We feel at home because we are surrounded by warmth and friendship. …We feel at home because we have more Mozambican students and trainees here than in any other European country. We feel at home because East Germany has always closely accompanied our revolutionary process. …Ours is the difficult but also commendable task of building our socialist fatherlands in areas marked by heavy confrontation between the social systems. This is a meeting between brothers in arms, an exchange of experience…The people of the GDR under the leadership of the SED are roses of solidarity, hope and the future.Footnote 1Samora Machel, during a visit to East Germany in September 1980

The friendship between peoples is indeed the big star, the sun that rises on the horizon and overcomes the shackles of hatred, of division and war, created by oppression and exploitation. …Through this big star of friendship between peoples the blood of the people of East Germany and Mozambique is united. Through this big star of peoples’ friendship, the broad road leading the way to socialism has become even wider. The distance between the Peoples’ Republic of Mozambique and the German Democratic Republic has been overcome.Footnote 2Erich Honecker, during the same visit

While Machel and Honecker were praising their peoples’ friendship, Mozambicans, Angolans, and East Germans were building interracial relationships and creating new families across divides of nations and cultures. The SED, FRELIMO, and the MPLA all forcefully espoused anti-racism and swore solidarity and friendship in the name of their shared socialist future. However, many worker-trainees in Germany were subjected to racism, overt and covert.Footnote 3 They were confronted with racist attitudes, were exposed to racist slurs, and even had to defend themselves and their partners from physical attacks.Footnote 4

Neither the host country nor the sending countries desired the Mozambican and Angolan migrants’ permanent integration into East German life. The labor and training programs were intended to be circular—otherwise what was the point of training the workers to lead the African socialist industrial revolution?Footnote 5 Worker-trainees instead became intimate strangers while in East Germany.Footnote 6 On one hand, these international workers were welcomed for political and economic reasons. They were showcases for East German solidarity and vectors that would carry the socialist revolution to the Third World.Footnote 7 They also made valuable contributions to supporting the East German economy during their stay. On the other hand, the worker-trainees were intended to live apart so as not to disturb the fragile political and social status quo in East Germany, although it was never conclusively specified exactly how they would cause this disturbance.

The exclusion of foreign worker-trainees worked on many levels. Worker-trainees were separated into national groups in dormitories. Their language training was often insufficient to guarantee independent functioning in East German society. Contact with East Germans was in theory limited to official functions and work and training experiences. Migrants were not allowed to bring their families from home, and creating formalized new ones was difficult as marriages were dependent upon the consent of home and host states. Representation was limited to state-sanctioned figures of control, mainly the team leader. On the other hand, worker-trainees, at least in theory, received equal pay for equal work and access to health care, language training, and vocational training in company schools, were invited along on company leisure time activities, and had access to company vacation homes. Many were included in nationally mixed brigades, participated in company competitions, and received company honors.

Despite the migrants’ separation in this way, they still became an intimate feature of daily life not only because they were an integral part of workplaces, but also because they were part of East German neighborhood bars, local shops, and family life. This chapter discusses two sides of the same coin: integration and exclusion. The first section of the chapter explores the migrants’ integration and their intimate, cross-cultural relationships with Germans and others. The second part examines how migrants experienced exclusion. The grounds were, variously, sexism, racism, and xenophobia. Integration and exclusion reflect two contrasting ends on the scale of human affective relationships, but as will become clear, the central theme of this chapter is how love and hate, intimacy and exclusion, and friendship and racism are intricately bound up with one another.Footnote 8

When we look at people’s personal attachments in the context of migration studies, as we are doing here, we can quickly see how shallow the ability of the state is to determine the nature of people’s experiences. Because the default way of looking at migrations such as those in this book is from the perspective of the state—geopolitical, economic, bureaucratic—most accounts miss this.Footnote 9 Yet the personal aspect is nearly always the decisive one in determining whether people’s experiences are positive or negative. This chapter shows how personal encounters shaped migrants’ lives as Africans in East Germany. Looking at East Germany from an African perspective enables us to understand how interwoven Angolan, Mozambican, and East German history became on the micro-level of daily lives. Migrants learned German over dinner or woke up next to Germans in the morning. They taught their German friends Portuguese and danced with them to American singers like Michael Jackson, Mozambican groups like Eyuphuro, or East German acts such as the singer Frank Schöbel. On many East German men saw young African men as a threat to their masculinity. African women were faced with the threat of being sent back home if they got pregnant. They were also threatened with a ruined reputation if they dated people of other nationalities.Footnote 10 Exclusion and inclusion did not work the same way for everyone.

Part I: Integration—Intimate Strangers


Verse Angel LezewikFootnote

“Anjo Lezewik” by Regina Vera Cruz, February 27, 2007, original in Regina’s possession. Regina from Maputo wrote the poem in 2007 as part of a creative writing class. Almost twenty years elapsed between her experience and her processing of the memory in this poem.

You were the last and the first angel The beginning of the end The alpha and the omega My soul always flies to you I swear!…One day I will meet you Do you remember…on top of that stage Lubricated by the MarrabentaFootnote

Marrabenta refers to a style of dance music developed in Maputo during the 1930s and still enjoying great popularity today. It is a mélange of traditional Mozambican and Portuguese folk elements.

I taught you how to move your hips And the legs, remember always the sounds Of the Mozambican marimba The sound of drumming WazimboFootnote

A famous Mozambican Marrabenta singer, Humberto Carlos Benfica, is known as Wazimbo.

Fortifying through dance our unification… I am thirsting for you Because you were my strongest love You were the heart of the great friendships Angel Lezewik. Regina, February 27, 2007

Regina migrated from Mozambique to work and receive vocational training on the factory floors of East Germany. She also developed intimate ties there. Her poem describes her love for an East German man, whom she met in 1989. In that choice of subject, the poem is both quotidian and exceptional. Quotidian, because it describes the age-old feeling of love. Exceptional, because generally female Angolan and Mozambican worker-trainees in East Germany did not cross the color line with their romantic escapades.Footnote 14 Historically, interracial relationships between European men and African women (usually in the colonies) and between African men and European women (usually in European metropoles) had been subjected to governmental surveillance and sanctions.Footnote 15 Regina, as a woman away from her home, transgressed somewhat against this model in a way that not many did. Her love happened in a different time and place to the norm, but interracial intimacy remained a matter of state.

Intimate intercultural relationships were the sites of intercultural learning. Regina wrote in her poem about teaching her lover how to dance marrabenta. She was the active figure, the holder of cultural knowledge, who instructed an East German man. In most cases the roles were reversed, and Angolan and Mozambican men dated East German women, who, as holders of knowledge—language and cultural—served to help integrate the migrants into a foreign East German world.

When male former migrants spoke to me years later, they talked about consciously seeking out intercultural love. East German women were a key to unlocking otherwise inaccessible cultural capital:

I made my way in Germany with the help of my girlfriend. …She was the daughter of the foreman. She was only there briefly when we arrived. I still did not know how to speak German and I asked a colleague from Eberswalde to write her a note for me that said I would like to get to know her. …after school, I always went to the furniture store where she worked to ask her whether she could help me with the homework, and she did and that is how our friendship grew. …she explained the lessons we had learned, even if I had already understood them. My objective was another one, one that really facilitated my life. The less contact I had with people from my origin, the faster I could obtain my goals. And so it was. …What was of interest to me was to have a partner who could help me integrate as quickly as possible and to understand more.Footnote 16

Seen in this light, the transactional nature of the relationship becomes visible. Many men, like the Angolan Ilíbio, entered relationships to seek cultural and linguistic knowledge alongside affection and intimacy. Ilíbio was interested in staying in Germany as long as war raged back home and saw East German women as a compass to help him move toward this difficult objective.

When mentioned in passing in the German academic literature, East German women dating African men are often depicted as searching for something in these relationships beyond mere romance. According to this telling, they were sometimes lured into the company of foreign worker-trainees through the pull of the unknown, seduced by presents from abroad and the prospect of escaping drab East German horizons. At other times they feigned love to escape East Germany with unsuspecting African men.Footnote 17 Indeed, Angolan and Mozambican men—perceived as foreign and exotic—often represented a window onto a broader world for East German women, a world beyond the relatively closed society where they lived. However, the reality was much more complicated than these clichés. The restricted East German socialist society was the stage for everyday interactions with Mozambican and Angolan colleagues, friends, and partners. Based on interviews with Angolan and Mozambican former migrants, I explore what East German women had to offer.

The vast majority of male workers from Angola and Mozambique had relationships with German women of various levels of commitment. These women came from a variety of family backgrounds, age groups, and education levels. Many migrants learned about life in East Germany from their partners and this was for them an essential element to a successful integration: “She was my best teacher,” Augusto recalled.Footnote 18 In this way, German women became sponsors of sorts for African men.Footnote 19 Angolan and Mozambican worker-trainees who successfully stayed on in reunified Germany after the fall of the Wall were often able to do so only with the support of their East German partners and extended families.

East German women needed to consider the social costs of entering into relationships with African men. Other East Germans often yelled discriminatory slurs at women seen on the streets with African men. The disapproval of the woman’s family and circle of friends played a fundamental role in shaping relationships. Some relationships were clandestine, and others deteriorated rapidly under pressure. Bernardo, who was taken in by an older woman in Rostock during his first week in Germany, describes his racist experiences:

We didn’t have an easy life. When you arrive in a foreign place, everything is difficult, and we suffered from racism. …This was really annoying. People insulted her when she was with me, but she told me not to engage and we continued like that and I got used to this way of life and finally I also had very close German friends. But in the beginning, it was a shock because I did not expect to hear these kinds of things.Footnote 20

Many East Germans scorned the African visitors, about whom they knew little. In Bernardo’s words: “Later I started to see that the East German people were a closed society. They did not even know other socialist countries. Their lives were very complicated. They did not only have these problems with black Africans but also with the French, Italians and other people.”Footnote 21 As Bernardo alludes to, not all exclusion was racially motivated. Sentiments against those from outside East Germany’s borders were not uncommon. African migrants suffered from both xenophobia and racism and were thus doubly excluded.

German exoticization of African men emerged from a history of stereotyping. It was well established during the German colonial empire, reached new levels during Nazi rule, and recurred in West Germany during the postwar experience with American GIs.Footnote 22 Some male migrants acknowledged that their exoticism had a pull factor when they speak about how easy it was to meet and seduce East German women. An Angolan worker-trainee remembered in 2015:

Many East German women only went to bed with black men out of curiosity. There were rumors that they had tails in the back. But in the end, they discovered that the body parts were all similar, that people were the same, and…today many of those women are getting old with Angolans.Footnote 23

He portrayed East German women as willing to believe colonial tropes but gives them the benefit of the doubt of being able to reverse their viewpoints. While some male migrants took advantage of that exoticization, others suffered from the relentless othering, being intimate yet forever remaining foreign. In 1982, a German female laborer working alongside Mozambicans discussed the relationship between a German and a Mozambican co-worker in terms of stereotypical depictions of African virility: “I don’t know why Angela is attracted to a Mozambican. Some men say they have especially big genitals, that would attract the women, but we don’t speak about sexual things.”Footnote 24 The clichéd portrayal of black sexual potency revealed the prejudices prevalent and underscores how racialized stereotypes, ignorance, and rumor continued to live underneath the facade of internationalist rhetoric.

One worker framed a common understanding of the East German women thus:

We had a teacher who had already lived in Mozambique, South Africa and Kenya. One day she lifted the morale of all Angolans. She was talking about intercultural exchange. What she explained to us during that lesson was this: ‘You are Africans, we are Europeans. Often people have inferiority complexes but, in these lessons, we will change your point of view. …Today, after the end of the Second World War, we German women have the liberty to live together and sleep with men from anywhere. …During the Second World War we lost many men, there were many more women who survived …But all of you young Angolans are here now’…That meant we were lucky, we could marry a German woman, and have children. I am giving this testimony because I was inspired, too.”Footnote 25

In the eyes of African men like Augusto, East German women were sexually and socially free, “able to love whom they wanted. We never interfered [in the lives of our white female companions] because we did not have the right to do so.”Footnote 26 This attitude of respect contrasted with how many of the migrants felt about women from their own countries. Angolan and Mozambican men often did not like to see their female colleagues date men of other nationalities. It was a matter of male honor, in a similar way in which East German men tried to prevent East German women from dating African men. East German, Angolan, and Mozambican men had in common that they projected their masculinity onto the purity of “their” women.Footnote 27

Many male worker-trainees were also influenced by racialized imaginations of female beauty, eager to date white women, which carried a taste of the transgressive in the colonial context in which that generation of workers had grown up. Some male worker-trainees saw their travel abroad as an opportunity to engage with diverse women through whom to engage with different worlds, like this Mozambican: “I had three official German girlfriends. … I also passed some time with a Polish, a Cuban, and an Angolan woman. The Polish woman even took me to Poland for one night.”Footnote 28 Male worker-trainees were more able to choose from among the diverse romantic possibilities in the socialist cosmopolitan circles in which they moved than their female colleagues, who were more bound by female notions of honor based on chastity and fidelity.Footnote 29

Angolan and Mozambican women occasionally dated white men or, more frequently, men from within the African Lusophone networks, but most dated within their national groups. For Lufaquenda this was a given: “I only had Angolan boyfriends. I had close German friends who took me out to spend the weekends together with them. I am not racist but at that time I had absolutely no interest in going out with people of white color.”Footnote 30 There are several reasons for this divergence in behavior of female and male worker-trainees. First, female worker-trainees were exposed to the threat of a forced deportation if they became pregnant. Moreover, they were conforming to societal norms whereby they were looking for a long-term partnership and, since most intended to return home, a partner from home was a better fit for these plans.Footnote 31 In addition, many female worker-trainees socialized mainly within their home networks, especially when posted in single-sex groups, for instance in textile companies. Lastly, male worker-trainees vastly outnumbered female worker-trainees. The African women in East Germany had a far greater choice of African men than vice versa.

In communist ideology, both racism and sexism were rejected as divisive, reactionary ways of thinking. However, ideological rejection did not mean that these prejudices disappeared from society: quite the opposite, in fact. The fact that racism and sexism were not adequately discussed in the public sphere meant that they went unchallenged in the private sphere. They were particularly potent when they intersected. Black men and white women who displayed their affection in public received racist comments. Fights broke out over allegations of adultery and jealousies on the dance floors, particularly when white women were seen with African men. Black men were portrayed as unruly and violent, while East German women were seen as cultural brokers, integrating the foreign men into East German society. This stereotypical view of women had not changed much since the first colonization of Africa.Footnote 32 Now, however, the roles of explorer were reversed. Black cosmopolitan explorers encountered European local women. Santana from Angola summed up this way of seeing things: “You know, the most racist being in the world is a man. …The best link between races are the women.”Footnote 33 In his worldview (and that of many others) gender trumped race. It was women who were tasked with integrating foreign men.

Emotional and sexual needs were not part of the labor migration plans. The bilateral agreements governing the migrations envisioned worker-trainees as more akin to labor machines. In this light, the romantic and sexual experiences that the migrants had were a significant way of exercising their agency, their individuality, while they were living in a bureaucratic framework that did not provide for this. An atmosphere of relative sexual freedom in East Germany in the late 1970s and the 1980s stood in contrast to restrictive sexual attitudes held by officialdom toward the young African migrants.Footnote 34 The state saw the worker-trainees as without emotional attachments or reproductive desires. The organization of the worker-trainees’ work and leisure time in East Germany was not intended to facilitate romantic relationships or other meaningful private contacts. It was, however, such contacts which fostered self-induced integration into East German society in the most meaningful ways. This suspicion of integration stood in interesting and revealing contrast to migration discourse today, in which people worry that migrants do not integrate enough.

Alternative Intimate Attachments: German Families, Mozambican Families, Angolan Families

Many worker-trainees fondly remember transcending their status as strangers and becoming part of East German families. One of the advantages for the worker-trainees was receiving guidance from surrogate parents. In most cases, these adoptive family relationships were informal affairs that developed spontaneously, because people knew each other from work or church, from living in the same neighborhood, or through random conversations. Some worker-trainees even moved in with these host families. Others visited over the weekend, and others shared meals several times a week. Some families supported the young worker-trainees financially, or with advice, and others took on the role of advocates for worker-trainees’ rights.Footnote 35 Lúcia remembers: “A German couple were my parents over there. …They were my professors and sympathized with me because I was a good student…and they came to pick me up on the weekends and became my second family.” Lúcia lived a homely life with her second family and spent time in their country house, where she did much the same that she might have done in Mozambique: “I harvested cabbage, fruits, and other things on the farm.”Footnote 36

Another way of meeting people willing to open their homes to the worker-trainees was through religious networks.Footnote 37 One Angolan worker integrated into the family of a doctor with five children:

I was Catholic. I searched for a Catholic church, the first thing when I came to that country. I went to church even though I did not speak the language and I understood nothing. When I was at church a family appeared and they took me in. …They welcomed me like their own son and before I got to know my girlfriend, I spent all my weekends at their house. …It was in this family that I learned the German language through being part of their community. That was a family with whom I lived very well. Even on the day I left for Angola I did not have to leave by train, they organized a car and took me to the airport. …That is why I cannot say that I had difficulties in Germany because I encountered people who helped me everywhere.Footnote 38

Workers who had the good fortune of encountering host families or developing serious relationships with East Germans early on were able to learn the language and the local customs. Subsequently, they integrated more easily and could often establish deeper relationships, also with their East German co-workers. They did not experience the isolation from East German life of those who struggled with the language and socialized predominantly in their own home networks.

Host families were often mutually beneficial arrangements where gifts were exchanged, meals were shared, and support was given:

I succeeded in getting to know and integrating into a family from there. This family also treated me as if I was a son of the house. …When I came back from Karl Marx Stadt, I encountered a woman who was loaded with bags. At the time, it was very cold and so I helped her carry the bags right up to her house, which was close to my home. When we arrived at her house the woman whose name was Doris asked me whether I would like to come one day and spend a day with her and her husband Erich. I did that and was welcomed, and we developed a strong relationship. I was ultimately considered a son of the house. After a while I helped her get a job as receptionist in our dormitory and she worked there until I returned to Mozambique.Footnote 39

In this example, the worker-trainee was able to find his host mother employment at his dormitory. These examples suggest that some East Germans were interested in befriending foreign nationals. These do not seem to have been cases of socialist worker solidarity, born of class consciousness or a shared place in the production process. These spontaneous friendships were beyond the stuff of ideology, happening neither despite nor because of official propaganda. At their best, they were manifestations of the intrinsic human search for connection with others.

Despite these emerging support networks in Germany, most of the migrants wanted to keep their ties to back home as close as possible. Angolans and Mozambicans abroad often waited impatiently for news from home. Given that civil wars raged in both countries, not hearing from loved ones was very stressful. Yet, the postal service was not always reliable, and news could be old by the time it arrived.Footnote 40 Often, migrants had different ways of getting information. In addition to reading the national news when they could, or depending on their group leader for information, they maintained pen pal relationships with compatriots. The Mozambican weekly news magazine Tempo printed announcements that introduced Mozambican worker-trainees abroad who were looking for pen pals at home. One such advertisement read: “I am a young Mozambican, 19 years old, and I am currently undertaking a professional training in the GDR. I would like to correspond with all young Mozambicans of both sexes to avoid being passed by the various social, political, and economic transformations of our country.”Footnote 41 Sometimes, groups of several individuals from the same company dormitory were looking for pen pals, suggesting a need to keep abreast of developments at home but also some form of institutional political encouragement.

The worker-trainees’ life histories demonstrate that migrants’ attentions were always divided between their home and host countries. Letters and packages circulating among host and home countries serve as evidence of why it is important to bring both contexts into one narrative. Ewald Seiler, director for cadre and training at a company producing automobiles and hunting firearms, acknowledged as much in 1982: “One young friend started crying when he had opened a letter. It said in the letter that close family members were murdered by terrorists. For us it is our class duty to care for every individual Mozambican friend. This duty follows from proletarian and socialist internationalism.”Footnote 42 One can imagine that behind the stilted language and political signposting, typical of East German official communication, was genuine compassion. Seiler, at least, recognized that worker-trainees did not leave their homes behind when they showed up for work in the morning.

There were other avenues of immaterial exchange that were invisible to East German colleagues, including magic. Malignant and jealous family members at home were reported to send evil spirits to bring back lost sons or daughters. Former worker-trainees told me stories of migrants losing their minds in the first weeks in Germany, only to have their health restored upon return to Mozambique. Interviewees explained these mental states of temporary madness, perhaps reactions to the culture shock of finding oneself in a foreign land, with the presence of spirits. A group leader recalls: “We had one person who became mentally ill, and they said he was possessed by the spirits of the ancestors. He had to return home because they could not solve his problem in Europe because European medicine doesn’t cure these types of illnesses. When he returned to Mozambique he was cured immediately. He left the airplane without any problems, and nobody needed to support him.”Footnote 43

In the interpretation of some worker-trainees, magic rendered a person defenseless, either through physical or mental illness, to reduce their productivity and to incapacitate their independent decision-making. To them, this was the opposite of a personal growth moment. The migrant was no longer becoming a more independent self, but rather stopped becoming and was reduced to responding to the influence of the family’s wishes through witchcraft.Footnote 44 Another possible reading of cases of spirit possession is that becoming possessed was a means of exercising agency by leaving work and returning home, while outsourcing the causality for failure to persist with their German experience.Footnote 45 It is through such stories that we can guess at how tough it must have been for many of the migrants to go to East Germany. For some of them, it meant going from a small village in the Mozambican provinces straight into big German cities such as Berlin, Leipzig, or Dresden. They tended not to talk to me about it in these terms, but the culture shock must have been enormous. On top of the culture shock, things were made worse for some migrants by the disappointment they felt at their working conditions or the prejudice and racism they encountered. One suspects that had things been better in Mozambique and Angola at the time, many more would have left early.

Witchcraft accusations were not only related to illness. Migrants also accounted for their own decisions by claiming interference from higher powers. Paulo was seemingly well integrated in 1990. He had a job with his future in-laws, a place to live, and a pregnant East German fiancée. He fulfilled all the criteria allowing him to stay in East Germany, despite the early termination of his contract because of the economic upheavals of the collapse of East Germany.Footnote 46 He had decided to make his life in Germany: “I already had everything planned to marry and suddenly, the night before the wedding I started saying that I wanted to go home. And I came here [back to Mozambique] and I realize that these things were quite normal. These are situations that occur around here.”Footnote 47 “These things” refers to magic applied by his family to call him back. This explanation was as real, if not more so, to Paulo as his increasing anxiety about staying behind as the only black person in his village suffering from an increasingly xenophobic climate. Migrants could face the threat of spiritual sanctions, the existence of which reveals the social tensions inherent in the migration dynamics.Footnote 48 In Paolo’s case, even a new German family was not sufficient to prevent his return.

Inclusion and Exclusion: Dormitories and Discos

Who loved whom was political in East Germany. This was especially the case for love between citizens and non-citizens.Footnote 49 Contrary to its rhetoric of international brotherhood, the East German state tried to limit personal connections between citizens and foreigners. The emphasis was on nation above socialism. Keeping socialist citizens in their respective national boxes was not only on the agenda of the East German government. It was in the interests of all three states to make marriage difficult.Footnote 50 The workers had not been brought to Germany to stay; they had been brought there to train and work and then to leave. When police encountered East German women in the company of African men, they often asked the woman for her personal details.Footnote 51 Authorities of the three states feared what could happen outside of their control. With the control-freakery common to authoritarian states, their various organs tried to keep a close eye on the public and private lives of the foreign workers, and those with whom they interacted.Footnote 52

The most powerful attempts at controlling the private lives of the migrants occurred in the worker dormitories. Worker-trainees were housed in company dormitories by nationality.Footnote 53 Ilíbio remembers: “We were only Angolans in the dormitory. That really made it difficult to interact better with the German culture. That is why I fought to get out of the dormitory as soon as I could.”Footnote 54 It was mandatory for worker-trainees to live in company hostels with their group, a measure created to help the live-in group leaders exercise control.Footnote 55 The migrants, kept all in one place, were also more accessible to (and controllable by) state and company personnel. It became clear in the interviews with me decades later that there were varied levels of controlling zeal between companies. While some worker-trainees could move in with their East German partners, others had to report daily to the dormitory. Some were able to bring friends and romantic partners to attend parties or spend the night, while others had to find creative ways of smuggling visitors in, such as through windows or distracting the porter, to create a space for social gatherings or relationships.Footnote 56 In Augusto’s words:

In some dormitories we were not allowed to bring lovers. My girlfriend always had to enter without our group leader noticing. …It was not the same in all dormitories though. In Dessau for instance, I was able to go in with my girlfriend without a problem. In other places, they would either send the woman away or sometimes even call the police to escort them away from the dormitory. …This rule only applied to Angolans, not to Germans. They feared that somebody might steal something from our rooms. …They said it was more a question of security but of course it was really a question of control.Footnote 57

Confronted with socialist mobility, it was inevitable that the controlling tendencies prevalent in the state organs of all three countries tried to maintain boundaries. One of the main ways they did this was by limiting unsupervised contact between ordinary citizens. Nevertheless, pockets of East German society became socialist melting pots. An example of these was in hostels housing several nationalities, or discos in Berlin and other large cities where worker-trainees and students from all over the world met Germans and each other.Footnote 58

Discos were places where some people crossed the color line while others upheld it, both sides of being an intimate stranger in nightclubs, resulting in thrilling and volatile situations. One minute one could be dancing closely with a date, the next minute attacked as a foreigner. As, for example, in the poem by Regina with which we began this chapter, the dance floor took on an important role in Angolan and Mozambican worker-trainees’ narratives of their East German leisure time when they spoke with me. In the memoryscape of the majority of male Angolan and Mozambican migrants, the disco was synonymous with being young: “When I lived in Germany, I spent my nights in discos, but today things have changed. …It was a question of adolescence. When you are young, you have few responsibilities.”Footnote 59 The disco is often referred to in the context of dancing, drinking, and meeting women: “Many people thought I was Michael Jackson. Especially the girls liked that. I met a lot of them at the disco.”Footnote 60 In the stories told by the male interviewees the disco became a hyper-masculinized place, where they realized their manhood and demonstrated it through their popularity with women. In their telling, the Mozambican and Angolan migrants dominated the dance floor because many German women were drawn to the Africans for their dance moves, bodies, and stylish clothes. They were perceived as exotic and consciously toyed with that image, claiming inclusion by exclusion.Footnote 61

Notions of proper behavior and gendered ways of spending one’s leisure time were pronounced when it came to discos and bars. For many Angolan and Mozambican men, going to the disco and to bars was a prime leisure activity, alone or in groups. But these locations played less of a role in most women’s narratives. Luzia, an Angolan female former worker-trainee, remembers: “I never entered a disco. I think that being afraid played a big role. The majority of women only left for their training and for work and if there was no program they just went home.”Footnote 62 Many migrant women, especially if they worked in smaller villages rather than big cities, did not experience the freedom that many East German women enjoyed. Some women were anxious because of the political instability of their home countries; leaving the house at night is a dangerous thing in a conflict society and that fear continued to stay with some women in East Germany. Not all women took the challenge of exploring a foreign and potentially dangerous place at night without protective structures. Another aspect was the moral compass many young women had brought with them. In parts of rural Angola and Mozambique women who went to nightclubs, smoked cigarettes, or drank hard alcohol were often associated with prostitution and immorality.

However, this did not mean that African women in East Germany had no fun. Context mattered, as Lina, a Mozambican worker-trainee in Berlin, recalled in the early 1990s:

discos It was great in Leipziger Street. Everybody went there, also alone. …As a woman I never had problems with getting in. I also got to know many Berliners while dancing. We had a lot of fun. Nobody came home with me because my Mozambican girlfriends were there. But we went out together. But there were few Mozambicans who had real tight connections with German men. We all knew that we wouldn’t want to stay for forever.Footnote 63

The differences between Luzia’s and Lina’s memories illustrate that experiences varied according to location, relationship status, personality, and work and training environment. Luzia turned eighteen in East Germany, where she worked and trained at a cotton mill in Gera in an all-female Angolan group. She started dating her future husband, also from Angola, after her first year, and returned early due to her first pregnancy. Today she lives with her husband and their six children in Luanda. Lina, on the other hand, went to Germany twice, from 1980 to 1984 and 1988 until her interview in the early 1990s, and worked in Berlin, first as a warehouse keeper, then in cosmetics production, and ultimately as a translator. She already had a son whom she left with her mother during the first contract. She also had a daughter from another partner, whom she also left with her mother while serving the second contract. Luzia and Lina had in common that they, like many of their fellow female colleagues, saw their intended return as an impediment to romantic relationships with Germans.

Worker-trainees did not just go to the discos in the cities where they lived. They were mobile within East Germany, maintaining their networks of friends, family, and fellow nationals, all over the country:

After work, we were all together but mostly the time for friends was on the weekends when we went to the discos in Berlin, Erfurt, Gera; wherever there was a dormitory with Angolan girls. My colleagues had Angolan girlfriends, but I had a German girlfriend. I only met this girl towards the end of our stay. …I met her in the disco. I was dancing and she liked me and gave me her address and asked me for mine. She always came looking for me.Footnote 64

Many relationships started like this. Some ended in long-term partnerships while others had run their course after a night, a few weeks, or months. Stories were told to me of relationships of various age configurations, from similarly aged couples to the older East German women and the young worker-trainees, to East German teenagers and the more experienced worker-trainees.Footnote 65 Migrants’ personal lives were often rather complex, marked by shifting partners, lovers, and substitute families, all the while balancing things between their home and host networks.Footnote 66

Despite all this romance and excitement, the disco was also the site of exclusion. This shows us how intimately inclusion and exclusion coexisted in the daily lives of worker-trainees. In few other places was the mix of alcohol, hormones, and challenges to manhood so potent and intense. Nowhere else were the emotions of love and hate so close. Some worker-trainees remember alcohol consumption and sexual encounters as intertwined and a kind of rite of passage: “I came to Germany as a young Muslim boy neither drinking, nor smoking, nor making love to women. I came back a man.”Footnote 67 As Juma’s statement shows, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity all came to symbolize masculinity. In this, the young worker-trainees learned from their older colleagues. This mix of alcohol, hormones, and stereotypical images of masculinity and femininity rendered discos dangerous places.

There was frequent fighting between groups of Angolan, Mozambican, and East German young men. Bars and clubs and their surroundings were often the battlegrounds. In rare cases the fights escalated and turned deadly. Still today every former student of the School of Friendship can recount the story of the traumatic death of their fellow Mozambican pupil Carlos Conceição who was thrown into the river Bode and drowned on the night of September 19, 1987, after fighting had broken out between East German youth and Mozambican youth from the school during a dance at the local youth club in Staßfurt.Footnote 68 Another prominent case is the death of Amadeu Antonio. In 1990, during the night of November 24 to 25, Angolan worker Amadeu Antonio and two Mozambican workers became the victims of a mob of around fifty right-wing youth who walked through Eberswalde in search of victims.Footnote 69 These cases occurred toward the final years of East Germany and just after reunification, a period during which violent racism was on the rise.Footnote 70 We cannot claim direct links to the neo-Nazi skinhead scene for both of these cases, but it is important to be aware of a longer history of neo-Nazism in East Germany starting in the 1960s and 1970s. Once the SED could no longer ignore the problem following the October 17 1987 attack by skinheads on visitors to a punk concert in the East Berlin Zion Church, the East German Ministry of the Interior started an inquiry during which the criminal police uncovered a right-wing extremist network encompassing 5000 people, of which about 1000 were ready to use violence, accompanied by about 10,000 sympathizers. This formed a potent underbelly of East German society already toward the final years of the SED government to be mobilized for racist attacks.Footnote 71

None of my interviewees reported being involved in fights on this extreme level of fatal violence, but quite a few remembered furious disco brawls. Anselmo’s experience was typical in that it started as an innocent night out with a Mozambican friend. The two met two German women at a restaurant who then invited them to a club. The boys were having a good night, until Anselmo came back from the bathroom to find his friend lying on the floor:

I ran back to the hostel to ask our Mozambican colleagues for help. Outside in front of the bar there were Mozambicans and suddenly I saw my friend coming out of the bar limping and behind him some German youth. That is how the physical confrontation started between the Mozambicans and the Germans. Thank God nobody got killed.Footnote 72

Anselmo portrayed his fight as one of just revenge for the physical injuries his friend incurred. According to Anselmo, the attack on his friend was unwarranted, motivated by racism and envy about his success with women. Although incidents like this occurred during the duration of the worker-trainees’ stay in East Germany, a pervasive culture of fear emerged toward the late 1980s and during the Wende—as the transition period is known in Germany—when foreigners increasingly became the target of outright racist violence.

Part II: Exclusion: Intimate Strangers


Verse Cold ClimateFootnote

The following are excerpts from a song called “Kaltes Klima” about a Mozambican worker in East Germany. It is written and sung by Gerhard Schöne and featured on his CD Lebenszeichen, signs of life, 1994. Schöne grew up in a vicarage, remained close to the church, published songs critical of East German society, was politically active during the unification process, and remained involved with development and social projects.

We work in forestry, the master is good, he supports us like a father and gives everybody courage again. But if we go to the cinema or sit in a Café, we hear words from you that hurt. If I was friends with a girl from Mord, she’d be a ‘n* whore’ or an even worse word. If one of us calls the waiter in a restaurant in a friendly manner, the waiter seems to be deaf because we are only air to him. And our living barracks are called ‘black spot’ now in the locality. If we enter a store, they say we buy everything and leave nothing. First, I thought, this will pass, it is a bad joke, But I feel clearly now this is hatred. On the weekends many of us go out I went to the disco close by with a few friends A man poured his beer in my lap That was the starting signal, we started to fight

The song “Kaltes Klima”—Cold Climate—by the well-known East German singer and songwriter Gerhard Schöne played with the double meaning of cold. Many African worker-trainees remembered debilitating cold temperatures in Germany but also the cold reception they received from those who sought to exclude African worker-trainees from their lives and by extension from East Germany. They suffered from both these coldnesses in East Germany and later in reunified Germany.

As African foreigners, Angolans and Mozambicans carried a double burden of being both non-citizens and black. This double burden of exclusion became heavier in the late 1980s and after the Wende. By the 1990s, there was a full-out culture of fear which greatly contributed to many Africans returning home. On the other hand, hostility accelerated the creation of Angolan or Mozambican group identities. They stood in solidarity with each other against East German attackers as they confronted societal racism. However, exclusionary practices did not just take place between people read as white and black or between East German citizens and foreigners. There was also xenophobia and exclusion between Lusophone worker-trainees along national lines, or within national groups but between ethnicities. The worker-trainees’ overlapping experiences of exclusion in East Germany were influenced by intersecting identities. In this next section of the chapter, we will examine how gender, national and regional origin, and race shaped migrants’ experiences as intimate strangers.

Gender Exclusion: Preventing Afro-German and African Families

While ostensibly integrated to the same extent as male worker-trainees, Angolan and Mozambican women were mostly excluded from the family planning services available to East German women.Footnote 74 Thus, Angolan and Mozambican women’s expression of their sexuality was fraught, not merely because of cultural factors but also because of restrictive policy. Usually, contraceptives were hard to come by. Pregnant female worker-trainees had to return home. This practice denied most female worker-trainees the possibility of determining how having children would fit into their life and career cycles, and how they could consciously combine their productive with their reproductive labor. The female worker-trainees’ opinions differ about this unequal treatment. Some who returned home early due to pregnancy wanted to give birth to their children at home, close to family, and therefore did not challenge the practice.Footnote 75 Others, like Lufaquenda, agreed with the reasoning of the ruling:

I think this was a fair rule because if you sign up to work over there and you fall pregnant and then you cannot work that is not right. …People who lacked discipline or who showed bad behavior or did not know how to read and write acceptably after a while were also sent back. I had a colleague who was sent back because he could neither read nor write enough.Footnote 76

To her, becoming pregnant on the contract was a deficiency like being illiterate, something that happened because of a lack of self-discipline. With that comment, she echoed the states’ position.

East Germany legalized abortion in 1972; termination of a pregnancy within the first three months was legal. Despite this, foreign worker-trainees inhabited a gray zone between East German laws and those of their home country. Mozambican women, for instance, were not allowed to get an abortion in Mozambique as Samora Machel saw children as the “flowers of the revolution” and the youth as its “lifeblood.”Footnote 77 Getting an abortion while in East Germany required the permission of the embassy, which often proved hard to obtain.Footnote 78 Lina disagreed with the law and had a clandestine abortion:

My doctor was very good. Once he heard my story, what the conditions were at home and that I had to work for my family, he felt sorry for me. We then did it without the paper from the embassy. Afterwards I immediately received a contraceptive coil. I only got to know the pill in Germany. If I had had it in Mozambique, I would not have had my son but would have continued to study.Footnote 79

Lina’s story reveals the restrictive policies toward African women and their effects on these women’s professional and private lives. For Lina, her career decisions were already impacted by the birth of her first child in Mozambique, prior to leaving for East Germany, and would have been curtailed yet again, had she not found a doctor willing to undertake an abortion while she was in East Germany. Both East German and African women decided against carrying to term the offspring fathered by worker-trainees. Their reasons for doing so varied, as did the legal policies; the situation for pregnant African worker-trainees was a precarious one, with women relying in some cases on homemade remedies to abort before seeking medical assistance.Footnote 80

In Mozambique, just like in East Germany, the socialist revolution redefined labor according to communist notions of equality of the sexes, insisting that women and men could do the same jobs and aid the revolution. However, FRELIMO’s dismantling of gender roles stopped at the familial division of labor, leaving child raising in the domain of women.Footnote 81 FRELIMO accepted not only that pregnant worker-trainees were to be evicted, it actively prohibited the distribution of contraceptives among female worker-trainees and limited their access to safe abortion services.Footnote 82 This left female worker-trainees with few safe and accessible options to take charge of their reproductive lives.

To prevent a generation of socialist “friends” from elsewhere from permanently settling in East Germany and raising a second generation, the East German state decided against providing care for pregnant foreign worker-trainees and young mothers. This double standard illuminated the limitations of the East German commitment to gender equality, and that of socialism more broadly. The restrictive policy finally changed only in 1989, when it became possible to choose between delivery in East Germany or back home, with a subsequent return to work.Footnote 83 Female worker-trainees were then also eligible to receive pregnancy benefits, brief maternity leave, and child benefits, and were able to take advantage of state childcare.Footnote 84 Juma and his wife Graciel were beneficiaries. Graciel gave birth to her son in East Germany and the family moved into an apartment provided by their company (Fig. 5.1).Footnote 85

Fig. 5.1
A photograph of Juma Madeira as a little boy cuts his birthday cake and is assisted by an adult. His parents look on from behind.

Juma Junior celebrating his first birthday at the family’s apartment in Zschopau. Source: Juma Madeira

The contracts explicitly prevented worker-trainees from bringing a family with them or signing up as couples. This policy served to deter some female worker-trainees from migrating. Marieta shared her thoughts on weighing up whether to return to East Germany on a second contract:

My name came up a second time for me to return but then I no longer wanted to return. …I had two months of holidays and I still wanted to stay with my family. And I still wanted to marry, and they said we could not go over there pregnant, and I had already entered a committed relationship here.Footnote 86

Marietta decided to stay, took up employment at Texmoque, a textile company in Nampula, and devoted herself to her family. She eventually had seven children with three men; her first and her current partner also worked in East Germany.Footnote 87

While many pregnant worker-trainees were forced to return, those with the necessary social capital sometimes succeeded in bending the rules.Footnote 88 One such case was when pastor Almuth Berger housed a pregnant Mozambican woman in her home to prevent the woman’s company from repatriating her. Pastor Berger wrote to the East German State Ministry for Work and Wages responsible for the worker-trainees. Luckily, they proved cooperative. The woman received a flat on her own where she lived with the child and continued working. Pastor Berger baptized the little girl. In the end, however, the mother and child returned to Maputo in 1990 in response to the rise in xenophobic violence and openly expressed racism on formerly East German territory.Footnote 89

Becoming Black in East Germany

African immigrants living in East Germany underwent a racialization process whereby their identities shifted from primarily ethno-regional to national and racial. In a way, coming to East Germany for some young worker-trainees meant becoming first and foremost black.Footnote 90 In their previous lives in independent, black-majority societies their skin color reportedly played less of a role for many. In a slightly different way, it also meant that being Angolan or Mozambican became more important relative to being Makua, Makonde, Sena, Shona, Shangaan, Ovimbundu, Chokwe, Lunda, Ambundu, or any other of the ethnic and linguistic groups who make up the Mozambican and Angolan populations. In this respect, therefore, the scheme was rather successful at achieving the aims which FRELIMO and the MPLA had for fostering national identities at the expense of regional and ethnic ones.

Many worker-trainees share memories such as those held by Ilíbio, from Angola:

It was my first time in a white country, and I had never lived together with these people. We only saw these people and their cultures on TV. When I was born, there were still some Portuguese but when I was five years old the conflict started and when I was already grown, I only encountered empty houses and occasionally a Portuguese, but I never learned to live with this race. That is why everything for me was new.Footnote 91

Many worker-trainees had, like Ilíbio, limited experience of living together with people read as being from another race prior to migrating. While to be black was the norm in Angola and Mozambique, to live in the overwhelmingly white East Germany, and to be constantly reminded of their difference but also to notice the difference of the non-black majority to themselves, brought for many of the migrants their blackness to the fore as an important aspect of their identities.Footnote 92

Despite this, some Angolan worker-trainees showed the influence of Lusotropicalism in their memories.Footnote 93 This was the ideology that posited that Portuguese colonialism was racially egalitarian and that the Portuguese-speaking world consisted of harmonious, multiracial societies. For example: “Here [in Angola], we were already accustomed to an atmosphere where all races and colors lived together. In the Catholic church, we got to know all sorts of people…that is why we didn’t have to switch mentally when we left Angola.”Footnote 94 Recent scholarship has emphasized that Lusotropicalism was something of a fig leaf for exploitative colonialism, but its influence on the Lusophone world has been undeniable, including its influence on how some black Portuguese speakers conceptualized race.

These two opposing viewpoints—one emphasizing the strangeness of living with white people, one emphasizing its normality—illustrate that the experiences of worker-trainees from the same country could vary greatly. How migrants dealt with living in a majority-white country was a personal thing, resulting from a mix of background, experiences in (East) Germany, and individual character. Ilíbio, who found that living in such an environment required adjusting to, was born in Ukuma in Huambo and grew up in Namibe and Lubango, where he attended the Instituto Médio Friedrich Engels until ninth grade. He grew up in the Angolan provinces between 1970 and 1988, a time of intense fighting, as the MPLA with the help of the Cubans sought to fight back South African advances into Angola. Perhaps his unease reflected the experiences of his youth, where white South African soldiers were a source of danger. On the other hand, the group interview in which several participants voiced the opinion that Angola was a place of interracial interaction included people from different parts of Angola, ranging from Luanda to Huila and Cabinda, and drew their experience of diversity either from schooling or religion.Footnote 95 Along with regional differences, the family and education backgrounds of the worker-trainees also had an influence on their previous exposure to people read as being from other races. Given that future worker-trainees were drawn both from rural areas with little exposure to Angola’s multiracial and multi-ethnic social strata, and those from urban elites that had access to secondary schooling, both experiences were reflected in migrants’ reactions to the difference they faced in (East) Germany.

Angolan and Mozambican worker-trainees’ experiences of East Germany were doubly foreign. First, they resided in a foreign land where they interacted with people from different nationalities and cultures that most had not met before, mainly East Germans, but also people from Poland, Vietnam, Cuba, and other, mainly socialist, countries. Second, they found themselves in mixed groups with people from all over their home country, speaking different mother tongues and following different cultural practices. Not only did they have to learn and use German, but for some this was the first time that they had used Portuguese as a lingua franca with their compatriots. As we have discussed elsewhere in this book, one notable success of the migration scheme was to foster national identity. However, this did not always work, as one former worker-trainee from Mozambique remembered:

President Samora Machel selected me. According to the president there was to be no tribalism, racism, or regionalism when it came to forming groups. What was very interesting is that he picked five people from every province. …We put a group of 50 together. He said he didn’t want to put 10 people from his province because he knew that people from the south aren’t that good.Footnote 96

Thus, tensions were revealed between official anti-tribalist and anti-regionalist doctrine and the enduring existence of prejudice against those from elsewhere in the country. As, for example, with some of my interviewees from Ilha de Moçambique, an island to the north which was the original base for Portuguese colonialism and gave its name to the country, many northerners remained wary of the south, and FRELIMO continued to be associated with a strong southern leadership base.

There was another paradox revealed in the above quotation: many of the worker-trainees I interviewed in the North—Nampula, Namialo, Ilha de Moçambique, and Pemba—revered Samora Machel as leader of the revolution and father of the nation, despite his southern origins. Their subsequent disillusionment with FRELIMO appears to be a result of their disappointing reintegration after returning from Europe, rather than an opposition to a southerner-led revolution per se. Socialist ideology in Mozambique sought to overcome internal divisions by imposing anti-racism, anti-regionalism, and anti-tribalism. But, as in East Germany, the new blanket of socialist morals, enforced with punitive measures, tended to cover up existing prejudices rather than eliminate them. However, the worker-trainees’ experiences show that through living together abroad some of them came to appreciate their national identities and found a solidarity with their compatriots. This shift occurred in part because they continued to be exposed to violence, xenophobia, and racism in their daily experience in East Germany. As one response to this hostility, they formed what Eric Allina-Pisano and Jessica Allina-Pisano call “protective linguistic and cultural communities” based on nationality, or sometimes even broader communities based on racial solidarity.Footnote 97

While the ethnically and regionally mixed national groups of worker-trainees did instill an appreciation for the diversity of their compatriots and encouraged their association with a national identity, this was not a seamless or harmonious process. As the memories of this Angolan worker-trainee demonstrated, ethnic violence existed alongside the xenophobic violence experienced outside of the group. For instance, the violent tensions over women that Africans encountered outside of the dormitory when interacting with East Germans and other foreign workers were replicated inside the dormitory along ethnic lines:

In my group [of 50 worker-trainees] we came from all over the country [Angola]. The problem of tribalism was obvious. We even had several fights among ourselves because we were envious of each other or because we got drunk and provoked one another. It got worse when someone brought a German lover and the others tried to conquer that lover.Footnote 98

Far from assuming a natural affinity between Angolans and Mozambicans based on their shared experience of Portuguese colonialism and shared language, some worker-trainees held deep-seated ethno-national animosity toward one another:

Even among us Africans we had problems with racism. For instance, the Mozambicans had serious problems of envy when they saw a Mozambican woman go out with an Angolan man. I already had problems like that. A Mozambican intercepted us [him and his Mozambican date] and we had to have police intervention. That is one of the reasons why I am not a great friend of Mozambicans.Footnote 99

These tensions illustrated the difficult nature of nation-building abroad. When presented with a common enemy, migrants framed their narratives along group thinking. When a compatriot was in danger the others came to fight for them; yet even as the outside world and social environment perceived the groups to be “the Angolans” or “the Mozambicans,” the internal group dynamics were more complex. Furthermore, this example shows that inter-ethnic tensions were multifaceted. There were several dimensions of difference in the lives of worker-trainees: that between East Germans and those from elsewhere, between those read as foreigners, and between compatriots. Racism toward Africans from East Germans, though an important story and one to which we will turn now, was not the only form of discrimination the worker-trainees experienced.

Real Racism in Real Socialism

The structural existence of racism as a system of thought in socialist societies was anathema for socialist parties.Footnote 100 From Angola to the Soviet Union, socialist countries united under an anti-racist banner. Official East German ideology was no exception and claimed anti-fascist, anti-imperial, and anti-racist politics in solidarity with brother nations in the global South.Footnote 101 East German foreign policy sought to project an engaged socialist state supporting African liberation movements and opposing South African apartheid.

Consequently, it was illegal to make racist comments, physically attack people, or engage in any other form of racist expression. If such expressions were reported and interpreted as racism, the perpetrator was punished.Footnote 102 However, racist acts were seen as singular rather than systemic occurrences. Either they were ascribed to attitudes imported from the West, or to a few uneducated and rebellious citizens, often labeled antisocial.Footnote 103 Notwithstanding anti-racist intentions, the cosmopolitan lives depicted by some worker-trainees existed only in small pockets of East German society.

For East Germans who did not interact with the foreign guests in unscripted, deeper ways, depictions of racial diversity in the form of “racial rainbows” remained pretty propaganda.Footnote 104 As Quinn Slobodian demonstrates, the racial rainbow was based on essentializing notions of cultural and ethnic difference tied to specific locations around the globe. An East German “was to denounce the practice of racism even while preserving the utility of the category of race itself,” which meant that “[o]n both sides of the Cold War border in the post-war years, the larger world remained divided into three primary phenotypic groups: white, black, and yellow.” East German ideology did not purport color-blindness, but rather it pushed the notion of a horizontal, pluralistic community of peoples, connected through socialist ideals.

Racism in East Germany affected African worker-trainees neither because of nor despite socialist state anti-racism politics. Rather, racism in Germany had (and has) a long, complex, and much debated history stretching back to German imperialism and before. A reflective discourse about this was generally not possible, not least due to the externalization of imperialism to the class enemy. There were few attempts in East Germany to root out racism through enhancing mutual understanding by reflecting on exclusion and inclusion, hurdles and privileges. Instead, racist behavior was relegated to the private realm. It could not exist as part of the state structures. According to historian Jonathan R. Zatlin, the SED portrayed “racism as a form of false consciousness” and thereby “removed the grounds for any theoretical understanding that might have guided party officials when confronting hostility toward foreigners.”Footnote 105 The result was the perpetuation of racialized thinking from colonial to Nazi times and into East German administration, restaurants, and workspaces. At best, this situation resulted in thoughtlessness. At worst, there was intentional discrimination and even open violence. Not confronting the racism in East German society perpetuated the very thing the law sought to eradicate: the racism of state officials and citizens alike.

The only country across the East with a direct colonial past, East Germany failed to address this colonial history. One result was that the history of black (East) Germans was silenced.Footnote 106 Instead, an ideology of racial hierarchy continued after Germany was stripped of its colonies in 1918. It reached its tragic apex in the Nazi era and the Holocaust.Footnote 107 East German official anti-racism was not only a moral ordering device, it was a political tool to work toward the creation of a socialist utopia, united by class consciousness, and not divided by race, gender, or generation.Footnote 108 More cynically, it was an easy, no-cost way for the East German government to demonstrate why they were not the inheritors of the guilt of the Nazi era and why they were morally superior to West Germany.Footnote 109

All those registered as foreigners only made up about 1 percent of the East German population.Footnote 110 Of these, a statistically negligible number came from outside Europe. They nevertheless held sway over many East German imaginations. A hierarchy of foreignness existed, where race trumped mere foreignness. Thus, the ever-increasing xenophobic expressions had very distinct racist undertones.Footnote 111 No matter how intimate some relationships between African worker-trainees and East Germans became, migrants were reminded daily of their status as strangers; at best as invited socialist friends or at least as tolerated temporary guests, at worst as foreign threat and competition for scarce resources. Mark Fenemore contends that the East German state’s emphasis on solidarity with the global South resulted in many people seeing foreigners as “symbols of socialist domination” and “puppets of the state.” People who were perceived as “foreign” could thus become “easy targets for venting frustration with the regime.”Footnote 112

State control through surveillance and law enforcement succeeded to some degree in protecting the worker-trainees from the potent mix of racism, xenophobia, and individual prejudices that increasingly erupted as the East German state institutions weakened toward the late 1980s, and when they finally ceased to exist on October 3, 1990. During the East German dictatorship, a certain compliance with the official discourse of friendship and brotherhood among socialist countries had incentivized the suppression of overt violent racist expressions by individuals. This ceased to be the case.

In accordance with the East German anti-racist stance, many interviewees discussed their relative freedom from violent racist encounters, and their freedom to move about easily in public as individuals during the late 1970s and most of the 1980s. As one worker remembers: “In public places the German state was in control. And where the German state was in control, people from any and all races could circulate. Those who didn’t want to deal with that had to stay at home.”Footnote 113 This control, albeit never perfect, also extended to the workplace where workers accused of racism tended to face sanctions: “The communist policies were rigorous. No German could demonstrate racist expressions in the workspace. If that happened, he was immediately punished. [However], we encountered racism walking around in our free time.”Footnote 114 As Gerhard Schöne’s song at the beginning of this chapter section depicted, most worker-trainees encountered hostility outside policed and official spaces. Bigotry manifested itself during everyday activities such as finding a seat in a restaurant, dancing with an East German woman at the disco, grocery shopping, or taking public transport.

Quite a few worker-trainees, especially those posted to more remote areas, framed their initial appearance as novelty. They describe being a target of curiosity, but also prejudice, which they explain through the ignorance and personal preconceptions of the members of the East German population with whom they interacted. Augusto remembers being the object of physical transgressions: “Sometimes people appeared to touch our skin to see whether we were really people. One time a child came up to me to touch me for this reason, but I thought this was a normal thing. The child was curious and had never seen a person of my color.”Footnote 115 José explained how it felt to be a novelty:

When we arrived in Germany, interestingly we found that we walked around in cities which practically did not know black people. …It was the first time they saw them walk around and they were…scared. How do you relate with a race you have never seen? It was difficult. So, there were these prejudices that people had. …For instance, some white people did not want to share the same train wagon as the black people. But I do think these were personal prejudices; some people interacted, and others didn’t.Footnote 116

Echoing the SED’s logic, worker-trainees often externalized racism to a few individuals rather than seeing it as systemic. In this context, interviewees often mention right-wing skinheads, whom they describe as a group of people with a propensity for violent acts, and racist, and neo-Nazi tendencies. In Santana’s words:

The German people are a loving people. They know how to receive people. Discrimination exists everywhere in the world, mostly among the elderly and the young people. But there were also those more radical, whom we called skinheads, ‘cabeças rapadas.’ Except for those we interacted with everybody.Footnote 117

The East German skinhead scene was established in the early 1980s and members committed a series of anti-immigrant attacks in the mid-1980s.Footnote 118 Faced with these groups, the SED continued to maintain that right-wing neo-Nazi and xenophobic attitudes were imported from the West and refused to acknowledge racism as an inherent problem in East Germany. Some, such as Ilíbio, who referred to racism as “the ugly part” of his East German experience, tried to grasp the violent behavior of neo-Nazi-skinheads, framing their behavior within the context of living in an immobile and unfree society:

When we had these conflicts with the skinheads, we understood that, from their point of view, we invaded their territory. … I understood because I started to comprehend the history of the German division and about the peoples’ imprisonment. And clearly, if I had not been able to travel for the last 40 years, I would also be angry.Footnote 119

While an anti-migrant mood in capitalist societies often centers on fears about access to employment, in the socialist East where full employment was the norm, these fears shifted to access to goods and privileges. The SED government brought foreign worker-trainees into the country but failed to adequately inform the public about their role, their numbers, and their history, which might have helped to limit rumors and misunderstandings.Footnote 120 Many East Germans participated in solidarity campaigns with countries, but they often knew little else about the specificities of the strangers arriving in their midst.Footnote 121 It is easier to preach solidarity than it is to practice it. Furthermore, since the arrival of workers or students or other sojourners from other countries was usually not discussed with residents of the areas in which the migrants were concentrated, animosity often resulted in misunderstandings. Reports in company newspapers and initiatives to introduce foreign worker-trainees on a local level often parroted the party line and celebrated East German solidarity, rather than dealing with the specific impacts on areas which saw migration. Some wrongly believed that the worker-trainees’ foreign status meant they were being given systemic access to the mythical and unreachable West. This could be money, goods, or trips.Footnote 122 The lack of information also stoked worries about violent foreigners. Rumors, fears, and misinformation contributed to laying the ground for violence against foreigners during the last period of the East German regime and afterwards.Footnote 123 Bernd Bröskamp aptly describes the paradox thus: “Racism, apartheid, and xenophobia were all at once (officially) prohibited and (covertly) institutionally legitimized by the state.”Footnote 124

The Angolans and Mozambicans were likewise ill equipped for their intercultural encounters. While worker-trainees did not often perceive East Germany as a country with a relevant colonial past, the colonial memories and experiences of the worker-trainees were immediate and influenced the way they approached going to “Europe.” Thus, it should not be surprising that rumors about East Germans among the worker-trainees were also rampant and that racialized personal prejudices existed, too:

Not only people of the white race are racists against blacks, but it can also be the other way around. But people can distinguish whether a person speaks with the intent to insult or not and that is the same in Europe and Africa. Even in Germany we had incidences where the [German] women started learning our languages, mostly the most racist terms, and whenever we spoke these kinds of things they intervened and that caused problems. That is why you always have to be very careful when you are in the presence of people from other races not to speak insulting things.Footnote 125

On an interpersonal level, racialized stereotypes continued to thrive as East Germans and Angolans and Mozambicans alike entered relationships carrying the intellectual baggage of colonialism, despite their governments’ espousal of anticolonialism.

The Fall of the Wall, the Rise of Violent Racism

“With German reunification, racism started in Germany!”Footnote 126 Statements like this were common among worker-trainees from Angola and Mozambique. While the fall of the Wall and the following transition period is ordinarily told following an emancipatory script, looking through the eyes of Angolan and Mozambican migrants at these historic events reveals that this script is ignorant of what happened to non-white people and people without an (East) German passport.Footnote 127 Racism was the primary lens through which African migrants understood the rise in right-wing attacks on foreigners in the fall of 1989, and the subsequent violent xenophobia and racism in what had become the new states (Bundesländer) of the Federal Republic of Germany.Footnote 128 Migrants experienced racism throughout their stay in East Germany, but almost all interviewees acknowledged a dramatic worsening as their daily tasks became determined by keeping themselves safe from attack, as a culture of fear took hold.Footnote 129

Memories of everyday harassment and violence suggest a worsening of the situation over time. Racist violence as spectacle, such as murder and arson, has been, as in Russia and several other post-communist countries, a feature of the post-socialist space. Such violence is rarely triggered by a single cause. Rather, it is incited by political processes. As an expression of racism, violence predated the end of the GDR, but as a classic anti-immigrant stance spurred by economic crisis and recession, it intensified during the era of the Wende.Footnote 130

The expansion of the far-right scene in East Germany coincided with a phase of economic and political stagnation that finally led to the collapse of the old state institutions and value systems under the pressure of the pro-democracy movement.Footnote 131 People had to adjust from life in a welfare dictatorship to a pluralistic free-market society.Footnote 132 The transition to capitalism meant that for the first time in decades there was competition between firms for business and between workers for jobs. Much of East German society was not equipped for this new reality and so the change went hand in hand with mass unemployment and interruptions to professional careers. Only about one third of the population managed to fully integrate into the new labor market.Footnote 133 These political and economic adjustments were greeted by some with joy and as opportunities, but also led to experiences of loss and social anxiety for many others. As regards racism, these conditions of turmoil existed on top of significant continuities of thinking about race, which had been inherited from colonial and Nazi times. The official East German ideology of outsourcing the blame for the Nazi era also meant that there had been little reckoning with racism in the personal sphere as there had been (to an extent) in West Germany.Footnote 134 The increase of xenophobic and racist attacks experienced by migrants, especially those read as non-white, therefore had a long and complicated historical background.

Those Angolan and Mozambican worker-trainees who lived through the upheaval alongside their East German colleagues found that neighbors and even friends increasingly turned against them. In April 1991 Jorge Gomondai, a young Mozambican, died after being thrown out of a moving train returning from a disco night with his white partner.Footnote 135 On September 17 and 18, 1991, a group of skinheads and youths attacked a contract worker hostel in Hoyerswerda.Footnote 136 During the night of August 24 to 25, 1992, extremists attacked an apartment block in Lichtenhagen, a district of Rostock, home to Vietnamese contract workers and asylum seekers. The rioters thew petrol bombs while locals applauded, and millions watched on live TV.Footnote 137 In the memories of the former worker-trainees these deathly and destructive events were beacons, and together with their personal experiences undergirded the culture of fear that came to dominate their lives. Even if not experienced personally, these events played a powerful role in shaping migrants’ conceptions and fearful feelings about (East) Germany. Nowhere seemed safe as migrants were attacked in their homes:

When we arrived in [East] Germany, we had a lot of fun, we went out to discos and all that but from one moment to the other we found ourselves confined to the dorm. It was a very racist time when Germans came to the dormitories in the early mornings and set fire to some to show that they did not want any foreigners on their land.Footnote 138

Neither did Angolan and Mozambican workers feel secure on the streets or on public transport:

There wasn’t always a lot of racism. It is true that not everybody was peaceful but before the German reunification it was normal to walk around without being called names but afterwards, we couldn’t walk alone anymore. It was also no longer possible to take the train because if they found you, they would throw you out of the window while the train was running.Footnote 139

Worker-trainees increasingly sought security in numbers; they no longer felt safe going out alone. In this hostile climate, the vast majority of worker-trainees decided to return home. Those who stayed had either found true love in East Germany and wanted to remain with their new families or sought to stay away from home until the end of the civil wars. Even workers who had the opportunity to stay, such as Abilio, decided to return:

I was the group leader and the directorate of that company told me…that I was already practically a citizen of Germany and I could stay…and be integrated into a work area. My passport was already valid until 1998. But I started to see that I would be very isolated in Germany. …The people started to make claims and wreaked havoc, I saw that I had to first and foremost think about my security and for that reasons I refused to accept the offer. …These groups [rightwing extremists] always existed but they did not manifest in East Germany when we lived to some extent in security but after the reunification things changed and they were already free to act as they pleased. They received support from the residents in former West Germany and it got really, really bad. …I feared for my life and so I resolved to return home.Footnote 140

What had started as a socialist cosmopolitan adventure turned into a nightmare for the worker-trainees who lived through the fall of the Wall and German reunification.Footnote 141 Paradoxically, many of the ex-migrants remembered that East German dictatorship had offered relative personal security and freedom from racist attacks, while the transition to democracy brought with it increased risks for African migrants, and greater restrictions in their daily lives. It shows that political liberation was, as always, more complex than at first glance. Living under a socialist dictatorship was much more multifaceted than simplistic “evil empire” conceptions allow for.Footnote 142


I learned a lot in Germany. I learned how to be a man, what racism and tribalism are, and that all of us, independently of skin color and other things, we are all the same.Footnote 143

Worker-trainees brought with them notions about gender equality, anti-racism, anti-tribalism, and anti-regionalism from the socialist revolutions at home. These were political formulas which were intended to unify but were rather layered upon a divisive colonial heritage. While the familiarity with the Angolan and Mozambican exegeses of these concepts varied among worker-trainees, all deepened their understanding of East German socialist ideology during their stay abroad. Coming to East Germany for many worker-trainees meant encountering a small socialist cosmopolitan world, one in which they expanded their horizons through intimate interactions with people from other races, regions, and ethnic groups, and learned about different cultures, languages, and ways of being in the world. They took home an appreciation of cultural diversity and gender equality, of leisure time and traveling, but also an understanding of the limits of life under real socialism and the gaps between socialist rhetoric and reality.

Much of the secondary literature on this topic rightly points to the limits of integration of foreign workers in East Germany but often treats integration as a one-way street.Footnote 144 The interviews in this chapter are testimonies to how young men and women carved out social spaces in a restricted environment. To them integration was a two-way street, a coming together, creating new spaces for social interactions, rather than one party simply adapting to the demands of the other. Worker-trainees drew their own social maps of East Germany along axes of affective home and host networks.Footnote 145 Many were fiercely fashion-conscious and enjoyed listening to music, cooking, and partying in the dormitories with compatriots and a mélange of other people who wanted to join in the fun; they were eager to take to the disco and pub scene, places of involvement with both alcohol and women. Often, biracial relationships served to integrate the worker-trainees into East German culture while moving the white women to the margins; as a result couples created their own spaces. Oral histories provide testimonies of the limits imposed by integration by exclusion on the experience of the intimate strangers from southern Africa. They also show how worker-trainees overcame restrictive rules and created niches to fashion what many remembered as livable, even desirable, lives.

We have seen that the human relationships the worker-trainees formed in their leisure time were crucial to influencing their thinking about East German society, about themselves as African migrants, and about socialism in the long term. These intimate strangers shaped the experiences of those East Germans with whom they interacted: a neighbor who invited the newcomers over for a shared meal, a host family who shared their vacation home with a migrant, or a lover, fiancé(e), or wife who became intimately acquainted with the way that her partner thought, acted, and dreamed. In turn, the migrants’ experiences were influenced by what they got to know outside of the vocational training centers and company gates. They improved their German language skills, cooked German recipes, and celebrated Christmas with their German friends. However, they were also refused seating in restaurants, confronted with racist insults, or physically assaulted due to the color of their skin and the rumors about perceived privileges of foreign workers. These diverging and contradictory experiences were part of the migrants’ lives in East Germany and shaped the way they told the story of their migration twenty-five years later.

The gap between anti-racist theory and racist practice became apparent to worker-trainees all over East Germany. The degree of their exclusion varied depending on when they came to East Germany, where they were posted, and what kind of social support networks they built. The dramatic increase of xenophobic and racist crimes after the late 1980s demonstrated the limited ability of the East German police state to protect Angolan and Mozambican worker-trainees, and called into question whether they even had the will to do so. However, this was not simply a matter of a strong police state enforcing behavior according to the laws of the country, followed by a weakening state that lost that ability. The new unified state introduced sweeping new economic, political, and social changes that fostered insecurity and anxiety among many East Germans, and which resulted in increasingly xenophobic and racist reactions. As those who hailed from elsewhere never made up more than 1 percent of the East German population, many East Germans lacked personal contacts that could have helped them overcome stereotypes of those who remained silhouettes, othered as “foreigners” and misunderstood as enemies of their well-being. Moreover, the fall of the Wall further facilitated communication between East and West, including the extreme right.Footnote 146 In that context, violence increased, and made Angolans and Mozambicans fear for their lives. Names such as Rostock Lichtenhagen and Hoyerswerda became infamous in Germany overnight. Many worker-trainees thus found themselves reacting to a dire situation in Germany while facing the difficult decision to return to Africa. We will explore this decision and its aftermath in detail in Chap. 6.