All Aboard the Nazi Express

A new exhibition of transportation ad posters in Berlin illustrates the important role vacations played in the rise and fall of the Third Reich.

After visiting the memorial for the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, the hero of the novel "I am studying German" ("J'apprends l'allemand") by French author Denis Lachaud, comes across a poster for German Railways. The hero reads the poster's slogan, "A person sometimes undergoes a kind of change when he is treated humanely," and thinks, "We feel good, today, on the train."

Similar thoughts – however inane – are easily evoked by the German Railways advertising posters on display in the "Around the World" exhibition now at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. The exhibition showcases a variety of 10th-century German tourism posters, including one designed in futuristic style by Herman Schneider for the 1936 Olympic Games held in the capital of the Third Reich. The poster, painted in watercolor, shows four train engines racing in opposite directions with text promising, "Safe, Fast, Comfortable."

The catalog for the exhibition discusses other slogans encouraging the use of trains in Nazi Germany. But unfortunately, most of the posters at the exhibition, which closes on September 1, are presented without the political backstory.

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, railway advertisements criticized Germans taking trains on vacations, urging: "First win, and then tour! Remember: The wheels have to turn for victory!" Another railway poster that was widespread during the war said: "In spite of everything, we're still traveling."

German trains, with all their historical baggage, are just a small part of the exhibition, curated by Andrea Von Hegel; most of the advertising posters on display are for other means of transportation.

"The exhibition takes the visitors on a journey across borders and periods and includes various means of transportation, including railways, shipping lines and airlines, and various vacation destinations both inside and outside Germany," says Von Hegel. "The exhibition provides a glimpse not only at the history of poster design and the economic development of tourism, but also at a variety of social, political and cultural aspects."

A patriotic duty

The museum, located on Unter der Linden in the heart of Berlin, selected 250 pieces for "Around the World" out of its collection of some 75,000 posters, most of which are political propaganda.

The selected posters reflect the upheavals of German history over the past century. The earliest ones are from the first decade of the 20th century, during the Second Reich, when tourism became more widespread – though most tourists were still members of the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie.

The exhibition then moves to the Weimar Republic, with its cultural flourishing and social and economic crises. Von Hegel says that during the 14 years of the republic, consumerism flourished, and the advertising business enlisted artists to find original ways to entice customers.

Many of the artists worked within the leading movement of the period, including Expressionism, Futurism and the New Objectivity. Some of their work reflects the legacy of the German Romantic period, which called for a return to nature to find freedom and authenticity.

"Many of the posters from the 1920s and 1930s present dreamlike images that express a yearning for distant lands," says Von Hegel. "In posters for destinations in Africa and Asia, there is an attraction to the exotic and erotic. In hindsight, such posters are material for a post-colonial analysis."

The clientele for foreign tourism were the wealthy – others had to make do with trips inside Germany. During the first years after World War I, there was also an ideological aspect: Spending a vacation within the borders of the country was seen at the time as a "patriotic duty."

The economic instability of the time is also in evidence. The rampant inflation of the early 1920s and the world economic crisis led to a steep decline in tourism. The catalogue says the fact that few could afford to take vacations became a political issue during the Weimar period and served as clear evidence of the class divisions in German society.

Pleasures sponsored by the Reich

The masses' yearning for vacation found some relief with the rise of Nazism in 1933. At the end of the year, a large governmental organization called "Strength Through Joy" was established to narrow class differences. The organization provided leisure activity at low cost, including shows, sports events, trips and spa vacations. The organization's posters, shown in "Around the World," describe a pastoral Germany and include images of couples and families enjoying themselves in the forest. The Nazi ideology is not specifically expressed, but occasionally implied. In a 1938 poster for trips to Italy called "All roads lead to Rome," arrows bearing the flags and symbols of several countries point to the Italian capital, with the Nazi-swastika arrow front and center.

"Strength Through Joy" also operated large ships that took passengers on pleasure cruises (among them the "Wilhelm Gustloff," which was sunk by the Red Army in 1945 with thousands of refugees on board – an event considered the biggest sea disaster in history). Millions of German citizens, many of them from the working class, participated in trips and cruises. The organization soon became the largest tourism agency in the world, constituting one-seventh of the German industry.

As historical studies have shown, these trips were among the main reasons why the first years of the Third Reich, up to the outbreak of the war, were perceived by many Germans as a stable and normal period, with many positive aspects. The trips were considered a reflection of the regime's social welfare policy. But not everyone was included: Jews and members of other groups persecuted by the Nazis were not allowed to participate.

The political importance of the trips was explained by the leader of the German Labor Front, Robert Ley: "The Fuhrer gave me an order, 'Make sure that the German worker gets his vacation, so he won't be irritable, because whatever I want, if the German people's nerves aren't calm, nothing will help me. Everything depends on the fact that the German masses are strong enough to absorb my ideals.'"

The masses did absorb Hitler's ideals, but after a few years of "travel fever," 1939 was bad for tourism, at least the last third of the year. When the war erupted in September, all "Strength Through Joy" trips were canceled, and the organization's ships were given to the navy. The Nazis began characterizing vacations as parasitic in their propaganda and eventually banned them altogether. The prohibition was later lifted, but as Germany came increasingly under attack over the course of the war, the tourism industry grew paralyzed and once-calm German nerves increasingly frayed.

Behind the Iron Curtain

"Around the World" continues from the Nazi era to the Cold War, when Germany was divided into two countries – communist East Germany and capitalist West Germany. A West German poster from the early 1950s to encourage tourism to Berlin shows the Brandenburg Gate and calls on people to visit "The City of the Liberty Bell."

Von Hegel notes that the postwar "economic miracle" in West Germany led to a tremendous increase in tourism, while in East Germany, there were many restrictions. The East German tourism market was controlled by the communist regime and travel was organized and subsidized by the workers' union. Vacations were mainly inside Germany at first, with other countries in the Communist Bloc, including the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria, added later. Lucky tourists got to travel to Cuba.

The countries of the capitalist West remained behind the Iron Curtain, and visiting them required a special government permit – issued only for trips that could be shown to be necessary or to visit relatives living there. In the fall of 1989, in mass demonstrations in East Germany, the people demanded unrestricted tourism, leading eventually to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the regime. One of the slogans was "A Free Visa to Hawaii!"

The need for vacations played an important role in the dramatic events of that year. Tens of thousands of East Germans ostensibly left for vacations in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, but their real goal was to flee to the West. Hungary allowed thousands of them to cross the border into Austria, and many others requested political asylum in the West German embassies in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw.

About 4,000 East Germans in the embassy in Prague were permitted to leave for West Germany in an event that accelerated the popular uprising against the communist regime. On November 9, 1989 at 6:53 P.M., a government spokesman announced a change in the rules for leaving the country and a cancellation of restrictions – and that night the Berlin Wall was brought down after being stormed by the masses. About a year later, the two Germanys were united.

German Historical Museum