Wednesday, June 29, 2005

"Foreign Guest Workers" or "Guest Foreign Workers"?

(With Update)

On the American Future blog, Marc Schulman points to an English-language offering on Spiegel Online that accuses renegade former SPD Party Chair Oskar Lafontaine of right-wing "populism" (or, more exactly, "run-of-the-mill populism", whatever that is supposed to be), and thereby implicitly racism, for having used the word Fremdarbeiter. The expression is quite simply the literal German translation of "foreign worker", of which there are in fact more than a few in Germany and about whom it can hardly be especially controversial to talk. But the Spiegel's eagle-eyed observer Charles Hawley knows otherwise, since as he points out: "that, after all, is what Hitler called them". By "them", Mr. Hawley apparently means the foreign workers employed in the Nazi Reich, albeit - happily for present day circumstances - for the most part under rather different conditions than the foreign workers employed in Germany today.

In any case, this accusation is sure to become a commonplace in English-language treatments of German politics in the weeks ahead. If the Spiegel says it, the NYTimes cannot be far behind. (The same rule, incidentally, works in reverse as concerns American politics.) So, permit me to reproduce here my comment to Marc's post:

There are many reasons to dislike Oskar Lafontaine. Racism has never been one of them. It is normal for a politician to be concerned about the effects of immigration on the state budget, as well indeed as on social equilibrium of various sorts. This is not tantamount to being opposed to immigration and it is certainly not tantamount to being racist. (The same observations, btw, could be made vis-a-vis the case of Pim Fortuyn, who paid with his life for such distortions.) Because of the racist [or, if one prefers, "racialist"] definition of nationality in German law - about which you will not read anything in the Spiegel - and the immigration privileges accorded to "German nationals", i.e. "ethnic" Germans, from other countries, most immigration to Germany in the last 15 years has been precisely of such "ethnic Germans". Oskar Lafontaine loudly criticized the budgetary effects of this, in effect, "open door" policy for "ethnic" Germans - a stance that took some courage or perhaps recklessness, since the topic is taboo in Germany, where "solidarity" with "other" Germans, i.e in the ethnic sense, is taken for granted.

In general, I would recommend taking everything you read in Spiegel's English service with a large grain of salt. The German version looks very different. The English version is taqqiya...


The German version of Spiegel Online divulges that its crack team of researchers had discovered the same alleged "Nazi term" Fremdarbeiter on two sites connected to the SPD – hardly an astonishing discovery given that the term is used in both cases in the context of discussing European labor markets and precisely, uh,... foreign workers. But since Lafontaine committed his alleged faux pas on June 17, one of the two sites has deleted the term and substituted for it the in Germany more common – and apparently too politically more acceptable – term Gastarbeiter or “guest worker”. On a little reflection, however, it is evident that it is precisely the term “guest worker” that is the problematic one, since it not only implies that the workers in question are (horrors) foreign, since otherwise they would not have to be “invited”, but that they will stay that way: i.e. that their residence in Germany is in principle limited and always remains at the discretion of their German “hosts”. This is in fact the assumption upon which the major waves of labor immigration to Germany in the 1960s and 1970s took place. And, despite the partial liberalization of German citizenship law in 1999, it continues to be the assumption that obtains today, even though in the meanwhile generations of “guest workers” – note the bizarreness of this formula “generations of guest workers” that in Germany is, nonetheless, banal – have become de facto permanent residents. The legal treatment of these "guest workers" contrasts markedly with that of "ethnic German" immigrants who have a virtually automatic claim to German citizenship (since, in the sense of nationality peculiar to German law, they are recognized as being already "German nationals").

(Note: For more on the history of “guest workers” in Germany, see, for example, Rogers Brubaker’s Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany, an Amazon link to which is available in the sidebar. And for comments of mine on the Brubaker book that might help to clarify some of the above distinctions, see the annotated version of my "Völkisch" Ideology Reading List.)