'Celebration of Our Common Cultural Life'



Sixty years ago the Federal Republic of Germany signed the recruitment agreement with Turkey. According to the literary scholar Nesrin Tanç, the perspective of the so-called 'guest workers' is still missing from the official memory. She examined this blank in a study for the ifa research program 'Culture and Foreign Policy'. In the interview, she talks about causes and offers recommendations.

People are on the street and there is a stand with balloons
District festival with families of Turkish guest workers on 01 August 1984 in Duisburg-Hüttenheim, © picture alliance/Roland Scheidemann

ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): For the ifa research program, you looked into the remembrance of the 'guest workers' from Turkey in Germany. The study is entitled 'Ne Kaldi?', which means something like 'What's left?' How would you answer that question?

Bride and groom surrounded by people
A Turkish family celebrated a 'large wedding for international understanding' on 28 June 1986. All interested citizens were invited to the wedding celebration, © picture alliance/Franz-Peter Tschauner

Nesrin Tanç: On the one hand, we have a diverse society today; Germany has become a country of immigration. But controversies have remained, especially on domestic and foreign policy issues. Think of the so-called 'EU refugee Agreement' with Turkey or the Turkish diaspora policy, which has repeatedly led to polarizing images promoted by the mass media and violent movements in the population. Of course, there also remain the human connections within the community of memory, its rituals and narratives. For example, as the first large Muslim community in Germany, having helped shape Germany as a country of immigration.

Put What We Have In Common In The Foreground

ifa: According to your study, these narratives have so far hardly played a role in the German culture of remembrance and in cultural practice and research. Why is that?

Tanç: The main reason for this is integration policy. We've failed to pursue an integration policy aimed specifically at the so-called 'guest workers' from Turkey – on the level of both cultural and educational policy. We must now promote this integration. The problem, however, is that the second and third generation of guest workers, now, 60 years later, no longer want to talk about integration – and rightly so, because they have now long been part of this society. We have to give up the concept of integration and instead put what we have in common in the foreground. And that includes the cultural intertwining that began 60 years ago with the recruitment agreement and the migration that went with it.

A Recognition Strategy Is Necessary

ifa: In the study, you speak of a lack of expertise as one of the reasons for this missing perspective up to now. Can you explain that?

Tanç: There's a lack of multilingual staff at cultural institutions, that is, at museums, archives and theatres, but also at educational and advanced training institutions. Take, for example, the literature of the immigrants from Turkey, which still has only partially or not at all been translated into German. But there's also a lack of materials, formats and strategies to convey the narratives of the memory community. And this is exactly where research plays an important part. To date, there's only one degree program in Germany that deals with the culture and literature of Turkey. The study therefore calls for the establishment of humanities centres in Germany that deal with both Turkey and the cultural life of the 'guest workers' who came to Germany from Turkey. This includes networking and coordination offices to translate the results of research into practice. That would be part of the recognition strategy which we urgently need.

Photo Nesrin Tanç
Nesrin Tanç, © Fatih Kurçeren
Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, his wife Elke Büdenbender, Atila Karabörklü and Robert Fuchs in front of an exhibit.
At the ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the Recruitment Agreement between Germany and Turkey, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (l) and his wife Elke Büdenbender (2nd from left) were given a guided tour of the DOMiD exhibition at the House of World Cultures by Atila Karabörklü and Robert Fuchs (r), © picture alliance/dpa/Bernd von Jutrczenka

ifa: Monuments for guest workers and immigration are under discussion in various German cities. The former Chancellor Merkel recently paid tribute to the 'lifetime achievement of the so-called guest workers' with a ceremony. Are these further correct steps on the way to a recognition strategy?

Tanç: They are important steps, but the commitment must continue. Currently I see a big 'firework' of events, ceremonies and programs, but unfortunately I also see things coming to an end. The celebration of common values and common cultural life shouldn't take place only once in a blue moon – it should be consolidated and sustained! In addition, the memory community and the local remembrance culture players should become much more engaged in the programs and events. This includes the civil society initiatives that have formed as a result of the NSU murders and attacks such as those in Solingen, Mölln and other places. And they should also be allocated scope for remembrance and design. What we need are decentralized places of remembrance and discourse spaces that allow us to continually shape and reflect on cultural life here and in Turkey – apart from integration and security issues and beyond monuments.

The celebration of common values and common cultural life shouldn't take place only once in a blue moon – it should be consolidated and sustained!

ifa: One of your recommendations for foreign cultural and educational policy (AKBP) is to strengthen civil society actors in Germany and Turkey. What would that look like in specific terms?

Tanç: As part of the recognition strategy, the field of foreign policy should be closely linked to the formation of cultures of remembrance and cultural practices in Germany. This requires the already mentioned permanent centres of culture of remembrance, which can guarantee the networking and coordination of actors from science, scholarship and culture with places of foreign culture. But also at the already existing AKBP locations in Turkey, programs and events should be created that regularly deal with the so-called guest workers' culture of remembrance – in cooperation with local civil society players. This includes, for example, the Anadolu Kültür foundation of the imprisoned cultural worker and activist Osman Kavala, which has been campaigning for human rights and understanding between Europe and Turkey for almost 20 years. This civil society dialogue must not be broken off.


Interview by Juliane Pfordte

About Nesrin Tanç

Portrait of Nesrin Tanç

Nesrin Tanç

Cultural and literary scholar, consultant, author

Nesrin Tanç works as a freelance cultural and literary scholar, consultant, author and finished her doctoral thesis at the Institute for Turkish Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen on the topic of the cultural and literary heritage of immigrants from Turkey in the Ruhr area. Her research focuses on the culture and literature of the immigrant society.

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