On a warm winter’s morning in August 2011, I ambled through the center of Mozambique’s capital city Maputo, known as the city of cement. On Avenida 24 de Julho, close to the labor ministry, I suddenly heard a voice. “Wie geht es Dir? Kommst du aus Deutschland?” (“How are you? Do you come from Germany?”) Surprised to hear my mother tongue, I turned around. The man who had just greeted me was a little shorter than me. He was perhaps in his mid-fifties and was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. He looked ordinary to me. What he was about to tell me, however, was anything but. For me, the ensuing conversation was the gateway to a new world, the world of the madjerman.Footnote 1 The madjerman were workers who migrated from newly independent Mozambique to communist East Germany and their story can tell us an enormous amount about Mozambique, about East Germany, about memory, and about people’s endless capacity for adaptation and resilience.Footnote 2

The name of the man who hailed me in fluent German in the middle of a city in southern Africa was João. He saw me, registered my skin color, clothes, and gender, and decided that he would like to speak to a young woman from Germany to reminisce about the past and tell me about the madjerman’s struggle.Footnote 3 An impulsive decision led to, for me at least, a life-changing conversation. That morning, without knowing it, João had planted the seed for Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World: Socialist Mobilities between Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany.

For those readers not already familiar with the madjerman, the briefest and broadest possible summary of their story is as follows. About 21,000 young Mozambicans, and at most 2500 Angolans, migrated to socialist East Germany for work and training between 1979 and 1990.Footnote 4 The idea was that they would go to Germany to help alleviate the shortage of labor there. While in Europe, they would obtain practical capabilities and soft skills which would make them useful workers, not least for envisioned East German projects in Mozambique. They would also be inculcated with socialist ideals. They would become vanguard African socialist “New Men.”

The plan was that the worker-trainees would then go back to Africa and deploy these skills in the service of Mozambique’s and Angola’s nascent industrial revolutions. Sadly, it did not work out like that. The migrants did not receive the expected high-quality training and there were few industries in which to employ the skills they attained. The scheme then fell apart when communism ended in East Germany. Nearly all the Angolans and Mozambicans returned home, where they expected to receive the portion of their wages that they had been practically obliged to send back while they were working. Most of the migrants never saw the money they expected. Their homecoming was for many a traumatic process marked by poverty and dashed hopes. In Mozambique, where most of the migrants were from, they acquired the nickname madjerman as they campaigned to receive the money and other benefits that they believed they were owed.

I returned to Mozambique in January 2014, this time with a purpose. I systematically collected oral histories from former workers, students, and school children who had taken part in state-led migration schemes to East Germany. With João, and with the other Africans I spoke to, I found that my own German identity opened doors and provided a starting point for my conversations with people. Many were keen to share their stories about a time long gone, and somehow my Germanness stimulated them. I reminded them of a former German friend or colleague. Interviewees often assumed they knew how to read me: they felt that they had a special insight into the German mindset. The fact that I was born in West Germany and was too young to remember the two Germanys did not seem to matter much. The differences between the east and west of my home did not greatly resonate into Mozambique, and neither to Angola, where I also carried out interviews.

However, differences, which from Africa look small, matter enormously when seen from the German perspective. My Wessi-ness mattered greatly when interviewing former East German officials.Footnote 5 Whereas most Africans assumed a shared horizon of experiences for all Germans, many East Germans anticipated that, coming from the Germany that “won” the Cold War, I intended to write a victor’s history.Footnote 6 I imagine the book I have written confounds these expectations. I hope it does.

When I began this project, I wanted to learn to see like a socialist New Man in training. Rather than looking at large-scale, high-modernist schemes which aimed to use the power of the state to improve the human condition, as James Scott has done, my goal was to examine these schemes from the perspective of the humans who were to be improved. Intrinsic to the history of these grand schemes was their failure, so the study of their subjects would also encompass how they experienced these failures.Footnote 7 How, I wondered, do labor migrants themselves remember their migration experience and how do they speak about its legacies in their lives? Scott is concerned with how the forms of knowledge underlying such plans shaped the manner of their failure. One of the key results of my way of doing things has been that my work focuses much less on the failures. This is because the schemes may have failed, but the people within them did not. They do not perceive themselves as having failed, and, even more fundamentally, there is no such thing as a failed life, because unlike schemes, lives do not have measurable criteria of success and failure against which they can be judged.

Instead of thinking about the schemes and their failures I pay attention to how Africans caught up in these schemes confronted the shortcomings they encountered, repurposing them to meet their goals. This is a story of individuals facing and (sometimes) overcoming institutional failures. The biggest example of this in my narrative is that although madjerman participation in working-training migration schemes may not have ended up with them in secure employment as industrial vanguard workers as it was supposed to, it did give them a framework to organize together when they returned, in order to fight for their collective and individual rights. This collective action simply could not have occurred without the failure of the labor migration schemes.

Central to this narrative are the personal stories of the people who traveled across continents. As always, personal stories transcend the simplistic schematism which so often ensues when we think about concepts such as the Cold War, or dualities such as the global South and North, or East and West, the Second and the Third Worlds. The narratives in this book show how African migrants were simultaneously recipients of and contributors to German life. They examine how their experiences—as producers, as consumers, and as intimate strangers—shaped their life trajectories as young migrants in the Socialist Bloc and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as middle-aged citizens in post-socialist societies.

The tail end of the transnational workers’ trajectory, especially, nourishes a nostalgia for some aspects of their lives under socialism, for which I have coined the word eastalgia. Eastalgia is both a historical outcome and a moral-political critique of post-socialism. The word, and the state of mind it represents, is central to this book. Eastalgia is ostensibly about the past—a nostalgia for life in East Germany which no longer exists—but really it is at least as much about the present and the state of things in Mozambique and Angola. It is therefore a specific form of one of the special qualities of oral histories, that they exist in several time frames at the same time.

As a fragment of the past in the present, eastalgia has a restorative dimension through the identity and belonging it provides to the returned workers. Their shared past and (often idealized) memories give them an anchor as they struggle to navigate a social landscape in which many of them can find little stable mooring. The narratives in this book, and the composite one that I have forged by putting together all the individual narratives, are thus in many ways a critique of the present. What my interviewees told me has as much to say about the present in Mozambique as it does about the past in East Germany. What matters is why interview partners recalled certain things while forgetting others; why they chose to relay their lives in a certain way and not another. Oral histories are products of the present and its selective recall of the past, and the criticisms that workers make of their present living conditions are thus intricately interwoven in their retelling of the past. Former worker-trainees who are still engaged in activism, fighting for reparations, often emphasize the unresolved nature of their struggle; yet this is a topic also of interest to many returnees who are not involved in activist work but whose social conditions do not let them forget the importance of the money for which they once worked.

What emerges through this composite of life histories is not a clear-cut story that fits the memories of the former workers into one neat argument. To try to force them into a unified direction in this way would be to do a great disservice to the men and women whose experiences this book details. Instead, dualities and ambiguities are central to this book. The narratives within it are about the past but are rooted in the present. The migrations were ostensibly state driven but could also never have happened without a myriad of complex personal motives. The migrants to Germany lived there as both producers and consumers—a reminder that even within communism, where focus was so often on production, consumption remained a central part of life. They went to a country whose guiding principles were international socialist solidarity and anti-racism but ended up facing brutal racism that made many of them leave. And they trained as industrial workers but then returned to a country with limited employment opportunities in industry.

Therefore, I am offering to the reader a tapestry shedding light on different patterns, different perspectives of life in East Germany and in southern Africa from the unique perspectives of non-elite African socialist cosmopolitans. I am reminding the reader that nothing is more complicated, and indeed that nothing is more inspiring, than people’s infinite capability for adaptation and for navigating macro-circumstances for their personal goals. This is a message that no archive-based or institutional-level study could hope to transmit.

Transnational Socialist Labor Migration Schemes

On February 24, 1979, Erich Honecker, General Secretary of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party (SED) and Chairman of the State Council, visited Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, together with other members of the SED. During this visit an agreement regulating temporary Mozambican labor and training migration to East Germany was signed by German Secretary of the Central Committee for the Economy Günter Mittag and Mozambican Minister for Planning and Development Marcelino dos Santos. The Angolan version was signed six years later, on March 29, 1985. Until the premature cancellation of the agreements, about 21,000 contracts were signed with Mozambicans and up to 2500 with Angolans.Footnote 8 The signees were mostly young men, but there were also some women. They served contracts that averaged four years in length, combining (in theory, at least) labor on the factory floor with training in company schools, returning home as skilled laborers. The program’s initial objective was to train the future vanguard of Mozambique’s and Angola’s working classes across various industries and companies in East Germany. It was to contribute to building up the human resources required for Angolan and Mozambican socialist industrial development, while also aiding the fragile East German economy.

It was not to be. The complex wars in Angola (1975–2002) and Mozambique (1977–1992) derailed industrial development. Furthermore, the age of socialist one-party states ended globally in the late 1980s. As Germany, Angola, and Mozambique shifted to market economies and reorganized around the principles (if not necessarily the reality) of multi-party democracies, most of the workers lost their jobs and returned home. Once back in Africa, very few succeeded in finding the kind of blue-collar work for which they were trained. More than a quarter century after their return, many workers remain nostalgic for their time abroad. To those of us who are more often exposed to the depiction of East Germany as a gray, oppressive place, madjerman positivity about it is a bracing change from the norm. Standpoint is everything. People reminisce about their youth—as people do the whole world over—and the madjerman’s mainly positive memories of East Germany serve to criticize the failures of contemporary Mozambique and Angola.

This book is concerned with seeing the world through the eyes of the Angolans and Mozambicans who spent part of their lives working and learning in East Germany. Their experiences were translocal, in the sense that they came from one specific context (e.g., a school in Beira, Mozambique) and migrated to another (e.g., a company in Karl Marx Stadt—now Chemnitz). Their navigation of the national stage was thus filtered through the prism of the local, and again filtered through their own personal experience. And yet, through their translocal and personal migrations they came to understand the national, and came to frame themselves as Angolans or Mozambicans. This was not a given in these newly postcolonial countries. After the event, they have generally come to reflect upon their lives in East Germany, not in Berlin, Cottbus, or Jena.Footnote 9

The workers participated in bilateral migration schemes that connected two states along transnational socialist axes of mobility. Transnational has two meanings in this book that cannot be separated from one another. The first reads transnational as connections between two states, and therefore telling a story that cannot be contained within the national history of one of the states. This sense is of transnational as in international. The second sense suggests that the national frame is not the natural context for this story because individual workers are the historic actors we follow in this account, living both translocal and transnational lives.Footnote 10 This is transnational as in transcending the national.

This narrative is part of a plethora of migrations that connected the Second and Third Worlds during the Cold War era, giving the lie to the notion of Second World societies as being insular and static.Footnote 11 While East German citizens’ right to movement was indeed severely curtailed—even seeing family in the West proved an impossibility for many—workers from Angola and Mozambique gained mobility previously unimaginable to them as they were able to come to East Germany on labor contracts to gain work experience and skills training. As citizens of the global South, this mobility was lost to them after the fall of the wall and the collapse of socialism, whereas East Germans suddenly found themselves free to travel, but now simply as Germans. But it was not only laborers who made their way from across Africa to East Germany and other countries across the socialist world from Cuba to the Soviet Union. It was also school children from Mozambique, university students from Angola and Mozambique, youth going for vocational training, union members who attended trade union schools, journalists attending journalism schools, and freedom fighters receiving military training.Footnote 12 This book then dives deeper into just one migration current of many.

To understand Cold War migration from Africa to the rest of the world we must consider the conflict as enabling juncture—perhaps not the most natural thing to do. This book contributes to a wider retelling of the Cold War in Africa, not with a focus on destructive ideological and military conflict but instead paying attention to constructive alliances and the state-building schemes they engendered. The new focus is on what happened outside the war theaters: on factory floors, in vocational schools, supermarkets, and discos. In so doing, this narrative contributes to African, German, and transnational history by elucidating several aspects of the African experience of Cold War socialism and its legacies in present-day Angola and Mozambique.Footnote 13

This book opens new ways of thinking about the socialist period in all three states. In the 1970s, what David Ottaway and Marina Ottaway called “Afrocommunism” made headway as the People’s Republic of the Congo, Benin, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique all adopted socialism, to varying degrees.Footnote 14 In 1977, Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia adopted Marxism-Leninism as official state ideology and opted for Marxist-Leninist state-led development. This meant building a one-party state, promoting industrialization and modernization, having a state-directed economy, and fostering ties with the Eastern Bloc. The Peoples Republics of Angola and Mozambique were not exceptional in turning to socialism, as they did so as part of a wave of thirty-five out of fifty-three African countries which opted for some sort of socialism after independence.Footnote 15 In both Angola and Mozambique, Marxist revolutionary liberation movements assumed state power.Footnote 16 The relatively late independence of Angola and Mozambique in 1975 coincided with what Fred Halliday calls the Second Cold War, a phase of increased military involvement in the Third World. This was certainly the case in southern Africa.Footnote 17 Here, the regional fight against white minority rule became entangled with Cold War objectives.Footnote 18

The Cold War shaped lives, also across southern Africa. It shaped the options for the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the Mozambican Liberation Front (FRELIMO). Both parties had enjoyed extensive support from the socialist side of the Cold War from the outset, although this was not their only source of international support. First, they struggled against the colonial Portuguese, who saw themselves as part of the global fight against communism and received help from the anti-communist West and from apartheid South Africa, which also saw itself as an anti-communist bulwark. Then, after independence had been won, there were extended civil wars—in the case of the MPLA against the National Liberation Front (FNLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and—in the case of FRELIMO—against the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO).Footnote 19 These opponents also functioned as proxies for a diverse group of self-declared anti-communist actors, such as the US, South Africa, and (as it was then) Rhodesia. The Cold War was distinctly hot in Angola and Mozambique.Footnote 20

Because the opposing sides in Mozambican and Angolan politics came down on different sides of the Cold War, the conflict played a fundamental role in determining which development projects could be carried out. And, equally important, through the conflicts it fueled, the Cold War shaped both how Africa saw the world and how the world saw Africa. This is not a book about the Cold War’s theaters of war—though as we will come to see, the ongoing wars in Angola and Mozambique shaped the lives of the labor migrants. My focus shows that the Cold War not only endangered but also engendered new connections. It resulted in a tight net of nations which professed to follow a socialist path, ranging from Cuba to the USSR. When Angola and Mozambique turned decisively to socialism after independence in 1975, they did so, too, to open the door to a world of possibilities. Among other things, one of these possibilities was a priority partnership with East Germany. The result was comprehensive economic, technical, and educational cooperation.

To understand this important aspect of how socialist countries were interconnected, this book investigates points of convergence between national spaces and translocal and transnational migrations along axes of socialist mobilities. In the imagination of Angolan and Mozambican politicians, post-independence state building was done partially abroad, first in exile and then, after independence, by sending citizens abroad for skills training. This was a story of the formation of new Angolan and Mozambican citizens. We also see the creation of skilled workers for the East German market and—planned, but not always achieved—for Angolan and Mozambican industrial development. The worker-trainees who were sent on state-to-state contracts to be trained abroad expected to return as skilled cadres whose newly acquired technical knowledge could support the economic development of their home societies. Their migration was supposed to address three interests: it was to place young people in employment and teach them specific skills that qualified them for a variety of blue-collar jobs; it was to give them an international socialist perspective; and, through the ostensibly voluntary but de facto mandatory transfers of varying portions of the workers’ wages (between 25 percent and 60 percent), it contributed to the reduction of Mozambican debt to East Germany.Footnote 21

Ethnically, regionally, and educationally heterogeneous groups, drawn from various demographic backgrounds within Angola and Mozambique, were to share East German company dormitories, organized along lines of nationality. This environment encouraged interaction in Portuguese, fostering the emergence of a common identity as Angolans or Mozambicans amid the majority East Germans and labor migrants from other socialist countries. The migrants acquired technical and intercultural skills and learned German and gained more fluency in Portuguese as the primary means of communication.

The developmental side of the worker-trainee scheme failed. However, it is clear in this book that the program was notably successful in its cultural role of forming national Mozambican and Angolan identities in its participants. Being abroad and being treated as a collective, living together, in some cases working together, instilled a national identity that was not questioned in my interviews but rather uncritically adopted and asserted. A crack in that identity emerged after the return home but nevertheless the idea of a collective identity very much survives. It was created when the migrants lived as intimate strangers—an existence which I discuss extensively in Chap. 5 of this book—in East Germany, and the experience forged a collectivity that continues to overwrite ethnic allegiances to this day. Hence, this is not a story of regional or ethnic variance. In both Luanda and Maputo, the workers’ associations have members from different provinces and ethnic groups, and this illustrates the forging of commonality that the country-wide recruitment intended.Footnote 22

The labor migration programs between Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany were no isolated phenomenon. State-facilitated and -regulated socialist mobilities came in many shapes and forms. These groups often shared an understanding that their individual journeys were part of a wider struggle for progress, decolonization, and development. At the same time, African states like Mozambique and Angola received foreign consultants, teachers, doctors, and military professionals, also from East Germany. East Germany ran programs of solidarity between socialist brother nations in the name of proletarian internationalism and supported liberation movements like the FRELIMO. African students, trade unionists, journalists, military professionals, apprentices, and school children traveled to East Germany. The Angolan and Mozambican men and women who came to work in East Germany also found themselves in good company once they were there. People from other socialist countries like Algeria, China, Cuba, Hungary, Mongolia, Poland, and Vietnam also migrated to East Germany for labor and on-the-job training.Footnote 23 Nor was East Germany the only country in Central and Eastern Europe to employ laborers from outside Europe: Vietnamese workers not only constituted the largest number of foreign workers in East Germany, they were further employed in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary, and Cuban workers also worked in Czechoslovakia and Hungary.Footnote 24

English-language literature about socialist labor migrations is growing, providing a better understanding of migration within and to the member states of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon). State-socialist migrations differ fundamentally from other types in several regards.Footnote 25 First, the state arranges the travel documents and sets the travel date. Workers in Angola had to make their own way to Luanda to board a plane to East Germany, whereas Mozambicans were collected in regional holding centers and transferred collectively to Maputo, where they were preoccupied with paramilitary training to keep them physically fit, and some received talks about life in East Germany and what was expected of them. Second, workers had no say regarding the group in which they were placed, the industry they worked in, or in which city or village they lived or with whom they shared a room. Third, all states involved also made it very hard for workers to break the mold which saw workers return home after the end of their contracts. This thwarted the dreams of workers who sought to advance to university once abroad or wanted to marry or live with an East German partner. That is not to say that these things did not happen but marriages and university degrees for worker-trainees from Angola and Mozambique were the exception rather than the rule. Fourth, the Angolan and Mozambican state promised that it would place returned skilled workers in the appropriate jobs back home. And finally, these states were to be the custodian of fictionally transferred wages, which meant they had to find money to pay the deferred wages. What all of this meant was that very little was down to the workers. If you had a mindset that allowed you to go with the flow, it could be a comfortable and easy-going life. Workers were provided for, and could spend the money they received as they pleased, free from having to worry about the basics of life such as employment, accommodation, and food. To those whose wishes challenged what home and host states expected of them, the lifestyle felt restricted. It curtailed life plans that did not fit the mold.

In part, labor migration to East Germany from within the socialist world was justified by labeling it as vocational training migration. Whereas the capitalist West, especially West Germany and its guest worker program, was said to exploit labor, East Germany emphasized the human capital development nature of its programs.Footnote 26 Their stated purpose was to create a professionally skilled and consciously socialist vanguard workforce. As part of the international proletariat, the workers were to return to their home countries to aid industrialization and spread the socialist revolution.Footnote 27 This was soon enough revealed as propaganda. Accusations of exploitation emerged. Algeria, Poland, and Cuba all raised sensitive issues such as mistreatment and exploitation of their workers in East Germany. Algeria was the first to sound the alarm in the early 1980s. It passed a protective law “against the exploitation of Algerian citizens by foreign states” as a result of which the agreements with East Germany were dissolved.Footnote 28 In 1987 the Polish government demanded better treatment of their workers in East German factories, and one year later Cuba threatened to annul a bilateral labor agreement on the grounds of attacks on their citizens and a concern for their safety.Footnote 29 It is probably not a coincidence that Poland’s and Cuba’s complaints were voiced in the second half of the 1980s, a time in which the recruitment of foreign labor to East Germany was being driven primarily by economic concerns and was neglecting vocational training and the well-being of workers. Increased numbers of Mozambican workers were to offset the reduction of Cuban and Polish workers. The planned increase in Mozambican laborers was calculated so that the deductions from their wages would be used to reduce the Mozambican trade deficit with East Germany. Exactly how much labor power could be sold was a sore point in Mozambican and East German negotiations.Footnote 30

The socialist training of the New Men (and Women) became less relevant as the Cold War ended and East Germany, Mozambique, and Angola all shifted to market economies. Some, especially of the first generation of migrants who returned in the mid-1980s, were integrated into relevant industries upon return, but toward the end of the programs that outcome became increasingly unlikely. For many, this failure defined their return to their homeland. The unfulfilled dreams and broken promises still fuel the workers’ activism a quarter century after their return. In another of the ironies of their story, the madjerman have become a vanguard, but of a totally different sort than once envisioned. They are no socialist vanguard workforce driving socialist industrialization in one-party states. They have become a protest vanguard that tries to hold the German and Mozambican governments accountable to the promises they made.

From the German perspective, the presence of roughly 25,000 worker-trainees from Angola and Mozambique was a part of the history of foreign labor employed through bilateral state agreements. The workers’ vocational training was celebrated in East Germany as an example of socialist international solidarity. It was part of the fight against capitalist colonialism as it helped brother nations to develop along independent, socialist lines. East Germany continued to distinguish transnational state labor migration from stays related purely to vocational training. The former were truly about work while the latter were primarily about education.Footnote 31 Despite all this, the celebration of the international proletariat, as personified by the workers from Angola and Mozambique, rang hollow when compared with the reception of African university students. It was the students—many of whom were drawn from among already established elites—not the workers, who East Germany courted as future leadership cadres of their respective home countries. Regarding the students as the face of a future leadership, East German authorities were willing to make concessions to some students—for instance, in terms of freedom of movement across the Iron Curtain—that they did not make to the workers or, for that matter, the vast majority of their own citizens.Footnote 32 East Germany did little to challenge social structures among the people who migrated there from Africa.

Afro-European encounters under the banner of socialism could lead to dialectical processes of globalizing. The presence of Africans globalized East Germany and the Eastern Bloc.Footnote 33 Some African sojourners experienced East Germany as pan-African space: “the opportunity to meet is better here […] than in Africa,” as one African student at the trade union school in Bernau put it.Footnote 34 An Angolan university student thought of a Black East: “Ours was a Black East, …we learned so much about other African cultures when we were in East Germany. We participated in official celebrations of national holidays but also informal student parties and made new friends not just from Angola but from Nigeria and other places.”Footnote 35 This book then contributes toward challenging the view of socialism as a time of stasis, stagnation, uniformity, isolation, and immobility by tracing a particular kind of Afro-European encounter.

Structure and Contributions

The story told in Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World is far more than one of diplomacy or technical cooperation. It is, above all, a story of migration, mobility, and immobility told from the perspective of the migrants themselves. Studying migration through its participants’ memories brings both sending and receiving countries into a single methodological framework.Footnote 36 This book follows labor migrants over their life course and reveals how theirs is a story of love and suffering, enrichment and loss. These are contradictions, but given the intrinsic contradictoriness of human experience, the presence of these contradictions is itself no contradiction. Seeing the world through the memories of the workers underscores the human side of the state-migration scheme. East Germany comes into view from the perspective of African migrants. But having been to East Germany allowed the new socialist cosmopolitans to also revisualize Africa.

Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World is structured by the workers’ life course which it follows in a prologue, introduction, five substantive chapters, and an epilogue. The book’s prologue offers an account of Juma and his wife Graciel, in which I present a narrative of their life. Each of the book’s chapters divides into two parts of what might at first glance be perceived as antagonistic concepts: state vs. the individual, working vs. consuming, integration vs. exclusion, loss vs. gain, the past in the past vs. the past in the present and future. All these dualities exist together in this story of African migration to the Eastern Bloc. Indeed, the constant existence of these dualities and contradictions within the lives of the migrants is the overarching theme of this book. Within this overriding narrative of the inherent contradictions in human experience, the book makes five important interventions.

First, adopting a bottom-up perspective, it uncovers the multiple overlapping reasons that led Angolan and Mozambican migrants to sign up for work and training programs in East Germany. The migrations were state-sponsored and could not have happened in the form that they did without extensive state direction. But this coexisted with a myriad of personal motivations. In the third chapter of this book, I argue that the labor migrants were also educational migrants, war migrants, and aspirational migrants. Migration was, and is, polyvalent. Motivation and intent are not inscribed in the act of migration. Therefore, this book provides an important corrective to the top-down designation of the program as simply labor migration. The migration was top-down, but also bottom-up.

Second, once in East Germany, the Angolan and Mozambican worker-trainees experienced and observed East German society from the vantage point of their lives in Angola and Mozambique. Much other scholarship on labor migrants privileges their role in production, losing sight of their place in consumer life. As laborers, they negotiated their work and training environment, which was designed to form and discipline skilled socialist workers. As consumers, they not only used and enjoyed the goods they produced, but they read the East German consumer landscape through the lens of their experiences of scarcity in the conflict economies at home. They lived in (East) Germany the way they did because of their Mozambican-ness and Angolan-ness, and their attitude to East German consumer culture was indistinguishable from this. This is an important corrective to the frequent imagination of communist societies as societies with limited consumption. It is also a corrective that cannot exist without a global approach.Footnote 37 Chapter 4 recounts how migrants invested in necessities and luxury goods, from East and West, to maintain host and home networks alike; and they invested in items to build their own futures.

Third, my life history approach elevates the importance of affective ties, bringing a three-dimensionality to relationships that otherwise appear as only interest-based. Whereas existing work tends to either whitewash East German history or decry the treatment of foreign workers as uniformly shabby, this approach adds much needed nuance and ambiguity. Human relationships shaped the migrants’ thinking about themselves as African migrants, and about socialism in East Germany. As intimate strangers, they became part of discos and shops, and became immersed in East German family life despite governmental attempts to maintain distance between guests and the East German population. Chapter 5 focuses on this social life of socialism. The relationships ranged from romantic encounters and family formation to racist and xenophobic hate crimes, illustrating how the migrants carved out their own social spaces, despite and because of an increasingly hostile environment. The results of my approach are a powerful reminder that when historians and sociologists talk and generalize about things like integration or racism, they are erasing the most important part of the migrant experience—the experience. What is important to migrants is not what happened to a group of people to which they have been deemed to belong, but what happened to themselves. Individual human relationships are the most important thing in people’s lives, and any approach that neglects them loses something enormous. Most scholarship on foreign workers in East Germany is based on East German archives and tends to describe the more technical aspects of the labor migration rather than their social lives—important as these aspects are, they leave us with an incomplete picture.Footnote 38

Fourth, it would be easy to tell the labor migration as a story of the inevitable failure of the labor migration programs.Footnote 39 They did indeed fail, but, as I show in Chap. 6, this narrative itself fails to capture Africans’ experiences of East Germany or the memories they retain of life there. Following German reunification in 1990, Germany canceled the contracts, leading to a mass return of migrants to Angola and Mozambique.Footnote 40 The workers returned home while their experience as socialist industrial workers became irrelevant. In the process of reintegration, many lost their belongings, their social standing, the prospect of working as blue-collar workers, and the ties to their partners and children left behind in East Germany. Yet, it was not all loss, and this is not a narrative of victimhood. It shows how, despite everything, workers had lived in and observed a society where sexual and gender politics were debated, nudism became a national pastime, and mass demonstrations became familiar. They witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall. After their return, many madjerman and their Angolan counterparts came together and organized. They founded returned workers’ associations and formed a community which supported its weakest members financially and formed informal spaces to talk about displacement and belonging. They saw themselves as doing so in the tradition of the protests which helped to bring down the government in East Germany. While the labor migrants had not become the New Men of the socialist project, they returned as new people nonetheless, with new ideas and different expectations of the role of government and citizens. An institutional approach would not be able to capture this. Indeed, it is a fallacy that institutions exist separately from the people that make them. They do not. An approach like mine can get at how the migration scheme affected the lives of its participants during and after the fact.

Finally, in Chap. 7, this book carves out a space for Africa on the global memory map of studies about post-socialist nostalgia. There are other studies exploring the longing for aspects of the communist past by citizens of post-communist nations of the Eastern Bloc. However, Africa has not yet been part of this conversation.Footnote 41 In following socialist migrants back home, and documenting their critique of the nation’s path, the book returns to the discussion about eastalgia. It sheds light on the ongoing debate over how, and indeed whether, the transition to democracy and a market economy resulted in a new, more just society. By reading the former workers’ eastalgia as both nostalgic longing and a political critique of the present, this study contributes to the nascent discussions on memory in post-socialist Africa. For my interlocuters, reflecting on their German past was to comment on their African present.

Throughout the book I refer both to the Angolan and Mozambican labor migrations. I do not treat the two cases as comparative but rather as two intertwining stories that have many similarities and some differences. While my emphasis lies—in accordance with its numerical dominance—on the Mozambican case, exploring the Angolan case—to the extent possible—is imperative since almost nothing has been published about Angolan workers in East Germany.Footnote 42 Comparing the case of the Mozambican and Angolan worker-trainees, the absence of fundamental differences is notable. This is not to say that the schemes were identical—the Angolan program started six years later in 1985 at a time when the East German foreign labor programs were shifting away from smaller numbers and skilling opportunities toward simply being work programs. As one might expect, the first Angolan workers were none too happy with the arrangement. In addition, the Angolans included former MPLA soldiers and older migrants than in the Mozambican case. This gave many workers the confidence to stand up for themselves while in East Germany, earning the Angolans the reputation of being more “difficult” than their Mozambican counterparts. The Mozambicans, who were often described as “friendly” and “social” by contemporary East German actors, were younger and often straight out of school or from unemployment but rarely with significant prior vocational or military experience. Today the madjerman have become an integral and visible part of life in Maputo, whereas the highly irregular demonstrations of the Angolans are mostly taking place internationally. Despite these differences, both groups of returned workers found a collective voice to engage their governments regarding their rights. Overall, their stories are similar, which in itself is a significant finding. Migrants from both countries share stories about formative times abroad, disappointment or satisfaction with their place of work (depending on prior expectations, level of education, and placement in East Germany), stories of adventure and youth abroad, and a disappointing return which induces a more nostalgic look upon the past. For both Angolans and Mozambicans, this nostalgia deepens the more their lives lived today diverge from those once envisioned.

Furthermore, these stories in turn are like the stories told by Vietnamese, Cuban, and Algerian former labor migrants to East Germany.Footnote 43 Again, it is not a total absence of difference that surprises. There are some variations. For instance, Vietnamese tell more stories of making extra income with the sale of self-fabricated jeans than Mozambicans who rather took on extra shifts (which were not subjected to transfer payments). Overall, however, the script remains surprisingly constant between different groups of migrants, and many former workers from places as diverse as Hanoi and Luanda today look back nostalgically—eastalgically.Footnote 44 There is a shared experience and collective memory among former foreign workers to East Germany. This might extend even beyond East Germany and into other parts of the Eastern Bloc. English-language scholarship on international labor migrations across the Eastern Bloc remains scarce but the experiences of foreign workers in East Germany seem to be echoed by other comparable groups such as Vietnamese in Czechoslovakia or Cubans in Hungary.Footnote 45 We are sure to see more work emerge that fills in the gaps about our knowledge of transnational labor migrations between the Second and the Third Worlds. Hopefully as this work progresses, we will be able to talk more confidently about commonalities and differences between the programs and what this says about the societies and peoples concerned.

Socialist Mobilities Between Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany

This book is the first to explore the life histories of Angolan and Mozambican migrants to East Germany and their subsequent lives from the vantage point of the migrants’ memories of their lived experiences of socialism and post-socialism. In the narratives, worker-trainees emerge as workers, learners, consumers, lovers, parents, activists, and travelers. Their emotions, dreams, and opinions add richer descriptions to our understanding of the everyday nature of socialist and labor migration and its afterlives.

Writing histories of the connections between socialist countries reveals transregional entanglements, “alternative form[s] of global interconnectedness.”Footnote 46 This suggests an alternative globalization to the one that people usually mean when they use the term.Footnote 47 Rather than perceiving globalization as a singular, homogenizing process or as a Western project of diffusion or Western-led integration, studying socialist migrations leads to conceiving of globalization in the plural, as “a set of multidirectional processes stemming from different world regions.”Footnote 48 This includes Africa, as well as socialist Eastern Europe (in a geopolitical rather than geographical sense). Much of the literature concentrating on the diversity of these connections does so from the perspective of writing aggregate narratives about the Second World’s Third World.Footnote 49 In this context, Africa too often assumes the role of passive object of external intervention.Footnote 50 The rich literature on African student migrations, for instance, rarely traces the impact of the students back home. This situates Africa as point of departure rather than a site of transformations and socialist afterlives. It leaves little room for the projects and motivations of African states, intellectuals, and workers in Cold War exchanges with what became known as the Eastern Bloc.Footnote 51 This book shows that alternative forms of globalization were about more than political rhetoric and policies or economic regimes. They were also about engendering transnational ties of affection, affinity, and friction.Footnote 52 I was inspired in part by the Afro-Asian Research Collective’s call to study how “African actors navigated, ignored, and subverted the power dynamics of the Cold War” in Europe and Africa.Footnote 53

Narrowing down from the broad scope of Europe and Africa, the book contributes to a body of literature that investigates relations between Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany. The first wave of scholarship produced in the early 1990s chartered new territory based on recently opened archives and included valuable first-hand accounts of former diplomats, students, and experts. These studies highlighted the East German perspective and explored its bilateral relations with several African countries, sometimes assuming a comparative perspective with West German policies.Footnote 54 A second wave of historiographic literature focused on studying power asymmetries, including an examination of the category of race in officially anti-racist societies, and the ambivalent meanings of slogans such as “solidarity” and “mutual benefit.”Footnote 55 More recently scholars have turned toward discussing relations between Africa and East Germany in the context of global history and the history of globalization(s).Footnote 56 By breaking out of the bilateral frame, this book adds to the study of African and East German relations and in so doing contributes to a wider set of literature examining relations between the Second and the Third World and thinking about alternative forms of globalization.

Often, the story of an all-encompassing, teleological globalization is narrated as one of steady and inevitably increasing flows of people and decreasing distances. The life histories of the madjerman undercut such narratives, showing how globalization lacks easy linearity. As this book demonstrates, geopolitical conditions can change quickly and dramatically and with them the range of international movement accorded to an individual. Angolan and Mozambican unskilled workers from non-elite backgrounds were able to enter East Germany by the thousands to work and gain skills on factory floors. Today, these very same people are all but barred from international travel through prohibitive visa requirements and a lack of personal funds. These workers once saw themselves as belonging to an elite socialist vanguard working class in the making which allowed them to travel into the heart of Europe. Subsequently, most have become marginalized as they have not found a place in the struggling market economies of post-socialist Mozambique and Angola. As a result, they are confined to their current place of residence, at best being mobile within their home country or, occasionally, the southern African region. Worker-trainees benefited from the brief coming together of socialist axes that enabled a shrinking of distance and a transnational migration. With the asymmetries of the post-socialist globalization, their international mobility was curtailed, and their cosmopolitan world disintegrated. Even though we can trace interaction, circulation, connection, exchanges, and transfers of ideas, people, and goods, their stories force us to reckon with the processes of fragmentation and disconnection that continue to undergird the global production of inequalities and unevenness.

Circular migration was of importance to the Angolan and Mozambican state to educate skilled labor for the planned expansion of heavy and light industries to support development along a Stalinist path of industrialization. To the migrants, it mattered because it contained a promise, through training and work experience abroad, of escaping the status and roles prescribed by genealogy, birth, and previous socioeconomic status. Labor migrants thus saw migrating abroad as a crucial part of forming their selfhood. The migrations undertaken from Angola and Mozambique stressed being and becoming. It was about being a worker-trainee in East Germany and it was also about becoming a productive socialist citizen back home.Footnote 57

Between the late 1940s and 1990, the Cold War overlapped with decolonization and development in Africa. Cold War alliances directed many of the Angolan and Mozambican educational migrations toward Marxist regimes, among them Cuba, East Germany, the Soviet Union, and other Eastern European states. This nexus opened new African migration routes within Africa, to hubs like Cairo, Accra, or Dar es Salaam.Footnote 58 It also opened migration pathways to places such as China and India.Footnote 59 The diverse groups who traveled often understood their migrations in the framework of an international battle for decolonization, progress, and development. Socialist migrations have become a point of interest, with increasing attention on African students and trade unionists in East Germany.Footnote 60 Prolific work explores African migrations to the former Eastern Bloc, examining how Africans journeyed across borders to “points of reference, places of education, and ports of exile.”Footnote 61 Few studies as of yet trace the migration movements from Europe to examine their effects on socialism and post-socialist legacies at home, an approach crucial to tracing the worker’s life course in this book.Footnote 62

Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World is in conversation with these studies but differs in important ways. First, its close-up view of worker-trainees sheds light on an occupational category distinct from the students, school children, exiles, military personnel, and trade unionists that were the focus of many prior publications. Second, this book builds primarily on oral history interviews with returned migrants, in contrast with the vast majority of existing studies that rely on archives in the former Eastern Bloc. Third, this study traces the life course of the migrants before, during, and after migration, while the existing literature focuses on the migration phase of Africans within the Eastern Bloc and tells the story from the viewpoint of the receiving countries. And lastly, this study documents the history of connections, including their unraveling, to illustrate disconnection, rupture, and fragility in the post-migration lives of the worker-trainees.

This labor and training migration circuit departs in significant ways from histories of migrant labor elsewhere on the continent. First, the context of postcolonial African states engaging with “socialist brother nations” puts the labor migration, rhetorically and experientially, on a different playing field from colonial labor migrations. Angolans and Mozambicans signed up voluntarily for a variety of reasons, which I discuss in Chap. 3. In the early stages of the program, they were not only exploited for labor power but also gained professional skills and were expected to return as socialist vanguard workers buttressed by having experienced socialist internationalism and East German “real socialism.” This made these South to East migrations fundamentally different to migrations in the colonial era, or indeed to most of the migrations between South and West. On the other hand, as we shall see, the later stages of the labor program largely failed to live up to these standards.

Moreover, travel to the geopolitical East intensified a re-making, re-framing, and re-articulating of fluid identities. The laborers underwent a racialization process whereby their identities shifted from the ethnic identities significant at home to the national and racial categories salient abroad. The journey to East Germany meant not only that they were black in the eyes of the white majority in their host country but also that they experienced their identity as black Africans differently in a white majority society. More specifically, it also meant primarily becoming Angolan or Mozambican instead of (for example) Makua or Mbundu. The East German government not only declared solidarity with Angola and Mozambique against imperialism in the battle against regional white minority rule, it also understood East Germany as explicitly and intrinsically anti-racist.Footnote 63 Despite this, racism, as unacknowledged legacy of German colonialism, was a marked characteristic of East German society.Footnote 64 East Germany was the only country in the Eastern Bloc with a direct colonial history on the African continent. Despite this history, many African governments included East Germany in the socialist and therefore anti-imperialist and anti-racist camp, so that it was viewed by many as political alternative to continued relations with the former colonizers and their allies. Yet, the colonial legacy was not overcome by state-socialist doctrine in East Germany, as becomes highly visible when examining the lives of former worker-trainees in East Germany. Tracing the conditional and superficial official inclusion of the workers as intimate strangers and the ways in which many worker-trainees subverted the barriers, such as when they formed personal relationships or founded families, reveals the limits of state planning in the parameters of integration.

Focusing on the complex lives of migrants and their knowledge about a migration movement is an important counterbalance to state-centric treatments.Footnote 65 I draw inspiration from Alf Lüdtke’s approach to studying workers’ everyday lives through Eigensinn, or self-willed-ness.Footnote 66 The point is to write histories which make space for an examination of the complex ways in which agency is negotiated, expressed, and erased. Lüdtke emphasizes historical actors’ “own meaning” or the workers’ “own sense” in terms of small acts of resistance, or the absence thereof, in the workplace.Footnote 67 Both of these phrases are possible literal translations of the German term. I share that focus on individual perspectives, but I go beyond the focus on resistance which is in much of the German scholarship on labor and Alltagsgeschichte, the history of the everyday, and is also the staple of labor history and the history of slavery in African history. This does not mean that complex power differentials were not an important factor in the worker-trainees’ lives but resistance was, while present, not an all-encompassing factor that determined the memories of their everyday lived experiences.Footnote 68 Studying the workers migration experience and remembrance alike involves a multilayered and multitemporal understanding of agency, one that follows Lynn M. Thomas’s call to pay attention to “how all people shape—if in varying and unequal ways—the worlds in which they live” and to “attend to the multiple motivations that undergird meaningful action, motivations that exceed rational calculation and articulated intentions to include collective fantasies, psychical desires and struggles just to get by.”Footnote 69

The microhistories of travelers’ lives that undergird this book move across various scales and temporal divides. Their individual lives and collective experiences are shot through with individual encounters, national state-building, bilateral socialist solidarities, and the global socialist movement set against the Cold War. Their lives have bridged temporal divides. The protagonists of this book lived through colonialism, independence, socialist state-building, and the shift to a market economy and multiparty democracy. They are living demonstrations that lives do not conform to neat historical periodization or containers such as the nation state. A narrative that traces the migrants’ life course reminds us that the end of the Cold War and socialism was not the end of their story or, indeed, of anyone’s story.

Small spaces and collective microhistories shed new light on the study of alternative forms of global entanglements. They reveal both the reach and the limits of the socialist rhetoric of friendship and proletarian internationalism, and official policies. Focusing on the memories, fictions, and limits of entanglements reveals much about their meaning. This book explores the repercussions and legacies of South–East encounters and demonstrates that power structures and inequalities remain to the present day. Ultimately, this narrative complicates how Africa fitted into what was, for a time at least, a global socialist world.

Oral History and Memory

Mozambican historian and writer João Paulo Borges Coelho argues that telling post-independence history in Mozambique is part politics, part memory work, and part history writing. The official FRELIMO legitimizing narrative has remained strong in the form of a fixed oral “liberation script” that advances in linear fashion based on binary opposites.Footnote 70 The recent rise of memory accounts in Mozambique poses one challenge to this singular account through their multiplicity. Similar “liberation scripts” exist across southern Africa and across the world. The voices of the former workers, the stories they tell, and the memories they share add cacophonous voices to the post-independence history of Mozambique and Angola as well as to East German history, illustrating the ambiguity and serendipity of the experiences of non-elite historical actors.

I merge the collected life history interviews to arrive at a collective biography of sorts. This approach allows for tracing the different life phases of Angolan and Mozambican workers. I do this to understand the contours of the migration experience.Footnote 71 That means that rather than in-depth discussions of individual life histories, as in the prologue, I have chosen quotes and memories to illustrate particular points. The story this book tells is made from many people’s individual stories. Despite the shortcomings of such an approach—an obvious one is that the reader cannot dive deeply into the different life histories—I have chosen this approach to do justice to the 268 interviews on which this work is built. It also allows me to discuss an illustrative variety of issues. A collective narrative is best served by a collection of voices. An individual biography, while fascinating and meaningful, can never be more than just that—individual.

Producing the oral history primary source material for this book was no simple task and necessitated thousands of kilometers of travel in minibus taxis, rattling buses, and trains and planes over a period of two years in 2014 and 2015. When I was doing this, I was afforded a visceral sense of the expansion of a small part of the global socialist world. Retracing that world was for me a multi-sensual experience, whether it was listening with former returned workers to East German bands like Silly, City, or the Puhdys, encountering an old MZ (an East German brand of motorbike) on the streets in Mozambique, or being baked a German birthday cake by Juma and his family. To access the memories and life stories of former labor migrants, I spent many hours talking to workers in what is colloquially known as the park of the madjerman in Maputo, in cafes across the Mozambican provinces from the Rovuma to the Maputo (to echo a saying that resonates in Mozambique from the liberation war), and in restaurants and offices around Luanda.Footnote 72 In the process, I was invited into the homes of some of my interview partners who sometimes served up xima and matapa to introduce me to local dishes, as they had once been introduced to German belegte Brötchen and Abendbrot. During my travels I stayed in hotels recommended by workers and sometimes with returned workers themselves. They helped organize my onward journeys, accompanied me on several occasions to show me the local sights, and on these occasions spoke about solidarity and reciprocity. It was important to my hosts that I was able to see Mozambique and Angola the way they remembered exploring East Germany.

Oral historians do not usually select interviewees with a claim to scientific sampling. They are simply glad when they find a first-person witness to an event that is of interest to them. In my case, as with many oral histories, my first interviewees in Mozambique found me. They approached me on account of my white skin and German appearance and my German accent in Portuguese. We also sometimes seemed to be brought together by fate. One of my interviewees was the waiter in a restaurant where I had lunch, another the taxi driver who drove me from the airport to town. Then there were those friends and acquaintances who referred me to speak to their madjerman employees, a janitor, a maid, an office assistant. There were the neighbors of friends and their acquaintances—when I talked to people in Maputo, everyone seemed to know a returned worker from East Germany. And most of the people I interviewed in turn recommended others. I was able to adjust the snowballing to a certain degree to listen to stories of male and female workers hailing from different regions and trained across sectors and companies.

This was not the case in Luanda, where my search for interview partners proved more difficult mostly because comparatively few workers had been to the East and those who returned are more dispersed across the country. While I easily made contacts with returned university students via the embassy and a few key connections, it proved much harder to access returned workers who mostly did not live or work inside Luanda’s city center. This reflects income and class differences between the returned workers and students. Former workers in Luanda had no public meeting place like Maputo’s park of the madjerman. In Luanda, I found my interviewees through the members of two rivaling organizations, confusingly both named AEX-TAA, but located in different office spaces. I introduced my project and volunteers came forward.Footnote 73 While talking to those belonging to workers’ organizations skewed my sample in Angola to include those who were actively interested in associating with their former transnational worker identity, it did give me access to a group otherwise hard to locate.

In Mozambique, too, I relied on more organized approaches. In addition to chance encounters and snowballing, I contacted institutions connected to Germany like the embassy and the German cultural center Instituto Cultural Mocambique—Alemanha (ICMA). The most important help was the main (and by 2014, the only active) organization of returned workers: the ATMA.Footnote 74 It was the tireless work of Zecca Cossa and Juma Madeira in Maputo and the representatives of the regional groups that facilitated a trip from Maputo up the East Coast. I stopped in the provincial capitals of Beira, Quelimane, Nampula, and Pemba with further stops in the small village of Namialo on the way to the Ilha de Mozambique, on that beautiful island itself (where I even got a tour in German by a former worker) and in the then bustling port city of Nacala. In each location I would introduce my project in front of an assembled crowd ranging from a handful of people to eighty returned workers and family members. After the meetings I would take phone numbers and make appointments for individual and sometimes group interviews.Footnote 75

All participants gave informed consent to participate in this oral history project. In fact, all but a few, who asked to be anonymized, expressed an interest in sharing their personal stories. Storytelling brought a sense of validation with it, a feeling that the life lived mattered, that their experiences in Germany were retrospectively valued and important enough to be included in a history book. I hope that this book, with all its shortcomings, helps to satisfy this sense.

Far from only inquiring about the past, the conversations were about the present and the future, too. The act of telling became an opportunity to reminiscence over a coffee or Coke. Yet, the fact that the workers’ claims have not met many a returnee’s satisfaction in either Angola or Mozambique rendered the issue topical to numerous interviewees. Another issue on the minds of many of those returned workers with whom I came into contact was children left behind, children with whom contact had been lost some years after return—or with whom there had never been any contact at all. Sometimes my respondents remembered little more than the first names of the children and their mothers, while others gave me addresses and complete life histories. As part of the interview process, I offered to collect the data of those who were searching for their offspring, as I was volunteering with Reencontro Familiar in Germany. This group of volunteers seeks to bring together family members from Mozambique and Germany who have lost touch. The future was also a recurrent topic in the interviews. Many workers were in their late fifties and sixties and were approaching what they saw as old age. They were concerned about their physical fitness, were contemplating retirement, and were worried about financial security.Footnote 76

Even though I was clear to the interviewees about the limits of my role as a then graduate student living outside of Germany and explained what an academic history book does (speak to scholars and students, and perhaps a few members of a broader public) and what it does not do (shape policies, convince governments to pay compensation), the very fact that I had come all the way to Africa, learned Portuguese, and sought to write a book suggested the importance of the topic. The fact that I came from Princeton University was not a factor for most of my interview partners. If anything, for some it was a disappointment that I did not come directly from Germany. In Germany, too, the fact that I studied in the US was not helpful for my credibility with former East German employees. In Angola and Mozambique many former workers and school students hoped I could tell people back in Germany about their plight. Some sought me out because they had heard rumors that I was with the German government or had come to collect data about past financial claims. The vast majority decided to participate in an interview even after I had the opportunity to address these misconceptions.

I understood that my listening to people’s life stories was a more or less direct involvement in people’s lives.Footnote 77 But there are structural limits to this involvement. At its heart academic publishing is an extractive endeavor, not a community-centered one. This is especially problematic in the (post)colonial context of African studies, where since the inception of the discipline, knowledge has been produced in the global North about Africa which remains inaccessible to Africans. This book is published open-access and in English to reach a broad audience, but this means that sadly most people involved in this story in Angola, Mozambique, and Germany will not be able to easily read it.Footnote 78

I was an outsider to all communities that I interviewed and yet, in some way, I was also treated as an insider—perhaps my own version of an intimate stranger. I was not an insider privy to the world of the returned workers, but because I grew up in Germany, at times my African interview partners assumed a shared horizon of experiences in Germany, which in reality only existed in a very limited way. I was not yet born when the Angolan and Mozambican labor migration programs were initiated, and my experience of work culture in East German state-owned companies was as nonexistent as my experience of East German cities and private life. By age and chance, being born in West Germany, I was removed from that expected shared horizon. In fact, I went to Angola and Mozambique also to learn about “the other Germany.” And learn I did. For instance, I learned the word Broiler—East German for roast chicken—and the habit of knocking on the table as a form of greeting, widespread in the former East of Germany until today—from my Mozambican interlocuters, and both served me well in my current life in Brandenburg state, a former East German territory. These experiences of mine are poignant echoes of the way that Angolans and Mozambicans learned about their own countries by going to East Germany. But even if I had been an East German factory worker, my experience would have differed from those of the “Freunde” (friends) that came from what was then known as the Third World to work in East German factories. My differences to them are not only of age and in most cases gender, but also—and most significantly—of race. I do not and cannot claim to speak for anyone. But I can provide a platform for people’s voices.

As a white German academic, I am writing this book from a position of relative power and privilege. It was the privilege of a German passport and research funding from the US and Portugal that facilitated the necessary travels to be able to write this book. Being white, in some situations, accorded me authority. On the other hand, being a young woman sometimes worked to undermine that authority. Having pursued higher education at anglophone elite institutions shaped the way I approached scholarship and writing and, in many cases, worked to remove me from the concerns of the people I interviewed. On the other hand, we shared the experience of arriving in new cultural and class environments in our late teens/early twenties, which often engendered a sense of connection and mutual understanding across the many divides and contributed to building relationships of trust.

In my oral history interviews I identified strongly with the position of a learner. By listening intently and being taken along to madjerman weddings, funerals, and birthday celebrations I started moving on the outsider–insider continuum more toward the knowledge of an insider.Footnote 79 Coming from the outside allowed me a perspective that was not overwritten by present-day community concerns. It also allowed people to be open with me, for the same reasons. Fernando Machava, an undergraduate history student at Eduardo Mondlane University (at the time) who diligently transcribed many of my interviews, also conducted a few interviews with his madjerman neighbors on his own because I wanted to see how far the storyline differed when it was not told to a German. The content of the interviews did not change much, but other issues of age and authority came into play, leading to briefer and less open interviews.

When I did the interviews, I started with a questionnaire in my mind that covered the different phases of the life course of the workers. I would flexibly adapt each interview; some wanted to speak to me about the present and future first, before they turned to their past, while others preferred to walk me through their lives in chronological order. While I had to guide some people closely, others took the lead. I started interviews explaining the purpose of my research, asking for consent, and then began with some basic identification questions before progressing to the more open-ended questions. Some interview partners I met several times to finish their stories, but most I met once. Most of the interviews lasted several hours. Despite some being more akin to an informal conversation, all interviews were three-way conversations between me, the interviewee, and the imagined audience represented by my recording device.Footnote 80 During these intersubjective encounters we each brought something of ourselves to the meeting which was also a transactional space, where we exchanged information.Footnote 81

I did not pay people for the interviews but rather invited them for a drink or lunch while we spoke. Each interviewee had their own reasons for speaking to me. These ranged from a general interest in sharing their life histories, to doing a favor for a friend, to harboring a hope that somehow this might help in bringing about another round of payments. A few wanted to set the historical record straight by speaking about strikes, workplace accidents, or racism. Others wanted to meet me and show their world as they had once been shown the German world. Those interviews would start in a formal setting and end up becoming informal with an invitation home or a mutual sight-seeing trip. My priorities and the questions driving my research project did not always align perfectly with the interviewees’ interest. We would then come to a middle ground in the interviews, where I got to ask the questions that were important to me and the interviewees could tell me why they had come to see me.

I asked interviewees to bring photos, letters, and anything else that they felt to be relevant. Some brought treasures like friendship books (Poesiealben), letters, photo albums, poems, magazines, postcards, diplomas, or prizes. But I also heard a lot of stories about burned and flooded abodes, suitcases stored with relatives and subsequently lost, and other painful ways in which the physical leftovers from their time in Germany had diminished over time. No matter whether each incident was true, these stories, together with what I saw in people’s houses, suggest that storing and maintaining a personal archive in a condition that saves photographs and letters from deterioration is a luxury only those with more settled and slightly more affluent lives can afford.

Armed with the occasional treasures of personal tin trunk archives and oral histories, I set out to understand what happened and how it was remembered. Oral history is a unique historical research methodology that allows new insights, especially from non-elite actors whose voices might often be excluded from the archival record. What appealed to me about oral history was that it provides a sense of human connection and makes history a more democratic exercise. I was excited to capture the workers’ worldviews. It was later that I came to understand that the value of the oral history interviews lies not in their accuracy of recall, particularly not of routine events like a workday, which tend to blend into one another. The value lies in remembering something a certain way, choosing to tell a narrative about something that speaks not only to what happened at the point in time the story treats, but also what happened at subsequent points in time in the person’s life.

In the 1960s, Jan Vansina pioneered the use of oral traditions in African history and argued that oral history is a legitimate primary source. Very few people would doubt that today. Vansina was on a quest to recover the kernel of objective historical truth that he assumed was hidden beneath many layers of interpretation. It was the historian’s task to peel back the layers of impressions like the layers of an onion to arrive at the narrative of interest.Footnote 82 Luise White, on the other hand, challenges Vansina through her interpretation of oral history as highly subjective and emotive. In many of her works, White does not look for facts, let alone truth in her interviews, but concentrates on rumors and lies to ask what the speakers relate about their desires, fears, and feelings.Footnote 83 I do not go as far as to sever the link between memory and historical event completely. I have tried to corroborate information with other sources, as a historian should do with any type of source.

I contend that one of the unique potentials of oral history is the multiplicity of temporalities it contains. This is powerfully illustrated in my discussion of eastalgia in the epilogue. The narratives are simultaneously about the past, the modal past (“should have been”), the present, the modal present (“should be”), and the future. Leroy Vail and Landeg White argue that praise poems are “history as drama, evaluation and judgment: history with the metaphysics included.”Footnote 84 This is also true for the workers’ life histories which deliver subjective versions of history that evoke their opinions but even more so “invoke not merely an alternative interpretation of history but also an alternative vision of how life ought to be lived.”Footnote 85 The workers’ many stories about the past often come back to a criticism of their living circumstances in the present. Life histories, much like praise poems, are oral sources that provide us with an understanding not simply of what happened, but what storytellers think about what happened and what should have happened.

Oral histories are as close to the living as a historian can get. I employ oral history to inform the study of the past and the study of that past in the present. The accounts that people gave me are valuable both for their information about the role of the individual in society today and their memory of that role in the past.Footnote 86 Following Lynn Abrams, I think of the interviewees as interpreting and performing their recollections of their historical experience in a collaborative and intercultural co-production with me during the interview.Footnote 87 My imagination of what it was like to have lived under socialism met my interview partners’ interpretation of their lives and we sought to bridge these two perspectives in our interviews.

Memory is no synonym for imagination, but we must remember the constructed nature of memory. Each act of remembering is an active creation of meaning. I conducted the interviews on which this book draws about a quarter of a century after the return home of the workers; their memories of their time in East Germany are colored by what they have experienced since then and by a nostalgic recollection of their own youth. They are not simply a depiction of what happened but rather of what is remembered and what has been selected to share.

Memories are life-giving. Without memory, we have no social existence.Footnote 88 Memories are also fallible—the more time passes between an event and the interview, the more the memory becomes an interpretation of the event rather than a description. Each retelling of the event changes the recall. In their frequent retelling, memories crystallize and become part of a collective memory, a madjerman script. Those who are used to sharing narratives of their past do so fluidly, while those who must work harder to remember and unearth almost forgotten memories often construct a messier narrative arch, but also a narrative which has had less intermediary filtering since it was first laid down in memory.

While some memories are thus easily accessible, others remain hidden. Of course, some memories might be recalled but interviewees decide not to share. Extraordinary events are remembered with more clarity than the quotidian. Against this backdrop it is no surprise that workers speak little about their everyday experience but remember the outstanding, the parties, the trips, the consumption, the award won, the workplace accident, or the strike. Our brains sometimes need to be triggered to make a connection to a particular memory. Oral historians use “memory joggers” like photographs in seeking to trigger recall, something I did where possible and relevant. For many of my African interview partners, meeting me, exchanging a few words in German prior to switching into Portuguese refreshed memories. This book is not about me and is not primarily about communication across divides. It is about my interviewees and their lives. Hence, after having positioned myself and made transparent from where I am speaking and how I collected my data in this introduction, I will disappear from the narrative in the following chapters. On my interviewees’ narratives I build my own interpretation as historian, an interpretation that is informed by reading the work of other scholars and primary sources in official archives, in tin trunk archives of workers, diplomats, and East Germans involved in the labor migration scheme, and published primary sources.Footnote 89

I am not offering an account of the labor migration program based on a nuanced reading of company archives and Stasi archives—that has been done and continues to be done elsewhere.Footnote 90 I am offering an account that engages the memories of the workers and reads them against the background of a multitude of other sources. Those looking for a narrative that will focus on the exploitative aspects of this labor migration scheme will be disappointed, as will those looking for a triumphant success story.

History is not written from one kind of evidence, and neither is Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World. Though this book draws primarily on oral histories, it is informed too by different kinds of archives across five countries. Some interviewees generously shared their personal tin trunk archives with me which included photos of their time in East Germany. They also showed me letters and postcards, documentation relating to their training and lives as workers in East Germany, and in a few cases artistic works such as paintings, poetry, songs, and prose. In Germany, I worked at the national archive, where most of the documents relating to foreign workers in East Germany on a ministerial level are held. I consulted some Stasi (East German secret police) reports on foreign workers; the archives of the foreign ministry hold the agreements ratified between East Germany and Angola and Mozambique. I pieced together relevant information across institutional archives of various forms in Angola, Mozambique, and Portugal.Footnote 91 This project is further informed by the infusion of the story of the madjerman into popular culture in Mozambique and Germany. This includes music such as marrabenta or rap, but also documentaries and YouTube videos, exhibitions, coffee table books, memoirs, and a graphic novel.Footnote 92 This eclectic evidence comes together to form a context against which I read the oral histories.

The experiences of the Angolans and Mozambicans in this book took place in “spaces that were categorically different from the national frame” and can thus not be contained in any single national archive.Footnote 93 Jean Allman posits that the postcolonial archive in Africa “is a global transnational archive.”Footnote 94 The archival history of the Angolan and Mozambican labor migrations can be told—up to a point—through consulting East German archives.Footnote 95 Yet, Nana Osei-Opare rightfully reminds historians of the postcolonial African past of the importance of using African archives, and rejects “postcolonial African archival pessimism.”Footnote 96 This, maintains Osei-Opare, is especially urgent for historians engaging with the Cold War period.Footnote 97 Accessing postcolonial archives can, however, be challenging in Angola and Mozambique. The Arquivo Histórico Nacional, the Angolan National Archive, for instance, does not contain records of post-independence Angola, and in the MPLA archives the archivists curate what information they make available. Even where the socialist period resulted in relatively transparent archival practices, as Benedito Machava and Euclides Gonçalves argue for Mozambique, the multiparty democratic period that followed erased much of what was gained.Footnote 98 To quote Achille Mbembe, the state exercises “its ability to control time, to abolish the archive and anaesthetisise the past.”Footnote 99 In neither country were relevant holdings with regard to information about the Angolan and Mozambican workers to be found through the state archive.Footnote 100 Instead, I puzzled together relevant information across many institutions. The fragmented nature of the archival work is likely influenced by the ongoing workers’ claims in both countries, processes that encourage silencing of the archival record.Footnote 101 The labor ministries in both countries, which presumably hold the records—or what is left of them—pertaining to the labor migration, granted me interviews with employees, which resulted in access to a few sources, but nothing that would allow me to trace the Angolan or Mozambican governments’ plans or actions in any meaningful way. Even though the East German archives can function as transnational shadow archives to some extent, a project centering the workers’ experience seemed more promising as a way of breaking new ground.

Oral history shifts the focus from institutions to actors.Footnote 102 As discussed above, interviewees made decisions about what to say and how, and their recall was influenced by later experiences, conditioned by social retelling, or forgetting.Footnote 103 The Mozambican author Mia Couto writes:

They [the Madjerman] returned from a dead country, from a time beyond the wall, beyond memory. But they are not only those that returned. They created their lives anew, once again on a journey with unknown destinations. Each and every one has a history, a trajectory, a face, a name.Footnote 104

I wanted to work with some of these histories, trajectories, faces, and names to craft a narrative that foregrounds the collective memory of the returned workers. Inspired by Hannah Arendt, I wanted to contribute to interweaving the private and the public through storytelling. For Arendt, there is a close association between the public realm and reality. She claims that people need to be “seen and heard” to escape the “uncertain, shadowy kind of existence” of the private realm.Footnote 105 Jürgen Habermas noted that “the lifeworlds and voices of marginalized classes also tend to be ‘privatized’ by being denied public recognition.”Footnote 106 There is a reason why workers, women, or refugees feature prominently in oral history works. It is to move their lives from the private into the public sphere. But more than that, the storytelling that is performed during the interviews is part of a meaning-making process. It is also an exercise of agency. That said, it is not my intention to include “the African voice” as final authority in an emancipatory recovery historiography. As discussed above, there are many limitations to these voices.Footnote 107 Tracing the influences on memory over time, reading them for what they reveal about the interviewees’ emotions, dreams, and desires, remains as crucial as learning what (subjectively) happened.

Hannah Arendt claims that historic actions are given meaning through the retrospective mention by historians. While that is certainly not the only meaning—actions have their own effects on contemporaries, creating immediate meaning—it is in the telling and retelling that an action is interpreted and accorded new meaning. As an author, I create meaning by sharing my interpretation, but, as I hope I have made clear in this introduction, I do not create the meaning of this history alone. On the one hand it is built on hundreds of interpretations and the interpretation inherent in archival material and secondary sources. On the other hand, meaning is also created by those who receive this narrative, who read and discuss this book. Wondering whether in writing history based on oral history “any interpretation is acceptable,” Luise White responds: “Hardly. It means that interpretations have to be made with care and caution, not because they are risky in and of themselves, but because interpretations build on so many layers of interpretation that they have to be well grounded or they topple over.”Footnote 108 I hope that my interpretation of the madjerman’s (and their Angolan counterparts) experiences and memories gives the reader both an idea of what their migration experience was like for them, and an understanding of why they remember and recount in the way that they do.