An Economic and Historical Analysis of Turkish Guest Worker Migration To Postwar West Germany

Open Access
Weaver, Chloe Quinn
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Tobias Heinrich Albert Brinkmann, Thesis Supervisor
  • Dr. Michael James Milligan, Honors Advisor
  • Samuel Mark Frederick, Honors Advisor
  • History
  • Germany
  • West Germany
  • Turkey
  • Labor
  • Migration
  • Economics
  • Postwar
  • Guest Workers
  • Mercedes-Benz
This honors thesis investigates Turkish guest worker migration to postwar West Germany and examines the role of migrant labor in West Germany’s productive capacity and resulting wage levels. First, I establish the basic initiating mechanism of the guest worker program by narrating the turbulent economic times from 1945-1961. While West Germany experienced rapid economic growth (the “Economic Miracle”), Turkey dealt with increasing unemployment and political corruption. Thus, both countries had an incentive to transfer Turkey’s excess labor supply to meet West Germany’s strong labor demand. Next, I use historical analysis of newspaper articles, demographic records, and government documents to look at the immediate costs and consequences of the guest worker program, signed in 1961, for both the West German and Turkish macro economies. West Germany, due to its declining native labor force but rapidly expanding physical capital, effectively plugged foreign laborers into its production function, leading to more production, more sales, more profits, and therefore higher wages. Meanwhile, Turkey struggled with agricultural reform and fallow industrial resources, only strengthening the “pull” of West Germany for unemployed Turkish workers looking for a better life. In my third chapter, I use Daimler-Benz, a major auto manufacturer in West Germany, as a case study to economically analyze how this counterintuitive phenomenon—that guest worker migration ultimately enabled a growth in the overall wage level—acted on a microeconomic level. Finally, I look at the consequences of the 1973 economic downturn for the guest worker program. When West Germany officially cancelled worker recruitment in November 1973, the Bonn government, which had treated guest workers only as imported man-hours and refused to integrate them since 1961, unintentionally created a minority of permanent Turkish residents. This shift from “transient worker population” to “permanent ethnic minority” has created social tensions between native Germans and Turkish residents that persist even in modern-day Germany. I challenge the conventional scholarship that focuses almost exclusively on social factors such as xenophobia as the origins of present-day tensions and argue the economic circumstances that brought Turks over to West Germany and then cemented them as a permanent minority offers a much more precise understanding of how and why Turks became the largest ethnic minority in Germany.