Oberhof: The GDR’s Socialist Winter Paradise

It must be the grip that winter has had on us here in Toronto, but I recently began to troll around for a seasonally appropriate theme to post on. I quickly decided to write on Oberhof, a small town in the upper reaches of the Thüringian Forest which has achieved a certain profile as a winter sport site. I’d encountered Oberhof in my reading in its role as the training headquarters for many of the GDR’s elite winter sport athletes including its bobsledders, lugers, cross-country skiers, biathletes and ski jumpers, but I had heard that it was a beloved holiday destination as well. However, when I started digging, I was amazed to find the extent to which the history of this small town distilled so many of the developments which characterized GDR-era.

Oberhof in 1980 - clockwise from top left: Rennsteig Hotel, View of Hotel Panorama, ****, View from Rennsteig and "Fritz Heckert" Holiday Hotel.

Oberhof in 1980 – clockwise from top left: Rennsteig Hotel, View of Hotel Panorama, Luisensitz Holiday House, View from Rennsteig and “Fritz Heckert” Holiday Hotel.

Oberhof found its way on to the radar of the East German leadership even before the state itself was founded. This was due in large part to the fact that one of the leader’s of Socialist Unity Party (SED), Walter Ulbricht, had come to know Oberhof during the Weimar period when he had led the German Communist Party in the region. A dedicated exerciser, Ulbricht particularly enjoyed hiking and skiing the area’s trails. When authorities decided to host a Winter Sport Championships in the Soviet Zone of Occupation in January of 1949, Oberhof was selected to host the event, the success of which apparently demonstrated to Ulbricht how sport might be instrumentalized as a means of cementing his and the SED’s popularity.

The Expropriation of Oberhof’s Merchant Class

Ulbricht’s appreciation of all Oberhof had to offer as a vacation site quickly came to have profound repercussions for the town shortly after the founding of the GDR. Indeed Oberhof became the site of one of the Party’s first mass expropriations of what it saw as the enemy, merchant class, when in November 1950 the SED directed local officials to expropriate all the town’s inns and guests houses, as well as their contents, from their owner/operators. The authorities did as directed, justifying their actions by charging the victims with unspecified “economic crimes”. As a result fifty families – inn operators as well as the local butcher, baker and others – were given two hours to gather their personal effects before being trucked to their new “homes” in towns and villages scattered through out the region. (Ulbrichts geheime Nobelherberge in Oberhof, MDR TV: https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=-9w6PEbZD8A&list=PL422E061DB2343CF4&index=114) Title for the properties was then passed to the Free German Trade Union Association (FDGB) who ran the inns as holiday houses for its members until the end of the GDR in 1990.

Oberhof’s Lutheran pastor at the time, Helmut Teuber, captured the events of November 13, 1950 in the town chronicle, describing these as “the darkest day in a time of misery. A period in which the local pastor was busy only burying those who had starved to death or who had taken their own lives out of desperation.” Those targeted for “relocation” were ordered out and “devastating scenes took place. Several residents had heart attacks, the elderly were carried from their homes to the trucks and children cried because they did not want to leave their beautiful home (Heimat in original).” (Spiegel ONLINE, Hotelenteignungen in Oberhof, Klaus Teubert – accessed March 15, 2015 – http://www.spiegel.de/einestages/hotelenteignungen-in-oberhof-a-946622.html)

I found this aspect of the town’s history particularly remarkable. While the immediate postwar era had seen authorities in the Soviet zone of occupation implement, with the backing of the Red Army, a wide scale property reforms that dispossessed large landowners and nationalized key industries, my understanding had been that smaller, family-run businesses had not come into the sights of the Party until later on. However, here in Oberhof, we see a clear attempt by the SED to reengineer a town along socialist lines by simply removing those whom authorities saw as standing in the way of “progress”.

Oberhof as a Site of Olympic Training

In subsequent years, Ulbricht oversaw a systematic expansion of the town’s sporting facilities and Oberhof became the training centre for a number of the GDR’s elite winter sport athletes. From 1951 to 1956, the town hosted the East German Winter Sport Championships and considerable resources were pumped into sporting infrastructure (including a new ski jump and bobsled course) until 1971 when Ulbricht was forced from office.

A Socialist Aspen: City Building in the Thüringian Forest

Ulbricht’s vision for Oberhof was not confined to remaking the town into a centre for elite athletes. Instead, the GDR leader sought to expand the town’s tourist infrastructure and make it a destination not only for East German, but international vacationers as well. For this, the town of just over 1000 residents had to be expanded considerably and in 1968 Ulbricht commissioned the GDR’s best known architect, Hermann Henselmann (Stalinallee/Karl-Marx-Allee) to come up with a plan. As was Henselmann’s wont, his design called for replacing much of the town’s traditional building stock with modernist-inspired structures and the occasional representative buildings with a symbolic character. In the decade that followed much of this plan was realized and the result was a complete change in the town’s character.

Postcard from 1980 highlighting the socialist makeover of Oberhof.

Postcard from 1980 highlighting the socialist makeover of Oberhof.

One of the new buildings, the Interhotel Panorama, quickly came to serve as the landmark of the new, socialist Oberhof. Sitting a top a mountain that had been clear cut to make room for it, the Panorama was designed by a Yugoslavian architectural team to resemble a pair of ski jumps. The hotel was opened in 1969 but closed shortly thereafter for repairs to its roof after the area’s relentless winds revealed the architects’ calculations in this regard as having been inadequate. By GDR standards, the Panorama was very well outfitted. It offered guests seven restaurants including one with a Japanese themed where guests were served by kimono-wearing waitresses. Initially the hotel was intended to cater primarily to hard currency guests only, but after Erich Honecker came to power this plan was amended and 80% of rooms were set aside for GDR tourists.

A large scale restaurant built in the late 1960s as part of efforts to give Oberhof a "socialist face"; Interhotel Panorama sits in the background.

A large scale restaurant built in the late 1960s as part of efforts to give Oberhof a “socialist face”; Interhotel Panorama sits in the background.

The other example of “symbolic” architecture in the new Oberhof was an FDGB holiday home designed by Henselmann in 1972/73. Named the “Rennsteig” in honour of a nearby hiking trail of the same name, the hotel was shaped like one of the trail’s path markers. While distinctive, the building was not particularly well loved by locals and it was demolished in 2002. A number of the other larger, GDR-era guest houses and hostels that were planted in the centre of town have met a similar fate since since unification; small steps to returning to the town its pre-socialist face. Notably, members of eight of the families forcibly removed from the town in 1950 have returned to reclaim their properties and reopen their businesses.

X marks the spot: postcard of Oberhof circa 1980: "Had our coffee on the 11th floor of the Rennsteig". Lovely view from up here!"

X marks the spot: postcard of Oberhof circa 1980: “Had our coffee on the 11th floor of the Rennsteig”. Lovely view from up here!”

Holidaying in the Socialist Aspen

Affording a stay at the Panorama or any of Oberhof’s hostelries for that matter, was not something reserved for the GDR’s best earners. A two-week stay with all meals cost only 50 and 300 Marks (Panorama) per adult with each child costing only 30 Marks more, prices well within the reach for the average East German worker. But being able to afford a vacation was one thing, actually being able to book one quite another as reservations could not simply be made. All accommodations in Oberhof, as in most attractive GDR holiday locales, were in the hands of the FDGB. As a result, it was the union who helped decide who received the coveted vacation spots by divvying up by its room allotments among employers. Those employers enjoying “priority” status (e.g. chemical factories and steel mills) typically received one holiday spot for every ten workers. For those in non-priority areas of the economy, the ratio was usually 1:14. As a result, receiving a holiday in Oberhof or on the Baltic was a bit like winning the lottery.

A 1974 report on Oberhof by the (then) West German news weekly Der Spiegel declared with with a mixture of condescension and surprise that the town’s visitors were overwhelmingly “thankful, simple people”. (Spiegel 8/1974, pg. 50). Indeed, those interviewed by the writer are not chintzy with their praise. One young man, a technician from a chemical factory in Merseburg, tells the Spiegel reporter, “Our state knows exactly what we need while on vacation.” A young mother from Karl-Marx-Stadt offers that upon getting word of their holiday, “We almost cried tears of joy! It’s quite something here. You really can’t complain.” (Ibid., pg. 50)

While the West German author may have been surprised to find Oberhof filled with seemingly “simple people”, he was clear that he wasn’t encountering a cross-section of GDR society in the Thüringian forest. Indeed, holidays in such desirable locales were typically awarded to an employer’s “best” workers. The letter sent by the FDGB to the fortunate few gives a fairly clear idea of what criteria were used to determine such status: “Thanks to your energy and deeds both at work and at home, you have made a special contribution to the creation and development of our socialist society.” (Ibid., pg. 51)

Courting Hard Currency Visitors: Vladimir Lenin for the Interhotel Panorama?

While the Panorama hotel’s managers had no difficulty filling the rooms set aside for its East German guests, attracting foreign travellers was clearly more challenging. To assist in this, the hotel’s managers had to do some marketing and had a promotional brochure printed in 1970. It’s amongst the more peculiar items in my collection and the video below illustrates how:


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