The role of Turkish immigrants in the construction of European memory

By Gizem Ozturk Erdem | 25 September 2011

To quote this document: Gizem Ozturk Erdem, “The role of Turkish immigrants in the construction of European memory ”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Sunday 25 September 2011,, displayed on 03 February 2023

When the membership process of Turkey to the European Union is mentioned, one of the first questions that come to mind is concerns Turkey's place in the history of Europe. If we try to answer the question from the perspective of Turkish immigrants in Europe, it may be asked whether Turkish immigrants have contributed to the European Memory or not, and if so, to what extent.

If we want to bring a definition to the term of individual memory, we can define it as the process of recovering information about past events or knowledge. But this process can be constructed in time or reconstructed. Memory is not static but dynamic. When it comes to the definition of European memory, we can easily find similarities with the individual memory of each person, of each society and Europe has a memory based on past events but which is also shaped day by day.

Nowadays it is difficult to speak of a collective past when we observe the huge differences even at regional level between European countries. But many scholars refer to some important events like Nazism, Communism, and World War II when they try to define European Memory. However, at first glance, even if European memory effectively seems to be based on these 3 important facts of the European collective history, when we seek a more in depth analysis on how different European nations experienced these periods, we can easily see that there is no such thing as collective memory. In other words, Poland and France have no collective memory of communism, in the same way as Germany does not share a common memory of Nazism with the other European countries. 

After this brief definition of the terms of individual memory and European memory we should now focus on the role of Turkish immigrants in the construction of European memory. When we talk about Turkish immigrants, we refer to the estimated population of Turkish people in the world migrated outside of Turkey. But in this paper we will especially focus on Turkish immigrants in Europe.

Post-war migration of Turks to Europe began with ‘guest workers’ who arrived under the terms of a Labour Export Agreement with Germany in October 1961, followed by a similar agreement with the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria in 1964; France in 1965 and Sweden in 1967 . Nowadays, there are nearly 4 millions of Turks in Germany, 600 000 in France, 500 000 in the United Kingdom, 500 000 in Netherlands, 350 000 in Austria and 200 000 in Belgium. However these numbers do not take into account the numbers of illegal Turkish immigrants. As we have already stated, 1961 is a crucial date for Turkish immigration in Germany. According to the German employment policy of this time, Turkish immigrants were simply seen as guest workers (“Gastarbeiter”), who were welcomed by their employers with flowers and with traditional Turkish folk costumes. These employers were convinced that once the contracts of Turkish immigrants would come to an end, they would return to their homeland. However, after the 1973 oil crisis, Turkish immigrants decided not to return their homeland but to stay in Germany, in order to prevent the economic destabilization of their families. This opened a new chapter of Turkish immigration in Europe.

In the initital years of Turkish immigrations in Europe we observe only 400 thousand Turks in Western Europe but in 1973 this number increased to 135.000. With this increase, other problems began to surface such as the arrival of other family members. Unconsciously, Turkish immigrants became important actors in the construction of the post war European memory and history .They became so important that several European governments including Germany and France started to reflect on new concepts and new models of society, such as integration, assimilation and multiculturalism.This was particularly the case when Turkish immigrants arrived in Germany, the German Public authorities started to realize that Turkish immigrants were not only guest workers but also human beings like any other of the world’s people With this important shift in approach, immigration became a crucial issue which triggered endless debates all over Europe.

At first glance, the first effect on Turkish immigration seems to be an negative one but it plays a positive role on the construction of European memory. In fact, the first generation of Turkish immigrants who arrived to Germany in 1960’s had important problems of integration into the German Society. So this first generation was rapidly transformed into « the other », which made Europeans start to question their own identity. In the eyes of many Germans, this unknown and savage other was Muslim, uneducated and clandestine, excluded from the society and responsible for all the social problems in the country such as crime, rape, robbery. This “otherness” of the Turkish immigrants surely created several problems linked to the mutual incomprehension between nations but surprisingly it also contributed to open up European perceptions for the next generations on several important questions such as the place of Islam in Europe (Turks are not the only representatives of Muslim cultures), the role of women in society and of course the increasingly important role of Turkey in the globalized world. This otherness, instead of being a source of obstacle in the evolution of mentalities, contributed to enrich the debate surrounding the construction of European Memory and conducted European People to reflect on how they were and what they would like to become in the future in comparison to this « other ».



The second effect of Turkish immigrants to the construction of European Memory is extremely positive. The second and the third generations of Turkish immigrants were much more integrated into the European Societies into which they were born, particularly in comparison to first generation immigrants who were completely excluded from the society they chose to live in. These two generations slowly but surely started to participate actively to the social, cultural, economic and political lives of the European countries where they were born. After all, despite unsuccessful attempts to europeanize the first generation of Turkish immigrants, it may not be a mistake to claim that the second and the third generations of Turkish immigrants were not europeanized but simply Europeans. To give some examples we can refer to Turkish immigrant families where the father speaks turkish however his children only speak German, French or English. These european generations has made exchanges easier between Turkish immigrants and the european societies in which they have been living.

Finally the third effect of the Turkish immigrants on the construction of the European memory is to convince European Nations of the necessity to create a multicultural union or rather a union of differences in this area and time of globalization. Only in this way can European memory be enriched day by day through the confrontation of different cultures, traditions, customs and perceptions.

So the fear of the « other  » has finally been replaced by the curiosity to discover the specific characteristics of this other. Therefore, rather than creating conflicts, these different people are brought closer together.

To conclude, in this love/hate story we can say that « the positive and negative effects of Turkish immigrants on European Societies work simultaneously in order to transform these immigrants into crucial and indispensable elements in the construction of European memory.So we can question whether or not this improved image of Turkish immigrants in Europe facilitates Turkey’s path into the European Union. We must wait and see...

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe website