When you think of East German cars, you probably visualize the colorful but cheaply-made Trabants (“Trabis”), which is what most people drove in the German Democratic Republic. But the GDR also had its very own race car: the Wartburg Melkus, also known as the “Ferrari of the East”.
While the West German car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz generally dominated the Formula One World Championship, East Germany participated in many of the races with its Melkus cars and had a surprisingly high level of success: Heinz Melkus, race car driver and founder of the company, was the 1958 German champion in Formula 3 and the 1960 East German champion in Formula Junior. Overall, he won 80 of the 200 races he competed in throughout Europe.
But producing the race cars was not easy, since the Dresden-based manufacturer was only permitted to use materials from East Germany. About 90 percent of the Melkus’ parts came from Wartburg cars and some of its parts came from the Trabants. Still, Melkus was determined to see his vehicle on the streets of East Germany. Alongside his race cars, he also produced sports cars for everyday use, known as the Melkus RS1000. These sleek and stylish cars could reach speeds of about 112 miles per hour. But they never gained the popularity of the Trabants or the Wartburgs, and the company stopped producing its Melkus cars in 1986.
As we remember the 29th anniversary of the fall of the wall this week, we like to look back at the things that differentiated East and West Germany, as well as the things that united them. The Trabi is a symbol of the East, but the Melkus was one of the GDR’s prized creations: a race car that was made in a region with very few resources.
Some went over, others went under and some went right through it!
In a hot air balloon
In 1979, eight people soared over the Berlin Wall in a home-made hot air balloon created with small pieces of nylon cloth. To avoid looking suspicious, the families of Hans Strelczyk and Gunter Wetzel secretly collected small amounts of cloth over a long period of time. After their escape, the East German government began to strictly control the purchases of light-weight cloth.
With Halloween just around the corner, let’s take a look at one of Germany’s creepiest places: Frankenstein Castle.
Frankenstein Castle sits on a hilltop overlooking the city of Darmstadt. It was constructed sometime before the year 1250 by Lord Conrad II Reiz of Breuberg, who founded the free imperial Barony of Frankenstein. Over the coming centuries, the castle was home to various different families and witnessed several territorial conflicts. In 1673, Johann Conrad Dippel – who later became an alchemist – was born in the castle. The structure fell into ruins in the 18th century and was restored in the mid-19th century.
The most famous story is, of course, that of the alchemist who worked in the castle in the 17th century. He was known to experiment with strange potions. He supposedly created an animal oil (which he named “Dippel’s Oil”) that was a so-called “elixir of life”. There are also rumors that the man studied anatomy and conducted experiements on cadavers, some of which he dug up himself from graves. There is no evidence that proves that any of this happened, but local people believe the legends are true.
This is a guest post by Horst Cerni telling the story of his long journey from Germany to the United States.
Others call it “Germany”, or “Alemania” or “L’Allemagne”, but for me it has always been Deutschland.
My first home was in Allenstein, East Prussia, which no longer is German. We had to escape from the Russians in January of 1945, – we, my mother, two younger sisters, my cousin, and a friend of our family with five small children. It was a horrifying experience, walking in snow for many miles at icy temperatures. After three weeks, we reached Gotenhafen (now Gdingen in Poland) – in time for my tenth birthday. There we were fortunate to get on a freighter that took us to the West.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, which was often described as the “war to end all wars.”
Remembering the Great War is of utmost importance to the Federal Foreign Office. This week, a series of events kicked off in Berlin to look back on the events before and after 1918.
“The future needs remembrance,” said Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on October 11. “The European Union is a unique example in world history for successful conflict resolution. We should be proud of the lessons we have learnt from our shared history, of what we have achieved. And – in awareness of the past – to protect and promote this.”
Together with French politician Jean Yves Le Drian, Minister Maas opened the two-day conference “Winning Peace – the end of the First World War with its history, remembrance and current challenges”. Several other events will take place in October and November to reflect on the war, including an international Youth for Peace meeting in Berlin with more than 500 young people from 52 countries.
It’s the most eventful season of the year for us at the German Embassy! Important anniversaries take place in the autumn, including the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Day of German Unity and the events leading up to and following those historic moments in history. Wednesday is German Unity Day, which celebrates Germany’s reunification on October 3, 1990. Let’s look at some important dates leading up to this historic moment:
September 20, 1990
On this day in history, the legislative chambers of East and West Germany voted in favor of unifying the two parts of Germany. Almost a year prior, the border between the East and the West was opened, but the country had not yet been united politically. After many months of discussions, the West German Bundestag voted 442 to 47 in favor of reunification and the East German Volkskammer voted 299 to 80.
September 23-29, 1990
The German Unification Treaty was signed on September 23. It stated that the territory of the former German Democratic Republic, as reestablished “Länder” (federal states), would accede to the Federal Republic of Germany in accordance with Article 23 of the Basic Law. On September 28, the Federal Statute was published in the Bundesgesetzblatt, which is where the Federal Republic publishes its official laws of the nation. The treaty was entered into force on September 29.
October 3, 1990
Germany was officially reunified and its five states, which had been abolished in 1952, were reinstated as regions of one country. East and West Berlin became one unified city and the German flag was raised above the Brandenburg Gate. As you can imagine – and as some of you may remember – the celebrations on October 3, 1990 were massive – and they continue to this day. Are you celebrating German Unity Day this year?
We are gearing up to celebrate German Unity Day on October 3. This national holiday celebrates the anniversary of German reunification in 1990 – the day that East Germany and West Germany came together as one country. German Unity Day is to Germans what Fourth of July is to Americans – except for the fact that it is a much more recent holiday.
Germany’s national holiday has changed several times in history. Before 1871, Germany consisted of various kingdoms and principalities. Once these regions united into an empire, there was still no national holiday – but there was a celebration of the victory in the Franco-Prussion War, the so-called Sedantag. The date was changed and debated on several times, but eventually the Sedantag celebration was moved to January 18.
From 1947 through the end of 1948 my family lived in Berlin, where my father was assigned to the U.S. Office of Military Government. I was only two years old at that time, so I have no personal recollection of our life in Berlin or of the Airlift in particular. In later years, however, I have read a number of books on the subject of the Berlin Airlift; it is based on my reading that I offer my response to the Deutschland-Nachrichten editorial regarding the Berlin Airlift.
I think it is important, when considering the impressive amounts of food and fuel delivered during the Berlin Airlift, to remember that the Allies did not do this alone. The Allies were in one instance influenced by, and in other instances assisted by, German people.
Let me start with the German children who inspired pilot Gail Halvorsen. As has been recounted, Halvorsen had spent some off-duty time at Tempelhof Airport on July 17, 1948. While recording movies with his hand-held camera, he began to interact with German children who were there to watch the airplanes land. In later years Halvorsen wrote that he saw in the eyes of these children knowledge they should not have had at their young ages – knowledge of the difficulties and cruelties brought on by war. Halvorsen impulsively took out two sticks of chewing gum that he had in his pocket. He handed them to two nearby children and watched as the children carefully divided the gum into as many pieces as possible so that other children could share this unexpected treat. There was no disagreement or fighting among the children. It was this behavior and attitude shown by the children that prompted Halvorsen to tell them that he would return during his next flight and drop candy and gum for them. Halvorsen’s drops to the children eventually came to the attention of General Tunner, who gave his approval and named these candy drops by Halvorsen and other pilots “Operation Little Vittels”.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949, which is widely considered a turning point in the German-American relationship.
After the end of the Second World War, Germany was divided into the American, British, French and Soviet occupation zones. Although Berlin lay within the Soviet occupation zone, the city itself was also divided into four sectors. In 1948, the Allied nations created a single new currency – the Deutsche Mark – for their occupation zones. The Soviets were displeased with this move, fearing that this new currency would devalue the Reichsmark they were using in the East. As a result, they began a blockade of West Berlin, hoping to starve the western powers out of the city. Without the intervention of the Allies, there would have been a humanitarian disaster and many people would have starved to death.
“Ostalgie” is a special kind of nostalgia. In the US, some people collect old soda and gas station signs or old cars. All over the world there are also people who collect old relics from the former East Germany. Trabis, GDR signs, East German food, TV shows – all are examples of Ostalgie.
The “Trabi” may not be the fastest car, or the prettiest car, or even a good car for that matter, but for anyone who has a touch of “Ostalgie,” it is the perfect cure. People in East German would literally register their children at birth for Trabants, in the hopes that by the time he or she turned 18, a car would be available. Trabi enthusiasts can still be found all around the world. In the US, there is an annual Trabi Parade in DC to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Rotkäppchen is one of the few East German brands that survived reunification, and is still widely enjoyed in both the East and West.
The film company DEFA produced a huge chunk of East German television programming. Its fairy tale series was particularly beloved by children. Most of the full length films are still available on YouTube.
4. Berlin Wall pieces
While not strictly a piece of “Ostalgie” the Berlin Wall is nevertheless one of the most symbolic parts of East Germany. Today, pieces of the Berlin wall are attached to key chains, magnets, or used as paper weights. For some, the wall is still a symbol of forty years under a surveillance state. Others, though, see it as a symbol of hard-fought freedom.
5.Pittiplatsch and Friends
Pittiplatsch the kobold and his companions were a staple in East German children’s television. Pittiplatsch dolls are still around to buy, and the older episodes are available online.