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“So, What are You?” The Transformation in the “Imagined” Identity of German-born Turks.


„...Through that language encountered at mother’s knee and parted with only at the grave, pasts are restored, fellowships are imagined, and futures dreamed.” 

Benedict Anderson

There are nearly 2 million Turks in Germany, 139,000 of them in Berlin alone, making them the largest group of foreign citizens. The first Turkish ‘Gastarbeiter’ or guest-workers came to Germany in the early 1960s as a result of the deficit in the labour market of the country. These migrant workers hoped to earn enough money in Germany to set up businesses in Turkey or provide a better life for their families. The German government also expected these people to contribute to the economy and leave the country whenever the necessity for these foreign workers were not required anymore. Recruitment stopped in 1973 as an outcome of the oil-crisis and numerous guest-workers did, in fact, go home. Many of them, however, preferred to stay in Germany. As the German government allowed the process of family-reunification, their relatives were also able to join them. A decrease in return migration, the continuation of the flow of family members from Turkey, and high birth-rates made these people from that time on significant elements of the German society. Although many Germans might still not see it that way, Germany has become- for economic, demographical, and humanitarian reasons- an immigration country. 

“They were asked to come as labourers… and stayed as human beings.”, Ulrich Raiser

For the Turkish migrant children who were born in Germany, Turkey still is a physical reality and has the significance of  a geographical motherland. The feelings of turkishness and the hope of  an eventual return to Turkey by the older generation has kept alive the roots of Turkish identity in the minds and hearts of their children. Dreams of final return, however, were not realised and the younger generations have developed a dual national consciousness and feelings of  belongingness to both Turkey and Germany. 

The second and third generations of Turks has identified themselves in ideals rather than actual places. Being defined by Germans as “them” left these individuals searching for an identification that would enable them to redefine themselves in an inclusive group of “us”. As Benedict Anderson puts it, the national consciousness of  human beings is ‘imagined’ and might be transformed throughout time.

The complexity of the identity dilemma becomes even more multifaceted when it comes to individual cases. A German-Turkish youngster might sometimes think: ‘why would I choose an identity, why cannot people accept me as I am?’. The absurdity of the identity dilemma originates from this question. A German-born Turkish child, a women, a businessman, a  teacher, a housekeeper, are all forced to choose an identity and see a problem in not being accepted by others, neither by Turks in Turkey nor by Germans, as they are. Thus the identity dilemma plays a huge role in their lives and sometimes a word, a song or a joke reminds them of their difficult situation.

The Hybrid Identity

“Actually, we do not sit between two chairs, we sit on both of them.”

Özcan Mutlu

The second and third generation Turks have two worlds and two identities. Their distinctive situation of being seen as German-Turks in Germany and Germanised-Turks in Turkey makes them sit on “both chairs” unless one chair is taken away from them and they are forced to choose one over the other. Veysel Özcan defines it in his words: “ I feel like a German, but I still feel Turkish when I talk to my relatives. Turkishness is in me…”

The Turkish identity dilemma in Germany has several aspects. The identity is a complex phenomenon that stems from how people see themselves, how they are perceived by others and has internal as well as external components. These are usually portrayed with the social background of an individual, his education, his mastering of a language, the traditional influences of his family, his religious beliefs, his life experiences, his aims and dreams for the future and finally his physical appearance. Some of these aspects seem to have a stronger link to feelings of turkishness while others remind these young people of their founded roots in Germany.

The Complexity of Forming an Identity:

Family, Religion, Social Mobility and Education

It is very hard to distinguish one aspect from the other. Being born in Germany, having gotten an education in this country, having learned the language and socialised among Germans give these individuals the German component of their cultural and personal identity.. This is not enough, however, for most of them. The complexity of this identity dilemma escalates when the connection with relatives, family, the Turkish language and friends start to have place in the inner world of the young Turks.

Of course, the integration process of the third and second generation Turks differs in every individual case. Nil, a 23 year old girl of Turkish descent, believes that her family’s support played an important role in her integration process. Her parents always encouraged her to have German friends and to learn the German language. Gül, a 26 year old female, was also born and raised in Germany. Unlike Nil’s parents, her father did not believe that learning German would be relevant for his children, as he was persuaded that the entire family would soon go back to Turkey. She portrays it this way: “My parents were always ready to pack their luggage, but they also always had an excuse not to do it.” Gül attended a Turkish primary school, was not allowed to speak German at home or to have German friends. Therefore, the process of forming a German identity as well as her integration in society were not uncomplicated. She had serious problems once she started attending secondary school and the expected happened: she failed. Gül’s failure in school as well as the malicious comments of some of her German classmates about her poor language skills opened a new page in her life. She quickly became aware that language is essential for her to attain her future goals and she started to improve her German. Today she is studying business administration and wishes to pursue her studies until she gets a PhD degree. These examples show how the family of an individual can influence his integration and the formation of his identity. 

Religion is also a significant component in the question of identity and integration. Some second and third generation Turks in Germany identify themselves with their religion, Islam, instead of their nationality. In addition, religion creates a different cultural stratum in the feelings of belongingness to a group or a class. Nuray, a 23 year old German-born Turkish decent female, argues that religion played a major role in her childhood. Her parents saw an importance in religious education and Nuray was raised with this ideology. As a result, she attended religious courses at the Mosque for three years. The Parents of Veysel, however, did not emphasize the importance of religion and he was raised in a very liberal atmosphere. His parents were also Muslims but they were from a different sect called Alevi – a religious minority which shares many of its tenets with Shi’ism. We observed that a more liberal philosophy enabled most Alevi Muslims, such as Veysel, to accept the German values easier than others who had an intense religious education. The religion aspect adds further complexity in the identity issue because the Turkish community refracts into various subcategories with different interests and life styles.

The Turkish identity in Germany is forged not only from the ethnic and religious loyalties, but also from the social class of an individual. The guest- workers from Turkey were mostly from rural areas of the country and these people had to adopt a different culture even before having experienced the city life in Istanbul. Many of the second and third generation German-Turkish youngsters hoped that a higher education would be a key in the process of class mobility resulting in a less difficult acceptance from the German society . Some parents encouraged their children but many did not want especially their daughters, to get a higher education and become self-sufficient. “Are you going to be a professor? Why do you make your A-levels? These were the questions that my relatives asked me when I spent a lot of time improving my grades in order to become successful in school” says Nuray. She believes that in the traditional man-oriented Turkish society women should not pursue a career. The belief of many Turkish families that education should not be a priority in life contributed to enlarge the gap between German and Turkish children and the latter have been thwarted to become active members of society.

“ Most of the Turkish families in Germany do not understand the importance of education. This is not about having financial problems. Most of the parents buy cars but they do not provide toys or books to educate their children” says Hasan Yanikoglu, a German-Turkish social pedagogue. Özcan Mutlu, member of the Green Party in the Berlin Parliament, also believes that most of the Turkish families are not capable of supporting their children in the process of their education. The German education system is also a problem for this hybrid generation. When a Turkish student gets bad grades, it is mostly perceived that he is incapable of learning as fast as others. “ As a result of these unfair reports from teachers, many children are sent to schools for students with troubles in learning, and hence, these children are traumatised and their educational development is negatively affected…” says Hasan. These people with little education will later have problems with finding jobs. Thus, instead of being identified with a profession or accepted in the German society, these people turn back to their original roots and prefer to be identified with their religious or national roots. In this respect, youngsters with low-education put a stronger emphasis on their turkishness or Islam, as oppose to a balanced German-Turkish identity. As Hasan argues: “ Social class plays an important role in the transformation of an identity and class mobility is highly affected by education.”

The Citizenship Law – Opening the Gates

The identity dilemma of  the second and third generation Turks cannot be understood in isolation. The German government seems to have realised that the identity issue and the integration process are highly related with the citizenship legislation. As a result, the German parliament passed a new citizenship and nationality law on January 1st, 2000. The new regulation substantially changes the principle of descent (jus sanguinis), which has been the country’s traditional basis for granting citizenship. Since the implementation of this new law, however, it has been possible to acquire German citizenship as the result of being born in Germany (jus soli), which is also the case in most other European countries. Children who are born in Germany from foreign nationals will receive German citizenship when one of the child’s parents has resided legally in Germany for at least eight years and holds entitlements to residence or has had an unlimited residence permit for at least three years. Between the ages of 18 and 23 the respective person has to choose either the German citizenship or the citizenship of  his parents’ original nationality. 

Legislation vs. Feelings

Observations made have shown us that having to choose for one citizenship over the other sometimes increases the emotional identity dilemma of the youngsters. Halim reports:” I do not feel comfortable having to give up my Turkish citizenship, but I know that my turkishness is not defined by a passport.” Nil, Nuray and Gül had less trouble giving up their Turkish citizenship as they knew it would be more practical and would make their lives, when travelling abroad, much easier. Barbara John, Former Representative of Foreigners’ Affairs in Berlin, however, sees it differently: “Getting a citizenship is like marrying someone, you should really like the person and not only do it for the advantages.”  In the eyes of the affected people, a passport mostly constitutes the legal basis of their identity and does not absolutely define how they feel. 

“The Others”

Another aspect of an individual’s identity is the way he is portrayed by others. Ulrich Raiser explains that even the children of Turkish decent who were born in Germany are still defined by the German public as “Ausländer” or foreigners, instead of “Einwanderer” or migrant children. The German government also does not make a  difference in its statistics. Migrant children are still being defined by their citizenship and not by their place of birth. These are a few reasons why the mentality of the German society is transforming very slowly. In the eyes of many Germans as well as German officials, the ethnic minorities of the country, even if born in Germany, are still foreigners. Jenny White, an associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Boston University claims: “Turks, as the Other, have been considered “Ausländer”, and some argue that Germans consider Turks among the most inferior groups of foreigners.” Visibility especially plays a role in how many Germans define “the Other”. The term “Ausländer” has become a synonym for Turk. Gül explains that if a black-haired man commits a crime everybody will think he is Turkish, even though he might be Algerian, Italian or Spanish. “Even if you were born in Germany, even if you have a German citizenship, speak the language perfectly and have a German university degree, the German society does not accept you as a German” says Selin, a teacher at the Turkish-German European School in Kreuzberg. Gül complains about people trying to be friendly and asking her: “What about you? How do you do it in your country?” She wonders what “you” and “your country” is suppose to mean, as she has spent all of her life in Germany.  This psychological exclusion contributes to a withdrawal of the Turkish youth and their struggle to be accepted as Germans. Thus this creates a sense of re-identification with an emphasis on their turkishness. 

A New Approach: 

Turkish-German European Schools

The concept of Turkish-German European Schools take into account the identity dilemma of Turkish or German-Turkish families and their children. Many parents have realised that it is impossible to pass through the psychological barrier in the German society. As Selin says: “ Something in this society irritates me…The way people look at you, the way they behave when they hear you speaking Turkish.” In the European-School, pupils are taught about their Turkish roots, they learn to master German and Turkish perfectly, and they are taught about history in a different way. The philosophy of the school takes into account that these children will be, all of their life, different. They will be enriched by two cultures, two hearts.

Two Worlds







I would like

to be a bridge

but I can

hardly gain a foothold

on the one bank

on the other

I am losing my footing

more and more

the bridge is breaking


to tear me apart

in the middle

Nevfel Cumart

The second and third generation of German-Turks have developed an imagined identity and tried to form a notion of belongingness. Most of them cannot define themselves as neither Turkish, nor German. Like in an imagined community surrounded by the dominant German culture, the identity formation of these young people in their struggle between two worlds, forces them to redefine and re-imagine their form of identification. Greater generalisation would be inappropriate since the formation of a feeling of belongingness differs in every individual case. 

Hasan, Gül, Nil, Veysel, Halim, Nuray, all do not want to be categorized or classified anymore. Having to choose between one culture over the other gives them the feeling that they are rejecting a part of their identity, a part of themselves. And even though these young people would completely give up the Turkish side of their identity and assimilate entirely, many would still continue to be defined by Germans as foreigners. “Germans have asked us to adapt to their society, now that we have done it, they are unable to adapt to us…” says Hasan. The German government has opened the door for thousands of Turkish migrants to become German citizens, but unfortunately the German society as well as some individuals in the Turkish community, have left the door of mutual acceptance shut.





Anonymous, employee at a Turkish eatery in Berlin, June 22 2003.

Barbara John, Former Representative of Foreigners’ Affairs, June 21 2003.

Gül, a German-born Turkish student of business administration living in Berlin, June 22 2003.

Halim, a German-born Turkish student of business administration living in Berlin, June 19 2003.

Hasan Yanikoglu, German-Turkish Social Pedagogue, June 20 2003.

Nil, a German-born Turkish student at the police academy in Berlin, June 22 2003.

Nuray, German-born Turkish student of nutritional technology in Berlin, June 22 2003.

Özcan Mutlu, Member of the Berlin Parliament, Green Party, June 25 2003.

Selin, teacher at the Turkish.German European School in Berlin-Kreuzberg, June 24 2003.

Ulrich Raiser, PhD. student at the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences, June 19 2003.

Veysel Özcan, Research assistant at the Department of Demography of the Humboldt University Berlin, June 19 2003.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso. 1991

Jurgens, Jeffrey. Shifting spaces. Complex identities in Turkish-German migration. In: Ludges Pries – New Transnational Social Spaces. London: Pourledge. 2001

Werbner, Pnina. Debating Cultural Hybridity. London: Zed Books. 1997

White, Jenny B. Turks in the New Germany. American Anthropologist 99(4). Boston: American Anthropological Association. 1977


http://jsis.artsci.washington.edu/programs/europe/wendep/SeyhanPaper.htm June 19 2003.

http://www.intergrahjournal.com/enhanced/vol1issue3/pecoud/pecoudframes.htm/, June 20 2003.

http://www.german-embassy.org.uk/reform_of_germany_s_citizenshi.htm/, June 25 2003.

http://www.destatis.de/basis/d/bevoe/bevoetab10.html, June 26 2003.

Use of the Poem “Two Worlds” with the permission of the author, Nevfel Cumart. 


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