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Italo-tedeschi

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Italo-tedeschi
San Donato Val di Comino, Italy - © Hanna Gesang Hanna Gesang

In northern Germany, some evenings have a special quality about them – a soft warmth, that lingers until late at night. These evenings are rare, so people treasure them, sitting outside – usually next to a barbecue with sausages and grilled vegetables. My mother, however, was relentless about punctual bedtimes, especially on school nights, no matter how nice the weather or how interesting the TV show. Maybe that is why a specific evening has stuck with me. A rather acquiescent child, I remember asking her if it was not time for bed by now – and her replying that tonight, I got to stay up longer. Across the table from us sat my grandfather, whom I called nonno. That evening, he was in an unusually talkative mood, speaking of the past. I no longer remember what he said, or how his voice sounded, but I remember listening astutely.

Gastarbeiter

Yet, we never truly had a language in common. His German was broken, and my Italian was, at the time, non-existent. It was not something I questioned – this was just how things were in my family. My grandfather was one of the millions of Gastarbeiter, guest workers, that had come to West Germany starting in the 1960s. At that time, West Germany’s economy was booming, lifting the country out of its postwar gloom – and to keep wealth and welfare on an upward trajectory, labour was needed. Luckily, there were plenty of places where people were looking for work. Bilateral agreements, the so-called Anwerbeabkommen, or recruitment agreements, facilitated this type of migration. The one with Italy was closed in 1955, before the economic boom, and at the time targeted mostly seasonal workers. As West Germany needed more and more labour, and as the freedom of movement increased thanks to the development of the European Economic Community (EEC), migration picked up around the 1960s. The German-Italian agreement would serve as a blueprint for similar treaties with other countries, such as Spain, Turkey, and Portugal.

The term Gastarbeiter had been invented for people like my grandfather. German has the wonderful quality of allowing for the creation of compound nouns. It is a type of linguistical Lego where two nouns can be combined to make a new one, but the meaning is more than just the sum of its parts. “Gast”, guest, “Arbeiter”, workers – soon the term came to mean much more than simply “guest workers”. These were people who were not meant to stay. They were supposed to come, work, contribute to West Germany’s capitalist economic miracle, and then go home. They were supposed to be young men, strong enough for the taxing labour in North-Rhine Westphalia’s coal mines and Baden-Wuerttemberg’s factories.

They did not leave. Instead, they had their wives and children join them, and the face of the Gastarbeiter changed. It now encompassed my aunt and uncle, 9 and 4 years old, and my grandmother, soon to be pregnant with her third child – my mother. It encompassed people from all over the world, some from as far away as South Korea, who were brought specifically for some of the hardest tasks in the coal mines.

Gastarbeiter were no guests. By 1973, 620,000 Italian citizens lived in Germany.

Parallels and bifurcations

German-Italian history obviously goes back beyond the genesis of my family. Scores of German poets, most famously Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, visited Italy, and were inspired by its beauty. As per usual, the Germans even made up a word for it: Italiensehnsucht, or the “longing for Italy”. The two countries have always been subject to different geographic, demographic, economic, and political conditions. However, especially in the immediate postwar years, there were many parallels. Re-emerging from fascism and Nazism, the two countries were led by eminent Christian-Democratic politicians – Alcide de Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer. The visions of the two men converged on many issues and most importantly, they both guided their countries towards Europe, which became central to their national identities.

The road began to fork in the 1970s. Traumatized by historical examples of hyperinflation, Germany’s Bundesbank adopted a stringent anti-inflationary course focussed on stability and became the EEC’s economic poster child. At the same time, the Italian political system’s inherent design flaws had caught up with it, and an entrenched political class made questionable economic choices that led to large debt increases. During the 1976 G7 summit, Germany pushed to make further aid to the Italian economy conditional on austerity measurements – a new inter-European hierarchy had emerged.

Ever since, the deepest divisions in German-Italian relations have been caused by economics. It therefore makes sense that my earliest political memories are of the Eurozone crisis. A critical, sometimes outrightly negative depiction of Italy is common in Germany, and biases have often shaped the media coverage. It angered me even in 2009, when I barely understood what was happening. Many Italians of my age also remember that crisis –as a period of genuine economic instability and fear, with unemployment looming over dinner table conversations. The economic difficulties soured German-Italian relations for years to come. In Italy, conversations about Germany are often laced with undue mistrust, and unkind mockery. At the same time, the media coverage of the Italian role in the 2008 financial crisis has left Germans with a bitter aftertaste, and a lack of respect

Italy and Germany in Europe

Moving continuously between the two countries has made all of this painfully obvious to me. Living in Italy has provided me with a deeper understanding of its cultural and regional diversity, its political struggles, and its complex recent political history. It has both strengthened my connection with my family story and allowed me to build my own relationship to this country. It has also changed my political views. The flaws of the European project are simply that much more obvious in its southern member states. I still believe in the EU, but not in the naïve way that my 18-year-old self used to. Instead, I see the good, the bad, and, most importantly, the potential – all that Europe could, maybe, one day, bring us. However, you cannot love something just for what it could be, and that applies even if that ‘thing’ is a supranational political entity. To me, Europe also has a special value, because it is an umbrella under which my identity does not need to be divided into two – it allows for different parts of me to coexist, and even contradict each other.

Europe is also why I am so deeply convinced of the importance of the German-Italian relationship – beyond my own story, or that of my family’s, or that of the Gastarbeiter. The health of the Franco-German relationship is often used as a measurement for the health of the EU. It is only understandable because until fairly recently, a close cooperation between the historical enemies seemed impossible. Yet, bilateral relations between Italy and Germany should carry the same kind of meaning. They stand for the successful emergence from the ashes of the postwar period, for the link between Northern and Southern Europe, and for welfare through trade. Some of Europe’s biggest challenges – such as migration and intra-EU economic disparities – will only be solved through German-Italian cooperation. Interests will not naturally align, they must be made to do so by working together closely, and by building trust.

In 2023, Chancellor Scholz and Prime Minister Meloni undersigned an action plan, to strengthen bilateral cooperation: a first step in the right direction. More must be done to embed that cooperation in the EU, and to encourage real understanding between people, beyond superficial stereotypes. In many ways, the Italian-German relation is a microcosm for the rest of the EU. It has a complicated, multifaceted past and an uncertain future, but it is also something that deserves to be nurtured, especially by those who feel at home in both countries.

When I first moved to Milan, I confused quite a few of the Italians I met. At that time, I spoke practically no Italian, but I knew dishes, customs, and even songs – especially the greatest Neapolitan hits from the 1970s. I would refuse cappuccino after midday - but still have a cold dinner at 6pm. I soon grew tired of explaining my family history at every such encounter. Luckily, my native tongue – an utterly pragmatic language after all – has a word for people like me: Deutschitaliener. It translates easily to Italo-tedeschi.

Hanna Lena Maria Gesang

Hanna Lena Maria Gesang

Hanna Gesang is studying International Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Affairs in Bologna, Italy. Her focus area is the rule of law in the EU. She is currently interning at the Institute for Comparative Federalism, Eurac Research, and is also a Research Assistant at the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development in Bologna.

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Citation

https://doi.org/10.57708/bcpazeslhs7iztk10p0qe3g
Hanna Lena Maria Gesang. Italo-tedeschi. https://doi.org/10.57708/BCPAZESLHS7IZTK10P0QE3G

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