee crisis” has reignited heated debates about multiculturalism and integration in Europe, policymakers and the public alike have turned to the fraught history of Turkish-German labor migration as a harbinger of both the perils and the opportunities of permitting Muslim migrants to cross European borders.1

The cover of Schiffauer’s book The Migrants from Subay features a lone male guest worker departing Turkey with luggage in hand.

As in other European countries, West German public discussions about Turkish immigrants during the 1980s sparked not only sensationalist headlines but also an explosion of knowledge production grounded in social science research, particularly among sociologists and anthropologists. In many cases, these studies differed greatly from how historians approach migration today. Whereas we tend to emphasize developments within host societies, social scientists of the past were deeply interested in migrants’ home countries. In questions of integration, they believed, understanding the migrants’ former lives in Turkish villages was equally–if not more–important than understanding their experiences once they arrived in Germany. As we consider alternative approaches to the histories of migration and knowledge, it is worth revisiting one of the more methodologically interesting of these studies: German anthropologist Werner Schiffauer’s 1991 ethnography Die Migranten aus Subay (The Migrants from Subay).2

Telling a story of emigration rather than immigration, Schiffauer’s study is the product of two research stays in the Anatolian village of Subay in 1977 and 1983 as well as Turkish-language interviews with eight villagers who had migrated to West Germany and Austria as guest workers. Highlighting the stories of five of these migrants, Schiffauer provides a “glimpse from below,” self-consciously situating himself in the emphasis on the Alltag, or everyday life, that was increasingly popular among his contemporaries (14).3 Focusing on these five biographies, Schiffauer argues, accomplishes what quantitative and long-term studies cannot: tracing small, incremental changes within the life, mentality, and self-knowledge of a single individual over time. He explicitly contrasts his approach with that of prominent German sociologist Hartmut Esser, who, in his quest to hypothesize and make predictions, inadvertently “cleanse[d] the concepts of all particularities” (28).4 Despite his wariness of quantification, however, Schiffauer himself is quick to generalize. As the book jacket explains, “In the sum of the individual biographies, the commonality of all migration stories is revealed.” Migrants’ personal knowledge of themselves, the book assumes, transforms into Germans’ knowledge of the migrant collective.

Schiffauer begins his book by analyzing Giorgio De Chirico’s 1922 painting “The Prodigal Son,” which he considers a metaphor for Turkish-German migration.

As his methodologically most interesting intervention, Schiffauer grounds his analysis in the concept of the the Prodigal Son, which he derives from the Greek-born Italian artist Giorgio de Chiricos’ 1922 painting of the same name, Il figlio prodigo. Inspired by the New Testament parable in which a son squanders his father’s inheritance, returns empty-handed, and begs his father to accept him back as a servant (Luke 15:11–32), De Chirico’s painting depicts the father and son in an uncomfortable embrace, which Schiffauer interprets as “simultaneously signifying closeness and distance” (11). This difficult relationship, Schiffauer contends, is an apt metaphor for postwar labor migration. After years of separation, the migrants (the son) and their home country (the father) have become “foreign to one another” (11). In short, Schiffauer understands migration as a generational conflict: the migrants have acquired new knowledge, new forms of self-understanding, and new ways of relating to others that have made them fundamentally different from those they left behind.

Schiffauer follows the heuristic lens of the Prodigal Son consistently throughout the book, which allows him to achieve his main objective: studying migration as a process of modernization. More specifically, his interest lies in how the transition from “farmers to industrial workers” changes migrants’ subjectivities and creates uncomfortable fissures between “the individual” and “society” (15). The Turkish-German case is particularly instructive, he contends, because “the self-understanding in the agrarian society of Subay is determined by the idea of fixed places for every person in the society” (47) and the corollary that “individual particularities are illegitimate” (42). Individuality, in Schiffauer’s view, does not exist in Turkish villages; escaping one’s social role, while possible, “threatens not only one’s legal status but also that of his relatives” (39). Yet there is a saving grace: migration. Only by migrating away from villages—and particularly to the industrialized European societies that, Schiffauer assumes, are predicated on the individual—can villagers escape the shackles of collective life and gain knowledge of their own repressed subjectivities. In this act of rebellion against the fathers of their homeland, the migrant sons can finally liberate themselves.

The most literal application of the Prodigal Son theme comes in a chapter on the guest worker Süleyman Doğan, subtitled “A Complicated Father-Son Relationship.” Süleyman’s father, an entrepreneurial landowner hungry for power in village politics, had long envisioned his son marrying a well-connected woman, moving to the city, and opening his own business. “These were the plans,” Schiffauer writes forebodingly, “against which Süleyman would rebel” (52). Not only did he reject the wife his father had chosen, but he also refused to emigrate to Germany. In an interview with Schiffauer years later, Süleyman explained his choice: “[My father] only wanted me to send him money . . . He only thought about himself—never about me” (54). Eventually, Süleyman did emigrate, but on his own terms. Against his father’s wishes, he married another woman, moved to Austria with her, and established his own life there. Never once did he write home to his father. “I wanted nothing more to do with him,” Süleyman told Schiffauer. “He was no longer my father!” (57). From this broken relationship, however, emerged an opportunity. “In suffering,” Schiffauer contends, Süleyman “[won] back his identity” (79). By emigrating thousands of miles away, Süleyman was finally able to “turn his back” (80) on his father, achieve his “dream of a self-chosen future” (101), and realize his own individuality.

The notion of migration as a form of knowledge-producing liberation from literal or metaphorical fathers guides the book’s four other case studies. Schiffauer portrays another migrant, Yaşar Fuad, as having rebelled through his religiosity—first during his internal rural-urban migration to Istanbul and later after emigrating to Germany in 1972. Whereas the villagers of Subay allegedly “think about their cows” while they are supposed to be praying at the mosque, Yaşar chose to spend his free time in Istanbul studying the tenets of Islam (142). Yaşar’s piety intensified once he encountered West Germany’s Christian society. “Today it is very difficult for a Muslim to get along with [Germans],” he told Schiffauer in 1977, “but so far, five years later—thank God—I have been able to hold onto my Turkishness, to my Islam” (148). This “defensive Islam,” as Schiffauer calls it, soon developed into a “political Islam” as Yaşar began to associate with radical religious organizations banned in Turkey yet permitted in Germany (150). Here, again, migration was the key to self-knowledge. It was in Germany that Yaşar deepened his religious identity, embraced radical political ideologies, and—turning his back on his national father—began to criticize the perceived impiety of his country of origin.

Schiffauer gives his Prodigal Son paradigm a gendered twist in his chapter on Fatma Eren, the only female guest worker he interviewed, whose rebellion came in her “conflict with the male order” (196). For Schiffauer, Fatma’s decision to migrate to Germany in 1972 was an act of “self-confidence” (218) that marked the beginning of her transition from “passivity” to “authority” (215), from “speechlessness” to “dominance in familial discourse” (220). Proudly describing herself as “the only woman” (202) from her entire province to emigrate before her husband, Fatma quickly became her family’s primary breadwinner; her perpetually unemployed husband handled the shopping and cooking, and the couple developed a “remarkably egalitarian mode of conflict resolution” (203). This role reversal, made possible because of the international market for labor migration, solidified Fatma’s “position of strength relative to her husband” (218). In accessing this predominantly male domain, Fatma, as the “prodigal daughter,” subverted the metaphorical father and–as in the cases of Süleyman and Yaşar–gained a deeper understanding of herself, her capabilities, and her voice.

While Schiffauer achieves his goal of rescuing migrants’ voices from the erasure of quantitative approaches, his work is mired in a theoretical problem. Like many of his contemporaries, Schiffauer relies on a binary understanding of “Europe” and “Turkey”: modern versus traditional, industrial versus agrarian, free versus restricted, and—most importantly for his argument—individually versus socially oriented. In this journey from darkness to light, it is not the migrants themselves but rather European industrial society that emerges as the main actor in producing their self-knowledge. By positioning the modernity of Europe against the supposed “backwardness” of a Turkish society stuck in the past, Schiffauer inadvertently reinforces tropes of Turkish inassimibility that still fuel the fire of popular anti-immigrant nativism today. Given the compassion with which he relays the migrants’ experiences, this was surely not his intention.

Schiffauer’s Eurocentric teleology is instructive, however, for it reminds us of how firmly modernization theory was entrenched in both the global geopolitical climate and the social sciences at the time. The notion that underdeveloped countries—often derided as “backwards” or “primitive”—could modernize through exposure to European industrialization was at the core of the 1961 Turkish-German guest worker recruitment agreement, with the Turkish government expecting that guest workers would serve their home country’s macroeconomic goals by returning from West Germany with knowledge, skills, and—most importantly—Deutschmarks. As my research reveals, these ideas persisted well through the 1980s, as the West German government pursued a two-pronged strategy to persuade unwanted members of the Turkish immigrant population to leave: offering them a one-time cash outlay as “remigration assistance,” and granting the Turkish government development aid to create factory jobs for returning guest workers. Within this context, even social scientists’ most genuine attempts to highlight migrants’ agency and shifting self-knowledge could often remain grounded in neoliberal tropes.

In recent years, Schiffauer has turned away from studying migrant experiences, and—as academia has become increasingly skeptical of neoliberalism—modernization theory has faded from his work. Today, his research centers on a vastly different topic: Germans’ tolerance of Islam (particularly political “Islamism” or “Islamic extremism”) and its relationship to state security and counterterrorism.5 As before, these topics reflect the context in which he is writing. As Germans have increasingly accustomed themselves to the presence of migrants—finally accepting the reality that Germany, in 2019, is irrefutably a “country of immigration” (Einwanderungsland)—social scientists’ quest to understand new immigrants’ experiences has somewhat faded. Rather, in a post-9/11 world, the reigning topics of the day reflect Europeans’ growing association of Islam not only with symbols of cultural difference—such as the mosques and headscarves so prominent in 1980s discussions of Turkish guest workers—but also, predominantly, with terrorism. While studying these topics is both timely and important, it has the unintended consequence of reinforcing sensationalist far-right discourses that portray migrants as an inassimilable security threat.

As we consider new approaches to the histories of migration and knowledge, Schiffauer’s decades-old study of the tense “father-son” relationship has much to offer. Motivated by our interest in contemporary debates (and, for funding purposes, pressed to justify the relevance of our scholarship), we tend to confine our questions to the geographic boundaries of host societies. We ask how host societies respond to the presence of migrants, how migrants interact with host populations, and how migrants carve out their own spaces in—and, in turn, fundamentally reshape—host societies. This approach, however, generally downplays a crucial reality: migrants have lives of their own before they arrive in host societies, and they never cease to maintain ties, whether physical or emotional, to the homelands they leave behind. These entanglements guide my own research, which explores, from the 1960s through the 1990s, how the Turkish population in Turkey gradually came to deride guest worker families as “Germanized” and no longer “fully Turkish,” ultimately rendering the migrants foreign in both of the countries they considered home. My research thus aligns with a fundamental premise of Schiffauer’s older work: migration means not only immigration, but also emigration, and migrants experience parallel difficulties not only integrating in host societies but also reintegrating in their own homeland. To fully understand the complexities of migration, we must also consider the range of connections that migrants maintain (or choose not to maintain) to the places, family, and friends they leave behind.

Michelle Lynn Kahn is assistant professor of modern European history at the University of Richmond. Her Twitter handle is @MichelleLKahn.


  1. See, for several of many examples, Alex Gorlach, “To Integrate the New Refugees, Germany Must Avoid Its Mistakes With Turkish Immigrants,” The Huffington Post, September 17, 2015, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/refugees-germany-turkey-immigrants_b_8148264; Claudia Wagner, “Flüchtlingsbeauftragte wollen ‘Fehler der Vergangenheit vermeiden,'” Südkurier, October 20, 2016, https://www.suedkurier.de/region/kreis-konstanz/konstanz/Fluechtlingsbeauftragte-wollen-Fehler-der-Vergangenheit-vermeiden;art372448,8960128; Dorothea Siems, “Bloß nicht die Fehler mit den Gastarbeitern wiederholen!,” Die Welt, October 16, 2017, https://www.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article169657060/Bloss-nicht-die-Fehler-mit-den-Gastarbeitern-wiederholen.html; Christian Osthold, “Bei Migration kann Deutschland aus seinen Fehlern der Vergangenheit lernen,” Focus Online, October 27, 2018, https://www.focus.de/politik/experten/osthold/gastbeitrag-bei-migration-kann-deutschland-aus-vergangenen-fehlern-lernen_id_9801781.html. ↩︎
  2. Werner Schiffauer, Die Migranten aus Subay: Türken in Deutschland: Eine Ethnographie (Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, 1991). ↩︎
  3. Schiffauer cites a number of like-minded scholars who approach Turkish-German migration from a biographical perspective: Barbara Wolbert, Migrationsbewältigung: Orientierungen und Strategien: Biografisch-interpretive Fallstudien über die “Heirats-Migration” dreier Türkinnen (Göttingen: Edition Herodot, 1984); Ingrid Pfluger-Schindlbech, “Achte die Älteren, liebe die Jüngeren”: Sozialisation türkisch-alevitischer Kinder im Heimatland und in der Migration (Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum, 1989); Ursula Mihçiyazgan, Wir haben uns vergessen: Ein interkultureller Vergleich türkischer Lebensgeschichten (Hamburg: Rissen, 1986). ↩︎
  4. See Hartmut Esser, Aspekte der Wanderungssoziologie: Assimilation und Integration von Wanderern, ethnologische Gruppen und Minderheiten: Eine handlungstheoretische Analyse (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1980). ↩︎
  5. Among many examples of Schiffauer’s recent publications, see: “Politiken der Toleranz: Gewährung und Begrenzung von Freiräumen für den Islam in Deutschland,” in Of ‘Contact Zones’ and ‘Liminal Spaces’: Mapping the Everyday Life of Cultural Translation, ed. Ursula Lehmkuhl et al. (Münster: Waxmann, 2015), 73–96; and “Sicherheitswissen und Deradikalisierung,” in Handlungsempfehlungen zur Auseinandersetzung mit islamischen Extremismus und Islamfeindlichkeit. Arbeitsergebnisse eines Expertengremiums der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, ed. Dietmar Molthagen (Berlin: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2015), 217–42. ↩︎
Suggested citation: Michelle Lynn Kahn, “Rebels against the Homeland: Turkish Guest Workers in 1980s West German Anthropology,” Migrant Knowledge, October 23, 2019, https://migrantknowledge.org/2019/10/23/rebels-against-the-homeland/.