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Migration and cities in postwar Europe

This video looks at the role of guest worker programmes and internal migration in the postwar development of West German and northern Italian cities.
As Western European countries began to recover from the destruction of the Second World War, many cities increasingly depended on migrants for their industrial and economic growth. The types of migration differed from country to country. For example, in France and the United Kingdom, citizens of formal colonies provided a substantial proportion of industrial labour. Here we look at the cases of West Germany and the foreign guest worker system and in Italy and its internal South-North migration. In response to severe labour shortages in the 1950s, West Germany started to recruit young men from Southern Europe into low-skilled industrial jobs. The majority ended up in major urban areas, such as Ruhr, Hamburg, and Frankfurt.
But some also went to smaller cities like Wolfsburg, home to the Volkswagen factory. The federal government signed its first bilateral agreement with Italy in 1955. This was followed by other agreements, including Spain in 1960, Turkey in 1961, and Yugoslavia in 1968. According to the original plan, guest workers would move to West Germany and stay for just two years, and would then return home with money and new skills, to be replaced by new arrivals. Many, however, did not return home. And it soon became clear that it was too expensive to continually train replacements. By the mid-1960s, the West German government capitulated. And guest workers were allowed to remain and a few years later were entitled to bring over their families.
Migrant workers from the Mediterranean region left a lasting imprint on German cities. Foreign national groups tended to settle in less desirable parts of city centres, for instance, around railway stations. And some began to open ethnic businesses such as bars and restaurants. Guest workers provided the foundations for new communities. Between 1961 and 1973, 750,000 Turks went to Germany on recruitment programmes, and half of them stayed. Over the following years, families, entrepreneurs, and political refugees would join them. Today, Germany’s three million Turks constitute the largest national group in the country. The vast majority continues to reside in cities of the former West Germany and in Berlin, where the original guest workers had first settled.
Centred on the industrial triangle of Milan, Turin, and Genoa, Italy’s economic miracle of the 1950s depended heavily on migrant labour. In contrast to Germany, this involved mass internal migration prevalently from Southern Italian regions, such as Calabria, Sicily, and Puglia, but also from the poor, rural areas in the Northeast such as the Po Delta. Milan received around 400,000 people in just over 10 years. Not just young male labourers such as in Germany, but also whole families with children. Nearly everyone arrived at the city’s Central Railway Station often on overnight trains from the South.
New arrivals quickly found work on building sites and later entered more secure positions in the rapidly expanding manufacturing sector, for instance, in the local Pirelli tyre and Alfa Romeo car factories. While output increased dramatically, working conditions remained poor and workplace democracy limited. In the late 1960s, Southern workers were at the forefront of waves of strikes that ultimately forced the national government to pass the Workers’ Statute in 1970, which sanctioned a number of workers’ rights that are still in place today. Housing was also a key problem. Many migrants initially had no option but to rent private rooms in overcrowded accommodation in rundown parts of the city.
Eventually, in the 1960s the state was forced to act and began to construct a number of public housing neighbourhoods. Over the space of a decade, a brand new high-rise city for about 300,000 inhabitants would be erected around Milan. Much of the houses were solidly built, although some neighbourhoods were isolated and lacked services. As a result of internal migration, the urban landscape of Milan was thus permanently transformed.

This video looks at the role of guest worker programmes and internal migration on the postwar economies of West German and northern Italian cities.

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Migration and Cities

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