In the first chapter of her book The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany, Rita Chin makes an excellent case for the roles played by both Aras Ören and the wider Ausländerliteratur community in the German phenomenon which she calls the ‘guest worker question’. She traces the development of the social niche of migrant workers from the years just after the Second World War into the 1970s through both political and legal history and the growth of the guest worker subculture. Chin analyzes the position of guest workers in terms of culture, society and economy.
In terms of my personal analysis, her book (or at least the first chapter) exemplifies several qualities which I have come to believe constitute some of the greatest virtues of transnational approaches to history. The first is that the phenomena in question – namely, the guest worker question, Aras Ören, and the literature of the Gasterbeiter – are difficult to classify under one heading of significance; that is, these things cannot be defined as purely social nor political nor cultural in nature but rather all of those at once. Transnationalist analyses, at least to my understanding, require multiple dimensions of understanding across multiple characteristics; when identifying transnational experiences, it is unwise and often outright inaccurate to attempt to examine them as simply a product of society or of government or of the like. Secondly, Chin applies this approach to a marginalized group, identifying and contextualizing their experiences through a comprehensive examination of the multicultural influences and social realities that formed the basis of every day for these people. Through study of their literature and one their subculture’s most prominent voices, the evolution of the situation of the guest workers is fleshed out as an experience of periodic uncertainty and eventual community-building. I feel that transnational analysis is particularly well-suited to the study of marginalized or oppressed social groups, since the marginalization of most of them rests of a public understanding of their ‘otherness’ and the hybridization of a dominant culture with a smaller one. Finally, Chin is concerned with the description of transnational history that Patricia Clavin identified as fundamental to its practice; ‘transnationalism…is first and foremost about people: the social space they inhabit, the networks they form and the ideas they exchange.’ Chin’s focus on the practical and social realities of guest workers is exactly the kind of analysis that Clavin supports. In particular, the networks formed as a consequence of the emergence of Gasterbeiterliteratur are emphasized for their role in altering the sociolegal position of guest workers within Germany.
While I enjoyed this chapter and felt the analysis was sound, I feel that Chin sometimes used excerpts from Ören’s work without sufficient contextualization, leaving me wondering just how these texts were intended; in short, Chin gives us her interpretation, but I feel she withholds much of the perspective of contemporary readers with regard to her sources. However, I understand that, given that I have only read two chapters of her book, I may have identified an issue which is thoroughly clarified in subsequent chapters, so I shall completely understand if my critique should be proven unfounded.
Chin, Rita, The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany (Cambridge, 2007).
Clavin, Patricia, ‘Defining Transnationalism’, Contemporary European History 14, 4 (2005), pp. 421-439.