Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

German Nostalgia: Ost Lang Syne

BERLIN -- "What makes people drive Trabants?''


Albrecht Reither considers the question almost shyly for a moment, sitting in an auto shop decorated with poster-sized photos of the tinny, toylike noisy, noxious car once produced in mass numbers in communist East Germany.


But then Reither, a burly spare-parts dealer, becomes defiant. "The Trabant is a symbol of protest,'' he says. "People are saying, 'I drove this car for 30 years, and I'm going to keep driving it. I'm not ashamed to be from the East.'''


Time was, eastern Germans wanted to get clear of anything associated with their communist past. From bad coffee to the ideological water-torture of official discourse, from the baleful Trabbi to the tiresome workplace habit of eating bologna sandwiches every time a colleague had a birthday -- in the weeks and months immediately after the Berlin Wall fell, people wanted to discard all of these fixtures of socialist life.


Of late, however, a wave of nostalgia -- or "Ostalgia" as it's known, for the old Ostdeutschland -- has swept the east, and Eastern Germans are rediscovering their Trabbis with a vengeance, to the point of joining Trabbi outing clubs and parading through the eastern German countryside.


Shops specializing in made-in-the-East groceries and household products are opening, and it has become socially acceptable to drink eastern Germany's sugar-sweet Little Red Riding Hood sparkling wine.


"Most people have quickly found out that the dream of the golden West was just an illusion,'' says Reither.


Eastern Germans have had nearly five years now to plumb the joys of Western capitalism, and, Reither says, many have found them wanting.


True, they no longer have to live with shootings at the Wall, a censored news media, the largest spying network in the Marxist world, or the many other instruments of East German state power.


But some have come to the arresting conclusion that they are worse off today than they were under communism. Many men have lost their jobs. Women have lost child-care centers that cost 20 cents a day; practically all households are paying many times more for rent and sustenance than they were before.


And even the eastern Germans who have "made it'' in the post-communist world talk of a certain something that is missing from their lives.


It is, in part, a sense of belonging: They know they aren't East Germans any more, but five years of unification have convinced them that they do not quite belong in the West, either. They have started to wonder where they fit in.


On a busy street in what used to be East Berlin, Klaus Eichler has sensed the new trend and carved out a specialty business centered on Ostalgia: He packages tours for eastern Germans who now miss the very thing they would have spurned in the past -- group tours, laced with nonstop ideology, to the old glory spots of the socialist world.


Interested in the space race from the Soviet point of view? Eichler has a tour to Baikonur, the Russian Cape Canaveral.


Or what about those who like to mix a little sunshine and surf with their politics? For them, Eichler offers two weeks in Cuba, in the capable hands of East Germany's former ambassador to Havana, Hans Langer.


"Of course, we have to admit that there wasn't enough that was good about East Germany. Otherwise it wouldn't have failed,'' Eichler says. "But, nevertheless, I think that quite a few people here believe that in East German times we enjoyed a more peaceful way of life, even a more pleasant way of life. It's difficult to explain this, but it has something to do with human feelings and with values -- with the feeling that my neighbor was my friend, and not my competitor."