We started our blog back in the summer, and as we end the year, we’re sharing some of our best and most popular blog posts this week!

 

In this post we look at the East German car the Trabant, and how it was symbolic about so much of that hardline Communist country.

The author's cousin's chicken coup Trabant top

The author's cousin's chicken coup Trabant top

My cousin lives about an hour north of Berlin, in a cozy, 400 year farmhouse that leans a bit to one side. He has a couple of horses and keeps chickens for eggs. They roam around the enclosed yard, the cut-off top of his old Trabant their chicken coup.

All the cars are good for anymore, he tells me. Who says Germans have no sense of humor? Yet these noisy, unreliable, pollution spilling relics of the Cold War played both a practical and symbolic role in German reunification.

The first Trabant rolled off the Sachsenring assembly line in 1957, and over the next 34 years, over 3 million were produced. Intended to be the East German equivalent of the West German VW Beetle, a variety of models were produced in the decades that followed, including a station wagon, a hatchback and even a convertible.

In some ways, the first Trabants were ahead of their time. While the Big Three automakers in Detroit were coming out with behemoths of steel and chrome, the Trabant was small and light weight, with front wheel drive and a unified body. It got 34 miles to the gallon on the highway. Yet there, the innovation ended. Its two-stroke engine was loud. It belched more pollutants in three seconds as a Mercedes S class does in 30 miles. Its top speed was 70 miles per hour and it could barely manage 62 miles per hour in 21 seconds. Due to a lack of steel in Soviet Bloc countries, the body was made of a Fiberglas-like substance called Duroplast, which included cotton and other organic materials. Rat poison had to be incorporated into its construction, since the rodents had been known to gnaw at them. Due to shortages and the notorious inefficiency of Communist-run factories, East Germans had to wait more than a decade for their new Trabant to be delivered, and when it finally did arrive, they found that it often broke down.

Yet, because the Trabant was the only choice of car for most East Germans, and because it took so long to get one, the Trabant was often prized by its owners. They affectionately (or mockingly, depending on who you ask) called it the Trabi and took great care in maintaining them. This maintenance was made easy by the simplicity of its engine. Most owners could do their own repairs, and the motor was so light that a single person could lift out the engine single-handedly. As the saying went, Mitt Hammer, Zange und Draht, kommst du bis nach Leningrad. - With hammer, pliers and wire, you can get to Leningrad.

Leafing through my cousin’s photo albums from the DDR era, many of the pictures prominently display his Trabi – going on family picnics or a weekend of camping. Often, everyone is posed around the car, as if it was a member of the family.

 

      Still, jokes abounded:

      Question:   When does a Trabi reach its top speed?

Answer:     When it is towed away.

 

Question:   Why do some Trabis have heated rear windows?

Answer:     To keep your hands warm while pushing.

 

Question:   How do you double the value of your Trabant?

Answer:     Fill up its gas tank.

 

The Trabant was, in essence, the epitome of East German society – unreliable and inefficient, yet somehow managing to function, even if it was just sputtering along. The butt of jokes, but still cherished, because, after all, it was all they had.

In the fall of 1989, I sat in the living room of my Grandmother in Ravensburg, Federal Republic of Germany, and watched on TV as tens of thousands of East Germans flooded into West Germany from Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Some actually walked across open fields. But many drove across the border in their cherished Trabis, packed with people and luggage, the air thick with blue exhaust as they made their way to freedom. It was the beginning of the end for the DDR. The East German government could not quash this exodus, nor could it stop the protests in the streets calling for Democracy. Weeks later, the Berlin Wall fell.

In the years that followed, many East Germans had trouble adjusting to a reunified Germany based on a free market and democracy. Unprofitable and inefficient Communist run factories were closed down and millions who had once had guaranteed work now found themselves without jobs and without the skills needed to find new ones. Like the factories that built it, the Trabant was also considered obsolete. Many East Germans abandoned them once they crossed into West Germany. They could be seen left to decompose in open fields along the roadsides, grass growing tall around them. Some were even left in what had been the No Man’s land between the two Berlins. Still more were ground up and spread across icy roads to provide traction in place of sand and salt. In 1989, a new engine was developed to try to update the car, but it was not enough. It couldn’t meet the West’s strict environmental and safety standards. Production ceased in 1991.

But just as East Germany has slowly adjusted to being part of a greater Germany, so too has the Trabant. Today, it is valued by collectors. They buy them for less than 50 dollars on internet, and then put thousands of dollars into new engines, custom paint jobs and booming stereo systems. Hundreds of web sites are maintained by its devoted fans. In 2009, a prototype electric version of the Trabi, updated to look similar to a Mini, was unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show, but is yet to see mass production.

I don’t think my cousin would be interested. Nowadays, he drives a Renault. More dependable and more luxurious. I doubt it would ever make a decent chicken coup.

 

What cars have impacted countries? Share your thoughts below..

 

By Manfred Gabriel

 

Want to know more about East Germany? Click here for our podcast on ex-East German leader Walter Ulbricht.

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Near the center of the town of Neuruppin, not far from Berlin, sits a large if unassuming house that once belonged to the local newspaper publisher. After the Second World War, it became the local Stasi headquarters. They adorned the brick façade and red tile roof with a myriad of surveillance equipment, antennas and satellite dishes.

The better to hear you with. Even today, some locals make a wide circle to avoid passing directly in front of it.

The Stasi, short for Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security) was the East German’s secret police, charged with protecting the state from enemies both foreign and domestic, real or imagined. Lesser known than their Soviet counterparts in the KGB, they were no less feared. It is not a coincidence that Stasi rhymes with Nazi. 

Erich Meilke, the man who led the Stasi for over 30 years, in 1958. He worked for  DDR leader Walter Ulbricht  for much of his tenure.   Source:  Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-60945-0005 / Ulmer, Rudi / CC-BY-SA

Erich Meilke, the man who led the Stasi for over 30 years, in 1958. He worked for DDR leader Walter Ulbricht for much of his tenure.

Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-60945-0005 / Ulmer, Rudi / CC-BY-SA

 

The Stasi began operating in 1950. Its international exploits during the Cold War included training Castro’s secret police, running brothels in West Germany for the purpose of blackmailing West German politicians and businessmen, and funding Neo-Nazi groups in West Germany in order to discredit democracy. In the early 1970s, they even succeeded in having an agent appointed as an aide to the then West German Chancellor Willie Brandt.

But it was their work as an internal secret police that kept East Germans looking over their shoulders. Their network was extensive. Most apartment buildings, neighborhoods, factories and government agencies had at least one informant, spying on their neighbors and informing on them regarding the slightest infractions, which were then documented to the minutest detail. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Stasi employed some 91,000 agents and operatives, and had another 173,000 informal informers from whom they gathered information. As a point of comparison, Canada today has about 2,500 security agents for twice the population.

The Stasi compiled extensive files on much of the East German population. Olympian Katerina Witt had information collected on her going back to the age of six or seven, when she first began to show promise as a figure skater. The DDR was terrified she might defect to the West and that they would lose one of their crown jewels, so the Stasi kept track of almost everything she did and said. Friends, relatives and team-mates were either convinced or coerced into keeping tabs on her. Her home contained hidden microphones to record her conversations.

Surveillance wasn’t just done on the famous or important. Everyday people were spied on with regularity. Seemingly mundane transgressions were often considered crimes against the state. One woman had a file started on her because she bought a sweater from the West. She laughs about it now, but such activities, could have dire consequences. A neighbor and informant went through one man’s cupboards to find that he had some pudding from West Germany. Shortly after, he lost his job and was unable to find another. He and his family ended up destitute.

As the Cold War came to a close, the Stasi tried to destroy these files. But when people saw smoke rising up above the Stasi Headquarters in Berlin, they stormed the buildings and put an end to the destruction. While about 5 percent of the files were destroyed, most of them remained intact. Today, they take up over 100,000 kilometers of shelf space in the Stasi Museum, located in that former Berlin Headquarters. Under German law, former citizens of the DDR can request to see their files. Some 2.75 million people have done so since the law was passed in 1991. 

Protests in Leipzig, East Germany, May 1990, demanding the opening up of the Stasi files  Source:  Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-0522-033 / Gahlbeck, Friedrich / CC-BY-SA  

Protests in Leipzig, East Germany, May 1990, demanding the opening up of the Stasi files

Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-0522-033 / Gahlbeck, Friedrich / CC-BY-SA 

The Stasi did more than just watch and listen and record. As with the man who was guilty of nothing more than having a taste for West German pudding, they acted against those they felt were a threat to the state. They had learned early on that the traditional methods of most secret police, torture and imprisonment, had a limited effect. The victims often became martyrs or heroes and it did little to discourage others. Nelson Mandela is but one prominent example of this. Instead, they employed much subtler methods, known as Zersetung (corrosion or undermining). They conducted smear campaigns to discredit people along with threats and intimidation to get what they wanted. Wiretapping and bugging were commonplace. Sometimes, they would move a person’s furniture or take a picture down from their walls - all to send the message that they were always there, always watching. Their victims were forever on edge, waiting for the next shoe to drop. Some even went insane.

Zersetung had the added advantage of deniability. With no one in prison, no one physically hurt, the Stasi could deny any involvement. This worked so well that by the year 2000, only 33 Stasi officers had been sentenced by German courts for their crimes, and of these, 28 were suspended.

When revelations about NSA surveillance surfaced earlier this year in the US, most Americans did not seem overly concerned. Germans, however, have been much more vocal in protesting what they see as an invasion of their privacy. There have been public protests, and it came up as an issue in the general election there. Learning how the East German people were intimidated into obedience by an ever watchful and secretive organization like the Stasi, it is easy to understand their reaction to what many see as an unfettered invasion of privacy. After all, the NSA data center is estimated to be able to save 5 billion terabytes of data - 1 billion times more than the Stasi kept in their notorious paper files.

That’s a lot of sweaters being bought from the West.

 

By Manfred Gabriel

Enjoy this article? Well, another East Germany related article from Manfred is here. It is about the story of how a Trabant car defined a nation. 

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones