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Heike Wolter, 'Ich harre aus im land und geh, ihm fremd': Die geschichte des tourismus in der DDR.

Heike Wolter, 'Ich harre aus im Land und geh, ihm fremd': Die Geschichte des Tourismus in der DDR, Frankfurt/New York, Campus (2009), 547 pp. 45,00 [euro].

As is true of dictatorships in general, their social realities challenge simple models of command and control from on high and the passive, if sullen, obedience from below. Despite its determination to transform its citizens into the embodiments of socialism's benefits, the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED) tempered the imposition of its short and long-term goals with its often begrudged accession to popular desires and expectations. Heike Wolter's thorough study of tourism in the German Democratic Republic underscores the tensions between popular yearnings and the construction of socialism centered on the principles of democratic centralism. Although, as Wolter argues, the GDR's collapse was by no means preordained, the SED's lukewarm accommodations to the yen for travel paid few dividends in the late eighties when the regime's survival was called into question. As the title of this book makes clear--Wolter draws it from Barbara Kohler's popular poem of the late eighties about her desire to cross borders-East Germans acutely felt the restrictions imposed on their ability to travel, even as the SED promoted recreation as a right.

Grounded in the communitarian principles of social tourism, the Free German Trade Union, the 'People's Owned Corporations' (VEBs) and the Free German Youth's 'Young Tourist' organization spearheaded heavily-subsidized group travel to domestic and foreign destinations, the latter primarily to the nations of the Soviet Bloc. The Travel Agency of the German Democratic Republic, established as a VEB in 1957 to absorb previously private agencies, handled both group and individual tourism, and unlike the enterprises above, was expected to cover its costs. Yet it remained tightly bound to the SED state's management of leisure. Overall, the GDR's seeming tourism empire confronted intractable problems: high subsidization and the rising cost of running hostels and provisioning vacationers, the increasing high cost of travel to socialist countries, which to attract Western currencies operated according to Western standards, and finally, demand that exceeded the supply. East Germans not only faced the SED's well-known restrictions on travel to non-socialist countries and the often second-class treatment accorded to them in socialist nations which treated Western tourists better, they also met with limited opportunities to partake of their supposed right to organized recreation at home. Not surprisingly, less organized forms of travel, notably camping which began to take off in the late fifties, and the weekend and vacations trips to the small gardens and cabins which dotted the countryside, took up the slack. Although the SED was suspicious of such endeavors because of their putative 'petit-bourgeois individualism,' local authorities had little choice but to build and manage camping grounds and to allow its citizens their Kleingarten on unforested and unfarmed land. Despite similar concerns about touring by automobile, which contributed to the notoriously long waits for Trabis and Wartburgs, the regime had to build highways to accommodate its citizens' desire for mobility. As was true for consumption in general, GDR tourism fared poorly in comparison to that of West Germany, not least because the latter's market-based system responded more effectively to demand and particularly to desires for new offerings. West Germans were free to travel abroad wherever they liked, and they were spared the ideological agendas of social tourism. Indeed, it was the SED's misfortune that East and West Germans shared the lust for travel, as Wolter points out in her interesting comparisons of the GDR's tourism with tourism elsewhere, past and present. For East Germans, that yearning remained unrequited.

Wolter's ambitious undertaking, which despite its primary focus on the seventies and eighties covers tourism from the GDR's founding to its demise, provides valuable detail about the nuts and bolts of tourism, its providers, its accommodations, its destinations, its means of transportation, and the negative touristic implications of the GDR's unconvertible currency. She ably documents the dilemmas faced by the GDR's rulers, who claimed to recognize the needs of their citizens even if they did not trust them. Yet Wolter is not simply interested in the infrastructure of tourism or the SED's intentions, she also wants to explore popular perceptions and experiences. To do so she examines a wide range of sources with the potential to register the place of tourism in the ordinary lives of East Germans, ranging from promotional literature and travelogues, to theater, cabaret, film, and television, to (finally) the regime's own forms of research public opinion. At times Wolter's discussion of these materials is more encyclopedic than analytical. Yet fortunately, the analysis that the author does provide is revealing. The available sources, she concludes, contradict the widespread and simplistic perception of the GDR as a closed society and East Germans as ignorant about the world beyond their borders. If post-1990 Ostalgie would depress memories of the GDR's constrained tourism and reflect the disillusionment of Ossis as they confronted the high cost of tourism in the new Germany, the desire to travel cultivated and deepened over the GDR's forty-year lifespan proved sufficiently potent (in part enabled by the limited travel to the Federal Republic that the SED allowed after 1972) to shape the rising consumerist expectations that finally destroyed the GDR.

Shelley Baranowski

University of Akron
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Author:Baranowski, Shelley
Publication:The Journal of Transport History
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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