Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Look Back At The "Trabi", East Germany's Most Famous Car

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The consumerist dream for most East Germans was to own a Trabant . This tiny car had room for four adults and a small quantity of luggage. It had a smoky, two stroke 650 cc engine. its top speed was around seventy two miles per hour, if you put your "pedal to the metal." Despite its modest specifications and its primitive technology, the waiting list for this car was about ten years.

When the Berlin Wall came down, Trabis poured into West Germany and beyond, where they were viewed with amusement. They did not hold their own in competition with the west. Even with technical improvements, the last "Trabi" was made in 1992.

There is a small market for Trabants among "Ostalgie" buffs, those people who are nostalgic for mementos of life in the former East Germany. My interest in "Ostalgie" is not out of any fondness for East German communism. I feel that any study of history should include vivid recreations of as many facets of life in a given time frame as possible. I have found very frequently that when I discuss small details of Soviet or East German life with people who lived in those parts of the world, that it jogs vivid memories that are useful in painting a complete historical picture of a time period. This is true of other parts of the world and different time frames as well.

I heard a few Trabi jokes. My favourite is as follows.(Compliments of Wikipedia)

"A West German businessman who is driving a Mercedes through East Germany on a rainy night when his windshield wipers stop working. He takes it to an East German mechanic, who tells him there are no Mercedes windshield wiper motors in the GDR, but he will do his best to fix it. When the businessman returns the next day, to his surprise the windshield wipers are working perfectly. "How did you find a Mercedes windshield wiper motor in the East," he asks the mechanic. "We didn't," replies the mechanic, "We used the engine motor of a Trabant."

In a slightly different version, a Trabi breaks down in West Germany. The mechanic uses the windshield wiper motor from a truck and has the Trabi working perfectly.


The Trabant was viewed with affection by many East Germans who viewed it not as a trophy of consumerism but a metaphor for East Germany's dysfunctional economic system. It should be noted that a powerful antidote to communist propaganda in the former East Germany was the availability of West German television and radio throughout East Germany. It was impossible not to know about the disparity in standard of living between the two Germanies. What was truly unique about the two Germanies was the language they shared. East Germans would not have been nearly as vulnerable to broadcasts in French or English as they understandably were to broadcasts in their own language.

I am including three videos with this posting. One is a commercial for consumer goods. It is interesting because the video is also showcasing what it claims is the economic success of the new postwar East Germany. It is a marked contrast to western commercials . which simply describe the goods themselves rather than discussing the economy. The next clip is a roughly 30 second Trabant commercial.

The last video is a 1971 hit song by East German singer Sonja Schmidt. Ein Himmelblauer Trabant" ( A Sky Blue Trabant) It is a light hearted song. The video was shot in the 1970's East Germany and has an interesting feel to it.

I hope that my readers enjoy this this glimpse of the Trabi in East German popular culture. I have always found that details like this make the study of history come alive. I would be interested to know if my readers agree.



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