Analysis on the Trabant automobile and its consequence.

by the sociologist Rodrigo Torrealba

The image as an evocation of memory.


On account of the 28thyear’s anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, painter Oscar Villalón Ríos reminds us of the most recent history of Germany and its daily life through his paintings that detail the most recent past of a Germany that was a unique experience in history. Quoting the Uruguayan thinker Eduardo Galeano, in his book, The Book of Embraces where tells us: ‘To remember: from the Latin re-cordis, means to go through the heart again’. I say this when I want to refer to an aesthetic metaphor that is reflected in Oscar’s painting, an avant-garde artifact during the existence of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the 'Trabant' automobile. The birth of the popular vehicle was a trial of the classical ‘we also can’. It was in January 1954 when the Ministers’ Council of the German Democratic Republic decided the development and manufacture of a Volkswagen (‘peoples’ car' in German). Four years later the serial production of the Trabant (satellite in German) P50 (P, of 'Personenkraftwagen', 'tourism automobile', and 50, because of its engine of 500 cc) began. But it would not be until 1964 when the manufacture per se began as it looks like in our time. As anecdotal data, to access one of these vehicles, you had to be at least 18 years old and have filled forms which rested in the bureaucratic apparatus until a phone call finally announced the ownership of one of these vehicles to whoever had requested it. Due to the long waiting time to get a 'Trabi', there was a thriving second-hand black market. Paradoxically the prices of used vehicles were higher than those of new ones, since the purchase of a used vehicle meant its immediate acquisition.

That said, this vehicle used to break down quite often and there were few repair-shops that fixed them, to be able to bring spare parts from somewhere, you had to wait an eternity. However, the ingenuity of its owners plus the networks around this 'object', made the repairs somewhat friendlier for the owners and that they could fix it for its proper functioning.

At present, a trip to the past is offered through a unique simulation of a trip on board a Trabi through urbanization. Towards 2014 the Museum of the GDR in Berlin (DDR-Museum) promoted this trip with the phrase 'Get into the car, turn the ignition key, press the accelerator and immerse yourself in the past'. This phrase that calls for an immersion in the past inevitably evokes the fall of the Berlin Wall 28 years ago, where the premise from there onwards was 'overcoming of the past'; however, over the years, it gives the impression, from a distant place, that a certain yearning starts to emerge of showing what the daily life in the GDR was like.

Perhaps we could venture that once the Berlin Wall fell, on November 9, 1989, the unthinkable happened, it was 28 years of division of a country that was configured in two radically opposed orbits, on the one hand the most ardent capitalism and on the other, the socialism that occurred in a specific time coordinate and diverse materiality within the orbit of the USSR. Being only one Germany, both States were semi-sovereign (on the one hand the Soviet Union and on the other, the United States) where they responded to the guidelines that imposed state - institutionalized orders very different from one another. Thus, at the international regional level, the GDR was inscribed in an international sub-order of a hegemonic type or with characteristics of an informal empire, while the FRG was framed in a constitutional one.

This issue becomes more relevant when analyzing the terms of the unification of October 1990, which ended with the annexation of the social territories that made up the GDR within the institutional structures of the FRG, leading to some problems such as assuming a structure where new institutions are not created but there is a ‘transplant’ of the old ones. In terms of the German reunification, it did not happened from within but it came from the outside, specifically from the Soviet Union, with the nomination of Mikhail Gorbachev (March 11th, 1985) as Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) ), starting the reforms’ period’.

Already with the imminent fall of the Honecker regime, the successive protest demonstrations, the opening of borders to Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, among other countries, we can see the crisis of migrants and the emergence of the Central Round Table (‘ZentralerRunder Tisch’), promoted by Protestant religious associations, served as a way forward for the much-mentioned unification. An important milestone was the night of November 9 over to the 10, of1989, when the borders for the free circulation of the borders between the two Germanies were opened, something was definitely changing, the post-totalitarian movement was walking steadily toward a ‘transplanted’ democratic institutionalism. That did not solve the issue of democracy, successive problems, which it is not the aim of this article, started creating a democratic ambiance that took time to strengthen to what we know today, transitions are always creating painful expectations.

As an example, today Leipzig has brought in great companies such as Porsche, Amazon, and BMW, just to mention a few, it was the world headquarters of soccer in 2006 and is mentioned as a 'cool' place -of trends- that attracts young audiences, artists, has reasonable prices and has a wide cultural scene. In short, Leipzig has tried to position itself as a symbol of a renewed East Germany, changing the gray and decadent aspect of East Germany, integrating itself into a renewed Germany. It should be noted that not everything has been easy. There are still remnants of this division that still bring problems of integration of a unique process at a ‘western’ order, beyond the value judgments that can be made about it. One of the factors that manages to symbolically unify Germany, has been professional football. This is enjoyed cheerfully, that 'invisible wall' seems to disappear at times; however, the vestiges of nationalism still persist in the collective imaginary.

It is interesting to note that some Germans who lived in the GDR period and those who did not (born after 1989), are reflecting if what they lived at the time of the Socialist Republic, was really so bad and disposable after all. There is no doubt that there were negative elements that are undeniable, but there is a point of view that is not indifferent to the political process lived. For a long time, there was a strategy of politicians and businessmen of that time that it was to 'sell' that everything from the West was better and that capitalism was the benchmark par excellence. This is how the concept of ‘Östalgie’ or nostalgia for the East (which would be a kind of play on words between ‘ost’: east and nostalgia) was born. This concept has been a cultural phenomenon rescued by the former residents of the GDR who seek to reminisce a forgotten identity, which stands to the West and that somehow with the reunification, with one stroke the people decided to erase all material and symbolic vestige of what they lived as a country of communist orbit and rapidly westernize. However, in this rescue of the modern memory, 'Östalgie' tries the rescue of the collective memory, the ‘Össis’ (today rather marginal citizens) have tried to reaffirm themselves in a crisis context rescuing certain values ​​that they lived as citizens in the GDR.

Today we are faced with this nostalgia that in a certain way seems to attract tourists, citizens who want to relive those past experiences of a socialist orbit as a unique experience, today. The material objects take on special relevance as icons of that time, especially the famous 'Trabant', whose symbolism takes us immeasurably to yesteryear, where you could wear that longed for and appreciated 'jewel' as an artifact that granted an indestructible status, the trips in this vehicle were very few and only for special occasions, not for everyday use. Today the ‘Trabants’ have gone on to have an iconic value since the 90s, it was a vehicle that mobilized a nation, they are objects of worship, of art and even of racing (some modified). This artifact remains, symbolically the car of socialism, of the material progress of that time, that vehicle of the people with the clear message 'we also can’, we are still here, all these messages that make us feel part of the living memory, the one that refuses to die, we want to be part of an image as an evocation of memory.

Rodrigo Torrealba


Mg. Política Educativa