Gastarbeider…

While traveling in July, I stumbled upon two different newspaper articles that somehow collided.

In Holland, I picked a copy of Intermediair, a free paper distributed by an employment service website. The paper contained an article titled De nieuwe gastarbeider, reproduced here on their website. The text quickly deals with young people from Mediterranean countries hit by the current crisis (Spain, Italy, Greece) and finding their way into Holland, as students or to complement a workforce lacking in specific categories of workers. If the article does not seem to mention 1960s-1970s Southern-European migrants, the picture illustrating it draws a clear parallel: it pictures such migrant workers in the 1960s, working in a printing factory, Drukkerij De Spaarnestad, in Harlem. Migrant workers from Turkey, Northern Africa, Southern Italy, Southern Spain were also part and parcel to the 1950s-1970s boom years in France, Germany, Britain. A well-known, relatively well-researched phenomenon, that Tony Judt’s Post-War summarized well in a few pages. In the French context, occasions to approach this phenomenon are plentiful, as it forms the background of the current day’s immigration debate. I could emphasize the memoirs of former minister Azouz Begag, or some songs from the pop music repertoire (“Qui a construit cette route? qui a bâti cette ville? Et qui n’y habite pas?“).

The second text came from Le Monde (paywall) and dealt with Spain. Through three generations of a Spanish family, the journalist drew a portrait of Spain’s economic evolutions and the current situation of the country’s youth. For one of the young men interviewed for the piece, there was no doubt: the crisis was going to last, and he would have to migrate at some point. The long stretch of prosperity experienced by his parents was ending.

Will we see the same influx of migrant workers, inside the EU, from Southern Europe to Northern Europe, than we observed in the 1960s – a new generation of “Gästarbeiter”? Those would be a different kind of migrants than before, moving to societies that have changed since the 1960s. This is one of the most depressing effects of the current crisis: a feeling of going backward, of unraveling things that, in the euphoria of the 1990s-2000s, we thought were obvious, natural, good. Day after day this feeling grows more unsettling.

Seen from the ivory tower of historical research, these articles also reminded the role of migrants in international relations. Not only in a cultural, social sense, but also as the objects of policies and possible influence on the main research object of Diplomatic History: statecraft, big foreign policy decisions stirring the ship of the state. Departure and destination states can use migrants as a diplomatic, political, economic resource. There are also several different types of migrants: the early 1900s Finnish “national networks” in Paris, that I have written about, represent one way to migrate. There looked for something in Paris, but contrary to the Poles for example, they never stayed. However, they spawned a rich world of intermediaries and mediators between the Nordic countries and France, that endured after Finland’s independence and the Second World War.

When studying small states’ relations with Great Powers, these small states’ networks can matter a great deal in the great powers’ political decision-making: the most unlikely “diplomates d’un moment” can spread information on otherwise neglected parts of the world (what Julien Gueslin has called the “itinerary merchants of local realities“), act as mediators, suggest and highlight, agitate and lobby.

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