‘Hamster shopping’ in East Germany: The Open Border and its Problems
The introduction of visa-free travel on the border between the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Poland on 1 January 1972 was met with scenes of optimism and celebration in communities throughout the border region. As mentioned in a previous post, the border between these two communist states had been established along the Oder–Neisse line in the late 1940s, and had immediately been sealed. The hordes of Germans who had been expelled from those German territories transferred to Poland had been cut off from their former homes, while regions and even towns had been divided in two. This situation had persisted for two decades, until negotiations in the early 1970s had led to an agreement to open the border again.
Multitudes of East German and Polish citizens took advantage of their newfound freedom of travel: an estimated 6.7 million of the former and 9.4 million of the latter in the first year alone . Over the following few years, East Germans, particularly the younger generations, took pleasure in sampling the more diverse and liberalized Polish culture, and numerous cross-border friendships, economic partnerships, cultural collaborations and even marriages resulted .
Less tangibly, the increased personal contact that all this entailed began the overdue process of correcting negative impressions and counteracting prejudice. Indeed, the East German government claimed that this had been the main aim of the border opening .
This aim, however, quickly proved beyond either the ability or the will of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) to achieve. The ‘initial euphoria’ that greeted the border opening proved short-lived, and the remainder of the 1970s saw mounting tension between East Germans and Poles .
A ‘shopping paradise’?
To a large extent, this tension was stoked by the economic activities of Polish visitors to the GDR, which provoked mounting popular anger as the decade wore on. Some of this anger related to the smuggling and black market dealing conducted by a minority of Poles, taking advantage of the price differential between the GDR and Poland . Far greater outrage, however, was provoked by less illicit practices, chiefly the form of cross-border shopping trips known as Einkaufstourismus (shopping tourism).
Shopping rapidly became the main reason for crossing the border by citizens of both states. The Poles, eager to sample the ‘shopping paradise’ of the GDR, took to it particularly enthusiastically. Goods favoured by Polish shoppers included women’s and children’s clothing, luxury foodstuffs and alcohol (particularly beer), and these priorities remained consistent throughout the decade .
Though these items may have been more readily available in the GDR than in Poland, however, the peculiarities of the socialist economic system meant that they were in limited supply on both sides of the border. Both economies were marked by inflexible central planning and a concentration on heavy industry at the expense of consumer products. While SED First Secretary Erich Honecker and Edward Gierek, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, had come to power with the intention of improving the provision of consumer goods, the situation was only in the early stages of its redress when the border was opened. Competition for scarce commodities in these ‘shortage economies’ was therefore fierce, even among their own citizens .
Einkaufstouristen from Poland put GDR markets under still greater strain, and were perceived by the populace as threatening ‘economic interlopers’ . This was of particular concern in the border region, which, as the area containing most of the major tourist destinations, bore the brunt of the economic impact.
Epithets old and new
The popular anger prompted by what were seen as the excesses of Polish ‘shopping fever [Kaufwut]’ was expressed in a ‘surprisingly vocal’ manner, becoming increasingly commonplace in the mid-1970s . A growing number of letters and citizens’ petitions sent to SED offices consisted of complaints about Polish buying habits and arguments in favour of a ‘closed national economy’.
Many complaints related simply to the inconveniences and shortages arising from Polish Einkaufstourismus, including such criticisms as: ‘the Poles buy up everything: the shops are full of people, and all you hear from them is Polish’, or indignant reports of Polish shoppers queuing hours before opening time in order to gain an advantage over the locals . As early as 1972, workers in Görlitz, a split town directly on the border, were complaining that: ‘some Polish citizens are not behaving as proper guests of our state. This can be seen in their increasingly obvious hamster shopping [Hamstereinkaufen], and in their occasionally rude behaviour towards shop assistants’ .
These frustrations were evident in a protest poem written by a worker at a factory in Dippoldiswalde in 1980:
I’ve just been to the Central Warehouse, There was nothing on the shelves, not even a mouse. The Poles and their kin were crammed ceiling to floor, While all the dumb Germans stood Outside the door. And at the Old Market, what did I see But all the Czechs on a shopping spree. They’d filled their pockets right up to the brim But still they watched dumbly – the Germans so dim. And on the bus home as I made a retreat, A Russian sat down on the opposite seat.
Often, however, these sentiments were also infused with ethnic slurs based on the stock concepts and stereotypes of traditional anti-Polonism. The activities of Polish Einkaufstouristen were viewed by many East Germans as vindications of these historical prejudices. Comments along the lines of: ‘the Polish swine are too lazy to work. That’s why they’ve got so much time to buy out everything here’, reveal a fusion of old and new prejudices informing this xenophobia. In a similar, but cruder, vein, Poles were described as ‘dogs’, ‘damned vermin’, a ‘swarm of locusts’ and the less dehumanizing, but nonetheless prejorative, ‘Polacks’ .
East German shopkeepers and customers interacting with Poles became more antagonistic, with officials recording numerous examples of their ‘insulting Polish tourists to their faces’ and even ‘screaming abuse at them’, and of arguments breaking out in shops and restaurants. In some cases, these conflicts led to physical assaults .
These and other outbursts serve as examples of what Jonathan Zatlin terms the ‘conflation of ethnicity with economy’ in the minds of many East Germans—that is, they ascribed the problems caused by Einkaufstourismus to innate racial and cultural differences, rather than to weaknesses in the economic system of either state .
In some cases, however, the Polish shoppers gave as good as they got. Some behaved in a demanding or overbearing way in shops, and occasionally became insulting, aggressive or even violent when told they could not buy certain restricted goods. Sales staff in the border region grew increasingly demoralized, and many began calling in sick or even applying for transfers to avoid interacting with Polish customers .
A missed opportunity?
In the event, the open-border period was short-lived, with the SED unilaterally restoring full travel restrictions in October 1980. This was primarily due to the Solidarity crisis that developed in Poland, and the SED’s fear that ‘counter-revolution’ could spread to the GDR. Nonetheless, it seems likely that the economic tensions played a role in the party’s decision. At the very least, they left relations between East Germans and Poles frostier than before in many respects. A substantial number of East Germans responded to the border closure either with relief, or with the opinion that this should have been done sooner to prevent further ‘buying out’ of shops and supplies .
The prejudices, both old and new, that had arisen in response to Polish Einkaufstourismus persisted throughout the 1980s, and undid at least some of the reconciliation fostered by the border opening. While German–Polish relations would eventually improve, it would not be under the auspices of the communists and their ‘socialist brotherhood’.
All translations from primary sources have been done by the author, with varying levels of fidelity to the original.