“My parents had a 500 model car, and I remember always having trouble breathing in the back,” says Wolfgang Worf, whose family made regular trips from Weimar in East Germany, or Germany. German Democratic Republic (GDR), for Liberec in what was then Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s. (Also read: This little India in Malaysia deserves special mention)
Sometimes they traveled up to three times a year. The car was decidedly small and had no windows that could be opened in the back. After an upgrade to the popular Model 601 of the ubiquitous East German-made Trabant car – affectionately nicknamed the Trabbi – long trips to the neighboring country became a bit more bearable, he told DW.
Wolfgang Worf’s parents originated from the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, which is now the Czech Republic. After World War II, they were among the approximately three million Germans expelled. But they took every opportunity to visit their native region and old school friends.
Worf recalls that East German citizens were not allowed to exchange many East German marks for Czech crowns, making it imperative to stay with acquaintances and friends at the time. “In return, we brought them something from East Germany, which was always a nice friendly gesture.”
The right to vacation was enshrined in the communist constitution of East Germany. In 1961, anyone with a job was entitled to 12 days of vacation, the number of days of which gradually increased over the years.
However, the East Germans could not just pack up and go where they wanted. The destinations were restricted, and the constraints formidable.
An exit permit was required along with other documents for travel to Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. 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, union official, and employer. Applicants had to be very honest East German citizens, which made such trips virtually impossible for ordinary citizens.
Visiting a country that did not belong to the group of so-called brother countries was totally 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 been standing for 11 years. East Germans who were almost universally excluded from the West had not met relatives in person for over a decade. Resentment spread, people voiced tentative demands for freedom of travel – an issue that would later lead to the end of the East German state.
Sensing the people’s displeasure, the East German leadership relented. At the beginning of 1972, agreements came into force which relaxed travel restrictions between the GDR, Poland and Czechoslovakia, at least on paper.
“You were on the border for a long time, whether it was before or after 1972. It didn’t really matter,” Worf said.
According to East German records dating back to 1977, the country’s citizens visited the two neighboring countries almost 50 million times in the first five years.
Popular destinations in Czechoslovakia were Prague and Karlovy Vary. People wanted to experience the culture and see the countryside, but that’s also where they met relatives from West Germany, whom East Germany only allowed to visit under certain circumstances and after a thorough examination. “It was still very enjoyable,” Worf said.
“The Borders of Friendship”
Poland was popular for weekend trips as overnight stays were possible without a check-in procedure.
Many East Germans enjoyed the more informal atmosphere of a country where they could buy West German publications like the newsmagazine Der Spiegel and see the latest Hollywood blockbusters in cinemas.
Polish citizens traveled to East Germany not so much for vacation or recreation, but in the hope of finding those rare goods not available in their own country, or only at considerably higher prices.
Axel Drieschner, curator of the “Borders of Friendship: Tourism between GDR, CSSR and Poland” exhibition at the Museum for Utopia and Everyday Life in the East German town of Eisenhüttenstadt, told DW a joke to go along with this.
“Two dogs meet at the border and one of them asks: why are you going to the GDR? The other says, to eat my fill. Asks the first dog: why are you going to Poland? To bark more strong to change?”
In Poland at the time, people could express their displeasure and talk more openly about certain issues that people didn’t want to discuss publicly in East Germany, Drieschner said.
The Museum of Utopia and Everyday Life has a collection of various memorabilia souvenirs from trips to Poland and Czechoslovakia, several hundred exhibits ranging from postcards and travel catalogs to objects and souvenirs, memorabilia from holidays of East Germans in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s.
Most exhibits are loaned out and land at the museum’s doors following a public call. Many people responded, Drieschner said, sending emails with anecdotes and stories, as well as memories, some of which are on display.
East German leaders quickly regretted the decision
It didn’t take long for the ruling party, the SED, to regret the border easing. They had not taken into account shopping tourism and the consequences for their own planned economy.
“They had calculated years in advance how many, say, razor blades or pins would be needed in the next few years,” Drieschner said, adding that suddenly people from other countries showed up with very specific needs that had not been taken into account. .
Another aspect could also cause chaos, and that was the potential to stir up resentment among the East German population, Drieschner said.
“The rulers did not want to stir up unrest among the population, which could easily happen when Polish citizens traveled to Görlitz in East Germany and bought items in department stores that were more or less fresh in the rays,” he explained. “Major towns near the border have been badly affected by shopping tourism, and at times new resentments have arisen regarding the respective nationalities who have purchased what were perhaps urgently needed consumer goods.”
Wolfgang Worf in turn remembers the special goods he brought back from Czechoslovakia.
“We brought home large quantities of dumpling flour, which was not available in the GDR at the time, and my favorite dish has always been sirloin with dumplings. I also liked to go shopping in stationery – the Czechs had certain pens that you rarely get in East Germany.”
Shopping tourism displeased East German leaders, as did the emergence of the anti-Soviet solidarity movement in the 1980s.
The subsequent declaration of martial law in Poland again led to tighter border controls and travel again became more difficult.
Those days are long gone and today the borders are open in most of Europe. The exhibition “Borders of Friendship” which runs until April 30, 2023 at the Museum of Utopia and Everyday Life shows visitors what travel was like for East Germans in the 1970s and 1980.
This article was originally written in German.