#BookClub: Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World

Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World: Socialist Mobilities between Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany book cover
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In our regular #BookClub feature, Marcia Schenck shares some of the highlights of her new work: Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World: Socialist Mobilities between Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany. Read the blog and scroll to the bottom to download the book for free!


Maputo, capital of Mozambique: March 1, 2023. Former Mozambican labor migrants to East Germany, better known as Madjermanes, are demonstrating in the city center. Vuvuzelas, whistles, drums, rattles, and singing form the backdrop as the older men and a few women walk along the streets carrying, EU and German flags as well as signs; one woman has sowed her own dress in black, red, gold, the colors of the German flag. The group is marching to the Labor Ministry to demand attention to their cause, as they have done on countless previous Wednesdays since their return to Mozambique in the early 1990s.

Berlin, capital of Germany: May 20, 2022. Member of the German Bundestag (MdB) Dr. Karamba Diaby (SPD) mentions Mozambican contract laborers in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in a discussion about GDR pension harmonizations at the Bundestag, reminding the MdBs that the labor migrants paid into the social security system and that parts of their wages were withheld to finance Mozambican debts vis-à-vis the GDR, ending on the appeal that this group cannot be forgotten.

Luanda, capital of Angola: February 2013. A few former Angolan contract laborers gather in front of the Labor Ministry for quiet vigils to gently remind the government about the outstanding payments for their labor in East Germany. Most of the open and loud demonstrations take place in the Angolan diaspora in Europe, especially in Berlin but also in Brussels.

What do the events above in Maputo, Berlin, and Luanda have in common? They render visible the reverberations of a history that has been rendered invisible within the three states but continues to be actively remembered by the former migrants and their families as well as their allies. Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World: Socialist Mobilities between Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany is an open access book that tells the history of the labor migration of young Angolan and Mozambican men and women to the German Democratic Republic (GDR). It does so from the vantage point of the memories of those who subsequently returned home and remember their migration almost a quarter century after their return. Drawing on more than 260 life history interviews conducted with former worker-trainees, this book uncovers the experiences and transnational encounters of the former labor migrants and explores their lives moving between what was known at the time as the Third and Second Worlds.

In a nutshell, what happened? On February 24, 1979 Erich Honecker, General Secretary of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party (SED) and Chairman of the State Council, visited Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, to sign an agreement regulating temporary Mozambican labor and training migration to East Germany. The Angolan version was signed six years later, on March 29, 1985. Until the premature cancellation of the agreements by Germany in 1990, about 21,000 contracts were signed with Mozambicans and 2,000 with Angolans. Mostly young men but also women served contracts that averaged four years in length, combining labor on the factory floor with training in company schools, often returning home as skilled laborers.

The program’s initial objective was to train the future vanguard of Mozambique’s and Angola’s working classes across various industries and companies in East Germany and to contribute to building up the human resources required to realize Angolan and Mozambican socialist industrial development, while also aiding the increasingly fragile East German economy. This was not to be. The civil wars in Angola (1975-2002) and Mozambique (1977-1992) derailed the industrial development of these countries and the age of socialist one-party states ended globally in the late 1980s.

As Germany, Angola, and Mozambique transitioned to market economies, most of the workers lost their jobs and returned home, where very few succeeded in finding the kind of gainful blue-collar work for which they were trained. More than a quarter century after their return, many workers remain nostalgic for their migration abroad. Their nostalgia colors their memories and reveals a counter-script to generally accepted depictions of East Germany, and one that combines reminiscing of the workers’ youth with an implicit critique of the failure of their home governments to deliver on their side of the bargain.

My argument in the book is as follows. The migration schemes, although ceased in 1990, have played a central role in the lives of their participants. Their experiences have conformed to a series of contradictions and dualities which illuminate the ambiguities intrinsic to East German society, the life of the migrant, and the nature of human memory. In studying historical episodes like this one, oral history is the best approach for exploding the simplistic, schematic conceptions of what it was to live in socialist societies of different sorts. The fundamental theme of this book is the tension between the apparent prescriptiveness of socialism and the endless capacity of individuals to create their own meaning within this.

The contradictions and dualities referred to above provide the structure for the chapters of the book. Firstly, the migrations were state sponsored but were a way for migrants to achieve personal aims. This allows us to find a role for migrants’ agency within a restrictive system. Secondly, the scheme conceptualized the migrants primarily as producers, but their memories of the experience center their lives as consumers. This reveals the unwisdom of accepting official rhetoric on the primacy of production in socialist societies, as so many conceptions of the Second World do. Thirdly, the migrants lived in East Germany as intimate strangers, immersed in German life despite government attempts to keep them separate and despite the intense racism they often faced.

Fourthly, the migration schemes failed as the Cold War ended, but that did not mean that its participants failed. They created their own meaning despite the end of the framework that had shaped their lives hitherto. Fifthly, the migrants’ narratives spanned temporal spaces. Interviews conducted mainly in 2014-5, were ostensibly about the 1980s, but were as much about the period after the migrants came back in the 1990s. This temporal multiplicity mirrors the multiplicity of meanings of socialism and its afterlives.

The Angolan and Mozambican migrants were simultaneously benefiters of and contributors to East German social and material life. The book examines how their experiences shaped their life trajectories as Africans in the socialist bloc and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as socialist cosmopolitans in African post-socialist societies. It explores how their African-ness was shaped by and affected East Germany, and how, on their return, their newly acquired German-ness was shaped by and affected post-Cold War Mozambique and Angola.

The presence of Africans globalized East German society, while the presence of returned migrants brought different ideas to Angola and Mozambique. It is through the non-elite figures of worker-trainees that the possibilities and constraints of “proletarian internationalism” can be explored, offering a new take on East Germany through the eyes of African migrants, while also tracing their perceptions and actions as socialist cosmopolitans in Angola and Mozambique after their return. The latter of these was particularly influenced by the migrants’ feeling of eastalgia, nostalgia for the east – both a historical outcome and moral-political critique of postsocialism. It gave them a framework for pressing for change in their home countries, using a model of civic protest derived from the protests which characterized the last stages of the GDR.

I have written this book primarily as part of the conversation with my colleagues who study global history, the history of Second and Third Worlds and labor migration, so it has a scholarly audience in mind. However, this is a rather small audience, so I have striven to make the book accessible and, hopefully, a little bit exciting. It is well suited as course book for undergraduate and graduate students alike and might pique the interest of a reader of serious nonfiction, especially if interested in the histories of (East) Germany, Angola, and Mozambique.

You can download Remembering Africa Labor Migration to the Second World for free here. 

Marcia C. Schenck (@MarciaSchenck) is professor of global history at the University of Potsdam, Germany.



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