Wellness under the Swastika Vacationland for Hitler-Era Germans

Brochures and posters from before World War II give an eerie, uncanny glimpse of everyday life in Fascist Germany. Nazis, of course, didn't think of themselves as monsters.


Seaside idyll: A beach with wicker chairs, a dock stretching into the glimmering ocean, leisurely tourists relaxing in the sun. A swastika flutters over everything, on a flagpole. It's a photo from a brochure printed in 1941, meant to lure vacationers to the Baltic Sea coast.

Another brochure has a photo of Germans exercising in organized rows on the beach, and another photo of a woman aiming a bow and arrow into the sky. Westerland Beach, on the North Sea island of Sylt, 1937: "Beach games and athletic activities of all kinds -- in particular the old Teutonic art of archery -- will reawaken your joy of living."

This is how tourist brochures looked under Hitler. The Fascist era presented itself as a sunny, health-conscious new age. Thousands of Germans who had lived through a depression in the 1920s managed under Nazism to afford their first vacations, supported by a government leisure organization called Kraft durch Freude ("Strength Through Joy") as well as the economic upswing of the '30s. Most of these brochures were Kraft durch Freude propaganda. But Hasso Spode, professor and author of a tourism study ("Wie die Deutschen Reiseweltmeister wurden," or "How the Germans Conquered World Travel," published only in German) says they shaped at least one part of the contemporary German psyche: The cliché of Germans as globetrotting tourists "is a product of the Nazi era," even if its origins lie further back, he says.

The Hitler-era tourism boom lasted almost until 1939, when the war started. Kraft durch Freude functioned for a while as the world's largest tourist agency. Spode estimates that 43 million Germans went on state-sanctioned trips, spending millions of Reichsmarks in hotels, restaurants, mountain huts, lakes, and parks.

The propaganda tried to show Germans as well as the rest of the world what Fascist Germany had to offer: golf courses, auto shows, ski slopes, movie stars. "We have a great goal in mind," Josef Goebbels was quoted as saying in one brochure. "To make Germany a vacationland not just for our own people, but for the entire world."

And -- in spite of increasing worldwide skepticism about Hitler's regime -- foreign tourism increased in Germany until the Kristallnacht pogrom on November 9, 1938, caused the market to collapse.

After the war, the tone changed. A Berlin map from 1948 lists former tourist attractions and their condition: "Schloss Charlottenburg -- destroyed; Zoo Station -- under repair; Brandenburg Gate -- damaged," etc. Before and after pictures show how the war begun by Germany had converted its capital to ruins.

With reporting by Florian Harms

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