WSJ Trabant


The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2009

The Little Car That Could (Sort Of): a Trabant Tribute

ROTTERDAM — After the collapse of Communism in the fall of 1989, Germans on both sides of the Wall quickly realized that East Germany’s economy was in worse shape than anyone had imagined. By the summer of 1990, as East Germans struggled to find their place in what everyone called the “market economy” and as West Germans tried to find some kernel of worth in the wreckage of the GDR, a little car came to the rescue, providing a few needed months of good cheer.

The Trabant — generally referred to by its almost human-sounding nickname, “Trabi” — was the world’s first plastic automobile, with a body made of Duroplast, a cotton-reinforced relative of Formica. Like just about everything else in the GDR, the Trabi reached its peak in the early 1960s, and then stalled. As the decades progressed, some three million cars, each one of vintage Sputnik-era design, rolled off the assembly line in the Saxon town of Zwickau. In 1990, the car got a brief second wind when it became a sudden point of pride for East Germans, and an object of camp curiosity in the West.

In the early ’90s, a young Dutch photographer named Martin Roemers made three trips to the Trabant plant in Zwickau, and now Rotterdam’s Kunsthal presents what he found in a bittersweet exhibition called “A Tribute to the Trabant.”

The show is less a tribute to the Trabant than to the people who made it. The black-and-white photographs, which have captions rather than titles, catch the GDR in its death throes, but also record the durable humanity of its citizens. Here are assembly workers, custodians and painters, all smiling for Mr. Roemers while the world around them crumbles. There is a surreal sadness in these photos, as the resolutely old-fashioned Trabant, in various stages of production, slides along in scene after scene — as immune to change, and to the damaged lives around it, as a layer of inert gas.

In 1992, Mr. Roemers returned to Zwickau, where the revamped Trabi plant was busy producing Volkswagens, and his final photographs record the junk dealers and recyclers hard at work, disposing of the Trabant’s last traces. A farewell shot shows a train loaded with new VWs, riding into the future.

—J.S. Marcus