Nobody needs an Airport

Zur deutschen Fassung.

Have you been wondering how the revolutionary 9-euro ticket has transformed travel in Germany?

Well, as expected, trains and buses are visibly fuller, sometimes crowded, although rarely overcrowded. (And if so, it’s always because of people who insist on bringing their bicycle on a train.)

Roads and highways are less congested. There are fewer accidents. People are more relaxed. Everyone is happier.

And because everyone can now afford to take the comfortable, scenic and romantic railroad, almost nobody has to use uncomfortable, claustrophobic and unreliable airplanes anymore.

Trying to find out how air travel in Germany has been affected, I decided to walk to the airport in Berlin last night. With my penchant for romantic situations, I got there just in time for the sunset.

And I was in for quite a surprise: The airport was almost empty. It was open for business, theoretically, but nobody wanted to use those gas-guzzling planes anymore. All the parking was empty. I could walk around the terminals without any security stopping me. People had taken over the runway for cycling, roller-blading, jogging and picnicking.


Posted in Germany, Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

Drug Dealers with an Honor Code

Zur deutschen Fassung.

July 2022. Hasenheide in Berlin-Neukölln. A large, green park with a petting zoo, an open-air cinema, a dog-walking area, an arboretum, a monument to the women who allegedly rebuilt Germany after World War II (which is a myth), a rose garden, a mini-golf course, a snack bar that doesn’t offer currywurst but is desperately seeking employees, the first gymnastics field created by the famous Friedrich Ludwig Jahn personally in 1811, and the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple, the completion of which is taking even longer than that of the infamous Berlin airport.

Where the paths and trails intersect, men are standing around in a conspicuously inconspicuous manner. Sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes three. From time to time, one of them disappears into the bushes and buries something or digs something up. Like a squirrel.

I usually assume the best in people and would therefore like to think that the men are looking for a lost cat. Or collecting signatures for one of the many referendums in Berlin. (The one with the universal basic income would suit me very well.) Or philosophizing about the oxymoronic nature of illiberal democracies, while enjoying the fresh air.

But since they don’t even attempt to strike up a conversation with me, a recognizably referendum-signing-willing cat lover who is an enthusiastic philosopher, I have to cast off the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, look cruel reality into the eye and realize that these men are probably selling substances that the legislature, which is meeting only a few kilometers away – if they weren’t on summer recess already – has relegated to annex I of section 1 paragraph 1 of the Narcotics Act and thus to illegality.

Almost nowhere in the world am I being bothered by dope dealers, marijuana merchants and opium offers, which is probably due to me looking rather decent and law-abiding, not to say boring. Hence, people are always surprised when they hear about all my adventures. Probably, most drug consumers have more bourgeois lives than me. Some of them might even have a mortgage. Or iron their shirts.

One evening, I interrupt my sauntering and sit down on a bench for a break, when I unexpectedly overhear snippets of conversation from the group on the next bench, about 10 meters away.

Initially, I deem them to be consumers of the aforementioned dietary supplement, but apparently, it is local knowledge that they are also active in the production, or at least the distribution thereof.

Three youngsters walk past, then take heart or whatever organ controls addiction, turn around and ask the three gentlemen, a lady and a dog if it was at all possible to purchase some “weed” from them. A cleverly chosen code word, I think appreciatively. After all, the park is called “Hasenheide”, which means “Rabbits’ Heath”, so the FBI surveillance satellite won’t think of anything suspicious when it hears the word “weed”, but merely of cute little bunnies.

“No way,” one of the men on the bench says, “we ain’t sellin’ nothing to no kids.”

“We are not kids,” retorts one of the juveniles, “we are teenagers”.

“Law says you’re a kid ’til you turn 18,” explains the man on the bench. “And when you facin’ the judge, it makes a huge difference if you sold to an adult or a kid.”

He seems to speak from personal experience with the justice system, although that does not prevent him from continuing with his small business.

“Kids always rat on you,” says one of the other men on the bench.

“And when word gets out that we are selling to kids, the park will soon be full of police again”, adds the third man. It sounds like he enjoys the park much more without any law enforcement present.

“Don’t you have an older brother?” asks the woman from the quartet on the bench. Apparently not.

Unfortunately, I don’t catch the whole conversation, but the teenagers probably claim that they are adults already or close to it, because the drug dealers reply, sternly: “Then let’s see your ID cards!”

At least one of them is so close to his 18th birthday that the drug cartel is getting soft. The dealers even roll the joints for the kids, because they suspect that the boys would never be able to do it so neatly.

I can’t tell whether they concluded a sale or whether it was an early birthday gift. In any case, the dealers insist that the teenagers consume the herbal product on the spot. Under adult supervision, so to speak. In case one of the boys gets sick.

I guess the kids didn’t imagine their first drug experience to be so uncool. They whisper and giggle coyly while puffing.

Meanwhile, the drug dealers criticize the German government for being so slow with sending tanks to Ukraine: “Worst part is, even if they wanted to provide the tanks faster, they couldn’t. Coz you gotta involve 15 agencies, and every paper needs to be issued five times and signed and stamped by every Tom, Dick and Harry.” And all of that despite Ukraine being an adult.

Although I am listening as inconspicuously as I can, one of the drug dealers saunters over to me on a reconnaissance mission and then back to his buddies. It probably bothers them that I am smoking a cigar, and they fear that I might poach their customers with this refined tobacco product.

The greater threat to their business, however, looms from the legalization which the German government has announced. A few weeks ago, the “International Cannabis Business Conference” was held in Berlin, where pharmaceutical companies, law firms and management consultants jostled for market share. I guess the people there have fewer moral scruples than the nice folks in the park.

Instead of Hashish Heath, I now usually go to some of the beautiful cemeteries in the neighborhood. The drug dealers don’t go there. I guess that too would violate their honor code.


Posted in Germany, Law, Photography | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Escaping the War

You can’t hear it in the photo, but the girl was crying.

Photographed in Solotwyno, Ukraine, in July 2022.

Posted in Photography, Ukraine | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

One Hundred Years Ago, two young Men left Bavaria for the United States – June 1922: the Vogl Brothers

Zur deutschen Fassung.

When thinking about migration, we distinguish between push- and pull-factors when we try to get to the bottom of migrants’ and refugees’ reasons to move/flee. The former refer to incentives to leave a place and move away. Common causes are poverty, war, political or religious oppression. The latter try to explain why migrants choose a particular place as their destination. These may be economic opportunities or a preferred political system, but also linguistic or cultural proximity, more sunshine, or family members already living abroad.

Based on my own experience, I would like to add an often overlooked reason: Boredom. Or, to put it more positively: Curiosity. A sense of adventure. Wanderlust.

For me, the wish to see more of the world has always been the natural state of mind. Even as a child, I gazed longingly at the world map above my bed, devoured travel books (back then there was no interweb, let alone fantastic world travel blogs like this one), collected stamps from all over the world, looked up the places in the atlas, and brightened up every time I heard foreign languages on the radio or in the street.

The bad habit of spending one’s entire life in one place seems absurd to me, even unnatural, considering how diverse the world is. Perhaps this was still understandable in times when life expectancy was a meager 30 years, so that after high school, military service and university, only two years remained until death. (If you were very unlucky, those 30 years coincided with the Thirty Years’ War, the Eighty Years’ War or the Hundred Years’ War.) But now we are all going to become 80, 90 or 100 years old. If you don’t want to be bored to death, you have to move to another country every seven years at the latest!

Unfortunately, fate had condemned me not only to grow up in a boring little village in Bavaria, but had also punished me with a rather provincial family, for whom it would have been unthinkable to move further than 10 km from their birthplace.

I always wanted to leave that place. That’s probably why I became a globetrotter and a global citizen. In this respect, I can well understand that – to finally get to the actual story – my great-granduncle Josef Vogl emigrated from this farm in the Bavarian Forest to the USA exactly one hundred years ago, in June 1922.

Now, this does not exactly qualify as an event of world history, as most of the events covered in previous episodes of this small, but fine history series. But I would like to bother you with it nevertheless. For one, because the countless cases of this and similar emigrations together did make world history, in this specific case the emigration of millions of Germans all over the world. On the other hand, I would like you to join me on the trail of research, because I would not be surprised if your family history also contains hitherto unknown migration stories. (In the USA alone, 45 million people give their main ancestry as “German”, and in Canada, Australia, South Africa and Latin America, too, I have met a great many people with amazingly German/Austrian/Swiss sounding names.)

For me, curiosity was kicked off with two photos, taken around 1960, showing my father (the Elvis impersonator), my uncle (the Hitler impersonator), the rest of the extended family, and an unknown man who is obviously the center of attention.

“That was Frank from America,” my father says. Actually, his name was Franz. Franz Vogl, the younger brother of Josef Vogl. Both emigrated to the USA. Josef came to visit once after World War II, Franz/Frank returned twice. Each time at Pentecost, because there is always a hell of a party in Kötzting. Something like the Oktoberfest, but with horses.

“And they got mighty drunk,” my father remembers, “because Frank had dollars.”

Maybe it was because of that drunkenness, but that was all I could get out of my father and uncle. They did not know where in the USA their great uncles had lived. They did not know when and why they had emigrated. They did not know – beyond Franz Vogl’s wife shown in the photo – about any families, descendants and thus possible cousins and other relatives. They did not know whether they were Republicans or Democrats. They didn’t know what they had done in World War II. Nothing at all.

At some time in the 1960s, contact had broken off.

In our family, it is considered suspicious to leave one’s home and venture out into the world. Traveling is considered frivolous, a heretical attempt to leave one’s God-given place on Earth. As I said, I can understand why Josef and Franz wanted to leave. And so I am the only one who is interested in this story. But even I forgot about it for a while.

Until I was in New York again and took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. That’s the lady with a torch reciting a poem that includes the call: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

That slogan is quite appropriate, because the Statue of Liberty was indeed the first thing to be spotted by most immigrants who came to New York by ship. Before they were allowed into the country, however, they landed on a neighboring island, Ellis Island, where, until 1954, the central immigration processing point of the USA was located.

Now the former holding room for immigrants is a museum. Here, you can learn how immigration policy changed over time, what requirements immigrants had to fulfill, how the medical examination and quarantine worked. I walked through the arrival hall, the doctors’ rooms and the dormitories, where my relatives felt solid ground under their feet again for the first time after crossing the Atlantic.

By the way: Make sure that you don’t accidentally take the ferry to Rikers Island instead of Liberty Island or Ellis Island. From there, you wouldn’t be able to leave that easily.

On Ellis Island, they had those new-fashioned computer terminals, where you could search for relatives – or for anyone, really. Practically like an archive, only without the romance of leafing through thick books for hours. I knew precious little except that there were two brothers, named Franz and Josef Vogl. Let’s see what I could find with that.

First, I learned that Vogl is a rather common name: 827 hits. (My great-granduncles had a different surname from mine because they come from a grandmotherly line and because the women in my family have not yet been emancipated enough to keep their surnames after marriage.) With my own last name, Moser, there are 6377 hits. Among them even 9 Andreas Moser, who emigrated to the USA between 1866 and 1936. Oh, if only I had met one of them by chance in the port tavern before departure. I might have snatched the ticket from him and used it myself.

If you know the year of birth, the year of emigration or other information, you can narrow down the search. You can also filter by hometown and birthplace. But I’ll demonstrate in a moment why the latter doesn’t make sense. The two came from Kötzting in the Bavarian Forest, but Kötzting does not yield any hits. Neither does Koetzting. Nor Kotzting. So I have to look through the list manually and finally find the two. They didn’t give the nearest town, as I would do when arriving in New York, but the name of their village: Traidersdorf.

There they are: Josef Vogl, emigrated in 1922, and his younger brother Franz Vogl, who followed him in 1923. (The last column contains the name of the ship on which they traveled.)

You can track this search or research your own relatives, because the database is accessible online. Free of charge. (You just have to register to use all the features.)

Let’s first look at Josef Vogl, because it was him who exactly 100 years ago gave us the reason to celebrate this centenary.

Right away I find out that he was born in 1893, that he arrived in New York on the ship “President Taft” on 30 June 1922 at the age of 29, and that he had set sail from Bremen. (After crossing the Atlantic twice, the “President Taft” was renamed the “President Harding,” so don’t let the image captions confuse you.)

This was already a proper cruise liner, not one of those creaky windjammers, half of which drowned. 18 knots. Space for 644 passengers, half in first class, half in third. The ship was only commissioned in 1922, so the paint still smelled fresh, the brass railings shone, and because it was summer, no one was afraid to hit icebergs, polar bears or penguins.

I could write about the highly competitive market for emigration to America now, about the cartels of the shipping companies, the emigration agents going around the countryside, with their brochures about the happy and prosperous life overseas, where everyone can have their own gold rush – or at least their own farm.

I could write about what the journey to Bremen meant for someone who, until then, only knew whatever villages could be reached within a day’s walk from the family farm. (This was before the time when the Wehrmacht sent German men on long trips abroad.) It’s actually not that far. One or two days by train, at a total cost of only 9 euros. But as far as I know, besides the two emigrating brothers, I am the only one in the extended family who has ever made it to Bremen.

I could write about the conditions on board, the differences between first and third class, the calm seas in summer, the stormy seas in winter, and the joy of a few weeks without any internet and television.

I could tell you that Josef Vogel was by far not the only one from that village who emigrated. They were a whole group of young men and women who left home together.

But I don’t want to write a whole book about this, and will thus attempt to reign in my wandering thoughts, leading them straight to the other side of the Atlantic, to New York. It was there where, on said 30 June 1922, some clerk made a meticulous list of all arriving passengers, with Josef Vogl being first in line. Whether this means that he confidently strode off the steamship as the first passenger, or if he was the sea-sickest of them all, or whether it was mere coincidence, I don’t know.

What I do learn is that he was 5 feet 6 inches tall (1.67 meters), had blonde hair, grey eyes and 50 dollars in his pocket. That would be about 800 dollars today, not really an impressive amount for starting a new life. I guess he had to look for work pretty soon.

A very interesting column is the first stop where the immigrant wants to go until he can stand on his own two feet. “Friend Josef Sturm – Carroll JA” it says. For one thing, the name suggests that this is a friend from Germany. That wouldn’t be a surprise, since German immigrants liked to keep to themselves. They had German schools, German churches, German clubs and hundreds of German-language newspapers. There were German neighborhoods in the cities and German towns in the countryside, from Bismarck to Germantown.

Deutsche Zeitungen in Nordamerika

I didn’t know what “Carroll JA” was supposed to mean, until I figured out that the J is meant to be an I: Carroll, Iowa. From Traidersdorf to Carroll, that’s like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Or, as we say in German: escaping the rain into the water tower, which coincidentally is the proud landmark of this small town in the flat countryside. Well, if it wasn’t so flat, you wouldn’t need a water tower to get the necessary pressure to the water pipes. By the way, even when I was a child (1970s and 1980s), the ice-cold water on the farm in the Bavarian Forest came from the well in front of the house.

To this small town, which probably is quite a nice place, I now would have to travel to dig through archives, old newspapers and look for gravestones in the cemetery, if I wanted to pick up the trail of my great-granduncle Josef Vogl.

Would have. If we weren’t dealing with a classic case of chain migration. Because Josef soon got his younger brother Franz to join him. Franz arrived in New York, as I also learn from the online archive of Ellis Island, on 6 July 1923 at the age of 26. He too had sailed from Bremen, on exactly the same ship as his older brother, which by now was called “President Harding.” (That July 6th is my birthday and that I am happy about any support for this blog is only worth mentioning in passing.)

Everything was neatly noted down for him, too (line 9). It is apparent that it was the time of the economic crisis and inflation in Germany, because he only had 20 dollars with him. But he stated that his brother had paid the passage for him. Which was nice. I would do the same for my brother and sister any time if they can no longer stand it at home.

But the most helpful piece of information in this document is the address provided by Franz Vogl as the destination of his journey in 1923: “Brother Josef Vogl, 2301 17th Avenue, Altoona PA.”

That’s a real bingo! Even before I have to dig through old boxes in the archives of Carroll, Iowa, I already know that Josef had moved to Altoona, Pennsylvania, within a year and his younger brother Franz followed him there. Altoona, by the way, is also one of those German towns; it’s the Americanized spelling of Altona near Hamburg. They even got mountains there, the Allegheny Mountains.

And they got plenty of railroads and locomotive factories. When I reported this to my father, he remembered that Franz/Frank had told him during his visit to Germany that he worked for the railroad. So you see: It does make sense to share even preliminary results, because then somebody will remember something they didn’t know they knew. These “Unknown Knowns” were even overlooked by Donald Rumsfeld.

But the biggest step forward is that we have not only the city, but the exact address. You can’t get more bingo than that! And because Americans had rebelled against the General Data Protection Regulation in 1775, every street in the USA is now photographed, filmed, bugged by the NSA and posted on the interweb. Here is a recent photo:

The communist star above the porch does indeed suggest a family connection. On the other hand, the house doesn’t look like it was built in the 1920s. Maybe the neighborhood looked completely different back then? Maybe 17th Avenue was in a different part of town 100 years ago? Maybe someone got the address wrong?

To find out more, I will simply write a letter to this address. Or travel to Altoona to investigate myself. Or hope that someone from Altoona will read this article.

Of course, I could also search the databases. But I prefer to do it the old-fashioned way. And besides, I want to leave something for future articles on the search for the long-lost relatives.

And you can launch your own investigation, too! Because, as you have seen: Even if you think your family is boring and has always lived in the same place ever since the Mongols settled, almost every family has someone with a migration story.

But don’t trust artificial intelligence too much! You gotta work with a detective’s creativity, thinking in all directions. An example: Only when I looked at the document dated 30 June 1922 for the third or fourth time did I notice that the column “previous stay in the USA” indicated the period 1914-1921.

What? Did Josef already emigrate for the first time in 1914, when he was just 21 years old? I searched and searched, but could find no entry in the Ellis Island database. Close to despair, I remembered how stupid computers are and how smart people are, searched only for the last name, and sure enough: This time, his name is spelled as Joseph, not Josef. And the place of birth has been wrongly transcribed as “Fraidersdorf”.

At that time, he sailed from Antwerp, on a Red Star Line ship, whose former port facilities now house a migration museum. As luck would have it, I have been there as well.

In 1914, Josef Vogl was already drawn to Carroll, going – with four other migrants – to the nephew of someone whose name I cannot decipher. But it means that he may have lived there much longer than I had previously thought. So I do have to go to the archives in Carroll, Iowa, after all.

What would be of particular interest to me: How did he spend the time of World War I? With the US entering the war in 1917, anti-German sentiment was spreading. As a young man, was he taken to one of the internment camps?

German internment WW1

The fact that migrants returned to their homeland after a few years and emigrated again later was nothing special, by the way. Since steamships had replaced the unsafe sailing ships and the journey had become relatively plannable, safe and comfortable, immigrants returned to Europe again and again. In order to get married. To take up an inheritance. Or to open a business with the money they had saved. Josef only stayed in Germany for one year, from 1921 to 1922.

In 1924, one year after Franz Vogl’s migration, the USA drastically tightened immigration rules and set quotas for certain countries of origin. This put an end to mass immigration. Good thing Josef and Franz made it in time. At least they were spared the Nazis that way.

And now I am curious about your own investigations into family history!


Posted in Germany, History, Travel, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Back from the Carpathians

Zur deutschen Fassung.

Shockingly little has happened on this blog in the last few months. :-(

First, this was due to university, where I am working on a paper about the history of labor in the Middle Ages and in Early Modernity. As any subject that you delve into deeply, this has turned out to be much more complicated (and even more interesting) than anticipated.

And, for the last two weeks, I was finally traveling again. For my birthday, I went to Romania and to Ukraine, whence I shall have some (hopefully) interesting stories for you. While I am working on these, here are a few photos to wet your appetite.

First, I went to Alba Iulia. As Romania’s secret capital, this will feature in an upcoming episode of my history series “One hundred years ago …”, because in October 1922, this is where King Ferdinand and Queen Marie were crowned. Almost one hundred years was also the time it took me to circumvent the citadel, the second-largest man-made defense structure in the world, just after the Great Wall of China.

There will also be a story about being locked in at the Botanical Garden and about a very legalistic playground.

Next, I went to Baia Mare, the lovely capital of Maramureș.

Travel between the cities was a delight not only for the view of mountains, rivers and the typical wooden houses, but also because I got to hang out in architectural gems like the Baia Mare bus station.

Or the train station in Sighet.

Sighet is quite a lively town for its size, with museums like the one for the victims of Romanian communism or Elie Wiesel’s childhood house, attracting visitors from around the world.

But I mainly used Sighet to walk across this wooden bridge into Ukraine.

For a country bracing full-out war, the border process was astonishingly easy and straightforward (and much friendlier than in other countries in peacetime). Even the trains are still running, although I had to hitchhike because I wanted to go to find the geographical center of Europe. Which I did.

The last stop on my trip, back in Romania, was Satu Mare. A very friendly town, with people everywhere taking time to talk. At the art museum, the director herself gave me a guided tour of the exhibition about Aurel Popp. In French. There seemed to be surprisingly little tourism, even though a brochure which I picked up from the tourist information boasted of direct flights between Satu Mare and New York. (The information was outdated, or had never been true.)

Satu Mare should be much better known, though, because it must be the world’s secret capital of Brutalism.

And as always, there will be plenty of cemeteries.

And cats. Both of these were photographed in Solotwyno, Ukraine. I guess you can tell whose owner is still around and whose owner has been killed.

But more about that in the upcoming articles.

In the meantime, take a look at my older articles about Romania and about Ukraine.

Do you want a posctard?

Actually, you would be surprised how hard it has become to find postcards in some places. But for you, dear reader, I’ll walk the extra miles!


Posted in Photography, Romania, Travel, Ukraine | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Slow Down!

Photographed on my last New Year’s Eve hike.

Posted in Life, Photography | 5 Comments

Film Review: “Top Gun Maverick”

I can keep this short:

A boring macho-kitschy movie, where half-dead actors are put on stage in a vain attempt to reanimate plots that have been dead for a long time.

The only good thing is that the flying seems to have been real, none of that computer-aided crap.

If you are interested in Navy aviation, I can recommend a really good book, though: “Another Great Day at Sea” by Geoff Dyer. In fact, this is a delightful read even if you are not at all interested in aviation, as Dyer uses his stay on an aircraft carrier to delve into sociology, economics, religion and the American psyche. Observing and story-telling at its best!


Posted in Cinema, Military, USA | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Walking from Kötzting to Viechtach

Zur deutschen Fassung.

That should be an easy walk, I thought, as there is a river connecting the two towns in the Bavarian Forest.

Well, there is a river. But there ain’t always a path. So I had to climb a bit. I had to walk through poison ivy. I got wet, muddy and exhausted.

It was a great day!

In the rest of the valley, from Viechtach to Gotteszell, they reactivated the old railway line, which is much more comfortable, of course. But that’s for another article.

And yes, this summer’s 9-euro ticket is also valid on scenic train journeys like this one.


Posted in Germany, Photography, Travel | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Battlefield Tourism – Then and Now

Zur deutschen Fassung.

The following is the English translation of a presentation I gave during a field trip with my university to Ypres. Because it’s a German university, there is a focus on German (language) sources and on the German approach to commemorating World War I. Still, I thought this might be of interest to some of my international readers as well.

Day trips to Chernobyl. Favela tours in Brazil. “Dark tourism” is the umbrella term for such trips, and many will dismiss is as the macabre idea of a time in which even death and suffering are exploited for business opportunities. But the phenomenon is not really that new.

The battlefields of Waterloo (Belgium, 1815) and Gettysburg (USA, 1863) already attracted visitors in the 19th century. The Western Front received visitors while the battles of World War I were still raging. Most of them were writers, but there were also some curious tourists. And the places that had been shelled for four straight years began to experience mass tourism as soon as the armistice was signed. In this article, I shall focus on Ypres in Belgium, because this city remains one of the most important “pilgrimage sites” on the Western Front until today – and because I went there with my university for a field trip in February 2020.

Battlefield tourism during World War I and immediately thereafter

Even though, as I mentioned in the introduction, battlefield tourism was no new phenomenon after 1918, it did experience exponential growth after World War I. One reason is the concurrence with mass tourism taking off at the same time. Technological advances raised the level of interest and curiosity as well as the opportunities to travel, beginning with cameras, with which the soldiers took photos, all the way to cheaper and easier transport, including the emerging all-inclusive package holidays.

Lieutenant J. W. Gamble, with the British Forces, predicted in December 1915:

Ypres will be flooded with tourists and sight-seers after the war, and they will be amazed by what they see.

During the war, it was mainly photographers, painters, journalists and writers who dared to visit the frontlines or get at least close enough to claim that they had “been there”. Some of the German book titles in particular read as if they wanted to encourage people to go on similar trips themselves: Five fronts. On the firing-lines with English, French, Austrian, German, and Russian troops by Robert Dunn [1915], Durch Belgien zur Westfront by Ludwig Ewers [1915], Reise zur deutschen Front by Ludwig Ganghofer [1915], Reise in den belgischen Krieg by Heinrich Eduard Jacob [1915], A Visit to Three Fronts, Glimpses of the British, Italian and French Lines by Arthur Conan Doyle [1916], The unbroken line. Along the French trenches from Switzerland to the North Sea by Warner Allen [1916], Un Tour d’Europe en temps de Guerre by Georges Verdene [1916], Im Auto durch Feindesland by Paul Grabein [1916], Mit Rucksack und Wanderstab durch Belgien an die Westfront by Karl Straub [1916], Mit dem Auto an der Front: Kriegserlebnisse by Anton Fendrich [1917], A Traveller in War-Time by Winston Churchill [1918], Aus den Pampas Argentiniens nach Ypern. Eine abenteuerliche Kriegsfahrt zur Front by Leo Toelke [1918].

Beginning with 1919, the first guidebooks were published, for example the Illustrated Michelin Guide to the Battlefields (1914-1918), pointing to frequent travel activity immediately after the war. Thomas Cook was one of the best known travel agencies to offer such tours, but by far not the only one. It has to be said though that the travel agency was cautious enough not to offer such tours while the fighting was still raging, despite repeated requests by customers. In March 1915, Thomas Cook announced in The Times that due to opposition from the French side, they would not yet offer any tours to the Western Front while there was active fighting.

But in 1919, the first coaches went to Flanders. In its brochures, Thomas Cook claimed that direct experience of the battlefields and the trenches was essential to get an authentic and complete picture of the “Great War.” The advertising was aimed at anyone who wanted to “pay tribute to the memory of the glorious dead.” In their 1920 guidebook, Thomas Cook portrayed the trip to the Western Front as a civic duty:

We do not know – and we cannot know – what war really means until we have visited the battlefields and the ruined towns and devastated miles upon miles in the north of France and Belgium. And it is our duty to visit them.

The battlefield is turned into the symbol of an entire war, where history is made tangible and palpable. And immediately after World War I, the landscape in Flanders was of course really and most visibly scarred by devastation.

In 1919, a bicycle race, the “Tour of the Battlefields”, also led through this scarred landscape. For obvious reasons, no German cyclists were allowed to take part.

German travel agencies also offered organized tours, as this example from the beginning of the 1930s shows:

Especially in the decades immediately after World War I, visitors often wanted to take home more than just photos or memories. Grenades, helmets, cooking utensils, everything that wasn’t nailed down was packed away, among others by the first curator of the Imperial War Museum, founded in 1917. From today’s perspective, this seems impious, almost like grave robbery, but how were these trips seen after 1918 by the participants and by those who stayed at home?

Contemporary reception of such trips

With ambivalence, is the unambiguous answer. Soon, a differentiation arose between seemingly “legitimate” visitors to the Western Front, such as veterans and relatives, and the “tourists”, who went for curiosity, sensation and even ghoulishness.

One of the most biting critiques against the latter group is the polemic “Reklamefahrten zur Hölle” (Marketing Trips to Hell) by Karl Kraus, written in 1921 and mocking the offer for the readers of the Basler Nachrichten, which advertised the trip to the Western Front like a jolly outing.

The dichotomy between “pilgrims” traveling for honorable motives and “profane tourists” was also reproduced again and again in English-language newspaper articles, poems, and literature of the time. A report in The Times of 7 June 1920 shows that quite some thought was given to how the journeys should be labeled:

The French have a better term for what are described in this country as battlefield tours. They call them pilgrimages.

Even the travel agencies were aware of the thin line of good/bad taste, along which their coaches were traveling to Flanders. Thomas Cook made it explicitly clear in their publications that the trips were in no way intended to serve the fascination of horror or other low motives.

In reality, such a clear separation between travel purposes may not have existed. In particular, visitors from overseas who could only afford a trip to Europe once in a lifetime combined visiting graves and commemorating with subsequent beach vacations or with Belgian beer.

Different purposes of battlefield tourism throughout the times

The less time had passed since the actual fighting, the more directly and immediately visitors felt connected to the countless deaths at the front. As long as trenches and battle debris were still clearly visible, there was no need for mediation by tour guides or museums.

Especially for the relatives and former comrades of fallen soldiers, places like Ypres were the cemetery where they could visit the grave. Ideally, this was a grave with a name, otherwise a memorial for unknown soldiers. This connection, even of the bereaved, to a particular place was probably more pronounced on the Western Front than in other theaters or in other wars, because here, in the trench war, soldiers were in one place for a long time, from where they wrote home again and again. Places like Ypres or Verdun thus became known names on the home front as well.

The surviving veterans were often only able to convey their memories to their family members while visiting the former frontline and the graves of their fallen comrades. In literature, too, one encounters the figure of the former soldier who must return (with family) to the front to overcome the trauma (Josefs Frau by Erich Maria Remarque, Douaumont oder die Heimkehr des Soldaten Odysseus by Eberhard Möller).

While during the war, the families of the fallen may still have hoped for a subsequent reburial, it soon became clear that this was not a viable option for logistical and financial reasons. This particularly affected German families because their loved ones were overwhelmingly buried in “enemy territory.” In 1921, the Reich government did allow the “repatriation of fallen soldiers,” but only under the condition that the relatives had to cover all the expenses. Very few could afford to do so.

The Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VDK), founded in 1919, took over the task of looking after German military cemeteries abroad and had no interest at all in repatriating bodies. As a self-proclaimed advocate of the fallen, the VDK insisted “that all who stood and died side by side in battle remain united in death.” Thus, the role of soldier should supersede that of father, brother, husband or friend, even in death.

The association’s periodical Kriegsgräberfürsorge is a treasure trove of reports from relatives who visited graves located abroad. Practical advice such as how to obtain a passport, where to stay, what costs to expect, take up a lot of space, just as one would expect with “normal” tourist travel. As an example, the rather negative review of the travel agency Thomas Cook by a German tourist in 1924, who complained that the tour guides were “sprouting French propaganda”:

But they also printed emotive reports in the spirit of German nationalism and militarism, like this one in 1925, talking of “hotly contested fields who drank the blood of the best of the German youth” and so on.

And you know those German tourists who come up with proposals on how to improve things as soon as they arrive? Well, they too were already a problem in 1931, for example when they instructed the gardeners at the war cemetery to remove all the branches from the trees, making them look like stupid naked brooms:

For the Nazis, military cemeteries became symbolic places where vows were made to make up for Germany’s defeat in World War I. The town of Langemark, north of Ypres, had already become a myth in the German Reich during the war itself. In 1933, the VDK magazine wrote that it was finally possible to call out to the dead there “Behold: we are marching again, joyful and ready for more sacrifice!”

March again they did, invading Belgium (once again) in 1940. In the fall of 1940, by which time Langemark was under German occupation, the site served for a military memorial service. From the German perspective, only now had World War I come to its proper conclusion.

After World War II, which would have created enough new battlefield tourism sites, for example in Normandy, tourism to Flanders resumed, although initially without visitors from Germany.

The VDK, which was re-established in 1946, broke with the traditional heroization of war death that had dominated commemoration between the two world wars. It professed its support for reconciliation in Europe, but on the other hand remained silent about German war crimes in the two world wars. In this way, the VDK reinforced the idea that Germans were victims too, which was widespread in the early Federal Republic. It maintained the image of the supposedly “apolitical professional soldiers”, which ultimately persisted until the Wehrmacht exhibition in 1995.

Visiting the war graves was also of particular importance for remembrance in West Germany, because the country had neither a national memorial for fallen soldiers, nor a national ceremony for them. Volkstrauertag was not limited to fallen soldiers, unlike, for example, Memorial Day in the United States or November 11th as Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries. Public remembrance of soldiers in the Federal Republic of Germany took place either in a municipal (church) context or abroad.

Since World War I and again since the 1960s, the cult of the dead has changed. With the transition from a sacrificial to a victimological understanding of sacrifice, the suffering and death of soldiers was less and less glorified, understood more as a warning and increasingly viewed with distance and, in part, with incomprehension. The fact that this development took a noticeable turn at the time of the Vietnam War shows that the commemoration of the past can never be understood in isolation from the respective current discourses.

From the point of view of local communities, institutions and tourism associations as well, the focus has shifted from battlefield tourism, a term which they now frown upon, to cultural heritage tourism (including an application for recognition of the battlefields in Flanders, Wallonia and France as UNESCO World Heritage Sites) and to reconciliation tours. The focus is no longer on macabre fascination with death by the thousands or the military historians’ obsession with detail, but on remembrance and on lessons learned. Meanwhile, we look back as Europeans, proud of the integration and peace we have achieved since.


  • More about World War I and about history in general.
  • More reports from Belgium, a country where you are reminded of the two world wars wherever you go.
  • Let me know if you are interested in a full report about the field trip to Ypres, Langemark, Diksmuide, Essex Farm, Vladslo, Koekelare, Zonnebeke, Kemmel and Poperinge. In between the cemeteries, museums and lectures, there’s plenty of good Belgian beer, too, I promise.
  • The best book about the battles around Ypres, including the town’s history before and after, is probably the one by Mark Connelly and Stefan Goebel. On battlefield tourism, there is, for example, Battlefield Tourism by David Lloyd or Holidays in the Danger Zone by Debbie Lisle.
Posted in Belgium, History, Military, Travel, World War I | Tagged | 8 Comments

My Drug Dealer from Cuba

Zur deutschen Fassung.

For a short break from the library, I went to the park in Amberg, my hometown in Germany. It doesn’t matter how highly motivated you are studying, sometimes you need a break. And thus, I am sitting under centuries-old trees, listening to the water fountain, reading the newspaper and smoking a cigar.

A mere 15 minutes have passed, when a thin, dark man with gold teeth introduces himself in English. He is from Cuba and a musician, he says.

As he opens his small backpack, I already fear that he is going to offer me a CD. I am a conscientious objector to music and would thus have to decline.

But no, he pulls out a large wooden box, opens it like a treasure trove, and presents Cohiba cigars. The big ones. Churchill size.

I last smoked these in Bolivia, where they only cost a few euros each. To avoid smoking too much, I purchased only one at a time, which is why the shopkeeper, whom you know from this alcohol-free story, had to go to the refrigerator and unpack the box each time. It was just a corner store, but whenever the box was empty, the clerk would say: “No need to despair, señor. Tomorrow or the day after, the plane from Cuba will arrive,” as if it were flying in just for this little store on Avenida America. On the other hand, that would explain the many runways hidden in the jungle, without having to resort to nasty rumors of drug smuggling.

While I have been digressing like an airplane gliding over the gentle waves of the mild Caribbean waters far below the radar of focused writing, the man from Cuba has taken a seat next to me.

“The situation in Cuba is terrible,” he says. That’s why he is selling cigars, so he can bring his wife some money for food. “If there is any food,” he caveats. “You can’t even get chicken every day!” Anyone who has been to Latin America knows what a disaster that is. Without chicken at least twice a day, most people can’t function properly. Honestly, after a year and a half in South America, I couldn’t see no chicken with rice no more.

Imprudently, I have switched to Spanish, although I should know that I don’t understand Cubans (nor Argentineans). One could get used to the plural congruence of impersonal verbs, the morphosyntactic deviations, the substitution of liquid palatals. But the rapid pace of speech combined with unpronounced consonants brings me to my limits.

In Cuba, the colloquial language became the standard language after the 1958 revolution. As formerly underprivileged classes ascended to language-shaping positions, such as teachers, politicians and radio hosts, the development was welcomed by Marxist linguists as an element of democratization. Moreover, many intellectuals emigrated, leaving behind a somewhat sloppy linguistic swamp.

Just like in Amberg.

But I do believe to understand that he forms a band with six colleagues, himself playing the drums, and that they are on a three-month tour around Europe. Not as street musicians, but a proper, professional band. Tomorrow they will go to Switzerland, then to Luxembourg, then Berlin and back to Amberg, where they are staying at the Bruckmüller brewery.

“Well, that’s convenient,” I say, suggestively.

“Oh no, we’re not those kind of musicians,” he objects, assuring me that he hasn’t touched a single bottle of German beer. He pronounces “German beer” as if the whole world knew it as some devilish brew.

Still having a 70-cent Toscano-Garibaldi cigar in my mouth, I can’t deny that I occasionally smoke. But on the other hand, it allows me to credibly assure that I can’t pay the suggested price of €10 for one or €15 for two Cohibas.

“I’m a student,” I explain with a sad look.

“But a Cohiba usually costs €20,” he says.

I know. Even €30 in some places. But I find that exaggerated. It’s like people paying €20,000 more for a car because it has a star on the hood, which they could get for €25 at a junkyard. Or when people pay ten times as much for a first-class ticket in order to arrive just as quickly as I do in economy class. And between you and me, the Toscano cigars taste better, too.

All right, he says, then I should just give him €10 or €12 or whatever I want for two Cohibas. Apparently, the tobacco market has not yet been hit by inflation.

When I tear a page from the newspaper to wrap the cigars (argument no. 28 against electronic reading), he puts four Cohibas on it and suggests €20.

I accept the deal and we say goodbye with a handshake. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand his name. But he promised to be back at the same park in mid-June.


Posted in Cuba, Germany | Tagged , | 5 Comments