Van Wyck on Vierra, 'Turkish Immigrants in the Federal Republic of Germany: Immigration, Space, and Belonging, 1961-1990'

Sarah Thomsen Vierra
Brian Van Wyck

Sarah Thomsen Vierra. Turkish Immigrants in the Federal Republic of Germany: Immigration, Space, and Belonging, 1961-1990. Publications of the German Historical Institute Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 282 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-42730-2.

Reviewed by Brian Van Wyck (Harvard University) Published on H-German (May, 2020) Commissioned by Jeremy DeWaal

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In 2017, the German journalist Constantin Schreiber published Inside Islam: Was in Deutschlands Moscheen gepredigt wird (Inside Islam: What is preached in Germany’s mosques). In this bestseller and an accompanying television documentary, Der Moscheebericht (The mosque report), Schreiber presented observations from Friday prayers at thirteen German mosques. According to Schreiber, the khutbah sermons delivered by imams in these mosques were often actively hostile to Germany and its social and democratic norms. These observations attracted considerable public attention, supportive as well as critical. Detractors accused Schreiber of an ill-informed, surface engagement with the Islamic context, not to mention misleading translation errors.[1] One critical reaction to Inside Islam and Der Moscheebericht was a collection of tweets around the hashtag #meinmoscheereport (My mosque report) that trended in Germany in April 2017.[2] In this hashtag action, Muslims shared stories—some comic, others poignant—that countered Schreiber’s depiction of mosques in Germany as spaces segregated from mainstream society and values. In these remembrances, mosques were spaces where children climbed the minbar (imam’s pulpit) to reenact the fairy tale of Rapunzel, where young people translated paperwork for their elders, and where German Muslims prepared tea for police keeping watch over a far-right demonstration.

German Muslims contested the representation of mosques as closed, foreign spaces, portraying them instead as sites embedded in local cultural and institutional contexts. At the same time, Schreiber’s outsider’s view from inside the mosque reached a wider audience than these opposing perspectives. As Schreiber’s report and the reactions to it demonstrate, the mosque was a contested site defined by those who made use of it as a space for religious practice and by those who interpreted and presented it to a wider audience. In other words, the mosque is what Sarah Thomsen Vierra refers to in her timely and insightful new book as a “space of belonging”: a space constructed, contacted, operated, and shaped by Turkish immigrants and their descendants in the practice of their daily lives in Germany. Vierra demonstrates in her study that different “spaces of belonging”—the workplace, home, neighborhood, school, and mosque—were affected by the identities and interests of those who made use of these spaces, by the materiality of these physical sites, and by the responses of those like Schreiber “outside” the space. Adopting a primarily local perspective appropriate to the history of everyday life she offers, Vierra finds that “spaces of belonging” in the Berlin-Wedding neighborhood of Sprengelkiez were complex, contested, and changeable over time. Sometimes these spaces helped connect Turkish Germans to the broader society, sometimes they helped estrange them from it, and most frequently, they did both at the same time or for different individuals. Different uses and effects of spaces of belonging depended on outside forces, local particularities, generational differences, and gendered identities.

The study joins a growing group of monographs on postwar migration history in Germany and differentiates itself through an intensive engagement with everyday life on the local scale and especially with space. Leaning on the geographer Doreen Massey, Vierra examines the integration of migrants from Turkey and their descendants as a spatial, gendered, historical, and reciprocal process. Vierra makes a case for the utility of a focus on “mundane efforts ... the agency of ‘ordinary’ individuals and the importance of everyday life,” shifting away from the political, economic, and elite cultural perspectives that have long characterized histories of migration in modern Germany (p. 2). To get at these everyday sources, she relies on ego documents, especially memoirs, oral histories collected in the early 1990s, and sixteen interviews of her own. Centering five diverse sites that include exterior spaces shared with Germans (workplaces, schools), spaces created by and for the Turkish German community (homes, places of worship), and hybrid spaces (neighborhoods) allows Vierra to present a diverse, changing picture of spatial practices, which should be of interest to historians of modern Germany and migration scholars interested in the intersection of space, place, and mobility.

Chapter 1 (“Settling In at Work”) is on the workplace. Vierra identifies a central paradox in the logic of the guest worker program; namely, that labor migrants “made themselves at home” at work, something employers often actively encouraged, even as the pretense of impermanence was maintained (p. 45). At the same time, depictions of guest workers even in company publications meant to encourage greater integration of Turks in and outside the workplace tended to highlight phenotypic markers of difference, suggesting a lasting ambivalence about the place of guest workers and their families in German society.

The closely linked second (“At Home in Almanya”) and third (“Around the Neighborhood”) chapters offer an examination of the home and the neighborhood as sites where Turks of the first and second immigrant generation negotiated their relationships to one another and to West German society. Vierra calls attention to the selective incorporation of external influences in the home and neighborhood, in contrast to the common popular image of the Turkish home or neighborhood as an island of Turkishness in Germany, self-consciously separate from its surroundings. Simultaneously, she highlights the role of both as spaces of refuge from the difficulties of immigrant life in the Federal Republic. These sometimes competing and sometimes contradictory functions dictated that the home and the neighborhood meant different things to different Turkish Germans, structured by differences of generation and gender. Vierra concludes that “rather than being a space apart” the home and the neighborhood were “a nexus point between first-generation Turkish immigrants, their children, and West German society” (p. 61).

Chapter 4 (“Learning to Belong”) turns to schools. Vierra finds that the second generation of Turkish Germans created and experienced a variety of spaces in public schools. In keeping with the contradictory mandate to promote integration in a country officially without immigrants, schools contributed to a conflicted sense of belonging. The variety of individual stories here make this chapter a welcome complement to recent work on education policies on migrant children in schools, though at times the treatment of diverse experiences can feel impressionistic. The second half of the chapter fruitfully concentrates on the Volkshochschule (VHS, adult education center) in Wedding, an educational institution ignored by other scholars primarily concerned with compulsory schools. Vierra describes a youth theater program created at the VHS in the latter half of the 1980s into the 1990s, usefully contrasting the grassroots multiculturalism of the theater group it established with the intercultural, elite approach of the von Chamisso literary prize analyzed most notably by Rita Chin.

Chapter 5 (“Making Space for Religion”) is devoted to the mosque. In this chapter more than any other, Vierra argues that Germans’ changing perceptions played a central role in shaping this space. She suggests that dramatic shifts in the way Germans viewed mosques, precipitated largely by the Iranian Revolution, affected relationships between the Turkish German community and larger West German society. Crucially, the potency of the mosque in media discourse in the 1980s frequently outweighed its importance in the lives of Turkish Germans. Here more than elsewhere, Vierra is able to identify a single turning point on which the narrative of the chapter pivots. Perhaps as a result, some of the effects of the Iranian Revolution can seem overstated. Contrary to Vierra’s assertion, Koran courses offered in mosques were a subject of West German interest before the conclusion of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and concerns about their impact on children’s integration were central in these discussions.[3] The year 1979 was therefore less a turning point generating interest in Islam where none previously existed than one that transformed the stakes of existing discussions, precipitating a change in the perceived implications of the presence of Islam in the Federal Republic. This is something omitted by the choice to focus more narrowly on the period after 1979. A broader lens might have complicated the linear narrative of the chapter.

In the final chapter (“Belonging in Reunified Germany”), Vierra describes mosque construction controversies and the activities of Turkish German street gangs in Berlin neighborhoods in the 1990s. Here the interest is less in a specific space than a consideration of the effects of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Turkish Germans. Vierra interrogates a deeply held popular belief that reunification increased the marginalization of Turkish Germans. Characteristic of the book as a whole, there are no simple answers. On the one hand, reunification accentuated the challenges facing the Turkish German community, including a precarious legal position, structural and economic disadvantages, and discrimination. On the other, the fall of the wall contributed to a greater interest in pursuing solutions to structural problems through cross-cultural dialogue. The insights offered in this chapter are facilitated by extensive use of ego documents and non-state sources, meaning Vierra is not limited by Germany’s thirty-year archival restrictions and is thus not forced to end her study in the 1980s like many others.

An excellent conclusion brings together threads unifying the complicated, careful picture presented in the individual chapters on different spaces of belonging. As Vierra takes up themes that cut across chapters, some readers will miss an explicit consideration of sources, reflecting especially on the role of memoirs and interviews—the author’s as well as others’—conducted decades after the period in question. Thematizing the effects of developments, such as the racist attacks in Mölln and Solingen in the 1990s or post-9/11 Islamophobia, on these recollections might have represented a fruitful moment to engage with the intersection of history, memory, and narrative that makes these sources methodologically challenging. This aside, as the conclusion argues, the preceding chapters demonstrate that integration in the Federal Republic should be understood as a spatial, contextual, historical process grounded in everyday experiences. Approaching integration in this way allows scholars to spotlight the “neglected reciprocal dimension of integration,” that is, the necessity and utility of examining migration history as a part of a broader history of postwar Germany (p. 234). Migration is “central, not subsidiary” in this history, as Vierra has put it elsewhere.[4] In this respect, Turkish Germans in the Federal Republic of Germany is a successful intervention that should contribute to shaping a growing field of literature that would do well to build on the insights offered here.


[1]. See an overview of criticisms of Inside Islam and Der Moscheebericht collected in Cemil Şahinöz, “Outside Islam,” IslamiQ, April 20, 2017,

[2]. The German Islamic magazine and web portal IslamiQ started the hashtag action. For an explanation of its goals, see “IslamiQ startet #meinmoscheereport,” IslamiQ, April 23, 2017, A selection of some of the tweets collected under the hashtag can be found at “Die besten Tweets zur Hashtag Aktion #MeinMoscheeReport,” Noktara, April 25, 2017,

[3]. See the extended discussion of controversies surround Koranic education in Karin Hunn, “Nächstes Jahr kehren wir zurück…” Die Geschichte der türkischen “Gastarbeiter” in der Bundesrepublik (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2005), 432-46.

[4]. Sarah Thomsen Vierra, “Central, Not Subsidiary: Migration as a Master Narrative in Modern German History,” in Modern Germany in Transatlantic Perspective, ed. Michael Meng and Adam Seipp (New York: Berghahn, 2017), 200-16.

Citation: Brian Van Wyck. Review of Vierra, Sarah Thomsen, Turkish Immigrants in the Federal Republic of Germany: Immigration, Space, and Belonging, 1961-1990. H-German, H-Net Reviews. May, 2020. URL:

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