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Radical History Review 83 (2002) 44-72

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Imagining a German Multiculturalism:
Aras Ören and the Contested Meanings of the "Guest Worker," 1955-1980

Rita C.-K. Chin


Over the past fifteen years, numerous economic, political, and literary studies of the so-called Gastarbeiter (guest worker) question have provided a much fuller and more meaningful portrait of the Federal Republic of Germany's labor recruitment program following World War II. Yet these various modes of scholarship have remained largely insulated from one another, divided by their respective disciplinary concerns. Social scientists have focused on questions of economic advantage, policy making, and demographic change, but they have tended to ignore the broader cultural impact and the publicly debated meanings of the recruitment. 1 Conversely, literary scholars have often presented the government treaties as static political precursors to the emergence of an evolving cultural production by minorities: "official" policy serves as historical prologue, followed by a series of counterhegemonic literary maneuvers. 2

At this point, it seems worth examining these transnational histories in tandem, especially in the context of the early 1970s, a juncture that has figured prominently in the previous scholarship. Social scientists have highlighted 1973 as the official endpoint of recruitment, a major change in the government's labor policy with significant consequences for the demographics of foreign workers in the Federal Republic. Literary scholars, meanwhile, have marked these years as the beginning of [End Page 44] Gastarbeiter- or Ausländerliteratur, emphasizing the critical moment when artists and intellectuals from those same immigrant groups began to publish works in German. But we have never really taken into account the historical proximity of these two watersheds: the fact that Gastarbeiterliteratur emerged at almost the same time that the category of guest worker underwent fundamental redefinition. Nor have we explored their reciprocal relation, the ways in which minority literature both grew out of and simultaneously altered public discussions of the guest worker. My argument here is that the early 1970s marked the crucial moment when these two modes of representation converged as minority literature came into explicit dialogue with government rhetoric. Both policy making and cultural production, in other words, need to be understood as constituent parts of an ongoing and contested discourse surrounding the guest worker—a discourse that did not simply begin or end during the early 1970s, but that, more accurately, shifted. 3

This discursive shift complicates both of the conventional historical narratives about the labor recruitment. Early policy statements, for example, require examination not only in terms of what they said, but also how they were articulated. In what ways did government officials, industry leaders, and journalists talk about and promote the recruitment program to the German public? What image of the guest worker emerged in the official pronouncements, and what did these images omit? On the other hand, if the first literary works produced by minority writers added "a new voice" to public discussions about the guest worker, how exactly did these minority expressions attempt to complicate and contest the earlier policy statements? 4 And in what ways did they differ from other contemporary critiques of the labor importation issued by German intellectuals such as Günter Wallraff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Max Frisch?

These interrelated questions about the postwar labor recruitment and its discursive construction constitute the central theme of my essay. The Turkish-German intellectual, Aras Ören, who perhaps more than anyone else reshaped the boundaries of public debate about the guest worker after 1970, figures as the key player in my story. Ören first articulated his views on the Gastarbeiter in the Berlin Trilogie (1973-80), a collection of three poetic cycles loosely narrating the everyday lives and concerns of both Turkish and German workers in Berlin's Kreuzberg district. Although he wrote these texts in Turkish, he collaborated in their immediate translation into German, redirecting his work toward a much broader German-speaking audience. Ören, then, did not just add a "Turkish voice" to the public debates about the labor recruitment. He also added a...


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pp. 44-72
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Archived 2004
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