'Not everything was bad': Saluting the Mercedes of Eastern Europe and a Communist past
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'Not everything was bad': Saluting the Mercedes of Eastern Europe and a Communist past
Visitors explore the G.D.R. Museum Pirna in Pirna, Germany on May 1, 2024. A festival of classic cars from the communist era brings out some nostalgia in eastern Germany for pre-unification days, although the abuses that occurred behind the Iron Curtain aren’t forgotten. (Lena Mucha/The New York Times)

by Christopher F. Schuetze



PIRNA, GERMANY.- As the beige car bounced up to the former Soviet barracks, the rattling of its half-century old motor overpowered the din of people setting up for the day’s festivities at a temporary fairground.

A man dressed in the dark green uniform of a 1950s traffic cop, replete with an old-fashioned leather cap, blew his whistle sharply and waved the car — a well-maintained 1980 Wartburg, a classic despite the engine’s clatter — through to the parking lot.

The driver of the little sedan, once considered the Mercedes of Eastern Europe, slipped the clutch, jolting the car forward. The lapse earned a rebuke from a costumed parking attendant.

“You are entering the GDR now,” he yelled with mock anger, referring to the extinct East German state. “Leave your Western manners behind!”

For more than a decade, the GDR Museum Pirna has played host to a May Day event in Pirna, just a few miles from the Czech border in Germany’s east, where people can celebrate cars emblematic of the communist era.

Built after the war in state-owned factories, the cars are smaller, less powerful and less showy than most Western cars from the same era. But to the excited visitors in Pirna, who often dress in contemporaneous garb to match the vehicles they arrived in, the polished and pampered cars embody a local pride.

The hundreds of motorcycles, buses, trucks, cars and farming vehicles on display exuded the nostalgia that many here feel for a vanished country that — despite its oppressive dictatorship — was home for decades.

“As a proud Easterner, I’m happy to help revive this iconic car,” said Tom Grossmann, standing in front of his lime green 1985 Trabant, best remembered for a chassis made of reinforced cardboard. “If it means that there are more of these cars on German roads, all the better.”

Born in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, Grossmann expressed a sentiment typical at the scene in Pirna.

For years, he had been dismissive of the old Eastern-built cars, but in middle age, his view changed. In part, he was drawn by the community that had developed among people who own the cars.

When he bought his sedan five years ago, he paid 3,000 euros (about $3,250), but then spent more than twice that refurbishing his ride, adding a sunroof, wider tires and custom upholstery.

Uwe Röckler, 23, neatly dressed in a GDR police uniform from the 1980s, paraded past the lineup of cars giving out fake parking tickets and posing for photos with passersby. Röckler is a stickler for details: The tickets he carefully filled out and pinned under wipers were written on an exact reproduction of the form used by East German police in the 1980s.

“It starts with a belt buckle that you find at a flea market,” he said. “And pretty soon, you’re wearing a full uniform,” he added, noting he had several spares hanging in his home closet.

To Röckler, whose parents toiled under the Communist regime, the era holds a fascination. “Not everything was bad, it was just everyday life,” he said. Of the East German police, which many see as one of the most obvious manifestations of a repressive state, he said: “They were actually pretty good criminalists — in many ways equal to those in West.”

May 1 — formally known as the “International Day of Struggle of the Working Class and the Oppressed Peoples of the World” — was one of the most important dates on the socialist calendar. Although it was a public holiday and nobody had to work, attendance at state-organized parades was mandatory, and civilian brigades of factory workers, socialist youth groups and politicians were expected to march with signs celebrating progress and socialism.

Waiting in line to board a carefully maintained bus from 1958 that would take him on a tour of Pirna, Thomas Herzog, 62, remembers the requirements of that era well. “I’m here because no one is forcing me to be here,” he said with a laugh.

Among those in Pirna celebrating this May Day, 35 years after East Germans last celebrated it in a functioning communist state, many said the era had been rife with problems, including restrictions on speech and travel, with citizens living under the yoke of one of the most restrictive state security systems behind the Iron Curtain.

But as that time recedes into the past, memories of the communist country have become more attractive for many, especially as discontent with the current system grows.

According to a poll from December, 82% of Germans nationwide are at least somewhat unsatisfied with the government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Given that level of discontent, it’s unsurprising some people are looking backward.

In eastern Germany, where the disaffection is often more pronounced, many look toward the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, for solutions. In Pirna’s state, Saxony, where voters head to the polls in September, the AfD polls at 30%, more than any other party on the ballot.

Conny Kaden, 60, the founder of the GDR Museum, said that despite the benefits reunification brought, there were downsides.

The socialist state, he noted, in addition to offering jobs at state-run enterprises, had fostered a sense of community through mandatory meetings in youth, worker and community clubs. “I’m not saying this is about raising the GDR flag,” Kaden said. “But we lost something, we lost the cohesion.”

Kaden built his museum dedicated to all things GDR in 2005 and said ticket sales have been trending up.

The May Day car meet has also become more popular. This year, he estimated he had welcomed up to 3,500 visitors and hundreds of cars, likely breaking last year’s record.

The meet featured some Western cars, too. Two custom stretch limousine Volvos, used by the East German regime’s leaders, were parked in a prominent corner. Over the enormous radio inside of one, a tape of police chatter illegally recorded in 1989 played on a loop.

Röckler, who played the fake police officer handing out fake tickets, grew up in what had been West Germany, where his family moved after they had lost their jobs following reunification. As an adult, he returned to the former East Germany, in part because he said his hobby of dressing up as a Communist police officer was misunderstood in the West.

He was not sure it would have been completely understood by his late father, either.

Gesturing to his carefully pressed suit, he said, “I wonder what my dad would say if he could see me wearing this.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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