“My parents had a Type 500 car, and I remember it was always difficult to breathe in the back,” says Wolfgang Worf, whose family made regular trips from Weimar to East Germany or Liberec in what was then Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s. (Also read: This little India in Malaysia deserves a special mention)
Sometimes they even traveled three times a year. The car was extremely small and had no windows in the back that could be opened. After upgrading to the popular 601 model of the ubiquitous East German Trabant — affectionately known as the Trabbi — the long journeys to the neighboring country have become a little more bearable, he told DW.
Wolfgang Worf’s parents came from the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, today’s Czech Republic. After the Second World War, they were among the approximately three million Germans who were expelled. But they took every opportunity to visit their home region and old school friends.
Worf remembers that GDR citizens were not allowed to exchange many GDR stamps for Czech crowns, which at the time made accommodation with acquaintances and friends absolutely necessary. “In return, we brought them something from East Germany, which was always a nice, friendly gesture.”
The right to vacation was enshrined in the constitution of the communist GDR. In 1961 everyone who was employed was entitled to 12 days’ holiday, with the number of days gradually increasing over the years.
However, East Germans couldn’t just pack up and go wherever they wanted. The goals were limited and the limitations were huge.
For a trip to Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, an exit permit was required along with other documents. People usually traveled to the Soviet Union as part of a tour group, rarely alone.
Exotic destinations like Cuba required the approval of the party secretary, the union official and the employer. Applicants had to be highly respectable GDR citizens, which made such travel virtually impossible for ordinary citizens.
A visit to a country that did not belong to the group of so-called brother countries was out of the question, especially after the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Why some borders were more open than others
In 1972 the Berlin Wall had already stood for 11 years. East Germans, almost universally excluded from the West, had not met their relatives in person for over a decade. Resentment spread, people raised tentative demands for freedom to travel – a topic that would later lead to the end of the GDR state.
The East German leadership sensed people’s displeasure and gave in. At the beginning of 1972, agreements came into force which, on paper at least, eased travel restrictions between the GDR, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
“You were still on the border for a long time, whether before or after 1972. It didn’t really matter,” Worf said.
According to GDR records from 1977, the citizens of the GDR traveled almost 50 million times to the two neighboring countries in the first five years.
Popular destinations in Czechoslovakia were Prague and Karlovy Vary. People wanted to get to know the culture and landscape, but they also met relatives from West Germany there, whom the GDR only allowed its citizens to visit under certain conditions and after a thorough examination. “It was always very nice,” Worf said.
“Boundaries of Friendship”
Poland was popular for weekend breaks as overnight stays were possible without a registration procedure.
Many East Germans enjoyed the more informal atmosphere of a country where they could buy West German publications like the news magazine Der Spiegel and catch the latest Hollywood blockbusters in the cinemas.
Polish citizens did not travel to the GDR so much for vacation or relaxation, but in the hope of finding scarce goods that were not available in their own country or only available at significantly higher prices.
Axel Drieschner, curator of the exhibition “Boundaries of Friendship: Tourism between GDR, CSSR and Poland” in the Museum of Utopia and Everyday Life in Eisenhüttenstadt, told DW a joke about the situation.
“Two dogs meet at the border and one asks: Why are you going to the GDR? The other says to feed me. The first dog asks: Why are you going to Poland? To bark louder?”
In Poland one could express dissatisfaction at that time and speak more openly about certain problems that one did not want to address publicly in the GDR, said Drieschner.
The Utopia and Everyday Museum has a collection of various memorabilia from trips to Poland and Czechoslovakia, several hundred exhibits ranging from postcards and travel catalogs to objects and souvenirs, memories of East Germans vacationing in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s.
Most of the exhibits are on loan and end up on the museum’s doorstep after a public call. Many people have responded, Drieschner said, sending emails with anecdotes and stories, as well as souvenirs, some of which are on display.
The East German leadership soon regretted the move
It wasn’t long before the governing SED party regretted the easing of the borders. They hadn’t factored in shopping tourism and the consequences for their own planned economy.
“They had calculated years in advance how much, say, razor blades or pins would be needed in the next few years,” says Drieschner, adding that people from other countries suddenly appeared with very specific needs that had not been taken into account.
Another aspect could also wreak havoc, namely the potential to arouse resentment in the East German population, said Drieschner.
“The leadership didn’t want to stir up unrest in the population, which could easily happen when Polish citizens drove to East German Görlitz and bought more or less off-the-shelf goods in department stores,” he explained. “The larger cities near the border were very badly affected by shopping tourism, and sometimes new resentments arose against the nationalities who might be buying much-needed consumer goods.”
Wolfgang Worf, on the other hand, remembers special goods that he brought back from Czechoslovakia.
“We brought home loads of dumpling flour, which didn’t exist in the GDR back then, and my favorite dish was always roast beef with dumplings. I also liked shopping in the stationery store – the Czechs had certain pens that were rarely found in East Germany.”
Shopping tourism displeased the East German leadership, as did the emergence of the anti-Soviet solidarity movement in the 1980s.
The subsequent imposition of martial law in Poland again led to stricter controls at the borders and travel was made more difficult.
That era is long gone, and today the borders are open in almost all of Europe. The exhibition “Boundaries of Friendship”, which can be seen in the Museum for Utopia and Everyday Life until April 30, 2023, shows visitors what traveling was like for East Germans in the 1970s and 1980s.
This article was originally written in German.