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In an earlier post from a few months back, I looked at the issue of Vietnamese contract workers in the GDR through the experiences of Hieu L., father of Minh, a young woman I met through my work at the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University. After spending a number of years in the GDR in the 1970s learning German and completing engineering studies, Hieu returned to Vietnam where he worked as a university lecturer. In the mid-1980s, however, he received an offer to return to the GDR to work as a translator for Vietnamese guest workers and in 1987 he accepted, leaving his wife and young daughter behind to take on what was quite an attractive position compared to those on offer in his native Vietnam. If you are interested in Hieu’s work in the GDR, you’ll find plenty of those details in the earlier post. We pick up the story here in the summer of 1989 . . .

The Wende and a World Turned Upside Down

In the summer of 1989, Hieu received welcome visitors to his East German home in Wallendorf, his wife Diu and their daughter Minh. Minh explained: “My Dad’s contract was for five years and so we were allowed to visit him [in the GDR] for six months in the summer of ’89. We could do that because he was not a regular guest worker. He was more highly qualified and directly employed [ed. note – by the East German state, not a specific factory or industrial combine as was the case for most guest workers].” During the visit, Diu became pregnant with the couple’s second child and this important development in the family’s life was mirrored by the major changes taking place in geopolitics.

Indeed, the backdrop for the family’s reunion was the gradual disintegration of the GDR over the summer and fall of 1989, a situation which really picked up speed with the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The scenes from the Brandenburg Gate in the aftermath of the Wall’s fall reached Wallendorf’s television sets and Diu quickly decided that she wanted to be part of this monumental moment. So, with Minh in tow, she and a friend boarded a bus for the once divided city. Once in West Berlin, they spotted a supermarket through the bus window, got off to marvel at all that was on offer there and even bought some soap and mandarin oranges. The scene remains vivid in Diu’s mind to this day: “Our eyes were sparkling with joy and we thought of West Germany as a prosperous country!”

The political changes, however, quickly plunged the many foreign guest workers inside the GDR into uncertainty about their futures. Minh relates, “My Mum told me that after the GDR ceased to exist [ed. note: formally on October 3, 1990, but the decision to unify was essentially sealed with the results of the March 1990 elections in the GDR], the contract workers had no ‘existential status’ anymore. So they were told to go back and they were offered or given 3,000 Marks or so to buy tickets and go back.” While some guest workers accepted this offer, for others, including Hieu, a return home was not particularly appealing and so he and Diu decided to try and stay and find a place for themselves and their young family in the new Germany.

Berlin, Abflug vietnamesischer Arbeiter

Returning home: in the fall of 1990 thousands of Vietnamese guest workers returned home via daily charter flights from East Berlin’s Schönefeld airport (photo: Bundesarchiv 183-1990-1109-032 / Bernd Settnik).

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We all have days that persist in our memory, ones that remain vivid despite the passage of time. This can result from any number of factors such as meeting particularly interesting people, experiencing things different from those part of one’s regular routine or perhaps visiting a place where the physical space imprints itself on onto your senses in a deep, affecting way. If we’re lucky, all three of those factors come together at once and for me they did in May 2006 when I visited the Saxon town of Hoyerswerda for the first time.

Sun shining through the grey: a ceramic mosaic graces the wall of a block of flats in "socialist city" Hoyerswerda (photo: author).

A ceramic sun shines through the grey from the wall of a block of flats in Hoyerswerda, East Germany’s second “socialist city” (photo: author).

When I first announced to my German friends that I was intended to visit Hoy, as it is known by locals, the general response was :”What do you want to go there for?” To be honest, the reaction didn’t surprise me as Hoy has become a sort of shorthand for the wave of xenophobic violence that shook parts of Germany in the early post-unification years. When economic and social upheaval gripped eastern German during the early 1990s, neo-Nazis and their allies skillfully exploited the situation to cultivate antipathy towards foreigners. Attacks on those visually identifiable as “non-German” became alarmingly commonplace in the former-East, but in 1991 in Hoyerswerda the violence took on, for the first time, the character of mob violence perpetrated over several days to the open approval of a significant portion of the local population.

The victims of these attacks were asylum seekers and so-called “guest” or “contract” workers who had been brought to work in local industry during the GDR era and had decided to try and stay on. These “outsiders” were concentrated in a handful of apartment blocks in the town, essentially segregated from the locals and essentially sitting ducks for the mob violence. Most shamefully, after several days of rioting and attacks on the foreigners’ homes, federal and state authorities capitulated to the violence and removed them from the town thereby handing a victory to neo-Nazis who subsequently celebrated their role in making Hoyerswerda “ausländerfrei” (“free of foreigners”). I certainly recalled the terrible images from the television reports: the buses of the asylum seekers and guest workers inching their way out of town to the jeers and cheers of the mob with a police escort that was unable or unwilling to even try to defend the terrified passengers huddling under blankets to protect themselves from the shards of splintering glass caused by rock attacks.

My motivation to visit Hoyerswerda, however, was not driven by any perverse kind of “catastrophe tourism”. Read More

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