Gastarbeiter Legacy in Croatia

From Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic (Penguin, 2021), Kindle pp. 184-187:

After six decades and yet another world war, the late sixties and early seventies were a time for another wave of mass emigration. From the same territory but not the same state. Now citizens of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia departed for Sweden and Germany. Around a million people left on buses and trains to become temporary guest workers, or Gastarbeiter. This resulted from an extraordinary measure taken by the communist government to cover up the failure of the planned economy. The money these workers sent home kept their families and the whole country going for quite a while. In return, Yugoslavia opened up the country to German tourists—despite the fact that we had learned to hate Germans, because they were the enemy in World War II; there was even a town where they were forbidden to visit. But suddenly they were okay. Every summer more and more of them came to the fishing villages and beaches, and local kids were supposed to be nice to them and not laugh at their funny habit of walking in the sea with plastic shoes on. They brought money, deutsche marks, or DM. Soon DM became an informal local currency. If you wanted to buy a car, an apartment or land, you would pay in DM. How was that possible in the country where there was no legal way to exchange the local currency, the dinar, into DM? This was one of many mysteries of life under the specific Yugoslav type of communism.

Many children grew up largely without their fathers, who would visit only twice a year, for the Christmas and Easter holidays….

None of my relatives left in the seventies. People from the islands or the Adriatic coast no longer left to find a job far away. They lived well as more and more tourists visited, not only Germans. First the locals would rent a room in their old house, then extend the old house, then build a new house, all the while offering not much more than sun and sea.

Then, because of the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Republic of Croatia became an independent state in 1991. Two decades after independence, it was time for new emigrants, who were also migrants because they moved for economic reasons within the EU. This time they mostly left inland regions with rich soil that used to grow wheat and corn, and where there were farms with pigs and cows. But corrupt privatization schemes and the switch from public to private ownership meant that solid enterprises disappeared, while others had been destroyed in the war during the nineties, and private farming no longer paid off. There were fewer and fewer jobs and people in the region of Croatia stretching from Zagreb toward the east had to move either to towns or abroad in search of work. Ads for houses for sale give a realistic insight into the situation. For example, in the region of Slavonia one could find a house in good condition for seven thousand euros, the price of a secondhand car. In the last eight years, prices have dropped by 50 percent. Only old people remain there now and when they die, the property is usually sold for almost nothing.

The young are leaving because there are no jobs, and if you do not have a job you cannot afford a mortgage, not even for a cheap house. Young people in this part of the world, especially men, live with their parents for lack of money and the opportunity to earn it—no less than 84.6 percent of young people in Croatia. On average, they leave their parents’ home when they are thirty-three years old. “There is simply nothing to live on here,” says a real estate agent in Đakovo, a small town in Slavonia.

Bus stations in these towns are very crowded on Sunday evenings, especially after the holidays. Buses leave for Germany and Austria daily; there are special charter lines for migrants—or are they Gastarbeiter once again? Passengers hug and kiss the family they are about to leave behind; many people are crying. The tearful goodbyes distinguish them from ordinary passengers. The next time they will see each other is Easter.

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Filed under Austria, economics, Germany, labor, language, Mediterranean, migration, nationalism, Scandinavia, Yugoslavia

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