UCL European Institute


A "Second Invasion"?

21 May 2014, 12:00 am

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60 years ago this May, the first German tourists after the war were greeted with ambivalence.
Dr Julia Wagner
20 May 2014

In May 1954 an estimated quarter of a million West German tourists came to the Netherlands to admire the fields of blossoming tulips. Visa requirements between the Federal Republic of Germany and several of its neighbour states had recently been alleviated and German tourists no longer had to apply for travel documents. However, in Amsterdam and in a few towns across the country the new arrivals were greeted with posters proclaiming: "Germans not wanted".

This caused a stir in the Dutch and West German press. The representative of the German tourist board in Amsterdam wrote to his superior sent a long report to his superiors explaining the situation. He reassured their superiors at the Foreign office that this incident was not in fact representative of the Dutch attitude towards German visitors to their country which he characterised as 'not generally unfriendly'. However, he pointed out that the timing had been unfortunate because the arrival large numbers of Germans had coincided with the anniversary of the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940. He stated that many Dutch people had 'not yet forgotten' the events of the war and interactions with them therefore required 'a lot of tact'. In the past, German tourists had on occasion failed on this account; there had been complaints about groups of German tourists drunkenly singing Nazi tunes or proudly relating anecdotes about their deployment to the Netherlands during the war. A report sent to the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of West Germany from the German consulate general in The Hague noted that there had also been some raised eyebrows at the fact that so many German visitors arrived in very expensive cars, which was perceived as an inappropriate display of wealth by a nation which had been defeated only ten years previously. But there was much ground for optimism as well, the report states: Leading personalities of the resistance movement had immediately spoken out against the anti-German campaign criticizing the use of the same methods which had previously been employed by the German occupiers.  Furthermore, many Dutch people had offered shelter to foreigners who were camping out in their cars because all hotels were fully booked.

This episode illustrates the deep ambivalence with which German mass tourists were received in parts of Europe which had previously been at war or occupied by Nazi Germany. In postwar Europe tourism became a fast growing industry. In West Germany going on a holiday was soon considered the norm rather than a luxury with more holidaymakers venturing abroad each year. Hundreds of thousands and later millions flocked into Austria, Italy and many other European countries to enjoy the climate, culture and attractions of foreign destinations. By 1968 more West Germans were spending their main annual holiday trip abroad rather than at home. Because of restrictions on free travel and foreign exchange, tourism patterns of East German tourism differed significantly from the West. However, East Germans were soon allowed to visit other socialist countries. Bilateral agreements with Poland and Czechoslovakia boosted foreign tourism and after the building of the Berlin wall in 1961 travelling to Comecon countries became easier. In the 1970s the number of GDR citizens undertaking foreign travel rose to up to one quarter of the population. Despite all differences between East and West, Germans became the tourism 'world champions' (Hasso Spode).

Many East and West German tourists chose to spend their holidays in European countries which had been trampled by 'German soldiers' boots' (Axel Schildt) during World War II. The inhabitants of these countries had often suffered brutal persecution and starvation. Millions had died in the fighting and bombing campaigns; Jewish populations had been decimated in the Holocaust. Many of the cities and villages had been destroyed as well as much of the infrastructure. In many parts of Europe the effects of destruction were still visible and memories of wartime violence fresh. Now, a decade later, people in these countries encountered Germans again - this time not in the guise of soldiers but as paying guests. Tourism therefore became the first opportunity when large groups of former enemies encountered each other under new circumstances. While the postwar tourism boom created significant financial incentives and new possibilities, the arrival of mass tourism was also accompanied by insecurity and ambivalence. It required a process of adaptation both on behalf of the hosts and the tourists.

Most German tourists set out to have a good time and enjoy the lighter side of life while forgetting about the problems of everyday life for the duration of their holiday. However, they often encountered reminders of the violent past during their stay abroad. These could be incidents of resentment, such as name-calling, being served last in restaurants or, in rare instances, physical violence. Yet most were more subtle encounters, such as noticing wartime destruction, topics coming up in conversations with locals, or other occurrences, which triggered reflection about the events that had happened here and elsewhere during Nazi rule. These - often unexpected - reminders were in discord to the dominant, socially acceptable narrative of a happy and successful holiday and presented a challenge to their identity as tourists.

There also is another side to German foreign tourism after the Second World War. While the majority of German tourists' priorities lay in enjoying 'sun, sand, sea', as one slogan advertising holidays in the Netherlands put it in 1958, some Germans travelled abroad specifically to revisit and remember aspects of the recent past. Among them were former soldiers returning to the sites where they had served during the war, relatives visiting the graves of soldiers killed in action and buried abroad or ethnic Germans returning as tourists to the homes they had been expelled from in Central and Eastern Europe. These tourists wanted to commemorate or celebrate specific memories and aspects of the past. This could also lead to tensions between them and local communities. The report from the consulate general cited above criticised the 'naïve nonchalance' which characterized the manner in which many German holiday makers referred to the past on their visits to the Netherlands. It mentions the example of a German tourist taking a boat tour of the harbour in Amsterdam who casually told the Dutch boatman that he had been responsible for blowing up the harbour facilities and had returned to see what had become of it. The writer of the report concludes that even though these were isolated incidents, word about them 'spread like wildfire' and 'caused great harm'. The German officials at the consulate thus breathed a sigh of relief when the tulip season of 1954 came to an end. They were content that they had 'gotten off lightly'. Now they wanted to 'close this chapter' and confidently and calmly looked ahead to the next tulip season.

In general, mass tourism in Europe developed peacefully and there were few incidents of open or concerted hostility towards German tourists. Some scholars and journalists have seen this as proof that tourism contributed to postwar reconciliation. The more likely interpretation is that foreign tourism was made possible by the postwar rapprochement between European states. It was primarily a symptom beginnings of mutual acceptance and peaceful coexistence in a continent recently ravaged by war rather than its cause. However, over time the exchange of tourists contributed to a familiarisation with and acceptance of each other. This was a gradual process; For a long time the deep wounds left by the experience of war and occupation were still smarting underneath the polite façade. German tourists were welcomed as guests in Europe, but they were observed more warily than visitors from other countries.

  • Dr Julia Wagner, Research Fellow, UCL School of European Languages, Culture and Society.