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The Borders of Friendship: Transnational Travel and Tourism in the East Bloc, 1972-1989

  • Author(s): Keck-Szajbel, Mark Aaron
  • Advisor(s): Connelly, John
  • et al.
Abstract

The "borders of friendship" was an open border travel project between Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland starting in 1972. The project allowed ordinary citizens to cross borders with a police-issued personal identification card, and citizens of member countries were initially allowed to exchange unlimited amounts of foreign currency. In this episode of liberalized travel - still largely unknown in the West - the number of border-crossings between member states grew from the tens of thousands to the tens of millions within a very brief period.

This dissertation analyses the political, economic, social and cultural effects of this open border policy. It first clarifies what motivated authorities in Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia to promote unorganized foreign tourism in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, it explores how authorities encouraged citizens to become tourists. Governments wanted the "borders of friendship" to be successful, but they were unsure how to define success. Each government had different understandings about what the project was supposed to entail. Whatever the case, officials worked to ensure that their population reaped the greatest rewards from the open border.

For ordinary citizens, the "borders of friendship" were popular, but were fraught with problems. They liked being able to go abroad, but felt uneasy about foreigners entering their own lands, often plagued by shortages. Additionally, border guards and custom officials harassed people going abroad. Furthermore, people had not forgotten unpleasant chapters of World War II, including forced population movements and genocide. Finally, even if people gained a greater sense of "freedom" through open borders, few forgot the looming presence of the totalitarian state.

Yet the open border project (like the travel it was meant to encourage) was not organized by the state. Contrary to commonplace views of the East bloc, officials did not act in unison, but rather struggled unsuccessfully to control undesirable travel and to gain reliable information to disseminate to socialist neighbors. Additionally complicating matters was the fact that everyone had different understandings as to what the open border project was meant to entail. Nevertheless, even if locals were chagrinned by shortages in their supermarkets, the open border project provided everyday individuals with a new social environment. By 1989, travel had become engrained in the habitus not only of citizens in the West, but of East Central Europe, as well.

In sum, I paint a picture of late state socialism which, on the one hand, alters our commonplace perceptions of life behind the "Iron Curtain," but on the other, which also confirms views of governments hyper-sensitive to change.

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