Labour migration was a hallmark of the openness of socialist Yugoslavia towards the West. By the early 1970s, more than one million Yugoslav citizens lived abroad, two thirds of them in the Federal Republic of Germany. This article argues that the so-called Gastarbeiter (guestworkers) migration a headache for the communist regime because the Gastarbeiter embodied structural shortcomings of the economy, especially its inability to provide enough jobs. Left-wing student protesters in 1968, critical film-makers and intellectuals claimed that out-migration was a consequence of inequality and alienation in the country. In this article, I focus on representations of the Gastarbeiter in the press in the 1960s and 1970s, arguing that constant reporting reminded readers of unsolved problems of the country. Out-migration and its criticism highlighted the pitfalls of the country’s integration into the capitalist world economy.
1968 was a momentous year in the history of socialist Yugoslavia. Not only did the country’s national football team almost win the European Football Championship in Italy in June 1968, but at the same time Yugoslavia experienced its own protest movement. Triggered by discontent over the reduction of grants and the intolerable conditions in student dormitories, students in Belgrade staged a demonstration on 3 June 1968. The protest soon grew into a large movement and took on a more immanently political character. It spread to other university cities in the country. Students rallied against inequality and the privileges enjoyed by the bureaucratic class (‘the red bourgeoisie’), disillusioned by the realities of socialism in Yugoslavia. The Belgrade students did not want to overthrow socialism but claimed to stand for it. They accused the ruling League of Communists of betraying its own ideals. Students notably refrained from criticising Tito and instead showcased his portraits at the demonstrations. For a week, they occupied the University of Belgrade and organised their own, self-managed protest commune under the banner of the ‘Red University Karl Marx’. A police clampdown followed.1
Recent research highlights these protests as Yugoslavia’s contribution to the global ‘1968’.2 While the protests were provoked by domestic grievances and a growing divide between the dominant partisan generation and a much better educated student generation, protest in Yugoslavia was also connected to events that were taking place elsewhere in Europe and witnessed through travel and mutual observation. The protests in Belgrade, in particular, have been inscribed in a chain of events linking places like Paris, Berlin, Prague and college towns in the United States.3 What students in Yugoslavia and their international peers had in common was their rebellion against existing socio-political structures and the conservatism of the post-war order. The Yugoslav students presented a broad left-wing critique, in this case of a system that considered itself socialist. They criticised the market-oriented economic reforms implemented by the government in the mid-1960s as an attempt to restore capitalism, and they attributed the unemployment and growing social inequality as consequences of these reforms.
The deeper the integration of the economy in the world market […] the more directly the latter’s competition logic became expressed within Yugoslavia, and the more it caused friction on the shop-floor, bringing into question the legitimacy of the governing apparatus.4
The participants in the demonstration shouted the following slogans: ‘Long live Tito, Tito – Party. Down with the socialist bourgeoisie. Down with bureaucracy. We want employment in our country. We want a fair distribution of personal incomes. We don’t want to go to Sweden for work.5
We are not fighting for our own narrow material interests. We are furious about the enormous social and economic differences in our society. We are against only the working class bearing the costs of economic reform. […]. It hurts us that thousands of our people must go abroad, to serve and work for global capital. We want, with our knowledge, vigour and love, to build our socialist society.7
Resolutions by students’ councils in Belgrade and other university towns contained the demand that the government should undertake measures to guarantee the employment of qualified cadres in the country and prevent them from going abroad. Time and again, they pointed to massive out-migration as a sign of the marginalisation of workers and of unemployment, calling it unworthy of a socialist country.8 These demands appeared precisely on time: 1968 saw a jump in the number of people leaving for employment abroad by more than one hundred per cent. Yugoslavia was also finalising negotiations with the Federal Republic of Germany on a recruitment agreement, which would be signed in October, making Germany the single most important destination country for Yugoslav Gastarbeiter.9 Hence, 1968 also represented an important date in the migration history of socialist Yugoslavia – the only socialist country to allow out-migration for economic purposes to the West.
Although labour migration from Yugoslavia would peak only few years later, by 1968 so-called Gastarbeiter migration had already become a topical issue in Yugoslav public life. It attracted considerable attention from newspapers, researchers, intellectuals, policymakers – and rebellious students. Their critique suggests that out-migration was a contentious phenomenon, and not necessarily a source of pride regarding Yugoslavia’s openness to the world. Contemporary observers frequently held negative views about the departure of so many Yugoslav citizens. As I will show, not only rebellious students but also journalists and experts often concluded that this movement generated more problems than solutions for Yugoslavia and its developmental model.
select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.11
Frames guide perception, interpretation and action, which is why they are so powerful and also politically important. They determine the scales of salience, ‘making a piece of information more noticeable, meaningful, or memorable to audiences.’ Frames shape what people notice and simultaneously ‘direct attention away from other aspects.’12 Media play an important role in such framing processes, as they can draw attention to certain phenomena, attribute meaning to them by providing explanatory frameworks, and often – implicitly or explicitly – formulate treatment recommendations. Specific framings thus become linked to different value preferences and notions of relevance. Mobilising a security frame, for example, can make migration look much more acute than when it is framed as another form of human mobility. The visible embodiments of these different frames are representations (images, narratives) which can be questioned for the meanings they communicate as well as the epistemological premises on which they are predicated, and for the symbols they use to convey their message.
The student protesters in Belgrade in the summer of 1968 clearly applied an equality and fairness frame to migration. This resulted in the assertion that the out-migration of workers to capitalist countries was a blemish on the communist government. This framing evokes the question of whether the departure of Gastarbeiter had a corrosive effect on the Yugoslav system: representations of migration constantly displayed a sense of unease among policymakers and the public. The government never really managed to control the symbolic politics of out-migration, thus leaving space for the direct or indirect criticism of the state of Yugoslav socialism through discussions of the Gastarbeiter issue. Brigitte Le Normand shows that migrant workers themselves articulated what was wrong about the system;13 but their public images as well, that is, the meaning attributed to them by observers proved to be highly contentious. These conflicted representations were indicative of the difficulties faced by the Yugoslav communists in managing their parallel, hard-to-align policy goals of building socialism at home, while at the same time integrating their country into the international, capitalist division of labour. This ultimately proved too contradictory for even the most imaginative ideologist to provide a coherent justification. The image of the Gastarbeiter was very much at the centre of these representational tensions because migrant workers were such a clear and visible symbol of this deficiency. The Yugoslav communists thus learned that neither migration as a social practice nor its symbolic fallout could be fully brought under control – a lesson many governments around the world continue to make but rarely are ready to accept.
My discussion of the symbolic politics of the Gastarbeiter migration is based mainly on the press, arguably the most formative pillar of ‘public opinion’ and source for news about what people assumed to be social reality. I have compiled a collection of press-clippings from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, which includes more than 1500 articles from major Yugoslav newspapers from all republics.14 The goal was to create an as comprehensive as possible collection of newspaper articles on migrant workers as well as on government policies in that area. Many of these articles are full-page, or even longer, features. The collection is not complete but it is representative enough to allow tracing the major themes and their evolution. In that, I go significantly beyond David Goodlett’s analysis. Useful as it is, Goodlett has examined a narrower time frame and mainly explores the reflection of government policies in newspaper reporting, and he is less interested in the symbolic dimension of labour migration.15
The press was not the only medium to produce images of the migrant workers. These figured regularly in Yugoslav films and in literature. Historians Sara Bernard and Brigitte Le Normand have pointed out that both genres added greatly to ambivalent, or outright critical representations of either the Gastarbeiter or the policies of the government.16 Out of these, the work of one filmmaker will figure prominently in my analysis: Krsto Papić’s two documentaries on this issue highlight crucial moments. The main thrust of his Gastarbeiter films, especially Specijalni vlakovi from 1972, was the critique of inequality. Pinpointing the salience of labour migration for articulating concerns about growing inequality, my article ties in with recent research on Yugoslav socialism which (re-)discovered class and the social question as critical issues for understanding the Yugoslav variety of socialism. These questions had been much side-lined by the focus on national conflict because of Yugoslavia’s violent breakup. This meant – as Rory Archer, Igor Duda and Paul Stubbs stress in a pertinent volume – that the rich Yugoslav sociological research analysing social stratification has almost fallen into oblivion.17 As Rory Archer has pointed out Yugoslavia was probably a more inequitable society than other socialist ones, but it certainly differed from them in giving much more space to public scrutiny of it.18 The prominence of inequality as a point of critique of socio-economic development in the 1960s until the late 1980s, when national issues started to become dominant, helps to explain why labour migration was so strongly framed as a social problem: the act of physical mobility became so salient because it was problematised by linking it to a much more – in ideological terms – important issue, that is, the communists’ promise to strive for equality and the expectation of the public that this promise be kept.
2 Background: Gastarbeiter migration
This article explores representations of Gastarbeiter migration: I will not go into the details of its social and economic dimensions, other than as reported and portrayed in the media.19 My focus is on the symbolic level: what were the main patterns used to represent the Gastarbeiter, which dominant motifs and metaphors can be identified, and to which policy concerns can they be related? In debates about migration, societies often articulate fears, anxieties, concerns and value preferences because migration touches essential features of modern statehood. Migration invites debates on questions of belonging and identity, citizenship and sovereignty, entitlements and duties, openness and closure. The public often connects migration with existential questions, which is why migration is liable to semantic overcharging – a fact that constitutes the salience of these debates. Most of the attention, both in scholarly literature and public debate, is on ‘problems’ associated with immigration. But emigration can equally become overdetermined. It is often framed in terms of a loss to the nation, e.g. of human capital, and as Aija Lulle has convincingly shown, as an indication of the sending country’s peripheral position20 – an experience not only of socialist Yugoslavia but much of eastern and southern Europe vis-a-vis the ‘West’.
Yugoslavia is a case in point: when Gastarbeiter migration reached massive dimensions in the late 1960s, it became a major topic of public discourse. Observers discussed a variety of important social questions connected with out-migration. Yugoslavia, thus, can help turn the migration debate upside-down: in Western Europe and North America, the debate on migration concentrates on immigration, reflecting established hierarchies in the production of knowledge. A quick Ngram search on Google confirms that since the beginning of the twentieth century, publications have paid much more attention to immigration than emigration.21 Nancy L. Green and François Weil contend that ‘most migration history is written from where we are: the countries of immigration, past and present.’22 But as the Yugoslav case will show, emigration can be at least as much of an emotive object of public concern as immigration. In addition, Yugoslavia built up extensive research expertise in order to understand the consequences of out-migration and to develop evidence-based, political responses.23
Neither the Yugoslav public nor policymakers could ignore a process that affected so many people and touched the fabric of the country. The problematic nature of Gastarbeiter migration, which would haunt the government until the demise of the state, was evident from the very beginning in the contested discussions within the party in the early 1960s leading up to the liberalisation of migration. Powerful voices opposed out-migration to the West and insisted on the enforcement of the existing ban. One of their concerns was that migrant workers might fall under the influence of anti-Yugoslav émigré communities, especially of the Croatian ultra-nationalists. Yet, in a gradual process, the Yugoslav government in 1963 and 1964 decided to permit voluntary out-migration for economic purposes.24
The government estimated that the potential benefits were higher than the risks.25 This calculation itself indicates that the government was not completely sure about the results of its decision and feared detrimental consequences. Both the hopes and fears of the government would be evident in public representations. These concerns of the government shaped public discourse since they provided the yardstick against which observers measured the success, or failure, of migration. The government created explicit expectations, giving observers a clear framework for evaluating the outcomes of the liberalisation of exit. Importantly, the government also implemented administrative measures for achieving its goals and preventing potential negative outcomes. These measures set the institutional but also the discursive framework for acts of representation.
An expedient motive of the government was to curtail irregular emigration by providing a channel for legal departure. Since the late 1950s, Yugoslav authorities had noted that a growing number of people were leaving the country and taking work abroad, although this was prohibited. Especially in Slovenia and Croatia, where most of these emigrants originated, local authorities urged for a political solution.26 Other reasons for liberalising exit were economic in nature.27 First of all, the government hoped to ease pressure on the domestic labour market by allowing people to leave temporarily. Market-oriented reforms in the early 1960s had led to a noticeable drop in industrial investment and pressured enterprises to trim their workforce in order to achieve profitability. As a consequence, unemployment began to grow, further aggravated by the entry of the baby-boomer generation into the labour market. The government hoped to ‘export’ unemployment until the Yugoslav economy would regain its growth dynamic.
Another government motive was rooted in the expectation, based on experience, that emigrants would send savings back home. Government officials also hoped that migrants would return with new skills and know-how, thus effecting a brain gain. Indeed, return was envisioned: labour migration was conceptualised as a temporary movement, evident in the official name for Yugoslavia’s migrant workers: ‘workers temporarily employed abroad’ (radnici na privremenom radu u inostranstvu). The so-called Gastarbeiter were to stay abroad only a few years; surveys among migrant workers indicated that most of them shared this vision. Framing labour migration as temporary was also important for creating a clear distinction between the Gastarbeiter and ‘real’ emigrants. The word ‘emigrant’ (iseljenik) was reserved for those who had left for good, typically before the establishment of socialist Yugoslavia. The word also carried a negative connotation because in public discourse ‘emigrants’ were often associated with anti-Yugoslav émigré groups, the so-called ‘hostile emigration’ (neprijateljska emigracija).
In order to achieve these goals, the government attempted to govern the whole migration process – hence the existence of such rich archival material. The massive intervention of the government produced further ambiguities in public discourse, as the following discussion will highlight. The government created expectations concerning its ability to manage migration that ultimately could not be met. This became a similar trap to the one encountered by governments today who claim to control immigration. A recent report on attitudes towards immigration has stressed that ‘setting unrealistic targets that cannot be met may in fact increase public unease by cementing a belief that migration is “out of control”’.28 The Yugoslavs had a similar experience. This harboured an even higher corrosive potential because communist governments were particularly eager not to be seen to be out of control as their legitimacy depended on the execution of specific goals promised to the citizens.29
The major instruments developed by the government to out-migration have been already described in the works of Othmar Haberl, Sara Bernard and my own analysis:30 first of all, it concluded bilateral treaties that regulated procedures for the recruitment of Yugoslav workers and stipulated the terms of their employment abroad. In 1965, the first such agreement was concluded with France; in subsequent years, other agreements followed, for example with Austria and the most consequential treaty in 1968 with West Germany. The recruitment agreements laid down mandatory return by establishing the so-called rotation principle: after a few (two to three) years, migrant workers were to be replaced by new recruits, if there was still demand for their labour in the host country. Return was desired by both Yugoslavia and the host states. In the German speaking countries, this was evident in the name given to the migrant workers, Gastarbeiter (guestworker), which soon entered the Yugoslav vernacular (gastarbejter). Based on these agreements, the Yugoslav government built an institutional apparatus for selecting and transporting migrant workers under the umbrella of the Federal Employment Office. Workers were supposed to leave only under its guidance and not, for example, by individually arranging an employment contract with a foreign employer or just to join friends and relatives. In reality, less than half of all Gastarbeiter would move through this official channel.
The agreement with Germany deserves special mention not only because Germany would easily become the single most important destination country for Yugoslav migrant workers. It also had peculiar foreign policy salience. It was part of negotiations between the two countries to re-establish diplomatic relations which had been discontinued by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1957 after Yugoslavia recognised the gdr. In January 1968, ambassadors were exchanged once again and only afterwards could a recruitment treaty be signed. The negotiations on the agreement were further complicated by Yugoslavia’s demand that the German government should rein in the activities of the ‘hostile emigration’ based in Germany.31 The German side rejected this demand, citing freedom of expression and of association. For its part, there were concerns about the over-expansion of the number of migrant workers at a time when the country was experiencing its first (and short-lived) post-war recession. Eventually, foreign minister Willy Brandt got his way: he approached the recruitment agreement with Yugoslavia mainly from the point of view of Ostpolitik; he saw it as a foreign policy tool that would facilitate rapprochement with a communist-led country and strengthen Yugoslavia’s connection with the West.32
The agreement with Germany led to another surge in the number of Yugoslav citizens going abroad, from 57,000 in 1968 to 127,000 in 1969 and 240,000 in 1970. In the 1970s, Germany hosted two-thirds of all Yugoslav Gastarbeiter. We can assume that this fact created additional headaches for the Yugoslav government and public: how to deal with the reality that only a generation after the country’s devastating occupation by Germany and the successful partisan struggle against the Wehrmacht, people were going to exactly this country? By that time, Yugoslavs had become used to the inhumane Germans portrayed in numerous partisan films – now they would be bosses and colleagues; interestingly, this question was not raised by the press although it seems hard to believe that no citizen was puzzled about this turn of fate.
3 The suffering of the Gastarbeiter
In exploring the Gastarbeiter theme as a medium of social critique, another 1968 event forms a useful starting point: in that year, the first documentary film made by one of Yugoslavia’s foremost directors came out, ‘Halo München’ by Krsto Papić.33 Papić, who was born in 1933 in Montenegro and worked mainly in Zagreb, made his debut as a film director in 1965; his first feature film ‘Iluzija’ appeared in 1967.34 Breaking with the aesthetic canon of bombastic partisan films, he used the medium to reflect on the prevailing conditions of Yugoslav socialism. Papić twice shot documentaries about the Gastarbeiter: ‘Halo München’ and ‘Specijalni vlakovi’ in 1972. These two short films are considered among his most valuable works.35
Halo München, which includes staged scenes, captures important facets of the early Gastarbeiter experience – both of the migrants and of those they left behind. The fifteen-minute film depicts the Dalmatian hinterland of Split, a karst region with a long tradition of out-migration. The film shows how the Deutsche Mark has replaced the Yugoslav dinar on the local market, German cars with German registration plates travel unpaved roads, the postman delivers mail from all over Europe, and locals try to make calls to Germany (‘Hallo, München’) through shaky phone connections at the post office. The film also presents derelict, empty houses scarred by World War Two bullets and partisan graffiti, indicating that the encounter with Germany was not always happy. At the end of the film, in one of the most evocative scenes, a village teacher conveys the intricacies of Croatian grammar to his pupils. When a German car appears, the children run out of the modest school building to chase the disappearing car while the sad-eyed teacher is left alone with a large map of Yugoslavia.
Papić’s semi-documentary is a reflection on alienation and foreignness, the conflict between modernity and tradition, and between urban and village life; while the Gastarbeiter are conveyors of modernisation and urbanisation, there is also a world to be lost. Past and present do not match. The film alludes to some of the fundamental tensions haunting socialist Yugoslavia, manifest in the divergence between ideology and reality. Film critic Juraj Kukoč aptly summarises its highly provocative message: ‘Instead of a better life thanks to socialism, a somewhat better live is ensured by the West. […] The ideologies and powers that promise a better life constantly change, while the people continue to go somewhere else in order to find a better life.’36
Four years later, Papić returned to the Gastarbeiter theme with an even more provocative film, ‘Specijalni vlakovi’ (Special Trains, 1972),37 classified by Kukoč as the director’s ‘politically most dangerous’ documentary work because it clearly juxtaposed workers and the party-state bureaucracy.38 It nevertheless won a prize at the Belgrade Film Festival in 1972. On the surface, the film criticises the dehumanising practices of German recruiters, for example the medical examination of Yugoslav workers. In actuality, however, the film is a scathing assessment of the social and economic conditions in Yugoslavia. Papić accompanies workers on their journeys to Germany on special trains organised by the Yugoslav and German railways for transporting them from Zagreb and Belgrade to Munich. He lets them talk: men and women hired by German firms tell him about their needs, hopes and fears. Some are in tears, they complain about the necessity of this journey and the impossibility of finding a job in Yugoslavia that would enable them to provide for the family. The film conveys a powerful sense of loss and displacement.
The film evokes empathy for these ordinary people forced by economic circumstances to go to a foreign, unknown land. At the same time, it has only scorn for the government: the Employment Office representative accompanying the Gastarbeiter is presented as a heartless technocrat boasting about the professional organisation of the transportation of Yugoslav workers while displaying no sympathy for them. He has all the attributes of the ‘new class’: he smokes a pipe and sports an elegant suit and dark glasses. Rarely were class differences, and the contrast between empty phrases and real-life hardships in Yugoslavia, so starkly present on the screen. One of the migrants on the train criticises the poor and unfair treatment of workers in Yugoslavia who feel let down by the government. This was exactly the fundamental tension that the hundreds of thousands of Yugoslav migrant workers embodied; the party never really managed to clearly articulate why this was necessary. The last scenes of ‘Specijalni vlakovi’ convey another important message: the futility of emigration. Leaving the country will not improve one’s life – life as a foreigner in a strange world will prove difficult as well.39
in Yugoslav cinematographies the elaboration went much further [than in literature]. In films, the Gastarbeiter passed from being understood as victims of the misery that accompanied their departure and stay abroad to being characters who finally took on all the moral corruption and degradation they experienced that would follow them back to Yugoslavia when they returned.43
4 The Gastarbeiter in the press
Film helped to render the Gastarbeiter a fixture of public culture in Yugoslavia. Writers also took up the theme, creating almost an entire genre of Gastarbeiter-related novels and other forms of literature.44 On the literary representation of Gastarbeiter, Bernard recognises a tendency by authors to articulate a critique of moral degradation by writing about the Gastarbeiter; another prominent theme was suffering.45 Yet, when it came to shaping public opinion on a daily basis, probably no medium was more influential than the press. Yugoslav citizens were regular though not excessive newspaper readers: according to a 1969 sociological survey among citizens of voting age (above eighteen years) in Croatia, 21 per cent followed daily newspapers regularly, 53 per cent sometimes and 26 per cent never; radio was a bit more popular, television a little less, while in relation to the press, weekly and monthly periodicals enjoyed more popularity than dailies.46 These readers learnt a lot about Gastarbeiter migration because once it had assumed significant proportions in the mid-1960s, it became a frequent topic of reporting. By the late 1960s, Yugoslav newspapers were full of reports about the Gastarbeiter, continuing on into the 1980s.47 Some newspapers even ran special sections for the migrant workers themselves, since they were distributed among migrant communities abroad.
When discussing the press in a socialist country, the question of political control invariably comes up. The press in Yugoslavia certainly enjoyed more leeway than in any other state-socialist country. Especially in regard to cultural and social affairs, the press reflected a pluralism of opinions – less so when reporting on government matters. During the liberalising reforms of the 1960s, censorship was abolished – although the party-state maintained red lines on what could be published and continued to exercise control over the media.48 The press was urged to adhere to the values of the party and to report ‘responsibly’. As noted by Gertrude Robinson, criticism was to be ‘constructive’.49 Criticizing Tito, for example, was certainly out of the question, and so were challenges to the main features of Yugoslav socialism, such as self-management and the principle of ‘Brotherhood and Unity’. Journalists pursued strategies of self-censorship, especially after the government narrowed the space for journalistic freedom in the early 1970s. During the purge of liberal party leaders, newspapers that had supported them were not spared either.50 There were also clear limits on the expression of nationalist positions, especially after the crackdown against the so-called Croatian Spring in 1971.
That said, it must be stressed that newspapers in Yugoslavia competed for readers and were under pressure to earn money – so they wanted to be read. Political restrictions could lead readers to abandon their newspaper: when journalists at the hugely popular, Zagreb-based weekly Vjesnik u srijedu were forced to resign because they had supported the Croatian Spring, the paper lost its popularity and never recovered. In 1977, it had to close.51 While the party could limit what was published, it could not force people to read its propaganda. The Yugoslav media audience thus enjoyed more choice than its counterparts in the Eastern Bloc countries, while at the same time most newspapers tried to maintain high standards of journalistic professionalism.
As the following discussion will show, the press produced a fairly differentiated picture of the real-life issues facing the Gastarbeiter, their families and communities. At the same time, it will become clear that major changes in the press depiction of the issue paralleled shifts in government priorities. Even though the press did not necessarily toe the party line, it dutifully reported on the policy initiatives of the government in this arena as well. The press is, therefore, a very valuable primary source of information both on government policy and the government’s perception of the ‘problem’, as well as on the social practices of migrants. The sheer number alone of articles about the Gastarbeiter is extraordinary, so no regular newspaper reader could avoid reading about them.
The variety of reported topics indicates that there was no stable and homogenous image of the Gastarbeiter. In his analysis of the Gastarbeiter experience in Austria and Germany, Vladimir Ivanović has stressed that: ‘All in all, over the years, the typical image of the Gastarbeiter began to be created. The Yugoslavs, too, knew precisely what the typical “Yugoslav foreigner” looked like and which virtues he was proud of.’52 It is true that much of Yugoslav society appeared to have a clear notion of the Gastarbeiter, but this idea encompassed different facets. One very popular motif, stressed by Ivanović, was of Yugoslav migrant workers overcoming hardship, working industriously, and saving as much money as possible for a better life once they returned.53
Yet, there were also other images that represented different, sometimes opposing, meanings. Rather than a ‘typical’ image, a more ambiguous, sometimes contradictory one emerges. Even one and the same newspaper tended to portray migrant workers in a different light on its pages. The fact that Zagreb and Belgrade-based newspapers figure more prominently in my analysis is due to these two cities being the seat of more leading newspapers than other places, and not because individual republics are a meaningful category of analysis here. The ambivalences in the media image of the Gastarbeiter were in part due to shifting political assessments, which in turn altered the frames for the evaluation of success or failure. In his year-by-year survey of press reporting on ‘Yugoslav worker emigration’ from 1963 to 1973, David Goodlett has highlighted that coverage in the early 1970s increasingly emphasised negative aspects in line with growing political disillusionment.54 He considers 1970 a ‘year of transition’, when ‘displeasure with the massive labour export became a prevalent theme in the press’ and ‘many reports were critical of specific aspects or results of the policy.’55 In the following, I will briefly present the major themes of press reports about the Gastarbeiter, contextualising them against the backdrop of the government’s major goals. We do not know how readers perceived these reports, other than the general insight provided by contemporaneous surveys that newspaper consumption did indeed influence political views.56 Yet, it seems reasonable to assume that some of the coverage provoked reflection among readers.
One of the recurrent features is pride in relation to the hard-working Yugoslavs toiling abroad. Newspapers, especially around the peak years of labour migration in the late 1960s and early 1970s, frequently stressed the significant contribution of the Gastarbeiter to the economy of their host country. The title of a long report in the widely read weekly magazine nin in 1971 read: ‘Mi smo marke, i za marke’ (‘We’re a brand, and for [Deutsche] Marks’, a play on words based on the words for ‘brand’ and for the West German currency in Serbo-Croatian).57 Newspapers reported that migrant workers from Yugoslavia were on average better trained than those from southern European countries and Turkey (a correct claim, which is why many German employers preferred Yugoslavs over other migrant workers). Newspapers also took pride in the fact that Yugoslavs were employed by leading industrial firms – evident for example in the pictures used in a Borba reflektor report about Yugoslav Gastarbeiter in Germany, showing emblematic industries such as Mercedes-Benz.58
We can only speculate about the meanings that emerged in the minds of the readers of such articles. Did readers ask themselves why their country could obviously not make good use of the efforts of these workers? Why were these people having to go abroad and endure the hardship of life away from home if their work was of such high quality? Newspapers occasionally criticised the loss of skilled workers and suggested a more restrictive approach towards their departure (the government would impose such restrictions in 1973).59 In the Zagreb daily Vjesnik, economist Ivo Vinski asked: ‘What do we gain, and what do we lose?’ in connection with the monetary impact of out-migration.60 Such reporting reflected a critical discussion among experts. In an economic analysis, Vinski concluded that labour migration represented a loss of human capital for Yugoslavia. According to his calculation, the host countries benefited most from migrant workers, while Yugoslavia saw a net loss.61 External observers, such as Carl-Ulrik Schierup, came to similar conclusions, arguing that the government’s economic hopes as to the outcome of labour migration did not materialise, while western economies benefited from the inflow of cheap and mostly skilled migrant labour.62
Journalists contributed to critical, or at least hesitant, assessments of Gastarbeiter migration by highlighting the many hardships the migrant workers faced. Especially before the recruitment stop of 1974, reporters did not fail to contrast the labour efforts of the migrants with their deplorable living and working conditions. We learn a lot from the newspapers about their everyday troubles, such as crammed housing, low pay, dangerous jobs and resentment on the part of the host society. Each year at Christmas, newspapers ran stories describing the epic waiting times at border crossings and about the overcrowded trains when migrants returned home for the holiday. ‘A forty-kilometre long line of cars’ cried a Tanjug dispatch in relation to the Austrian-Yugoslav border checkpoint at Spielfeld/Šentilj.63 Xenophobic attitudes and violent attacks against Yugoslavs, especially in Austria and Germany, were broadly reported. Migrant workers were often depicted as victims: ‘Mi smo samo “Auslenderi”’ (We’re only Auslenderi [German for ‘foreigners’]) read the title of an article in Oslobođenje in 1969.64 In 1970, Nova Makedonija claimed that among all migrant workers in West Germany, the Yugoslavs faced the highest risk of work injury.65 Yet, newspaper reporting did not amount to a full-scale exploration of anti-immigrant sentiments in the two most important destination countries for Yugoslav migrant workers. This would have raised the inconvenient question of why the government did not provide more forceful protection. A much more scathing critique of attitudes towards the Yugoslavs in Germany and Austria was left to people like the artist-cum-Gastarbeiter Drago (Dragotin) Trumbetaš.66
When newspapers criticised the domestic government for not providing the Gastarbeiter enough protection they typically referred to social rights of Yugoslav citizens abroad. In 1969, for example, Politika ran a story titled: ‘Life abroad without enough support in the country’, highlighting the lack of Yugoslav consular offices.67 Another newspaper in 1971 stressed that Yugoslavia spent only six dollars per head for the support of Gastarbeiter.68 This made it difficult for migrants to enjoy all their rights and questioned the reality behind the government’s claim that it was providing protection for those ‘temporarily employed abroad’. Such critical undertones became more common when many migrant workers returned from Germany and other host countries phased out recruitment as a result of the economic crisis following the oil price shock. As underlined above, the Gastarbeiter were supposed to return and newspapers hailed their re-arrival. In fact, Gastarbeiter who failed to return were even criticised, as though remaining abroad amounted to treason. But returnees faced many difficulties; reintegration into Yugoslav society was hard, especially because of the shortage of jobs and housing. Newspapers criticised the lack of domestic employment opportunities and the often lacklustre support for returnees in contrast to lofty policy declarations. In 1979, Politika ekspres reported ‘huge difficulties concerning the employment of our workers who were temporarily employed abroad.’69 Such reports, of course, reminded readers that unemployment was a persistent problem in Yugoslavia.
It was in this context that newspapers praised those migrant workers who developed their own initiatives as part of preparations for a successful return. One phenomenon drew particularly strong attention: the so-called ‘devizne fabrike’.70 Most of these were small industrial enterprises established, or substantially expanded, by the associated savings of migrants, then matched by a loan from a Yugoslav bank. The first such factory appeared in the district of Imotski in Dalmatia in the late 1960s, an area of mass emigration. By the mid-1970s, more than twenty such initiatives had emerged all around the country. Their main goal was to provide employment for the locals as well as returning Gastarbeiter. Policymakers considered them an important instrument of economic development in depressed areas.71 In a 1975 article on such factories, Politika emphasised that: ‘Our workers are helping themselves and their home region.’72 Returnees built factories in godforsaken villages in the underdeveloped parts of Yugoslavia.73 The reports refrained from questioning the viability of such initiatives, instead emphasising the enthusiasm and initiative of the workers. The ‘devizne fabrike’ were extolled as examples of a sensible use of migrant savings. We do not know whether the irony was lost on readers or not when they learnt about workers who basically invested in buying a workplace for themselves or for their family. Was this what self-management and the association of labour were supposed to be?
In general, newspapers praised Gastarbeiter if they lived up to the norms of the good Yugoslav citizen, which they were also expected to do abroad. Migrants were lauded for forming associations and clubs that provided spaces for socialising and upholding homeland customs. These initiatives were also seen as an important counterweight to the attempts of the so-called ‘hostile emigration’ to win over Yugoslav Gastarbeiter for their cause (this was a major concern for the government, not least because the majority of migrant workers were Croats, and the Croatian ultra-nationalist diaspora formed the strongest group). Gastarbeiter who failed to resist anti-Yugoslav propaganda – a rare occurrence judging from the papers – were harshly criticised. A 1974 series of articles on Gastarbeiter issues in the Bosnian daily Oslobođenje warned against visiting ‘national-chauvinistic and anti-Yugoslav’ cultural events. 74 Newspapers also emphasised that those workers who had left the country independently of the official channel were at most risk of running into problems. It is clear that the press was concerned about the image of Yugoslavia that migrant workers projected abroad. The fact that some became criminal or engaged in unlawful acts was not concealed, but presented as a warning.
Concerns about identity became a major motif in reports about the Gastarbeiter, and also of government actions to maintain the ‘Yugoslavness’ of its migrant workers. In the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of workers returned – the exact number is unknown due to incomplete statistics and substantial secondary migration; the Yugoslav census of 1981 recorded around 282,000 returnees while the highest – and improbable – estimates claim up to 600,000 returnees during the 1970s. Many Gastarbeiter, probably the majority, decided to stay abroad: the official number of Yugoslav citizens living abroad was higher in 1981 (836,704) than in 1971 (774,080), despite a peak in returns in the mid-1970s.75 Demographer Ivica Nejašmić calculated the stock of Yugoslav migrants living abroad at almost 600,000 in 1985, almost 70 per cent of the number in the peak year 1973.76
Reports on non-return indicated the failure of a major government policy despite the implementation of a variety of measures to stimulate return. When it became evident that many Gastarbeiter families would delay return, reporting shifted to the consequences of this decision. Newspapers described difficult family arrangements, as migrant parents had to decide where their children should live and go to school. Migration now appeared to threaten family stability. Newspapers also devoted considerable attention to the fact that many migrants were women (more than a third), stressing that female workers faced specific problems.77 How would they balance their professional and family roles abroad, which was difficult enough in Yugoslavia? The welfare of children became a major theme, regardless of whether they remained in Yugoslavia or joined their parents. Education abroad was a special concern, since it was closely linked to the expectation that the Gastarbeiter and their offspring would maintain a Yugoslav identity. Politika asked: ‘When will the social agreement on the additional schooling of our children abroad be concluded?’78 Ekspres politika described schooling opportunities for Yugoslav children abroad as insufficient.79 Language education was considered particularly important: there was allegedly an ‘army of young people who has forgotten our language.’80
This brief summary of major press motifs in relation to the Gastarbeiter attempts to highlight the complexity and ambiguity of these representations. While the image was never monochromatic and reflected the variety of real-life experiences, there is a sense of the reports becoming more disillusioned over time. Goodlett has concluded that ‘the growing groundswell of press opposition [against out-migration] reflected an equally escalating displeasure among high political officials.’81 It is evident that by the early 1970s labour migration was increasingly framed as a problem rather than as an achievement or opportunity. The press reflected the fundamental unease, even suspicion, among the Yugoslav public and its ruling elite in relation to the Gastarbeiter.82 The migrants were described as strangers in their own country who no longer fitted in.83 They lived in-between, or as the Ljubljana-based newspaper Mladina put it: ‘With the body there, with their thoughts here.’84
In contrast to Krsto Papić and other film directors, the press was more circumspect in addressing the fundamental tensions manifested by the migration of so many Yugoslavs. The furthest it went in its critique of the government was to deplore the lack of support mechanisms. Yet alone by its frequent reporting on the Gastarbeiter and their day-to-day hardships, the press – probably inadvertently – contributed to produce doubts about the efficiency of the system. Such a critical undertone mattered: the above-mentioned 1969 media survey had shown that those people who followed the press most regularly were the least satisfied with the political situation.85 The near-constant media coverage helped to maintain the Gastarbeiter within the margins of the ‘imagined’ Yugoslav nation, while at the same time making clear that there was a significant divergence between this imagining and lived reality.
The best-known Yugoslav dissident film-maker Želimir Žilnik had made this point much more forcefully in 1968 when he released the short film ‘Nezaposleni ljudi’ (Unemployed people). In this film, he gave a voice to workers made redundant by the preceding economic reforms.86 While the film is not about labour migration per se, it shows that going to Germany was one of the few options left for these members of the working class – a scathing assessment of the ‘achievements’ of self-management. Unsurprisingly, Politika criticised the film for ‘superficial and cheap sociologising (sociologiziranje)’ and ‘effect-seeking’.87
This episode perfectly illustrates why labour migration was such a ‘dangerous’ topic, and why the representation of migrant workers mattered: they were the living embodiment of the failure of the Yugoslav economy to provide sufficient and well-paid jobs in the country. This problem became even more acute when opportunities for out-migration declined after the recruitment stop by the West European countries in 1974 – subsequently, unemployment in Yugoslavia grew. Newspaper articles about the Gastarbeiter were a constant reminder of the fact that many people were going abroad in search of a better life, despite all the promises of the government, and that this better life was not so great after all.88 The continual press reports about the negative consequences of labour migration – such as the increasing shortage of skilled workers, educational difficulties of migrants’ offspring, and the challenges of re-integration – showed the failure of government policies: in all those areas, the government had implemented measures intended to achieve the opposite results. Quoting a contemporary observer from the early 1980s, John Allcock in his analysis of social stratification stressed that the gulf between ‘that which ought to be’ and ‘that which is’ kept widening.89 Migration and its symbolic outfall contributed to this divergence.
My general point is the following: the attribute that made Yugoslavia so unique, that is, its openness to the West, also made it very vulnerable. The country integrated into the global division of labour shaped by capitalist relations but failed to adapt its ideological and institutional apparatus to this new situation. Emigration was a clear illustration of the fact that Yugoslavia was on the periphery, from which people would move to the core, where they were more productively employed. This could not but reflect badly on the reputation of a regime that claimed ideological superiority both vis-à-vis the West and the East. This points to the ambivalence of Yugoslavia’s unique geo-political Cold War position: being socialist but having to interact with the West in a similarly disadvantageous position as countries of southern Europe, by exporting labour while struggling to raise enough investments for development on its own terms. Did non-alignment ultimately mean the worst of both worlds? Labour migration meant becoming dependent on the business cycles and immigration policies of Western Europe, thus partially outsourcing one of the most important pillars of socialist citizenship, i.e. employment. For a regime that based its legitimacy so strongly on claims of independence and sovereignty, this was hardly a welcome development.
Today, East Central and Southeastern Europe have again become major providers of cheap, skilled labour to growing, and aging, West European economies which in some countries of the region has turned out-migration into one of the most acutely felt social problems.90 The Yugoslav example, thus, might resonate again: huge-scale labour migration is not only a sign of structural inequalities between different parts of Europe, it also generates significant tensions within the countries of emigration – and for much better reasons than in the host countries that largely benefit from immigration. Migration is not a problem, inequality is.
Research for this article was funded by research travel grants provided by the German Research Foundation, dfg, and the German Academic Exchange Service, daad.