In the 1950s, West Germany growingly needed workers to meet employer demand, since West Germany’s economy was booming at that point. Simultaneously, the West German state did not favour German women joining the workforce (Stokes, 2022). Thus, it sought new sources of labour. Meanwhile, the governments of Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey initiated negotiations with West Germany to regulate at least part of their migration (Steinert, 2014). As a result, from the mid-1950s on, West Germany signed several agreements with Southern European countries. These agreements facilitated and standardised the influx of migrant workers from those countries to West Germany. These included the following: Italy (1955), Greece (1960), Spain (1960), Turkey (1961), and Yugoslavia (1968). According to the agreements, those workers were ‘guests’ and would stay in West Germany as long as they worked. Once they stopped working, they were expected to leave.
The number of migrants moving to West Germany from southern Europe increased quickly and substantially. Between 1961 and 1973, the number of Greeks in West Germany rose from 42,000 to 408,000 (Möhring, 2012). Those Greek migrants were usually young and both men and women. The working conditions of Greek migrant women were worse than those of their male compatriots: they were often assigned to positions that supposedly required fewer skills, and, therefore, their salaries were lower. Meanwhile, female and male migrants, including spouses, often had to live in different Heime [accommodation halls].
The West German state was suspicious of migrants being involved in politics. This attitude was clear in the aliens’ law passed in 1965 (Schönwälder, 2001). This law did not permit migrant political activity if such activity was deemed contrary to ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ as conceived by the West German state. If the latter decided that migrants overstepped the boundaries of legality with their militancy, they could face sanctions and even deportation.
Migrants from Southern Europe who lived in West Germany, however, were never ‘passive’ politically. In the 1960s, some participated in wildcat or go-slow strikes (Goeke, 2020). Meanwhile, many Greek migrants had become members or sympathisers of Greek left-wing organisations, especially EDA (Eniaia Dimokratiki Aristera, United Democratic Left). EDA in West Germany was the most successful in recruiting Greek migrants compared to EDA branches elsewhere in Western Europe. Young EDA members participated in the Ostermarsch [Easter marches for peace] in the early-to-mid 1960s (Papadogiannis, 2014). Greek migrant workers, alongside other migrants, also got involved in emerging protests about the conditions of their accommodation, such as gender-segregated halls (Goeke, 2020). In 1966, OEK [Omospondia Ellinikon Koinotiton, the Federation of Greek Communities] was founded and engaged with the social and economic challenges that it believed that Greek migrants were facing in West Germany.
1: Photo exhibition of EDA on the lives of Greek migrants. Courtesy of Lefteris Xanthos and ASKI (Contemporary Social History Archives, Athens). Photo entitled ‘in the factories of Germany’ taken by Simos Ioannidis and awarded the second prize in a competition run by EDA.
2.1 to 2.7: Document containing the decisions of the first congress of OEK in 1966. Courtesy of OEK. Key issues outlined in this text are:
- the revision of the agreement between West Germany and Greece regarding the recruitment of Greek migrant workers
- the education of children of Greek origin living in West Germany
- the family issues that Greek migrants were facing in West Germany
- the problems that Greek migrants faced at the workplace and
- the involvement of Greek migrant workers in the West German trade unions