Die DDR im Schmalfilm Bild

“Home Movies, Heimat, and Tourism in the German Democratic Republic”


“Home Movies, Heimat, and Tourism in the German Democratic Republic”

von Dr. Scott Moranda

14. Juli 2022

Home movies are wonderful sources for documenting the history of Heimat vacations and outdoor recreation in the GDR. At first glance, these home movies suggest widespread retreat into private niches and the limits of socialist dictatorship. The essay contends, however, that Heimat vacations were not untouched by the state or politics. Such entanglement is not always easy to see in family movies. The essay thus grapples with the blind spots of home movies as historical sources and discusses the messy and changing reality of negotiations between GDR authorities and vacationers.

After even a cursory review of the home movies collected at Open Memory Box, it is obvious that a large percentage of them document family vacations into the outdoors. While some of these highlight vacations abroad (to Balaton in Hungary or to the Black Sea), most feature camping or hiking jaunts to local destinations within the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Keyword searches for Wandern, Camping, Bungalow, Wald, Landschaft, See, Grilling, or Talsperre provide users of this website with hundreds of clips of families relaxing outdoors, whether in the Erzgebirge, along the Baltic Sea, or at a lakeside campground. Few of the movies explicitly identify individual vacation destinations, though some viewers occasionally might recognize a particular forest or beach. Taken as a whole, however, they offer a glimpse of the GDR’s vacation landscape and its culture of Erholung.

But, how do we interpret these glimpses? Do they simply show us pleasant images of private life? Or, do we learn something about socialist dictatorship? The following essay contends that, even if these images suggest otherwise, vacationing and outdoor recreation were actually as entangled with the state planning, economic development, and political intrigue as most any activity in the GDR.

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Three themes stand out in the outdoor, or Heimat, scenes among these GDR home movies. First, these are scenes centered on the individual family unit. The movies usually documented the inner lives of nuclear families or a small friendship circle on vacation, though some widen the frame to include a larger circle of friends and, perhaps, coworkers. The filmmaker lovingly zoomed in on his or her spouse or captured precious moments with their children. Apart from panning out occasionally to document the landscape or nearby crowds, the filmmaker largely ignored the wider social, economic, or political context. Perhaps, the family vacationed at a bungalow owned by their employer or a cottage secured due to a family member’s political connections, but the home movie gave few clues to help us determine if this was indeed the case.

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Second, these scenes are notable for their informality. Individuals wore little or no clothing; scenes depicted informal play (perhaps kicking a ball, playing badminton on a small strip of grass between tents in a crowded campground, or splashing a sibling with water). Organized sport or official cultural activities were largely absent.

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Third, there is a hint of improvisation at many of the beaches, campgrounds, and bungalow colonies in the movies. An entire family came together to build their bungalow, or a wheelbarrow (OMB Box 116 Rolle 01) stood to the side, suggesting the family’s sporadic attempts to expand or repair their bungalow. Or, in other movies, campers constructed temporary kitchens or fashioned private nooks in a busy campground. In another, a family arrived at a lakeside meadow in a large truck turned into an ad-hoc camper. Was the truck borrowed from their workplace?

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In fact, it is remarkable how many films featured the labor done to maintain or create these homes away from home. Vacationers were often shown preparing a meal, repairing a tent, or doing laundry.

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In the planned society of the GDR, these movie makers took pride in showcasing the efforts families made to create their own personalized spaces. In other words, viewers of these home movies might gain the impression that the vacation countryside was a largely individualized, improvised space. The movies rarely hinted at any state planning of family recreation or architectural designs for vacation communities. In sum, they suggested that families in the GDR escaped into private niches largely untouched by collective enterprises, political rhetoric, or state directives.

In this sense, these home movies seem to provide evidence of an Nischengesellschaft, as first emphasized by Günter Gaus. Gaus observed that garden plots and recreational spaces offered an escape from tedious politics and oppressive conformity of GDR life. While the state sought a radical social and political transformation of German existence, the idea of a Nischengesellschaft suggests the failure of that project of total mobilization. Instead, Gaus focused attention on everyday East Germans who retreated into bubbles where tradition and a semblance of normality persevered. Perhaps authorities encountered the limits of their ability to revolutionize society, or they tolerated such apolitical spaces to mollify a disgruntled public. Either way, the notion of a Nischengesellschaft suggested that pockets of East German life remained untouched by the state or by politics.

While these movies seem to confirm the notion of an idyllic Nischengesellschaft, viewers cannot necessarily take these sources at face value. As with any historical document, users of this archive must approach these sources with care. Just as documentary films have developed common narrative strategies or story-telling devices, home movies have their own vocabulary and grammar. In this way, home movie making is similar to scrapbooking. Scrapbooks, or Sammelalben, provide historians access to the intimacy of daily life in ways that most archival records cannot. After all, the creator uses found objects, newspaper clippings, and images to tell their own stories. Yet, as historians Ellen Gruber Garvey and Kristin Poling have written, such intimacy does not necessarily mean that scrap books reflect the truth of everyday life better than other archival sources. Scrapbookers do not record their lives exactly as they are. They construct narratives and leave out unpleasant details to tell a story about themselves or their past that reflects their hopes, desires, and dreams. Similarly, home movies employ narrative tricks and strategies to organize disparate moments into a coherent narrative whole. Home movie hobbyists do not record every single moment of their lives. Instead, cameras are pulled out of a closet only to document special occasions, beloved destinations, or moments of joy. When on vacation, a filmmaker also chooses what to exclude. Rare are the home movies that record moments of strife during a vacation, perhaps when mom and dad bickered about the weekend itinerary or when a neighboring camper’s boorish behavior disturbed the family’s peace and quiet. The filmmaker instead highlights happy frolicking, peaceful nature, or carefree abandon in order to capture the pleasant sensations, or emotions, they associate with vacationing.

When viewing these home movies, therefore, it is also important to consider what home movie hobbyists chose to omit. Given that home movies typically emphasize cherished memories and moments of joy, we see few eyesores or unpleasant encounters. As a result, users of this archive would hardly become aware of the GDR’s struggles with air pollution or other blemishes to the landscape, such as those caused by strip mining or agricultural industrialization. In addition, the real social tensions of daily life are invisible. The films did not capture impatient complaining about a neighboring camper’s loud late-night parties or complaints to a campground manager about the aggravating roar of motorboats on a normally quiet lake.

Moreover, the movies reveal little about the social tensions festering in the GDR despite the regime’s promise to build a new world free of class inequality. Frustrations with shortages of consumer goods were not experienced equally by all citizens. Individuals working for key state enterprises or serving the Socialist Unity Party in a higher capacity had privileged access to a higher standard of living. As I have discussed in The People’s Own Landscape, some campers resented the comfort enjoyed by other vacationers nearby. Indeed, such social differences shaped vacation experiences to a great degree. While the state ensured the availability of basic foodstuffs to almost everyone, scarcity was especially noticeable when it came to certain consumer pleasures, whether driving a car or vacationing at a mountain bungalow. Complaint letters to local authorities or state officials in Berlin attested to popular frustrations with the scarcity of campsites, hotel rooms, or bungalows. In many cases, those complaints focused on the perceived privileges of well-connected individuals or employees of key industries. Other times, letter writers criticized unregulated bungalow construction in protected landscapes; in these cases, the culprits might have been well-connected individuals, but they just as often might have been tradespeople with access to raw materials needed to build their own vacation cottage. While some complaints made principled objections to the desecration of natural landscapes by the overdevelopment of tourism, other petitioners chiefly desired the state to better regulate regional development to ensure an equitable and just distribution of outdoor recreation destinations.

In other words, East Germans began to assert their right to vacation pleasures and insist that a socialist state had an obligation to provide those pleasures to its workers and citizens. Even on vacation, the state could not be ignored. The concept of a Nischengesellschaft ignores this reality of negotiation. While vacationers took pride in forging their own vacation spaces, they actually did not act entirely alone; they hoped to leverage the state for their own purposes. For this reason, complaint letters often borrowed from the state’s own rhetoric to highlight how shortages and overcrowding in vacation destinations violated the regime’s own promises of equality or better living through socialism.

While these home movies often portrayed outdoor recreation destinations as private, self-built retreats, state planners also shaped weekend getaways and short vacations into the countryside. The nature of state influence changed over time. In the first two decades of the GDR, the state focused on using sport and recreation to create loyal, socialist citizens; recreation primarily facilitated the mobilization of the populace for ideological goals. At this point, authorities built and planned recreation spaces and campgrounds for youth education (especially for the Free Germany Youth or the Pioneers). Sports and cultural organizations such as the German Gymnastics and Sport League (DTSB) and the Culture League also organized hiking clubs with a particular concern for eliminating hiking and Heimat’s link to nationalism and middle-class leisure practices. The state trade union organization (FDGB) also provided hotels and campgrounds for workers.

As Jan Palmowski has demonstrated, East Germany’s Culture League keenly desired to build a new “Socialist Heimat.” It hoped to sever allegiances to regional Heimat and undermine a conservative German nationalism tied to the Heimat landscape. In time, the Culture League sponsored hikes, history museums, and other activities that were meant to link Heimat landscapes to a socialist identity or culture. In the end, according to Palmowski, East Germans gave lip service to the idea of a unified socialist Heimat, but privately continued to celebrate local cultures in traditional ways.

Were the outings depicted in these home movies an example of families ignoring official “socialist Heimat” programs in order to vacation unofficially and traditionally?

Not quite. Certainly, individuals and families continued to vacation unofficially outside the reach of mass organizations. At the same time, though, the state became more involved in privately-organized vacations. In other words, state engagement with outdoor recreation was not limited to the Culture League’s Heimat activities or the DTSB’s hiking association. If we only focused on these mass organizations, our understanding of vacationing and outdoor enjoyment in the GDR would be incomplete. If earlier authorities discouraged private travel and largely ignored its continued existence, state organizations and economists by the 1970s increasingly endorsed and catered to family-oriented vacations outside of sport and youth organizations. In part, state engagement was meant to discourage unregulated campgrounds and bungalow colonies proliferating along lakes and in mountainous areas that were causing them immense headaches. As a growing white collar workforce spent more time in the outdoors, those destinations had become overcrowded and privileged citizens often snagged the best locales. Grumbling citizens increasingly complained to local and central authorities.

The socialist state became surprisingly concerned with customer service at domestic vacation destinations. An array of state-owned enterprises catered to all vacationers, whether they had booked a tour with the FDGB Travel Service or traveled on their own. At cafes, grocery stores, and restaurants, East Germans hoped for improved service and provisions, and authorities even took to local newspapers to ensure vacationers that they would do better. As Christopher Görlich has argued, the FDGB Travel Service became a “socialist Neckermann” working more to satisfy consumer demands than cultivating committed socialists.

State involvement, however, was not just reactive. While economic planning in the GDR always focused more on heavy industry and agriculture, the 1960s witnessed more scientific planning of all aspects of daily life. With the New Economic Plan and utopian expectations for socialist science, authorities promised higher living standards through technological innovation and better planning. Scientific and government committees even began to consider how to improve vacation landscapes in a variety of ways. The constitution of 1968 and the environmental laws of 1971 both committed the state to providing vacation landscapes to its citizens. Labor experts concerned about the physical and psychological consequences of modern work came to promote outdoor rest and relaxation for rejuvenating the workforce and encouraged the regime to invest in this area. As historian Eli Rubin has demonstrated, plastics engineers imagined a technological utopia of higher living standards and comforts made possible with plastics. Not only did they begin to reimagine living rooms and kitchens, but they also produced camping equipment that would broaden leisure opportunities for the public. The GDR’s relationship with consumer goods and private comforts was always fraught given Marxism’s disdain for commodity fetishism, but over time the regime sought to legitimize itself with the public with promises of consumer comforts. County, district, and central authorities turned attention from youth camps and organized sport to wider efforts to set aside bungalow colonies and campgrounds along lakes. Factories negotiated contracts to provide cottages and campsites to their workers. Popular opinion surveys certainly pushed state efforts to improve outdoor recreation opportunities, but health officials, social scientists, and economists also embraced such projects as key to promoting collective well being and shaping social behavior.

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Even as authorities tried to better manage ad-hoc vacation spaces, they tried to create highly planned destinations. For example, the construction oft Talsperre Pöhl in Saxony led to the development of large new campgrounds, tourism operations, and planned bungalow colonies (OMB Box 013 Rolle 02) meant to solve the problems improvised tourism that increased social bickering and often marred protected landscapes. Architects designed bungalows that could be mass produced; such planning produced lakeside bungalow colonies featuring rows of identical structures. As authorities became increasingly involved in planning family-oriented vacation spaces, vacationers learned to negotiate with those authorities through Eingaben to the government and letters to local newspapers.

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In other words, a weekend in a tent or at a bungalow was not an escape into a space completely free of the state. Instead, vacationing involved complicated entanglements with the trade union, with county or district officials, or with the Socialist Unity Party to ensure one’s family access to a relaxing green space. Ironically, popular expectations for “customer service” at vacation destinations began to reshape understandings of socialism. The state, in the eyes of many, had an obligation to provide equitable and comfortable vacation experiences, whether it meant properly stocking the lakeside convenience store with beer, supplying the ice cream vendor at the campground, or developing new campgrounds with modern conveniences. The Heimat landscapes of these home videos were not landscapes of timeless, apolitical escapism, but instead spaces constructed through negotiations with state officials.

Finally, a chronology of modern tourism further challenges any assumptions that these vacationers escaped into a timeless past untouched by modernization (socialist or otherwise). Tourism has a history; in other words, it has changed over time. With the railroad, tourists from urban centers began to impose their cultural values and expectations upon those locales. Nineteenth-century middle-class tourists, in other words, began to colonize rural hinterlands and remake them to meet their expectations. Later, technological change again transformed tourism. In the twentieth century, the automobile created new pathways and possibilities for tourists, and automobile tourism also developed in the GDR despite the state’s notoriously poor record at enabling mass automobile ownership.

When we view these home videos, we are not witnessing German vacationers enjoying a Heimat landscape unaltered from the early twentieth century. This was not as simple as an escape into a pre-socialist past. Heimat iconography and material landscapes had developed in Germany in the age of the railroad and middle-class associational life. The automobile further decentralized the vacation experience and encouraged a more relaxed vacation experience complete with material comforts. While hiking culture may have once promoted simplicity and physical vigor in the nature experience, auto camping required less effort and enabled families to bring along more “urban” amenities to the countryside. The emerging vacation landscape of the GDR became less a rural hinterland for building better, more physical and mentally fit, workers or citizens as it was in the heyday of Heimat associations and hiking clubs before 1945, then it was a space of entitlement, where vacationers expected creature comforts and, ironically, argued that a socialist state had an obligation to its citizens to provide those comforts.

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