In the early 1960s, Kurds from Turkey began migrating to postwar Western European countries. Many went to West Germany. Some were students, many of whom self-identified as Kurds, while the great majority was so-called Gastarbeiter (guest workers), most of who then identified as Turks. They formed part of a broader movement dating to 1955, when the West German government signed the first bilateral labor migration treaty, with Italy.
Gastarbeiter were supposed to eventually return to their home country. Most did not. Moreover, some self-organized. First was the Italian Unione Emigrati in Germania, in 1964, and in 1966 there were 60 Turkish workers associations counting 20,000 members, as shown in “Wir sind alle Fremdarbeiter!” Gewerkschaften, migrantische Kämpfe und soziale Bewegungen in Westdeutschland 1960-1980 (2020) by Simon Goeke—who also details the complex relationship between foreign workers and the powerful German labor unions, including the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB). The DGB’s core concern was to protect the rights of German workers and improve their professional and financial positioning. Whenever it believed that a specific foreign workers’ issue or demand seriously undermined this so-called Inländerprimat, it took an oppositional stance.
At the same time, by the 1960s the DGB understood that most Ausländer (foreigners) would not leave, indeed were a considerable part of the work force, and could hurt unions if they were not integrated in some way—which unions started to do. These steps, however, were insufficient to many Gastarbeiter. Hence, their self-organized social, professional, and municipal-political demands expanded from the late 1960s. They did so despite and against the 1965 Ausländergesetz (Aliens Act), which limited foreigners’ political activity. In some cases, foreign workers worked (and lived) together with German and foreign students, influencing each other. This influence was distinct in the case of Kurdish Turkish laborers.
By the 1970s, their political and cultural identity became more squarely Kurdish. Kurdish students in West Germany and elsewhere played a role in this process; so did developments in Turkey, including the foundation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 1978. The PKK is one of the most powerful Kurdish organizations that has sought to address and right the issue of the Kurds lacking a state of their own—the issue for modern Kurds, as discussed by David McDowall’s A History of the Modern Kurds (2004). In this process, countries other than Turkey, including Western European countries like Sweden and West Germany, became key transnational diaspora arenas for the Kurdish struggle for statehood. And as Omar Sheikhmous’ Crystallization of a New Diaspora: Migration and Political Culture among the Kurds in Europe (2000) shows, they saw struggles for greater cultural and political rights in Europe, too. The latter questions mattered greatly to Kurdish organizations in West Germany, of which there were about 30 by 1979. One was the Föderation der Arbeitervereine Kurdistans in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the Federation of the Workers Associations of Kurdistan in the Federal Republic of Germany (KOMKAR). Founded in Frankfurt am Main in 1979, it sought to coordinate and unite Kurdish organizations. Although it had limited success and although the PKK sometimes violently fought it, it played a role in making Kurds more visible, linking them to (also German) leftists, and improving their cultural and professional situation.
The text printed here, an English translation from the German original, is an excerpt from an article in its organ, KOMKAR Publikation.