A first hand GDR Service passport story

During research, I found this fantastic story of a GDR citizen on duty traveling to Japan. Her record is outstanding as it’s a first-hand experience when traveling with an East German passport just in between the fall of the wall and reunification. GDR passports were still valid until the end of 1995, according to the reunification contract. GDR Service passport story

A Dienstpass (Service passport) was issued to East Germans who worked abroad. That’s why I got mine when I worked in Yugoslavia and Japan. But when I traveled to Hungary to attend a congress, I had to use my ordinary passport. Talking with my daughter about our life in East Germany, we found out that most of the ´hardware´ produced in East Germany does not exist anymore. So, whenever we see an old car, a towel, a toy, a record, or anything with the label ´Made in GDR,´ we have a feeling of: “Oh, what a time! This was OUR life!” GDR Service passport story

As to myself, I am not able to show any interesting East German objects. Well, in my garden cabin I have some simple china made in East Germany. But I would not say it might be of any interest to any people. But yesterday, when I was looking for some photos, I found my old passports, parts of my personal East German history.

Oh, if you knew what these passports meant to us! They were the door to the tiny world of Communist countries. And sometimes, if you were a lucky person, you were allowed to travel to other countries, i.e., to the so-called capitalist countries, too. GDR Service passport story

I had two passports. Both of them were, when I was at home, in a safe at my university. I couldn´t grab them and travel to my colleagues, neither to the American nor to the Hungarian ones. I had to apply for a journey. Maybe, I was permitted to travel – or not. One never knew the decision …

I never got permission to travel to any non-communist country. This resulted in a pretty weird situation: I did scientific work for an international organization. But as I was not allowed to visit any non-communist countries, a colleague from Belgium did this hard traveling job for me, and he continued to do so even after Germany´s reunification, as he liked traveling very much. For my travels to communist countries, I had an ordinary passport. GDR Service passport story

But when I had the opportunity to work abroad, I got a Dienstpass, and this meant you were a kind of privileged person. I didn´t know these privileges, but perhaps it was just to be treated more kindly by the East German custom officers. Well, and in 1990, while in Japan, I was at home for three weeks. Even if nobody had expected me to return to Japan because of the situation in East Germany, I went back to Japan, of course. GDR Service passport story

Airport Narita. The Japanese immigration officer took my passport, looked at it intensively, looked at me, and asked: “Where do you come from? I don´t know this country!”

I didn´t know what he meant. I decided to smile and to wait. That´s the best way to solve a passport problem; I had learned about different, more or less embarrassing situations at the borders of different countries. GDR Service passport story

“Dienstpass!” he said now. “I don´t know Dienstpass! Where is this country?” I explained to him, I came from Higashi Deutzu, from East Germany. “But I cannot find East Germany in your passport!” he said angrily.

I had to agree, as, in my passport, he only could find “Deutsche Demokratische Republik.” “Deutsche Demokratische Republik – that´s Higashi Deutzu!” I tried to explain to him, and I had a feeling of: ´Well, if you do not want me, send me home. He looked at me, had a tiny, tiny smile on his face, and said: “Welcome back to Japan!”

Even today, I do not know if he had wanted to play a play with me. Or was it a kind of psychological test? Coming back to my Japanese colleagues, the one I liked best looked at me with a smile and in a kind of surprise, and he said: “Oh, Linda, we really didn´t expect you to come back to Japan and to our university – now that you are free to travel around the world.” GDR Service passport story

And I lived in Tokyo, worked there, and watched on TV what was going on in Berlin. To me almost a fairy-tale, but not reality. Even weeks later, I could not imagine that I would return to a country that had stopped existing.

FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...