Asian Prussians à la GDR?

Vietnam’s decision to send thousands of young workers and students to the GDR has affected the Asian country in many ways. According to my estimates, approximately 70,000 Vietnamese workers were employed in the East German factories from 1980 to 1989. Long before the workers came, Vietnamese students were a feature in almost every East German third-level institution.

The return of so many German speakers to Vietnam has had far-reaching consequences, in that these returnees brought back not only the academic knowledge they had acquired in the GDR, but aspects of German culture in general. Nowhere in Asia is German so widely spoken. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Goethe Institute established a branch in Hanoi in 1997. Even the DAAD has a dedicated website for Vietnamese alumni, entirely in Vietnamese.

In 2004,  a detailed and fascinating article on this topic, written by Gerhard Waldherr, appeared in the German business magazine brand eins. Below is a rough translation of some of the most interesting parts of the article, including information on the man who introduced German sausage to Vietnam:

Throughout the country there are German-Vietnamese organizations and associations. Ministries and authorities are staffed with graduates of GDR universities. Many attended the Technical University of Dresden, the most prominent alumni being the minister for transport, the director of the rail service, the deputy minister for telecommunications. And the deputy major of Ho Chi Minh City studied in Magdeburg.

One such former student and businessman is Ngo Quang Phuc. He came to the GDR in 1954, at the age of 13, as part of a children’s refugee contingent. His teenage socialization in a children’s home in Moritzburg gave him a firm footing in the language, and he went on to translate some significant pieces of German literature into Vietnamese, such as Goethes Faust and works by Böll, Erich Fried, and Tuylu tho Haino, as his compatriots call Heinrich Heine. Another one of the 299 former Vietnamese refugee children to the GDR is Le Trang, now a representative in the trade association German Industry and Commerce Vietnam.

Many of the businessmen with German backgrounds and experience are members of the Vietnam German Small and Medium Enterprises Association. A particularly successful one is Mai Huy Tan. He studied mathematical economics at the Martin Luther University in Halle/Saale from 1982 to 1985 and bit into his first bratwurst after arriving in East Berlin on the train from Vietnam. He runs the Duc Viet Joint-Venture Company Limited (Dv J-V Co., Ltd.), which he established in 2000 in partnership with the Erfurt-based CBV Michael Campioni GmbH. A remarkable success story that is built on the less well-known gastronomic transfer from West to East, the company emplys 120 people (2006) and produced 700 tons of sausage in 2004. Among the company’s products are Xuc Xich Duc (a Bratwurst), as well as Wieners, Bockwursts, Bierschinken and even Leberkäse. The company supplies shops, restaurants and schools across the country. Tan plans to expand and if his ideas are realized, 120,000 pigs will need to be slaughtered to supply his factories, bringing in an €18 million turnover. He might even export to Japan.

In 2007, it was reported that Tan is now planning to produce an ecological alternative to oil through the production of Jatropha nuts.


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“37 Grad – Schwarze Haut – Weißer Hass” (ZDF, 2007)

Paulino Pilima (45) is a former Mozambican contract worker, who came to East Germany in 1980. He and his wife, Iris, have two children. A few years ago, the Pilima family bought a house in Liebstadt in Saxony. Since then, they have been terrorised on a daily basis by neo-Nazis with verbal and physical racist attacks. Despite some concerned locals patrolling the house at night, the attacks have continued, despite extensive media coverage. The Pilima family have now decided to leave the village, and in this documentary Gregor Bialas describes their story. The documentary is now available to view online here at the ZDF-Mediathek.


Dienstag, 6. November, 22.15 Uhr, 37 Grad – Schwarze Haut – Weißer Hass. Die Geschichte der Familie Pilima Film von Gregor Bialas

Als Familie Pilima sich vor sieben Jahren ihren Traum vom eigenen Haus erfüllt, wird sie zur Zielscheibe fremdenfeindlicher Attacken. Ihr Haus in Liebstadt, ein Ort in der Sächsischen Schweiz, wird von Rechtsradikalen mit “Heil Hitler”-Rufen und Parolen wie “Neger raus”, “Deutschland den Deutschen”, regelrecht belagert. Ein Großeinsatz der Polizei verhindert zunächst Schlimmeres. Immer wieder skandieren Unbekannte vor Pilimas Haus fremdenfeindliche Parolen. Eines Nachts fliegt ein schwerer Hammer durch eine Fensterscheibe. Glücklicherweise wird niemand verletzt.

Im Jahre 1980 kommt der Mosambikaner Paulino Pilima als so genannter Vertragsarbeiter in die DDR. Heute arbeitet der 45-Jährige als Energie-Elektroniker in Dresden. Gemeinsam mit seiner deutschen Frau Iris hat er zwei Kinder. Tochter Gloria ist zehn Jahre alt und besucht ab diesem Jahr das Gymnasium. Ihr älterer Bruder Manuel möchte demnächst in Dresden studieren. Gleich nach dem Abitur ist er fortgezogen, er wollte nicht länger dort bei den Eltern wohnen bleiben.

Um die Familie vor weiteren rassistischen Übergriffen zu schützen, formierten sich besorgte Einwohner zu einer Bürgerstreife, die nachts vor Pilimas Haus patrouillierte. Seit die Familie in Liebstadt wohnt, ist kein Jahr vergangen ohne Zwischenfälle. Das wollen Pilimas nicht einfach hinnehmen, gehen an die Öffentlichkeit, lokale Zeitungen berichten über die Vorfälle. Doch die Anfeindungen nehmen kein Ende, für viele sind die Pilimas jetzt auch noch Nestbeschmutzer. Pilimas geben auf, wollen nur noch weg und ihr Haus verkaufen.

37° erzählt die Geschichte einer Familie, die in einer scheinbar aufgeklärten Gesellschaft Fremdenfeindlichkeit erfahren und ertragen muss, nur wegen einer anderen Hautfarbe.

Der Film ist ein Beitrag zum ZDF-Schwerpunkt “Wohngemeinschaft Deutschland”.

More details of the programme are available here.

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“Immigrant workers in GDR” (2007). France 24 report

THE French international news channel France 24 produced a short 2 minute video report entitled Immigrant workers in GDR, produced by A. Maillet and B. Boussouar. It is also available in French.

VertragsarbeiterThe report gets the basic facts across about the contract workers. It emphasis that the main reason behind the contract worker programme was the chronic labour shortage in the GDR, although a former Ministerium für Arbeit und Löhne official interviewed for the report, Ralf Strasburg, maintained that labour transfer programme was also motivated by a desire to train young Mozambicans.

However, Strasburg’s claim that the workers enjoyed the same “rights and responsibilities” as GDR workers is simply not true. Many contract workers encountered difficulty in securing a qualification, or indeed were trained in skills of no practical use at home. In addition, the GDR government systematically siphoned off between 40 and 60 percent of the wages of Mozambicans in lieu of the debts owed to it by the Mozambican government. This practice has led some to describe the Vertragsarbeiter system as a form of indentured servitude.

Two former Mozambican contract workers also speak in the report. Vicente Valentine ande Jose Joan both came in 1981 to Dresden. They talk about their experiences upon arriving, as well as the difficulties since the Wende. As there experience shows, foreign workers could gain a lot by working in the GDR, despite the limitations imposed on them by the authorities. For many, a period spent working in the GDR offered a unique chance for social and economic advancement.

Yet, surprisingly for a French media report, there was no mention of the Algerian contract workers, the first non-European contract workers to work in East German factories. 8,000 came from Algeria from 1974 to 1984.

Report blurb: To fill the gaps in the country’s workforce, hundreds of thousands of contract workers were brought in from countries like Mozambique, Vietnam or Cuba. In 1989 there were more than 90,000 still in East Germany. Pour combler le manque de main d’oeuvre en RDA, plusieurs centaines de milliers de ressortissants de pays socialistes ont séjourné en Allemagne de l’est dans le cadre d’une migration choisie.

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