Kimmerle (Elisabeth)

Elisabeth Kimmerle (Leibniz-ZZF, Potsdam), Demanding Democracy from Abroad – Transnational Socialist Movements in the 1970s between Turkey and West Germany

The decades from 1960 to 1980 in Turkey mark a period of tremendous social change, urbanization, migration and upcoming social mass movements participating in the political process. Framed by three military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, this phase in contemporary Turkish history is shaped by strikes and protests of the emerging student and labor movement, repeated impositions of martial law, as well as violent clashes between extreme right-wing and left-wing groups. At the same time labor migration from Turkey to West Germany from 1961 onwards opened up a transnational space in which domestic political developments got deterritorialized and migrants engaged as transnational actors advocating for democracy from abroad.

The question how the experiences and protests of migrants in West Germany and the social movements in Turkey were entangled and what role migrants played as transnational actors in a democratization from below has so far received little attention in historical research. While several studies1 in the social sciences analyze the ways and strategies migrants from Turkey organized themselves politically across borders, archive-based historical research on the transnational political protests of migrants from Turkey remains a research gap. This applies even more to a gender-historical approach. Studies on transnational social spaces and transnational activism rarely address women’s political practices or reflect on the implications of gender relations. In most research on transnational activism, as Sercan Çınar notes, “migrant women’s activism and gender as an organizing principle of social relationships still goes unnoticed.“2

By examining transnational social movements and democracy at the intersection of gender, migration, and transnational history, this chapter aims to provide new perspectives on deliberative practices from below, negotiations and expressions of civic life beyond borders. Conceptualizing social movements abroad as expansion of the public sphere in Turkey3, I will trace the politicization and transnational protest of  migrants and explore  the conditions,

boundaries, and limits of cross-border political participation and practices. To understand what role migrants played as transnational actors in the intertwined social transitions in West Germany and Turkey, it is crucial to take a closer look at deliberative practices from below.

Transnational migration both limited and widened the scope of political participation: While the foreigner law from 1965 in West Germany restricted political activities and excluded migrants from municipal suffrage, living and working abroad complicated their participation in elections in Turkey. Migrants demanded the right to vote on a communal level in West Germany by criticizing the West German state for its lack of democracy and the exclusion mechanisms the democratic system produced.4 At the same time, migrating to West Germany could open up new spaces for political practices and freedom of expression, especially for minority groups that were persecuted and during times, when all political activities were prohibited in Turkey, like after the military coup in 1980.5 Migrants from Turkey took the streets to protest against the military regime in their country of origin, published leaflets and magazines to raise awareness for state violence and human rights violations, and initiated solidarity campaigns.

This resulted in the creation of a transnational social space through which political and social developments in both countries were entangled. As studies on transnational social spaces and transnational migrant organizations suggest, the existence of migrant communities in West Germany led to a diffusion of Turkish domestic politics.6 Furthermore, the transnational political strategies of migrants such as protests against the military regime or human rights violations in their country of origin forced West German politicians increasingly to position themselves to the political developments in Turkey. Migrants often published their leaflets in German and addressed them ‘to the democratic public’. In doing so, they built up pressure on the Turkish government indirectly via the West German government and politicians. In this sense, as the political scientist Betigül Argun argues, migrant groups and organizations create discursive transnational spaces that can be conceptualized as an expansion of the public sphere in Turkey. The demands for political participation and civil rights can be regarded as negotiations about taking up space in the public sphere and thus in society and political discourse.

Against this background, my chapter will explore which strategies migrants from Turkey used to advocate for democracy from abroad, how they used the term ‘democracy’ as a discursive argument to demand their rights, what role they played as transnational actors in the social upheavals, and in which ways transnational social movements were shaped and regulated by gender. With a focus on migrant women and their cross-border practices and spaces of agency, I will trace the role of transnational migrant activists in the social upheavals of the 1970s. The analysis will draw on archival sources such as leaflets and magazines published by various (feminist) migrant groups and organizations, archival resources of trade unions in Turkey and West Germany as well as government correspondence and records and collections of newspaper clippings.


1 See for example Betigül Ercan Argun, Turkey in Germany. The Transnational Sphere of Deutschkei, New York 2003.; Eva Østergaard-Nielsen, Transnational Politics. Turks and Kurds in Germany, London 2003.

2 Sercan Çınar, The Making of Turkish Migrant Left Feminism and Political Generations in the Ruhr, West Germany (1975-90), in: Anna Artwińska/Agnieszka Mrozik (Hg.), Gender, Generations, and Communism in Central and Eastern Europe and Beyond, Abingdon, Oxon 2020, p. 102-121, p. 103.

3 See Argun, Turkey in Germany, p. 5.

4 See e.g. the statement of the Ausländerkomitee Berlin demanding municipal suffrage from 1979, documented in a synopsis about municipal suffrage for migrants in the archival records of the department „Foreign Workers“ at the German trade union DGB: Erich Dederichs/Jan Vink: Kommunales Wahlrecht – Versuch einer Bestandsaufnahme, Anhang zur Vorbereitung einer Sitzung zum Kommunalen Wahlrecht des Arbeitsausschusses „Grundsatz“, AdsD, 5/DGAZ000509. 5 See Østergaard-Nielsen, Transnational Politics, p. 70f. 6 See ibid., p. 10.

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