Wichita State University (Kansas, USA)
E-Mail: jeff.hayton [at] wichita.edu
Summits and Socialism: Mountaineering in the German Democratic Republic, 1945-1990
The highest mountain in the German Democratic Republic was the Fichtelberg (1,214 m) in the Erzgebirge. Standing less than half the height of even modest peaks in the Alps—to say nothing of the great summits in the Andes or the Himalaya—mountains and mountaineers are rarely associated with East Germany, or with socialism in general. In some respects, this absence is not surprising. Excluded from the Olympics and other international sporting competitions, mountaineering lacked the medals and prestige which attracted communist authorities during the Cold War. Denied access to the Alps or the Himalaya—and lacking any peaks above 1,500 meters within the GDR—East German climbers watched their more famous Western contemporaries scaled Mount Everest or the Matterhorn to global acclaim.
Such absence, however, belies the importance of mountains and mountaineering to East Germans and the GDR. During its existence, the East German state poured significant and scarce resources into a national team capable of ascending high-altitude peaks around the world. Authorities worked to purge mountaineering of the bourgeois, nationalist, and racist beliefs which had typified German climbing prior to 1945 by redefining the sport as a progressive socialist endeavor. The German Hikers and Mountaineers Association was founded in 1958 to organize the sport and by the 1980s, boasted 65,000 members. Over the years, East Germans participated in expeditions to Asia, Africa, and South America, and hosted international climbers back home. As a popular leisure activity, the regime encouraged climbing as vital to healthy socialist citizenship. Mountainous landscapes like the Saxon Switzerland were transformed into thriving tourist destinations and conservation efforts helped ensure these regions became national parks in 1990.
Of course, climbing in East Germany was not free of conflict. Since the foundation of the GDR, climbers clashed with communist authorities over the goals of mountaineering under socialism. In the 1950s, barred from the Alps and the Himalaya, and bristling at state control which seemed anathema to the sport’s free-spirited ethos, many climbers fled to the West. Despite these losses, a flourishing amateur subculture developed: rock climbing in Saxony’s Elbsandsteingebirge (Elbe Sandstone Mountains); clandestine expeditions to climb throughout the Eastern Bloc; and secret rendezvouses at home to climb with Westerners. Using handmade equipment, developing complex regional regulations, and slipping across borders to tackle higher peaks, through resourceful praxis, East German climbers carved out the spaces necessary to climb under ‘really-existing socialism.’
Summits and Socialism: Mountaineering in the German Democratic Republic is the first academic study to how climbing was a critical intersection of East German engagements with the natural world and illuminates the complex relations between state authorities and socialist citizens.
Jeff Hayton is researching in the department "Communism and Society" during his stay at the ZZF Potsdam.
Jeff Hayton forscht während seines Gastaufenthalts am ZZF Potsdam in der Abteilung "Kommunismus und Gesellschaft".