Stories of migration

50 Years of Greeks in Germany – A Success Story

© Ewe Degiampietro -© Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg, Sammlung KilianHalf a century after the bilateral labour agreement with Athens for the recruitment of Greek “guest workers” in industry and handicraft, many of them have now built up a permanent existence in their adopted homeland.

They are among the best integrated nationalities in Germany. Their children and grandchildren, not a few of whom have found a German partner for life, have a good education, hold leading positions and are a vital part of many areas of art and culture.

“We didn’t ask about the quality of the work, whether it was hard or easy; that wasn’t important for us. The main thing was to have work so that we could survive and send our families a bit of money so that they could live a little better”, says Costas Alexandridis in the immigration Audio Archive, explaining his motives for following his brother to Germany as a young man. That was in 1961, in the year after the signing of the labour recruitment agreement (the third of its kind), which Germany during its “economic miracle” concluded with the Greek government so as to meet its labour needs and which celebrated its 50th anniversary on March 30, 2010.

One in ten left

© D. Ott - Fotolia.comOn the second day after the signing ceremony the German Federal Labour Office already opened a branch in Athens, the Germaniken Epitropin en Elladi (German Commission in Greece). In order to cope with the tremendous onrush, further offices had to be established in the following years in Thessalonica and other capitals of the northern provinces. The rural regions of Epirus, Macedonia and Thrace had not only been hard hit by the consequences of World War II and the Greek civil war, they were also regarded since the crisis of the tobacco industry as the poor houses of Greece and were suffering at this time particularly high unemployment. While men emigrated as a rule at ages between 25 and 34, women, who constituted up to 58 per cent of the first wave of immigrants, set out on the average of ten years sooner.

Not all who sought their luck in Germany were welcomed with open arms. One barrier proved to be the mandatory health check, bound up with the acquisition of the prassina charta or green card. From hernia to recent tuberculosis, the check looked for all ailments and diseases that could render the applicant unfit for the hard physical work on the assembly line, the blast furnace or the construction site. Lack of technical or language skills, on the other hand, were not a concern. Over the years an estimated one million people, almost one in ten Greeks, took the journey into the unknown, to a country of whose inhabitants they had had no or only little experience as children, when the German army occupied Greece during the Second World War.

Orphaned villages

© Colourbox.comUntil the general recruitment freeze in 1973, the German Commission in Greece had provided 382,000 jobs; the high point was 1970, with 50,000. There were another 60,000 that had obtained the necessary papers from the embassy or consulates and a high number of unreported illegal immigrants that had set out trusting to their luck. One of these was Costas Alexandridis, who, lacking an employment contract, camouflaged himself on the road with his friends as a student. “We had English magazines and newspapers. We couldn’t read English, but we pretended that we were learning to do so.”

The Greek labour migration was strongly shaped by ethnic clannishness and “chain migration”. It was not uncommon that all the Greek immigrants in some German cities came from the same region. There were villages in Greece that lost half their population. Only those who were too old and ill or too young to work abroad remained behind. “Many families have been destroyed”, lamented the community leader Savas Deligiannidis in a report by the news magazine Der Spiegel in 1971. The Greek newspaper To Vima compared the effects of the mass exodus to the scourges of war: “Whole villages have been deserted, fields lie fallow, sources of wealth remain untapped”.

On the average well-integrated

Greek market in Germany in the Seventies; © Bernadino Di Croce - Verein Migration und Integration e.V.The Greek military junta, which putsched its way to power in 1967, attempted to deal with problems that the depletion of the labour market presented domestic industry by means of rigid control of emigration. There were times when only women and agricultural workers received exit permits. The junta, however, which ruled until 1974, had little interest in homecomers – not only because Germany had developed into a centre for political exiles and regime opponents, but also because the regime urgently depended on the flow of foreign exchange that Greek families abroad steadily sent home.

Today the 354,000 people of Greek descent in Germany represent the fourth largest group of immigrants, and with an average of 20 years time of residence are in international comparison even the frontrunners. A third live in North Rhine-Westphalia, over 107,000 in Baden-Württemberg, and about 80,000 in Bavaria. In spite of their and their children’s excellent integration, especially the older generation (45,000 of the Greek living in Germany are over 60) cleaves to the values that they brought with them from their homeland. This is reflected in lively church, sport and cultural societies and associations. Nationwide, there exist 144 Greek communities with 60,000 members. They are relicts of the time when homesick Greek guest workers, lacking money and alternative recreations, used to meet at train stations to revel in nostalgia and wistfully gaze at the trains leaving for their homeland.

Roland Detsch
works as a free-lance editor, journalist and author in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
November 2010

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