Strength through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism | Review
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Published: Tue, 19 Dec 2017
In Strength through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich, Shelley Baranowski presents a detailed history of Nazi Germany’s main leisure organization “Strength through Joy” (Kraft durch Freude or KdF). Although she attempts to point out the failures of KdF, the influence of politics and propaganda, and the likely inflated statistics of the organization, Baranowski seems to portray KdF as being largely successful in achieving many of its goals. Particularly, the author argues that KdF achieved an impressive increase in tourism and was relatively successful in improving the popular appeal of the regime and that its after-work branch, Beauty of Labour, improved conditions in numerous companies, though not appeasing workers entirely. This essay will provide arguments that in some cases contradict these conclusions. Overall, Strength through Joy sheds light on some of the positive aspects of the Nazi regime and helps explain to what extent KdF managed to bring leisure to the masses, serve the political purposes of the party and diminish the role of class in society. Despite these strengths, Baranowski fails to include important economic and statistical measures and comparisons with other Nazi, pre-Nazi and foreign organizations or commercial travel agencies. Furthermore, the author appears to not discuss sufficiently the extent to which KdF was based on Socialist or other Weimar organizations. Without these points elaborated, the author seems to make some questionable interpretations regarding the extent of KdF’s success. Therefore, this essay will argue that although this book attempts to provide a detailed and objective look into KdF’s activities, it seems to lack information necessary to construct an accurate portrayal of KdF’s impact in and on the Third Reich.
Strength through Joy was organized under the German Labour Front in late 1933 as a tool to coordinate existing leisure organizations in the newly formed National Socialist regime. It soon consisted of several departments including the Beauty of Labour (for the beatification and improvement of factories), Sport and Tourism, among others. The Nazi idea for the organization was based on the Italian “After Work”, but while “After Work” was, as the name suggests, only concerned with organizing workers’ leisure time after working hours, KdF was meant to take on the ambitious task of managing both work and leisure for German workers (Baranowski 2004, 45). One of the main themes in Strength Through Joy is thus the role of KdF as a political tool and a class destroying mechanism. More specifically, Baranowski points out that KdF was a way to save resources for rearmament by providing the German people with an alternative to mass consumption (2004, 8-9, 119). KdF was supposed to achieve this through the creation of cultural activities, sport facilities, the active organization of tourism and the improvement of factories conditions. KdF was also to solve the problem of the eight-hour workday, which according to Robert Ley, leader of the Labour Front, left too much free time at the hands of the workers and could potentially threaten the unity of the “racial community” (Baranowski 2004, 42). In addition, Kristin Semmens adds that another purpose of KdF was to prepare the German Volk for future struggles through strengthening their bodies, but at the same time to aid for the temporary avoidance of war, through the significant exchange of German and foreign tourists (2005b, 145-146). However, perhaps the most important goal of KdF was to provide the feel in the German public that living standards have improved under the Nazi regime (Baranowski 2004, 38-39). In Strength through Joy Baranowski examines mainly two ways in which KdF attempted to achieve its goals, namely KdF’s Beauty of Labour and the Tourism departments. She looks at case studies of workers’ experiences in factories, trips and cruises and although she attempts to maintain a fairly objective view of KdF’s success, from those individual cases she generalizes that “the regime’s social policy yielded positive results” (Baranowski 2005, 197). Baranowski even goes as far as to claim that “KdF was relatively successful as an alternative to other options to raise living standards – Fordism and Socialism” (2005, 136), which seems far-fetched considering these two alternatives were never truly experienced within Nazi Germany. Here, Baranowski’s definition of “raised living standards” is required. It would be perhaps possible to demonstrate that KdF or the regime in general had been successful in improving the well-being of ordinary Germans, if the results are measured by intangibles, such as access to vacations and improved factory conditions. On the other hand, it would be fairly hard to demonstrate the same if the results are measured by increased wages or material goods. The author does not provide that definition. Therefore, although it may seem logical to conclude that KdF was at least partially successful in both improving the public perception of the ruling regime and the well-being of Germans judging by some of the statistics it managed to achieve, the correlation between the increasing activity of KdF and the increasing support of the Nazis does not necessarily imply a causal relationship. For example, other factors in the 1930s such as the rise of employment and productivity could have contributed to the increased standards of living. Therefore, one should be careful when drawing conclusions on the KdF’s success on a stand-alone basis, especially considering KdF was a part of both the Reich Tourism Association and the Ministry of Propaganda (Semmens 2005b, 147) and therefore it was just a small part of a very big machine.
Furthermore, in terms of reducing the clash between classes and promoting the Volksgemeinschaft, Baranowski concludes that KdF helped link Volksgemeinschaft and Lebensraum (2005, 138) and that the organization was “no mere ‘beautiful illusion'” (2004, 177). Undoubtedly, she does discuss the social conflicts on the KdF trips, but she seems to put more emphasis on the numbers that these tours achieved to draw her conclusions about their success as a political tool. Baranowski states that through the number of tourists who “flocked” to KdF, it “reaped the dividend it sought, the enhancement of the Third Reich’s popular legitimacy” (2004, 161). However, other historians such as Christopher Kopper find that “the propagandistic self-stylization of a seemingly classless society of vacationers was based on a Utopian vision, not on hard socio-economic facts” (Kopper, 3). Thus, workers were still underrepresented on tours, middle classes were unhappy with the quality of KdF’s service, Jews were consistently ignored and discriminated against and party leaders consistently flaunted a well-being far superior to that of most other Germans. More specifically, Kristin Semmens points out that only 5% of all KdF overnight stays in 1939 were taken by workers. She explains that number with the fact that although tour prices were “astoundingly low”, they were still fairly high compared to workers’ salaries, which had to cover many expensive trip extras (2005a, 100, 108). This argument weakens significantly Baranawoski’s conclusion regarding the success of KdF, especially considering that even in the Weimar Republic workers composed about 10% of all tourists (Baranowski 2004, 15). Furthermore, KdF seems to have actually intensified class conflicts to some extent. First of all, the organization made the middle and especially the upper class angry when it refused to let them sign up for the considerably cheaper tours (Semmens 2005a, 107). Second of all, richer tourists seem to have been complaining openly against the behaviour of the masses of KdF tourists, while the KdF tourists complained they were not getting the same level of service as the richer tourists (Semmens 2005a, 102,107). Eventually, KdF was forced to move to unpopular and poor sites in order to both avoid growing conflicts and to attempt to financially support those underdeveloped areas (Semmens 2005a, 110). As a result, Semmens findings partially contradict Baranowski’s, as she claims that KdF’s promises to eliminate privileges were “entirely unfulfilled” and images of community “misleading” (2005a, 100). Nevertheless, although perhaps not as successful in promoting unity and improving the regime’s image as Baranowski argues, KdF seems to have effectively demonstrated Nazi Germany’s supremacy over other countries in at least one way -through its foreign tours. German tourists often visited cheap and poor areas of Portugal, Italy and Africa, where they could see for themselves the superiority of the Aryan race and thank the regime for the benefits that it brought (Baranowski 2004, 127). Still, despite the obvious effects of this subtle propaganda, Baranowski’s generalization of the impact of these foreign tours on the German population seems far-fetched. Specifically, it is debatable whether she is correct in her conclusion that the KdF’s foreign tours persuaded “the majority of Germans … that an improved economy, rising living standards and the regime’s commitment to social opportunity defined the Third Reich” (2004, 198), when her evidence seems to consist of only a few case studies from satisfied workers.
A second theme that Baranowski discusses, though more briefly, is the emergence and the role of the Beauty of Labour office of Strength through Joy. The Beauty of Labour (Schönheit der Arbeit, SdA) was given the relatively difficult task of “eradicating political divisions on the shop floor [through] environmental improvements in the factory, as well as the supervision of the recreational choices and personal habits of workers” (2004, 75). Interestingly, this definition did not entail eliminating racial conflict, as the SdA sometimes described to employers the alternatives to its visions as “Jewish” (Baranowski 2005, 129). The main goal of this office was therefore to eliminate class conflict in factories by improving the quality and efficiency of design, lighting, ventilation, sanitation, noise and temperature, as well as sports, dining and washing facilities. SdA was most likely a way to increase the regime’s public appeal and boost productivity, but also to compensate for reduced wages and the destruction of trade unions and the overall domination of employers over employees under the regime.
It is fairly difficult to assess what Baranowski believes about the actual achievements of the SdA. On the one hand she seems impressed by the sheer number of events that SdA managed to organize. For example, the author quotes the program’s likely inflated statistic that it improved over 17,000 companies by as early as 1935 and over 33,700 companies by 1938 (2004, 56, 110). She explains this apparent employers’ volunteerism to cooperate with SdA’s suggestions with the fact that businesses were grateful to the regime for the destruction of unions, but also that in the mid-1930s organizations were actually competing for labour (Baranowski 2004, 112). Thus, Baranowski suggests that employers themselves considered that making factory improvements would be an important factor for attracting workforce. Baranowski seems to have paid little attention to the third likely reason for corporate cooperation – the perceived and desired boost of productivity that would come as a result of improved factory environment and increased goodwill on the workers’ side. Tom Mason claims that there was such a boost though it was likely a very short term one (1966, 120). Thus, it is possible that corporations took that into account when complying with SdA’s proposals.
On the other hand, Baranowski makes the conclusion that improved factories did not compensate for “longer hours, frozen wages and coerced ‘volunteerism'” (2004, 116), which seems to have been drawn from evidence of individual workers’ opinions. This conclusion makes intuitive sense, as within their workplace workers were actually under the direct control of the harsh reality of the Nazi regime – geared towards rearmament, marked by frozen wages and curtailed consumption, and often dominated by big business. These workers were underpaid and overworked, and the beatification of their working environment, which they often had to execute themselves in unpaid overtime, seems a less efficient propaganda tool than after-work cultural events or vacation trips. Nevertheless, there were aspects of SdA’s policies that workers appear to have welcomed. For example, some companies’ employees took it to heart to improve their working environment, either for their own health’s sake or for the pride of winning an SdA award. As a result, Baranowski concludes that “the praise [that]…Beauty of Labour bestowed on retinues dedicated to improving their workplaces was less empty than it might retrospectively appear” (2004, 114). Interestingly, with regards to the SdA program of improving the overall look of villages on key German roads, Baranowski claims that by 1938 “only” 708 villages were affected (2004, 107). It seems difficult to justify her qualifier (“only”), as the author does not provide any information on how many villages were supposed to be reformed or how many villages were there in total in Germany at the time. Nevertheless, the number seems vast and demonstrates a point Joshua Hagen supports- that from this success rate it is evident that these villages had some desire for and experienced pride from doing beautification. Particularly, Hagen analyzes the example of Rosenthal and describes how the political agenda and foreign policy at different times of the regime during its 12 year history had different impacts on Rosenthal’s desired image and the tourist groups that visited it. He concludes that the level of initiative demonstrated by local residents to beautify their city, the pride they seemingly experienced from doing that and number of tourists that came to the city were all significant (Hagen 2004, 223). Therefore, one should possibly be careful to qualify SdA as unsuccessful, coercive or as a small scale program, because it appears to have been, at least in some cases, the exact opposite of that.
The third main theme in Baranowski’s book regards the success of KdF in stimulating tourism in Nazi Germany. The tourism industry was one of the several focal points that the Nazi regime had since its coming to power. With considerable effort the regime strived to coordinate hundreds of independent travel societies and as a result by 1938 the Reich Tourism Association had managed to become a central authority incorporating all tourism organizations. Additionally, through establishing a legal framework, it was able to create a proper hierarchy, standards and professionalization requirements. Thus, it managed to distance itself from the usual organizational chaos in the Nazi regime (Semmens 2005a, 9, 23, 34, 41).Tourism is also the most widely covered and most debatable point in Baranowski’s book. That the numbers KdF managed to achieve are impressive seems beyond doubt – from 1934 to 1939, 43 million Germans took advantage of its trips (Baranowski 2004, 55), thus becoming the “world’s biggest organizer of package tours” (Kaiserfeld 2009, 9). However, what is problematic is the perspective that Baranowski takes as presenting KdF as achieving these statistics almost single-handedly, with minimal discussion of the size and impact of commercial tourism in Nazi Germany , the role of the improving economy on the growing desire of Germans (and citizens of virtually all industrialized countries) to travel and of the significance of Socialist and Weimar organizations to the jump start of the organization. At the same time, she provides few economic figures to support her conclusions, and even those stand alone, left with no explanation as to their value in the 1930s and compared with neither commercial tourism, nor with similar organizations in France, Italy, Spain or Britain. When one does such a comparison, it appears that while KdF did achieve a rise in tourism, it was by no means unique. For example, Kopper states that while only 15% of adults in Nazi Germany took a week-long vacation in 1939, in the same year about 40% of the British vacationed for a week (2009, 2,4). Moreover, Semmens points out that between 1928 and 1933, domestic travel decreased by 40% (2005a, 8), which was most likely the result of the Depression. This allows for the reasonable assumption that at least part of the increase in tourism in the 1930s was due to the return of tourism to pre-Depression levels, as people deprived of resources and possibility to travel for several years finally had this opportunity again. Perhaps even more importantly, while Baranowski discusses in great detail the positive impressions that the KdF Tourism department’s flagship- its cruises – left on certain workers and other tourists, it seems that one cannot generalize from these individual cases that Nazi tourism or KdF as a whole left the same agreeable impression on the German population. In addition, cruises only accounted for about 2% of all KdF trips (Hachtmann 2007, 124) and so they were experienced by a very small portion of Germans. What is more, on a national level KdF never really managed to compete with commercial tourism within Nazi Germany, as it never actually exceeded 11 % of the tourism industry. Furthermore, KdF had troublesome collaborations with hotels, restaurants and other travel accommodations, because the rates these had to agree on were far below what they charged individuals or even travel agencies (Baranowski 2004, 165). Importantly, one of Baranowski’s strongest arguments regarding KdF – that it promised “comfort, individual choice and outlets for fantasy” (2004, 161) can be disputed. The organization’s cheap package tours certainly allowed at least some workers access to previously inaccessible luxuries and left them pleased (Semmens 2005a, 117). However, for the majority the KdF vacation meant a visit of unknown or poor domestic areas by travelling in a 3rd or 4th class train cars, cramped with hundreds of other tourists (Semmens 2005a, 126), which could probably be hardly described as comfort or fantasy. In addition, Baranowski nearly neglects to discuss the role of commercial tourism in the public perception of the Nazi regime. In contrast, Kristin Semmens argues that this type of tourism was more influential on German opinion of the Nazi party, which the regime’s leaders realized well. Semmens further claims that this perceived importance of private tourism was the reason why KdF was not allowed to interfere with or endanger in any way the commercial travel sector and often had to succumb to travelling to unfamiliar sites. However, the Nazis did not merely let commercial travel unattended or uncontrolled. Instead, through it they purposefully provided continuity and an illusory escape from everyday reality in a particular area of civilian life. Thus, commercial tourism actually became a “calculated attempt to maintain a degree of touristic normality” (Semmens 2005a, 40, 73, 97, 99). Semmens concludes that there was only a “superficially ‘state-free’ sphere” in the realm of tourism (2005b, 157), and thus both KdF and commercial tourism actually served the same, essentially political, purpose. However, there was one important difference between the two types. When the war started, KdF’s activities became critically limited or stopped completely, and the organization was reduced to troop entertainment. At the same time, commercial tourism thrived until late in the war (2004, 201). Private travel survived in other hit hard countries as well, such as in occupied France until about 1943 (Furlough 2002, 469) and Civil War stricken Spain, where it thrived throughout the entire WWII (Holguin 2005, 1424). This demonstrates the inherited deficiencies of the state-run KdF as compared to private tourism – that it was extremely dependent on state budgets, public appeasement, rearmament and later war effort, macroeconomic and political conditions. Thus, when problems began the government support needed to maintain the organization was no longer available and KdF had no choice but to assume a much smaller scale and a less visible role in the new war reality.
This essay has attempted to provide a critical review of Shelley Baranowski’s book Strength through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich. Quotes, statistics and examples were drawn from different sources to confirm, or more often to contrast, Baranowski’s findings in three main areas of her book – the success of KdF as a political tool, the impact of Beauty of Labour on workers’ view of the regime and the role of Strength through Joy for the increase in tourism in the 1930s. For all three points, some weaknesses and limitations of Baranowski’s work were pointed out. Admittedly, this essay has therefore taken a rather critical view of Baranowski’s book. However, most criticism has been directed not towards the author’s research, data, sources or methods of presentation, but rather towards her conclusions. Thus, this essay should not help diminish the importance of the book for the topic of tourism in the Third Reich. While Baranowski’s book may have potential for improvement, it is certainly one of the first and so far major sources on Strength through Joy available in English. The significance of the book is further elevated when one considers that KdF’s main archive and other related documents were largely destroyed during WWII, that the topic of tourism and popular appeal in a dictatorship are generally difficult to research and analyze, and that throughout most of the book the author has actually managed to preserve an organized, objective and fairly detailed view of her topic. In conclusion, a consideration of the points made in this essay may certainly contribute to Baranowski’s pioneering study, but even without them the book still remains a strong addition to the Third Reich’s historiography.
- Baranowski, Shelley. Strength through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
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- Spode, Hasso. “Fordism, Mass Tourism and the Third Reich: The “Strength through Joy” Seaside Resort as an Index Fossil.” Journal of Social History 38, no. 1 (2004): 127-155.
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