“Foreign Guest Workers” or “Guest Foreign Workers”?

Posted by John Rosenthal

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

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.)

Comments are closed.