By Harrison Gill
Contributing Writer

Although this has not always been the case, Germany has become widely recognized as an immigrant nation by leading  political inertia toward immigrant labor liberalization. Following the transition from the economic miracle of the 1950s to their rise in international power through the mid-sixties, Germany began to admit guest workers to replenish the dearth of low skill labor. However, as many guest workers developed greater economic and social connections to Germany, the permanent residency rate saw a large increase in two particular ethnicities – Turks and Vietnamese. With no change in social policy, second generation immigrants had to live up to economic standards using a dated and ill-suited educational infrastructure.  Consequently, as each ethnicity assimilated, their respective second generation developed their own socio-economic challenges. However, second-generation Turks, when compared against other immigrants, are consistently unable to gain higher footing in the German social strata.

This study seeks to illuminate the reasoning behind this disparate immigrant success with several key implications. First, few studies exist which compare the social and economic outcomes of different migrant groups with each other, as opposed to comparing native Germans against immigrants as a conglomerate. Second, there is a distinct moral failure on the part of the German government to adapt its educational structure to a new and diverse citizenry. Ultimately, these disparities will be shown to exist as a result of these systems’ reliance on the prerequisite education being completed within the family.  Sealing the causal explanation is the tendency for German society not to spur change because they view Muslims as the other.

Guest worker programs were established as a form of temporary circular migration; having the expectation that after staying in Germany for a certain amount of time, the migrant workers would return home. Joppke explains that West Germany became a nation of immigration when it continued to renew the guest workers’ residence permits. By forcing immigrants to operate so extensively in German society, a certain level of reliance on the state social services became necessary and prompted a judicial reevaluation by the Constitutional Court that granted guest workers permanent residence rights. As such, the notion of circular migration had essentially come to an end and Turkish guest workers were in Germany for the long run.

As Vietnamese and Turkish immigrants assimilated, they were affected by pre-existing social and economic differences. For instance, Turkish guest workers came from rural regions of Turkey with limited formal education (Pásztor 2008). This affected first-generation parents’ ability to assist their second-generation children through the German school system. On the other hand, the Vietnamese were quite educated, often possessing college-level credentials (Hillmann 2005).

Also, the reason why guest workers were needed in Germany was portrayed differently for both groups. For the West Germans, it was clear that the Turkish were in the country to work in vacant unskilled labor positions, while the East Germans did not know the true reason Vietnamese and other guest workers were arriving under the program.

The ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED)  pragmatically justified the program by political, rather than economic, means promoting its own notions of internationalism and cooperation with fellow communist nations like Vietnam (Dennis 2007). While the Vietnamese were largely disadvantaged during the time of the East Germany, the backlash toward them, unlike that the Turks faced, did not occur until the reunification of Germany. Today the groups differ but can both be considered disadvantaged in most ways when compared with ethnic Germans, except in education, where Vietnamese have a higher rate of attendance at the highest levels of secondary school (Die Zeit 2009).

Germany operates a highly tracked secondary schooling system, which can be viewed as being particularly detrimental to the educational achievement of Turkish-German school children. In Germany, secondary education is divided into three main tracks. The tracks are, in order of the highest to the lowest level, the Gymnasium, the Realschule  and the Hauptschule. By tracking students, the German education system the school system creates a perpetual feedback loop, inculcating social strata stagnation.

In essence, Children of those who are more educated will attend higher levels of education and children of those who are less educated will enroll in the lower levels. The German system of secondary education is unable to meet the challenges posed by immigration. Because it relies on such a high degree of social selection based on the class and, perhaps more importantly, prior education of parents of students in the system it ensures the shortcomings of one generation will carry on to the next Aurenheimer (2006).

The Gymnasium serves as the pathway to university entry and is the most difficult form of secondary education to access.  While the majority of Gymnasium students’ parents also have Gymnasium diplomas, second generation immigrants face a systematic bias because they have no opportunity to have a parent with a German education. The education of a parent is so important to a student’s ability to succeed within the German education system that Aurenheimer  points out that families where the parents are academics have a three times higher chance of getting their children into Gymnasium than the German working class.

This is a major issue for the Turkish migrants because the German system relies heavily upon parents being able to assist their children through schooling. As a result, it is estimates that only between five and fifteen percent of Turkish students attend a Gymnasium (Pásztor 2008; Die Zeit 2009). In contrast, the majority of Vietnamese students in the secondary education system attend the Gymnasium, performing even better than native Germans (Die Zeit 2009).

The second type of secondary school in Germany is the Realschule. The Realschule is now intended to be the middle level of secondary schooling options in Germany and is meant to prepare students for white-collar or higher skilled blue-collar work and allows access to a vocational postsecondary diploma (Alba, Sloan, and Sperling 2011). As the middle option, it catches both the second largest proportion of Vietnamese students after Gymnasium and Turkish students after the Hauptschule, Germany’s lowest type of secondary education.

The third type of secondary school environment in Germany is the Hauptschule. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Hauptschule was meant to be the primary form of secondary education for Germans. At that time, around seventy percent of students attended a Hauptschule, but today it is only minority of students (Aurenheimer 2006). As a result, in the past, there was little stigma surrounding attendance of a Hauptschule that exists today. While once called Volksschule meaning, ‘people’s school, the notion of the Hauptschule being the school for all people of Germany has largely been replaced by a perception that it is a school for migrants.

Today, graduation from a Hauptschule means little.  Many Hauptschule teachers do not see their jobs to be like educators but rather to provide a place for students to stay safe and off the streets during the school day. Students have little incentive to academically perform and a sort of feedback loop exists between the Hauptschule and German society. Because students have motivation to thrive,  German society largely treats the present day Hauptschule diploma as worthless for further education and employment. Yet this lack of recognition of the Hauptschule diploma also helps foster a lack of standards and rigor within the program, thereby completing the viscous cycle affecting immigrants the most.

Finally the cultural perceptions of these immigrants do little to inspire the German people to call for change.  Vast differences also exist in how the Turkish and Vietnamese communities are viewed within German society. In recent years, the Turkish community has been a focus of German society, whereas the Vietnamese community has largely been invisible.
Turks in Germany are largely viewed today as Muslims, when in previous years they were only viewed as labor migrants (Mühe 2012). While the Turks that sought asylum tend to be Muslim, this single cultural quality now dictates how ethnic Germans view Turks in German society. What is particularly important is that these viewpoints add to the educational struggles that Turkish students face.

While today’s Germany is a society composed of many different religions, Islam is not an official religion like Christianity and Judaism are (Ersanilli and Saharso 2011). This means that Islamic organizations are unable to provide their community with essential services that other religious communities are able to provide. For example, the social services are generally run by churches (or the SPD) and cannot be provided with state support by any Islamic organization, a system that reinforced the differentness of a community that did not ascribe to the recognized religions, such as the Turks (Brubaker 2001). This lack of recognition for Islam puts Turkish students at an additional disadvantage because the church often runs the lowest levels of public schooling in Germany, such as kindergartens (Aurenheimer 2006).

Attitudes that essentially segregate Turkish students in the school system also do not help foster the needed support from the education system the Turkish minority need acquire a thorough education. Because their community is particularly insular, Turks are highly disadvantaged in the labor market (Kalter 2011). While the same could potentially be said of the Vietnamese, a key difference is that German society largely creates the insularity for the Turks, while the Vietnamese fit into a sort of pan-Asian identity that the Germans recognize and do not have the same issues interacting with.

While there have been numerous struggles for the Vietnamese community in post-Cold War Germany,  such as widespread xenophobic and racist protests in the city of Rostock in 1992, today the Vietnamese community makes up little of the criticism from German society when compared to the Turkish minority (Mühe 2012). In fact, Hillmann points out that the Vietnamese are a largely invisible population within Germany today when so much of the anti-immigration rhetoric points towards the Turks.

While family background is important to success in the current German school system, achievement is largely due to structural factors. Because the system is essentially self-perpetuating, the children of the Turkish German second generation will not be given an education allowing them to rise within society unless fundamental issues are changed. Class is not the ultimate factor as shown by the Vietnamese community being now somewhat well off compared to the Turks. The Vietnamese struggled for a significant amount of time in risky black market and off-the-books enterprises while Turks legally had full access to employment. Education is the largest difference between the guest worker Turkish and Vietnamese communities that came to pre-unified Germany. Indeed its vestiges can be seen today because the German government has failed to reform its educational policy in accordance  with evolved societal needs.

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Photo by the Nothere.


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