The Trabant car, a symbol of oppression and freedom in URSS Occupied Germany

The story of this curious car and its political implications with a focus on Human Rights and basic freedoms

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By Lucas Abriata

The Traban and the Berlin Wall

It was 1961 when an almost impassable concrete wall was erected between East and West Germany. It divided the still war torn country in two, on one side, a modern capitalist nation, on the other, a country under a communist regime controlled by the USSR.

This division greatly affected the lives of people on each side. On the Federal Republic of Germany (Capitalist, West Germany) peoples’ lives closely mimicked those of the rest of the Western World.

However, on East Germany lives were very different. Whilst living standards were vastly superior to those of other Eastern Bloc countries it still lagged behind its Western neighbors’ standards.

 

Leaving the country

Eastern Germans were not allowed to leave the country except for very specific reasons, their GDP per Capita was almost four times lower than that of West Germans (Maddison, 2001) and East Germans did not have the same liberties and individual freedom that West Germans had.

East Germans could not criticize their government freely, lest they were arrested by the Stasi or worse (Biskupek, 2014). They could not move about the country and the vast majority of the people living on the Democratic Republic of Germany (Communist, East Germany) could not afford or did not own a private car, leaving the preferred transportation method to either the bicycle or the moped.

In 1957, however, that started to change as the East German government set out on a mission to give every household in the DRG their own car in an effort to make East German living standards similar to those of the average West German family. And thus, the first plans for the Trabant were born.

 

The Trabant Car Itself

The Trabant is probably one of the simplest cars in modern automotive history, sporting a duroplast body (duroplast is a compound similar to fiberglass) and a 500cc two stroke engine driving the front wheels.

There was no fuel nor temperature gauge, only a simple speedometer. These small two-door cars quickly became a symbol of East Germany, as more than 3 million units were produced over the course of over 30 years.

The Trabant represented the mobility of the East Germany people in a context of relative oppression, at the same time it represented the stark contrast between the goods available in the Eastern Bloc and those available just a few meters away in Western Germany.

 

Engine upgrade

By 1963 the small half a liter engine was upgraded to a still fairly lackluster 600cc putting out a whopping 23 horsepower. With an original price of almost 9.000 marks few people could afford it so the East German government created waiting lists so prospective owners could be assigned a Trabant.

However, the waiting lists soon grew and grew and by the time of reunification the average waiting time was around 10 years (James, 2007).

And yet, as much as this car symbolized the differences in living standards between East and West, it soon came to be a symbol of reunification, of happiness, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

The images of piece after piece of the Berlin Wall coming down that November night were broadcasted all over the world but, in the minds of many Germans, the pictures that remain the most are those of the small and funny looking eastern cars billowing gray smoke as they crossed through the Brandenburg Gate for the first time (The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 2009).

What Became of the Trabant car

The Trabant didn’t last very long after the German Reunification as they were deemed to polluting, slow and simply unprofitable to make as it was almost entirely manually assembled.

The two stroke engine burned almost as much oil as it did gasoline, interior quality was terrible and the car wasn’t very powerful to begin with.

Many Trabants ended up being abandoned almost as soon as they crossed the now non-existent border, some still filled with old furniture and memories of a life left behind. There was a time were these cars were almost given away, with prices as low as the equivalent of 50 or 60 Euro.

Nowadays there’s been a resurgence of interest for these cars in the collector market as they are sought after for the history they carry and the nostalgia of a “simpler” East Germany living that some former residents feel.

The final two years of production, the old 600cc engine was replaced by a water-cooled four stroke 1.1 liter engine out of the Volkswagen Polo of that era, in what was truly symbolic of a single Germany, without internal borders, without torn families.

From a symbol of communism to a symbol of the German reunification and peace the Trabant went through a lot in its history, being historic in its own nature.

With many of these cars still running around today with modified powertrains or in virtually stock form and “Trabi” clubs still existing it looks like the little car of Communist Germany still has a lot of life to live.

 

References

-BBC. (2019). Fall of Berlin Wall: How 1989 reshaped the modern world. Retrieved from BBC

-Biskupek, M. (2014). Enemies of the people: Censoring books in East Germany. Index on Censorship. doi:10.1177/0306422014535686, June 10, 2014

-James, K. (2007). Go, Trabi, Go! East Germany’s Darling Car Turns 50. Retrieved from Deutsche Welle
Maddison, A. (2001). The World Economy: A Millenial Perspective.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall. (2009). Retrieved from YouTube

 

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