© Wasmuth & Zohlen Verlag. Non-cover images: Postkartenarchiv D. Spiegel, BEBUG mbH, Berlin / Bild und Heimat.
Urlaubs(t)räume des Sozialismus, new from Wasmuth & Zohlen, explores the unique architectural history of East Germany’s vacation centers. The book starts by framing the concept of “vacation” in the DDR as being something fundamentally different from what it was in the West: in the latter, vacations were seen as an escape, a chance to “get away” from everyday routines and problems; in the former, they were an integral part of life, built into the yearly rhythm alongside work, school, and sick leave. The idea that regular vacation time was a right of every family was declared with the founding of the DDR in 1949, and throughout its four-decade history, the government created a vast infrastructure designed to bring industrial efficiency and simplicity to the process of planning one’s holidays.
The reality was often far different: despite the near-constant construction of new hotels and spas, bookings were often extremely hard to come by. However, given the homogeneity of the amenities on offer, if one did manage to get a coveted booking there was little need to worry about choosing the right hotel, room, or restaurant. This relative simplicity was, like so many facets of DDR-era life, comforting and sinister in equal measure: citizens were free to travel anywhere their hearts desired, as long as they could secure a booking and didn’t attempt to cross any borders. If nothing else, the comfortingly dull postcards offered by each hotel were sure to reach friends in Leipzig, Magdeburg or Berlin in no longer than a day or two.
Klink, Urlaubersiedlung Völkerfreundschaft (1960-62), postcard from 1965.
With both a total landmass and coastline comparable to those of Bulgaria, the DDR’s vacation spots could be roughly split into “coastal” and “everything else”. The Ostsee coast was by far the most popular “official” vacation destination, offering East German holidaymakers beaches that were (at least for a few months out of the year) as good as any in northern Europe. Coastal vacation spots also allowed the government to present a socialist utopia complete with sun, sand, and surf.
Binz, FDGB-Urlauberrestaurant Riga, postcard from 1989.
Urlaubs(t)räume des Sozialismus (whose title is both “vacation rooms” and “vacation dreams” of socialism) explores this dual function of DDR vacation spots as both practical destinations and propaganda showcases. While private hotels continued to operate side-by-side with government-built-and-run ones – sometimes harmoniously, sometimes not – the vast majority of the DDR’s holiday infrastructure was state-sponsored. The building and maintenance of most of the government-sponsored hotels fell under the auspices of the FDGB (Free German Trade Union Federation), the single union that ostensibly represented all workers in the DDR. As with other similar Eastern Bloc bureaucratic unions, however, many of its members founds themselves not quite as equal as the higher-ups when it came to securing a vacation spot.
Oberhof, Interhotel Panorama (1967-69), postcard from the 1970s.
Friedrichroda, FDGB-Ferienheim August Bebel (1977-80), postcard from 1989.
The book’s text is in German, and its approach is primarily academic with a layout that favors text over images. Nonetheless, bright, varied, and often surprisingly whimsical photos abound, and English-speaking readers, particularly those with at least a passing knowledge of German, will find plenty to enjoy in the book. The first chapter traces the pre-1930s history of holiday architecture in Germany, with a wealth of historical photos of inns, hotels, and natural settings. Many of these reappear in later chapters (in both DDR-era and post-1989 forms), offering photographic evidence of a continuum of vacation culture strong enough to last through a century of war and tragedy – and, with luck, into a post-pandemic era.
Urlaubs(t)räume des Sozialismus: Zur Geschichte der Ferienarchitektur in der DDR
Wasmuth & Zohlen
German, hardcover / 302 pages, €58