A Moment of Ostalgie
By Roger Boylan
“Ostalgie'” is the wry German coinage for “nostalgia for the East”–East Germany, that is, otherwise known as the German Democratic Republic, that odd 40-year experiment in state socialism that ceased to exist in 1990. Why be nostalgic for a depressed little trumped-up dictatorship where you couldn’t get a decent pair of shoes and had to wait two years on average for a one-room apartment? Well, you never had to worry about losing that apartment, once you got it; your job was safe; you were guaranteed an annual vacation, usually at some state-run resort on the Baltic; your health care was free, as was your kids’ education. If you kept your nose clean you could live a reasonably happy, if mediocre, life. Ultimately it didn’t work, of course, and, when they could, people voted with their feet in droves and headed West. But the memory of that failed utopia is a cozy refuge from our current worries. It had its appeal, as a leaky old barn might during a rainstorm.
This photograph was taken in East Berlin in 1977, in the halcyon days of East Germany, when the Wall stood firm, no tremors of change could be felt, and nothing darkened the socialist horizon. The ultra-chic Commie-modern building in the foreground is the now-demolished, then-new Palast der Republik, home of the Volkskammer (“People’s Chamber”), the East German parliament. In the distance rises the Fernsehturm, the GDR TV tower, which still stands. From the revolving restaurant and viewing platform on top the West could be clearly seen, even examined through a telescope. It was as close as most East Germans would get until 1989.
But now, as autosavants must, we turn our attention to cars; specifically, to the cars parked outside the Palast der Republik. This picture is truly a Communist car show. Presumably, when the picture was taken the parliament was in session, and these are the vehicles belonging to the relatively privileged junior Party workers, secretaries, office managers, and the like, whose tireless industry kept the people’s paradise humming along, and who could actually afford a set of wheels, however shaky. In the foreground, as you would expect, is a Trabant, or “Trabi,” proudly driven by an unknown citizen of the workers’ republic. Cheap in both senses of the word, with for most of their 30-year run a 600-cc engine descended from a pre-war two-stroke DKW (pre-Auto Union) ancestor, Trabis were slow and unsafe at any speed, except for the final ’89-’90 version, which was a pretty good car, most of it being made under license from Volkswagen, with a Polo engine; but by that time the German Democratic Republic was no more, and Trabis became mere relics of the past.
Other Trabis are parked in the front row of the parking lot in our picture, but pride of place there definitely goes to the recent-vintage (’75 or ’76) Skoda 100 at the far left that stands out not only because of its bold orange hue but also because of the customized details: the sporty cone mirrors; the aftermarket fog lamps; the splash guards. This car was the pride and joy of whoever owned it. (Where is it, and he or she, now?) It was, actually, a fine little car, by Communist standards, made by one of the oldest and most distinguished manufacturers behind the Iron Curtain.
Down the row, past the Trabis–one a wagon–sits a forlorn old Russian Zaporozhets, I think a ZAZ-966 of the series made from 1967 to 1974. They were ugly and basic and as tough as the Russian roads they were made for, tough enough to satisfy the most demanding owner, like Vladimir Putin, who once owned one; he and it are shown in the photograph at left.
In the back rows are more Trabis, another Zaporozhets, a Polski Fiat or Lada or two, and a few Wartburgs of the 300 series, which expired, like the Trabi, with the GDR in 1990. Wartburgs, like Trabants, were distant relatives of the West German DKW, with which they shared a two-stroke engine.
In 2006 the Palast der Republik was demolished, despite the protests of some hardcore Ostalgics. In its place, like a ghost from the past, will rise a replica of the building that once stood on the site, the Stadtschloss, former home of the imperial Hohenzollerns, a mediocre building then, more kitsch than kultur by the time the Kaisers finished with it, and it will be a mediocre building again, a Wilhelmine anachronism in the capital of the modern Federal Republic. Better to have kept the Palast der Republik as a commemoration of East German delusions of grandeur, and as a shrine to Ostalgie, a kind of Trabant in concrete and glass, a tongue-in-cheek monument for the ages.
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