A few weeks ago, I was walking down the street in beautiful downtown Görlitz, the easternmost city in Germany. I saw this vehicle parked along the curb and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Could it be? Was it real? Yes, to my wondering eyes I beheld that masterpiece of east German auto engineering…..the Trabant! Over 3 million of these little jewels were produced in East Germany over a period of nearly 30 years. And, this Trabbi sedan was in pretty good shape.
Disclaimer: This is not the actual car I saw, but very similar.
To be sure, the Trabant was a pretty basic car and it became the butt of lots of jokes during its lifetime. The final Trabbis produced delivered a whopping 26 horsepower and could go 0 to 60 in 21 seconds. They had a two-stroke, two-cylinder engine that belched smoky exhaust, primarily because oil had to be mixed with the gasoline to fuel the air-cooled engine. It had no fuel pump so the fuel was gravity-fed to the carburetor by placing the fuel tank above the motor in the engine compartment. Of course, this greatly increased the danger of the car exploding or at the least, catching fire in case of a front-end collision. The body itself was made of hard plastic made from recycled materials, including cotton waste from the Soviet Union. The Trabant was a family car, holding four people, and often East Germans would wait years before taking delivery of this little piece of….heaven.
As I was admiring this vehicle, a gentleman came up to me and proudly told me about the car. Even though this particular vehicle wasn’t his, you could tell he was very proud of the Trabant. He began to tell me all about them and told me that when a family took a long road trip in one of these cars they had to ship their luggage on ahead to their destination because there wasn’t any room in the car. I asked him if this particular car still ran. “Of course”, he said proudly, “It’s a Trabant!”
His obvious pride in a vehicle which wasn’t even his and frankly, was never a very good car, belied a certain longing for a past that he will never see again. We sometimes jokingly call this “Ostalgia”, that longing for a return to the DDR when things seemed so much simpler. I think the changes that have taken place in this region over the last 30 years, and those changes occurring now, explain how and why many people in the former East Germany oppose the massive influx of migrants arriving every day. Change is always difficult, but just think about the changes these folks, in places like Görlitz, have gone through. The DDR was certainly not a bed of roses, but it was their little country. And then in 1989, that all changed. No more East German flags, no more Young Pioneers, no more guaranteed jobs, no more Trabants, no more DDR. And now many east Germans sense that their culture is under threat by the hundreds of thousands of Muslim migrants who are flooding into their country. It makes it a little easier to understand why the anti-Muslim sentiment is higher in east German cities like Dresden and Leipzig than in the western part of Germany. Their home is changing again, and they can never go back.