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From Africa to the GDR and back – Marcia Schenck’s research on labor migration brings together individual and world history

Eine Frau sitzt am Schreibtisch und erklärt jemandem etwas
Photo : Kevin Ryl
Marcia C. Schenck is a historian and professor of global history at the University of Potsdam.

Marica C. Schenck is a historian and professor of global history at the University of Potsdam. Her specialty is the big picture, global contexts. It is therefore all the more surprising - at first glance - that she has a particular penchant for details: for example, she has researched the history of labor migration between African countries and the GDR, and for this she has turned primarily to the individual life stories of the workers. Matthias Zimmermann spoke with her about why this is not a contradiction and why she herself is surprised by the results of her research. She has summarized them in her book, Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World. Socialist Mobilities between Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany, which was published in early 2023. It “tells the story of the rise and fall of the socialist project in Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany as experienced by Angolan and Mozambican migrants,” as she writes in the foreword.

You have done research on labor migration from Africa to the “Second World.” What exactly do you mean by this?

The term originated during the Cold War. While the terms First World and Second World referred to the countries of the Eastern and Western blocs that were hostile to each other, the Third World meant all those countries that did not feel they belonged to any of the blocs and were thus non-aligned. In the course of time, the term became synonymous with states that were characterized by poverty and were poorly developed. Today we speak of the Global South. Many of these countries are located in Africa. The relations between the first, second and third world are currently being researched quite intensively. I am particularly interested in the relationship of African countries to the GDR. For decades, people from Africa, especially Mozambique and Angola, went to East Germany to work or get an education, while the GDR kept sending experts to African countries.
How would you describe - and evaluate - this phenomenon in two sentences?

In recent years, I have been working intensively on labor migration. Between the 1950s and 1990s, many young people between the ages of 18 and 35 came to the GDR to work and acquire new knowledge. They did not want to, and were not supposed to, be employed as unskilled labor; they were meant to return to their home country with a skilled worker’s diploma. In this way, development aid was supposed to be provided at that time, because then they would have been able to build up appropriate industry when they returned home. My use of the subjunctive points out something important: For the most part, nothing came of it. The reasons are numerous. In many African countries, conflicts, mismanagement and civil wars prevented these plans from growing to fruition. But there were also interests on the part of the GDR that had little to do with development aid. The country had always suffered from a shortage of labor. They were hoping to counteract this by “importing” workers from the Third World. In this way, the country’s own economy was to be subsidized by cheap labor.

I investigated these developments. However, I was less interested in the state level than in how the workers themselves experienced this situation. Their view “from below” is important for an evaluation. And it is a very multifaceted view, sometimes nostalgic for the time as an adventure, with pride in having lived in Europe, sometimes critical with the feeling of having been exploited, because not a few waited in vain for the payment of wages that were withheld when they returned home. This multi-layered judgment can certainly be transferred to the big “stage”: In a certain sense, this labor migration was a good program that made economic and cultural exchange possible. Currently, no such thing is conceivable. Unskilled Angolans can no longer easily come to Germany in a legal way. At the same time, there is much to criticize, such as the fact that in the African countries, wage payments were systematically withheld from those returning home. Or that in many companies in the GDR, especially at the end of the 1980s, the training and further education of foreign workers was completely neglected, not to mention the racism that broke out in many companies after the fall of the Wall.

How did you come to this topic?

I was in Mozambique for a research visit during my time at Princeton. There I was approached by a man on the street who spontaneously asked me in German, “Wie geht’s?” (“How are you?”) It turned out that he had worked and studied in East Germany. I had never encountered the topic of labor migration between Africa and the GDR before, but found it tremendously exciting. So I went out and met more people who had also been in the GDR. That’s not a problem in the Mozambican capital, Maputo, because the Madgermans, as the former contract workers are called in their homeland, still meet in a park in the city. The conversations turned into interviews, and at some point I considered turning it into a research project. In the end, I threw my dissertation project overboard and made the history of the migrant workers the topic ... The dissertation then resulted in a book on labor migration, which was published at the end of 2022.

How do you study these points of contact between world history and individual biographies?

I have chosen a life-history approach and tell something like the collective life story of the contract workers in the book. The individual analyses and chapters are oriented toward dual key life experiences, such as the production and consumption of products or life between inclusion and exclusion in the private sphere. It is an attempt to keep the balance between insights into individual life stories - with sometimes very personal quotes and impressions - and the world events that are always present in the background.

I always had three stories in mind: that of the African states, specifically Angola and Mozambique, the GDR, and world history. Thus, the question of why these three countries, of all countries, were in the exchange is explained against the background of the Cold War: Angola and Mozambique, after they had become independent from their colonial powers, took conventional communist paths and were interested in an exchange with the Second World. As a result, the GDR became an important contractual partner.

This state level has already been quite well researched, especially with a focus on the GDR, also with regard to labor migration. But the perspective of the workers has been missing so far. How do they remember their time in the GDR? How were they shaped by it? How did they fare after their return? I wanted to fill this research gap by linking the macro-level of nation-states and the micro-level of workers. With a focus on individual perspectives.

So I started to look into oral history, which I believe was the obvious methodological choice for the project. I then conducted and transcribed a total of 260 interviews with former contract workers. In this way, a new, thematically specific source material was created. It is supplemented by other sources from a wide variety of archives: Documents, letters, photo albums, but also objects, from tableware to furniture, which some brought home with them. I have also included speeches from the Mozambican radio archive or documents from the GDR state archive, or from company archives, such as brigade diaries. The purpose of interviewing the various sources side by side is to triangularize the findings, i.e. not to derive findings from one type of source, but to verify them with the help of different ones.

This is particularly important because oral history must always take into account the time-bound nature of the statements. Interviews in 2015 yield different statements than they would have in 1980, and memory is flexible and ever-changing. It is therefore important to think about and reflect on the lives of the people involved  …

What came out of it?

I was quite surprised. I had expected a far more negative narrative, memories of exploitation and disappointment. There were indeed those, especially for the process of repaying wages that had often been retained on a large scale by the governments of African countries. But if you go deeper into the memories - working, starting a family, traveling, having hobbies - the experiences are often very positive. I was also surprised by this, because after looking at the GDR sources alone, one might think that their living conditions were not so good. Workers usually lived very restricted lives; they were assigned a place to live and work; they were not allowed to travel freely,;relationships were strictly forbidden or regulated. But that’s not the primary story I found in their memories; instead, their memories often constructed an exciting experience. Moreover, for many Africans, what we now see as a rather simple life in the GDR offered a noticeable improvement over what they knew from their homeland. This shows one thing above all: what is often missing in the analysis and evaluation of history is the judgment of those who experienced it. It is the judgment of those who write it that dominates. Last but not least, the individual life stories show that workers stood up for what was important to them. They interpreted rules so that they could still travel or obtain coveted goods. Relationships were forged, families were formed. They were not as at the mercy of the state as it might seem, and they developed a lot of creative life energy. Their memories show that.

In the dedication, you call the book a “transnational history” that oscillates between African and European history and that of the Cold War. How do you “tell” this story?

Migration is a rewarding topic because it automatically connects several geographical points of view. It’s just that it’s often not told that way, but only from one perspective, i.e. the receiving or sending country. But that becomes skewed, a story of people coming from nowhere, living there, and then going back to nowhere. The result is a very nation-state story – of what happened in the GDR, for example –, an artificial container that shows only a small section of what happened. If you want to show the totality of this complex web, you have to bring in the different perspectives, insert transnational levels. You have to tell stories of origin, migration and return. And, ideally, bring it together with the higher, transnational level, the background of the Cold War - and show, for example, what made the exchange between countries possible. Labor migration takes place in many forms and between different social systems. Currently, it is also being intensively researched, but especially for communist systems there are still large blind spots.

So you’re going to continue working on this topic?

I think so. I don’t want to shelve the exciting relationship between Angola, Mozambique and the GDR with this book. There are still many aspects to be explored at the level of student and expert exchange. I’ll be busy with this for a longer time. And fortunately, we have very good access to GDR archives in Berlin.
Further Information:

Marcia Schenck:
Book “Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World. Socialist Mobilities between Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany”: