Oral history narrations about the mining past of the Ruhr region

BIOS – Zeitschrift für Biographieforschung, Oral History und Lebensverlaufsanalysen 2-2018: “Guest Workers” in Mining. Historicising the Industrial Past in the Ruhr region from the Bottom Up?

“Guest Workers” in Mining. Historicising the Industrial Past in the Ruhr region from the Bottom Up?

Katarzyna Nogueira

BIOS – Zeitschrift für Biographieforschung, Oral History und Lebensverlaufsanalysen, Issue 2-2018, pp. 102-113



Over the past five to six decades, oral history has become a complex and diverse tool, not only for uncovering and analysing individual and collective patterns of memory but also to inscribe them into public historical narratives. In the wake of the decline of the mining industry in the Ruhr region, local history workshops, academic historians, filmmakers, and museum practitioners began to construe miners and mining communities as historical subjects from the bottom up. Throughout this time, personal narrations played an increasingly important role as both a source of research and a tool for public historical representations. Using the case study of the Ruhr area, this article deals with the functions of public oral history narrations about the region’s mining past. It will particularly address the question of how the work and life stories of Turkish immigrant labourers, officially labelled as “guest workers”, have been represented in regional historical culture. To what extent did they become narrative agents in the Ruhr’s historiography, from a democratic and participatory “history from below” to an increasingly institutionalised approach in public history?



For more than 150 years, the Ruhr valley has been shaped significantly by immigration. Since the mid-19th century, millions of young job-seeking men were drawn to the increasingly industrialising region. During the first wave, they came from the neighbouring and rural areas nearby, later from further afield, both from inside and outside the wider German territories. People from the eastern provinces of the German Empire, from East and West Prussia as well as the provinces of Posen and Silesia soon became the biggest group of “foreign” workers in the Ruhr region (Peter-Schildgen 2007; Schade/Osses 2007). More than 60 percent of these so-called “Ruhrpolen” (Ruhr Poles) worked in the local mining industry before the beginning of the First World War (Oltmer 2013: 27). After the re-emergence of the Polish state in 1918, about two-thirds of the “Ruhrpolen” either returned or moved on to the coalfields of France and Belgium. The second migration wave into the Ruhr region started after the end of the Second World War.1 More than 13 million refugees and expellees left the former eastern territories of Germany, many of whom ended up in the Ruhr region, usually after first settling in rural areas in Bavaria and northern (West) Germany (Kift 2011; Seidel 2019). By 1960, more than one-third of all expellees lived in North Rhine-Westphalia, with the mining and steel industries as typical fields of employment. At this point, the refugees constituted a crucial “part of the solution to the state’s labour market problem”2 in the immediate post-war era (Kift 2011: 137). The third and latest wave of labour migration into the Ruhr mining industry, which will be the focus here, started in the 1950s. In the booming post-war economy, the West German government negotiated several recruitment agreements with countries in southern and south-eastern Europe as well as with two North African countries to fill the demand for cheap labour. The first agreement was signed between Germany and Italy in 1955, followed by others with Spain, Turkey, Morocco, Portugal, Tunisia, and Yugoslavia. The recruited labourers were called “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers). Additional and special agreements also led to the (temporary) immigration of a smaller number of workers from South Korea (Pölking 2014) and Japan (Kataoka et al. 2012). This third immigration wave came at a time when the decline of the mining industry was about to start, caused by cheaper sources of energy and strong competition from overseas. Nevertheless, this development led to a new and temporary demand for workers in general and mine workers in particular. About fourteen million people came to the Federal Republic as so-called “guest workers”. What was planned to be a form of temporary labour migration became a permanent relocation for about three million “guest workers” and their families (Seidel 2014: 39). After foreign recruitment officially ceased in 1973, caused by the worldwide economic regression, Turkish “guest workers” became the largest group of migrants in the Ruhr area, most of whom worked in the hard coal industry. Today, there are more than 2.8 million people of Turkish descent living in Germany (Statistisches Bundesamt 2015: 128 ff.), still representing one of the largest groups of people with a migration background in the country.

Without immigration, neither the Ruhr region nor its heavy industry would have existed the way both are known to us today. The importance of migration for the mining industry seems beyond question; yet, it might be asked what place the history and experiences of migration occupy in the self-image of the Ruhr today. After the decline of mining and steel, industrial heritage has become essential for the new narration of the region (Berger/Golombek/Wicke 2018: 74). During the 1970s, initiatives “from below” started to advocate both the preservation of the tangible industrial heritage and a stronger appreciation of the lifeworlds, experiences and memory of the region’s working- class communities and their culture. This process led, for instance, to the very first classification of an industrial building as a historical monument, the machine hall of the Zollern Colliery in Dortmund (Parent 2013). Cultural institutions, museums, and even trade unions and companies became key players for the memorialisation of the industrial past and the representation of regional identity. Industrial heritage was and still is a success story (Berger/Golombek/Wicke 2018). However, “an almost ghostly unanimity” characterises the stories that are told in the context of industrial heritage (Berger 2019: 512 f.). This homogenisation of narratives leads to the celebration of certain memories while others remain blind spots. Narrating labour migration as a success story, for instance, tends to neglect its more problematic aspects. One example of this standardisation of narratives can be seen in the accentuation of an all-encompassing camaraderie underground. According to this narrative, everybody was the same underground, notwithstanding where someone came from; miners needed to be able to rely on each other as every mistake, no matter how small, potentially entailed deadly consequences for all. While this narrative underscores the integrative power of the underground workplace, it nonetheless seems to contrast markedly with a public – and historical – discourse that emphasises the alleged difficulties and shortcomings of migration and “integration” in the Ruhr area (Berger 2019: 514).

Oral History, or rather: various forms of using oral testimonies and memory narrations, have been an integral part of recovering and representing the Ruhr’s industrial history. As both historical movement and method, oral history initially emerged as a tool of counterhistory, a politicised form of historiography from the bottom up. In the Ruhr region as elsewhere, the “history from below” movement sought to reset the focus on new historical subjects (e.g. women, workers, and migrants) and perspectives (e.g. everyday life). After the decline of the mining industry, local history workshops, academic historians, filmmakers, and museum practitioners began to construe miners and mining communities as historical subjects. Accordingly, personal narrations played an increasingly important role, not only as a source of research but also as an instrument for public historical representation. Prominent academic projects, such as LUSIR (Niethammer 1983a; Niethammer 1983b; Niethammer/Plato 1985), about the life stories and social culture in the Ruhr region between 1930 and 1960, helped both develop methodical tools and establish them into academic historical practice. So what started as a movement from the bottom up became part of academic historiography and historical methodology. Today, personal narrations seem to be essential for public historical representations (Sabrow/Frei 2012) about the regional past, and “oral history”, the use of the “Zeitzeuge”3, developed into a term that includes different concepts, functions, and methodological approaches – in academia and museums as well as in documentaries, television, websites, or bottom-up initiatives. Using the case of the Ruhr area, this article deals with the functions of public oral history narrations about the region’s mining past by particularly addressing the question of how the work and life stories of Turkish “guest workers” have been represented in the wider regional historical culture. To what extent did they become narrative agents in the region’s historiography, from a democratic and participatory “history from below” to an increasingly institutionalised approach in public history? Four selected case studies will serve as examples to discuss the varied functions of personal narrations and oral history in this context.

Blind Spots in Historiography

The surge in histories of the everyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which set a new focus on the everyday life of mine workers and their families, also brought about experimental forms in counter-historiography. New projects used interviews and personal testimonies as a source to approach the personal and collective experiences of ordinary people. This applies, for instance, to the field of documentary literature, as the following example will show. In 1975, the German Academic Exchange Programme (DAAD) invited the Turkish novelist and author Füruzan Selçuk to stay and work in West Berlin for two years. Having been active as a writer since 1956 and usually only using her first name, it was Füruzan’s first time visiting the Federal Republic. As an author interested in contemporary issues of the family and the working class, she decided to research the experiences of Turkish migrant workers in Germany. After conducting interviews with teachers and their German and Turkish pupils in West Berlin, she went to the Ruhr where she visited the local mining towns and workers’ estates to record interviews with the Turkish “guest workers”. The lives and problems of the “Almancılar”4 was a popular topic in Turkey in the 1970s, but letting them speak for themselves was a new approach. The first results of Füruzan’s interview project were published in Turkish newspapers such as Milliyet, followed by a book published in Turkish in 1977. With this documentation Füruzan wanted to show “how her countrymen really do live here” (Kuper 1985: 1). Her project was also connected to the goal of creating an alternative and more realistic image of Germany, a counter-narrative to the idealised image predominant in Turkey since the 19th century (Kuper 1985: 151). In this context, Turkish mine workers could describe “a completely new nature, a completely new character of Germany than hitherto assumed”. But more crucially, it was also meant to be a “commitment to the workers and the working class” (Kuper 1985: 152) in general. The project initially aimed at a Turkish audience. Eight years later, in 1985, a much shorter and recomposed German translation was published with a focus on those original chapters, which “would be particularly instructive for exploring the German image” within the stories told (Kuper 1985: 153). The idea for this reissue came from Turkish students in Istanbul who rediscovered the book during their German studies class with the editor, Rosemarie Kuper:

The majority of the students agreed that the book should be translated [into German] to break the isolation between Germans and Turks. In Germany, they [the students] suffered from the fact that nobody knows anything about the other. Füruzan’s book seemed to be particularly suited to counteract this deficiency (Kuper 1985: 155).

The book, entitled Lodging in the Land of the Rich – How a Turkish Writer Sees the Life of Her Countrymen in Germany, implies three perspectives: in the first place, the perspective of the Turkish miners in the Ruhr. The literal quotations from the interviews Füruzan conducted with them are juxtaposed with the author’s observations, thoughts and reactions. The text is permeated by her reflections about the discrepancy “between the ideas [of Germany] she brought with her and what she found instead” (Kuper 1985: 153). In the end, the recompilation of the original book is, of course, also influenced by the students’ intentions and choices. Unfortunately, there is a lack of information about the extent to which the interviews were shortened or adjusted, both for the original book and the subsequent German version. Here, the stories of the Turkish miners concentrate on the experienced contradictions between “the almost blind veneration for Germany […] [and] the actual living and working conditions” (Kuper 1985: 1). The Turkish miners are talking about their motives for migration and the experiences they made in the new country. But the interviews are almost continuously dealing with stories of struggle, of cultural difference, exclusion, social and economic disadvantages as well as of anxiety about the future while also discussing the economic and social problems back in Turkey. These narratives are furthermore interlinked with articulations of gratitude for finally being heard. During Füruzan’s visit of a group of Turkish miners in a workers’ hostel, one of them says: “Come on friends, tell her what you have experienced! Let us hear what troubles you! Someone came here who will listen to you! No radio, you shouldn’t listen to the radio. This time, the radio is listening to you for once!” (Kuper 1985: 118). Another interviewee says: “We are happy that you came to us. So far, nobody asked how we are […]. It is good for all of us to be able to speak out” (Kuper 1985: 66). Füruzan describes the same aspect in the chapter The Almancılar in Germany, reflecting the difficulties of approaching the interviewees: “It is no surprise that they initially couldn’t believe that someone would be interested in them” (Kuper 1985: 66). Even though her work was not conceptualised as an outright oral history as such, her project is most akin to later oral history projects from below in terms of content, objectives, and partly also in methodology. At the same time, it is an example of early projects trying to write history from below by pointing the spotlight of historiography on new actors and topics.

1 A different kind of labour migration regards the forced labour of prisoners of war and, especially, of civilian workers from all over German-occupied Europe during the war. By 1944, more than 40 percent of the Ruhr mining workforce, around 163,000 people, were forced labourers (Seidel 2010).
2 All citations were translated by the author.
3 The concept of the Zeitzeuge (witness of contemporary history) implicates a delimitation from academic oral history. The Zeitzeuge of the mining era is a public figure and part of (historical) representations predominantly in museums and the media.
4 “Almancılar” is a Turkish, slightly disparaging term for Turks living in Germany also used by many interviewees.

* * *

BIOS – Zeitschrift für Biographieforschung, Oral History und Lebensverlaufsanalysen 2-2018: “Guest Workers” in Mining. Historicising the Industrial Past in the Ruhr region from the Bottom Up?Would you like to continue reading? This article was published in issue 2-2018 of our journal BIOS – Zeitschrift für Biographieforschung, Oral History und Lebensverlaufsanalysen.

© pixabay 2021, photo: Tama66