A Short History of Turkish Berlin

There’s more to Turkish culture in Berlin than kebabs and flamboyant weddings. Ian Farrell explores a fascinating relationship that spans over three centuries…

Sickly-sweet pastry shops, jubilant convoys of honking wedding cars, the Döner Kebap – anyone who has spent any time in modern Berlin cannot have failed to notice a prominent pattern of Turkish influence woven into the city’s rich cultural tapestry.

In fact, over 7% of Berlin’s population is made up of people of Turkish descent; a sizeable portion that has played no small part in making Germany’s capital what it is today.

But when we’re watching Mesut Özil score for the national football team, out looking for a late night snack or sipping our early morning coffee, it’s all too easy to overlook the importance this particular group of ex-pats has in the wider context of Berlin’s history, reducing them instead to a mere culinary or pop-culture anecdote.

Why have so many Turks chosen Berlin as their land of opportunity? How have they influenced the city’s development? And how have they reconciled the differences between the Wurst und Bier of Germany and their own cultural traditions?

Berlin’s history of Turkish relations goes back further than you might think. As far back as 1761 – before either Turkey or Germany even officially existed as we know them today – King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia made a trade agreement with Mustafa III’s Ottoman Empire, which at the time spanned much of Eastern Europe, as well as parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Once the Ottoman army retreated from their unsuccessful campaign at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, many soldiers and camp followers were left behind. At least 500 Turkish prisoners were forcibly settled in Germany. Image: Sipahis at the Battle of Vienna. Public Domain.

Though originally intended as a military alliance against their long-standing mutual foe, Austria, the collaboration never actually got that far. What it did give us, though, was the first example of Turkish influence in German culture: a permanent Ottoman Embassy was set up in Berlin, and a fashion for all things Turkish grew throughout the population.

Prussians began to imitate their new allies in everyday life, and for some time, turbans were all the rage in high Berlin society – evidence that Berlin’s wacky fashion sense is by no means exclusive to the modern hipster.

Coffee, still a relatively new phenomenon, became more easily importable and readily available to the working classes, and was lapped up with gusto – so much so that it was banned by King Friedrich II in 1781, in an attempt to reduce import costs. But this only served to increase its popularity, and the magic bean was increasingly smuggled in or replaced by the charmingly-named Muckefuck, a chicory-based substitute that took its moniker from a Berlinerisch approximation of the term “mocca faux”.

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The Türkenmode continued unabated for several decades, reaching its peak when Friedrich Wilhelm III chose to honour the city’s Ottoman Ambassador by burying him under the Tempelhofer Feld, then a prestigious parade ground.

The lavish procession was the first public Islamic ceremony to be held in Berlin, and the Prussian population’s fascination with this exotic culture swelled accordingly. The burial ground itself was given as a gift to the Ottoman Empire, and is now the site of the impressive Şehitlik Mosque (see image above).

By the time the First World War came around, a small community had built up around the ambassadors and their families, though there was little mingling with the natives on a day-to-day basis. Military staff were also shipped to Berlin over the next few years, and when the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, Germany quickly became its biggest trading partner. However, this failed to trigger any real increase in immigration, largely due to the unstable political situation between the wars.

Şehitlik-Moschee in Berlin. Image by Avda via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

It wasn’t until the dust from World War II had settled and the new political lines were drawn in the sand (and marked with a certain wall) that the Turkish population in Berlin experienced its next boom.

In October 1961, eleven weeks after West Berlin was first bricked off and isolated from surrounding East Germany, the Turkish government signed an agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany to allow Turkish citizens to move to West Germany in order to boost its workforce.

Losses in the war had taken their toll, and if the Allies wanted to prevent “their” part of Germany falling into Soviet hands, they would have to ensure it had a bright, booming, capitalist economy. Turkey was the fourth country to make such an arrangement.

The original agreement capped the amount of time any foreign Gastarbeiter could stay in Germany at two years, in order to ensure that the host countries did not lose their entire workforces and that the workers did not place too much strain on the still-fragile German system. In practice, however, companies objected to the idea of having to re-train new workers every couple of years, so by the late 1960s this restriction was lifted, and many Turkish workers began to bring the families over to come and live in Germany with them.

In economic terms, of course, this began to reduce the efficiency of the Gastarbeiter system. Instead of simply bolstering its workforce on a low-risk, low-responsibility basis, the German state now increasingly had to accommodate and sustain whole families, educate children and cater for a people with a very different culture to the one that was slowly finding its foothold in this brave new world.

Integration became a problem. In 1973, in an attempt to lighten the burden on Germany’s recession-hit economy in the face of heavy strike action, Chancellor Willy Brandt decreed that no more applications for immigration would be accepted under the Gastarbeiter programme.

Instead of limiting or reducing the numbers of immigrants, however, this had the opposite effect: those workers who had already arrived were still needed and, since they would no longer be replaced, now brought their families over and started looking to settle down for the long term.

By now, Turkish culture was once more on the rise, especially in West Berlin, where there was a greater drive to demonstrate economic superiority comparred to those on the other side of the Wall. Strong immigrant communities developed, especially in districts such as Kreuzberg, bringing many of their customs and much of their way of life with them.

Legend has it that Germany’s first Döner shop opened on Kottbusser Damm in the early 1970s, not far from the ever-popular Turkish market that still adorns the bank of the canal every Tuesday and Friday.

Despite a certain level of acceptance, tensions remained with regards the Turkish population in Germany, exacerbated by a military coup in Turkey in 1980 that triggered a fresh wave of immigrants – this time mainly asylum seekers and their families. Two years later, Chancellor Helmut Kohl declared in a secret meeting that it would be impossible to integrate such numbers into German society; an official study the same year showed that 58% of West Germans were in favour of reducing the country’s immigrant population.

Yet another scheme was introduced in an effort to tackle this situation, the government this time offering 10,500 Deutschmarks plus full pension payouts to any immigrants willing to return to Turkey.

Kohl’s aim was to reduce the Turkish population in Germany by 50 percent, having decided that their culture was too incompatible with Germany’s native way of life. However, many families were now settled and unwilling to uproot again, and only 100,000 Turks took up the offer – a mere fraction of those living in the country by that point.

A Turkish woman working in a market in Berlin, 1990, shortly after the fall of the Wall.. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-0725-300 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The plan backfired, and in the end only served to increase racial tensions among the population, having been seen by many as support for anti-Turkish attitudes. This failure and the criticism it drew made one thing clear – Germany’s Turkish population was here to stay.

The problems gradually began to smooth themselves out as a new group of young Germans grew up with second-generation Turkish immigrants as playmates and colleagues, though there were still flashpoints: the early 1990s were punctuated by a number of arson attacks on immigrant homes in rural areas of Germany, and the first few years of the new millennium saw several small business owners, predominantly from Turkish backgrounds, murdered by neo-Nazis. Crucially though, anti-Turkish attitudes had become the preserve of extremists, rather than the general population and the government itself.

So how integrated is Berlin’s – and Germany’s – Turkish population today? The signs are certainly good: the uproar when the minutes of Kohl’s secret 1982 meeting came to light last year shows how attitudes have changed for the better.

The popularity of public figures with roots in both countries, such as comedian Bülent Ceylan, the popular film maker Fatih Akin and Mesut Özil, now one of the German national football team’s biggest superstars, has helped to soften the boundaries, and projects such as the Türkiyemspor football club demonstrate what can be achieved with successful integration at community level.

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Turkish ladies enjoying a stroll along the Panke river in Wedding. Image by Paul Sullivan.

But the integration of Berlin’s Turkish community remains a hotly debated topic at the highest level. Neukölln’s often controversial yet popular Mayor, Heinz Buschkowsky, caused a stir with the release of his book Neukölln ist Überall (“Neukölln is everywhere”), which drew criticism from fellow politicians for its account of the neighbourhood’s intercultural issues. Kreuzberg Mayor Franz Schulz called it “alarmist,” and even went so far as to accuse Buschkowsky of racism for over-egging the severity of issues such as “import brides” and “degenerate youth”.

Perhaps the underlying problem is the sense that the Turkish culture remains alien to those with a more traditional German heritage: the 23-hour casinos and flamboyant weddings at Festsaal Kreuzberg (R.I.P) are indicative of the gap in attitudes that still remains.

For religious and cultural reasons, many people of Turkish descent neither drink alcohol nor eat pork, and so are unlikely to be revelling in the joys of the Oktoberfest any time soon. But in modern, vegan-central, Club-Mate capital Berlin, such differences are not insurmountable. It was here that the Turkish immigration began 250 years ago, and the diversity in the city today makes it the perfect pioneer on the path to cultural harmony.

Further reading

  • Gerdes, Hilde: Turken in Berlin (be.bra verlag, 2009) – A comprehensive, open-minded guide, from Türkenmode to the present day
  • http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/kohl-wollte-jeden-zweiten-tuerken-in-deutschland-loswerden-a-914318.html – Reaction to Kohl’s secret comments regarding Turkish immigration
  • http://www.spiegel.de/schulspiegel/interview-franz-schulz-bezirksbuergermeister-friedrichshain-kreuzberg-a-857559.html Interview with Kreuzberg Mayor Franz Schulz on the controversial book released by his Neukölln counterpart, Heinz Buschkowsky
  • http://www.stadtnavigator-berlin.de/thema/tuerkisches-berlin Nice little potted history, plus details of tours of Turkish Berlin for those interested in learning more
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