By Astrid Hedin
Global Political Studies (GPS), Malmö University
Recent archival revelations on communist regime travel controls challenge how we understand everyday global dialogue. What would global dialogue have looked like, if all citizens under communist regimes had been allowed to interact with foreigners, and to speak freely? How would the work of international organizations and transnational professional associations have been different, if the borders of communist regimes had been open for travel?
In a new article for Cooperation and Conflict I provide the most detailed English language mapping of the administrative structure for a communist regime travel cadre system to date. It is based on the historical example of East Germany (GDR). Since the administrative system of the GDR was built on the Soviet template, it is likely that other communist regimes, past and present, had or continue to have similar systems of travel controls.
The GDR travel cadre system involved routines for selection, screening, training and reporting requirements: Who was allowed to travel, what was their individual political mission abroad, and how they were to report on foreign persons and institutions. The elaborate administrative procedures show how the communist regime regarded everyday professional contacts with Western citizens as an important vehicle for foreign policy. Each and every citizen who was selected to travel abroad in their line of profession was regarded as a state representative on ‘foreign deployment’. Whether they were truck drivers, folk dancers, eye doctors, dentists, or teachers of German as a foreign language – only the most loyal subjects were allowed to temporarily exit the country.
One eye doctor, an opthamologist comments: “From 1961 [when the Berlin wall was built] the people in the GDR were like in a prison, they were literally locked up.” For example, at GDR universities the directorates of international relations held the travel cadre’s coveted passports in steel safes. On the other side of the coin, the GDR regime created a traveling elite, selected on the basis of steadfast and active political loyalty.
All travellers were obliged to promote the foreign policy interests of the GDR, but in a personal and convincing manner, that would persuade foreign citizens. The select and screened travel cadre were subject to repeated training sessions and individual instructions, where they learned which political issues and perspectives to advance, and how to answer doubting Westerners. Strategic narratives could feature various aspects of domestic and foreign policy, from the allegedly exemplary nature of the communist school system, and the cultural achievements of the GDR, to the peace-loving nature of the Eastern bloc, and the capitalist belligerence, maldistribution and commercialism of the West.
Furthermore, the travel cadre were obliged to report on their Western hosts and counterparts. In focus was the ubiquitous question: Who is who? i.e., which persons and institutions were potential friends or enemies of communist regimes? For example, a 1977 travel report on the Department of Political Science at Stockholm University categorized its named academic staff into groupings based on political sympathies. The goal was to find and focus on influential ‘multipliers’ in the West, who could support and spread the strategic narratives that the GDR was trying to disseminate.
In effect, the communist travel controls constituted a systematic distortion of micro level, transnational professional dialogue, across numerous countries, disciplines, and spanning several decades of the Cold War. Crucially, travellers were under strict prohibition to admit the existence of the travel cadre system and its screening, training, and reporting requirements. The system counted as an official secret, in German: Dienstgeheimnis.
Today, various professions and international organizations are reflecting on their own history during the Cold War, asking how the communist regime travel cadre impacted on their organizations’ work. Medical doctors, archeologists, theatre directors and, not least, historians, are discussing how the communist regime travel controls impacted on the logic and global policy trends within their respective profession.
The travel cadre system filled various functions. Foremost, by allowing only screened and proven loyalists to travel abroad, it hindered that valuable professionals would flee the country. Also, the system was a tool for technological espionage.
However, the system’s key feature may arguably have been as an offensive state capacity to influence foreign individuals and institutions, by persuading them that Soviet communism was a successful and progressive enterprise, and by fuelling enemy images of Western democracies as war-mongering, mendacious, unjust and regressive. Crucially, the verbal strategies of the travel cadre aimed to alter perceptions concerning which states counted as friends or foes, role models or villains, policy forerunners or reactionaries, and the appropriate role of one’s own state in this drama. This prompts the question of how global discourses were shaped during the Cold War by the systematic distortion of global conversation created by communist regime travel controls.
Astrid Hedin is Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Global Political Studies (GPS), Malmö University, Sweden. She has a PhD from Lund University, a docent degree from Uppsala University, and has been an Anna Lindh fellow of the Europe Center, Stanford University.
Her latest article is now available online: Hedin, Astrid (2019) Illiberal deliberation: Communist regime travel controls as state capacity in everyday world politics. Cooperation and Conflict, Online first (https://doi.org/10.1177/0010836718815522)