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‘Not everything is bad’: A tribute to Mercedes and communist history in Eastern Europe

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As the beige sedan jolted toward the former Soviet barracks, the roar of its half-century-old engine drowned out the noise of people preparing for the day’s festivities at a makeshift exhibition grounds.

A man in the dark green uniform of a 1950s traffic policeman and an old-fashioned leather cap blew a whistle and waved the car – a well-maintained 1980 Wartburg, still a classic despite its somewhat grumbling engine – to the lot.

The driver of the small sedan, once considered an Eastern European Mercedes, pressed the clutch and lurched forward, a mistake that was rebuked by a uniformed parking attendant.

“You have now entered the German Democratic Republic,” he shouted in mock anger, referring to the defunct East Germany. “Throw away your Western manners!”

Over the past decade, Pirna East German Museum A May Day event was held in Pirna, just a few miles from the Czech border in eastern Germany, where people could celebrate the automobile, a symbol of the communist era.

Produced in state-owned factories after the war, the cars are smaller, less powerful and less impressive than most Western cars of the period, but for excited visitors to Pirna, the sleek cars are a sign of pride for locals, who often wear period clothing to match their cars.

Hundreds of motorcycles, buses, trucks, cars and farm vehicles on display exude the nostalgia many feel for a vanished country that for decades was home to North Korea despite its oppressive dictatorship.

“As a proud Easterner, I’m happy to help revive this iconic car,” said Tom Grossman, standing in front of his yellow-green 1985 Trabant, whose most impressive feature is its reinforced cardboard chassis. “If it means there will be more cars like this on German roads, so much the better.”

Mr. Grossmann, who was born in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, expressed a sentiment typical of Pirna at the time.

For years he had been dismissive of old Eastern-made cars, but in middle age his views changed, in part because he was drawn to the community that had formed among those who owned them.

He bought the sedan five years ago for 3,000 euros, or about $3,250, but has since spent more than double that to refurbish it, adding a sunroof, wider tires and a custom interior.

Dressed in a 1980s East German police uniform, Uwe Röckler, 23, walked neatly through rows of cars issuing fake parking tickets and posed for pictures with passersby. Mr. Röckler had a keen eye for detail: The ticket he carefully filled out and tacked under his windshield wiper was an exact replica of the form used by East German police in the 1980s.

“First you find a belt buckle from a flea market,” he said. “Then pretty soon you’re wearing a full uniform,” he added, noting that he has several spare uniforms hanging in his closet at home.

For Mr. Loehler, whose parents toiled under the communist regime, the era held a fascination. “It wasn’t that everything was bad, it was just everyday life,” he said. Speaking of the East German police, considered by many to be one of the most visible manifestations of an authoritarian state, he said: “They were actually pretty good criminologists — on par with the West German police in many ways.”

May 1, officially known as the International Day of Struggle of the Working Class and Oppressed People of the World, is one of the most important dates on the socialist calendar. Although it is a public holiday and no one is required to work, they are required to participate in state-organized parades, where civilian teams of factory workers, socialist youth groups and politicians march with banners celebrating progress and socialism.

Thomas Herzog, 62, waits in line to board a meticulously maintained bus from 1958 that will take him around Pirna. He remembers the demands of the time well. “I’m here because nobody forced me to come here,” he says with a smile.

Many in Pirna described the troubled times, when speech and travel were restricted and citizens lived under the strictest national security system behind the Iron Curtain, as East Germans celebrated May Day 35 years ago in a communist country.

But as that time fades, memories of the communist state become more appealing to many, especially as dissatisfaction with the current system grows.

According to a December poll, 82% of Germans nationwide are at least somewhat dissatisfied with the government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Given this level of dissatisfaction, it’s not surprising that some are looking back.

In eastern Germany, where discontent is often more pronounced, many hope the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party will be the answer. In Saxony, where Pirna is located, voters will go to the polls in September with the AfD at 30 percent, more than any other party on the ballot.

Connie Carden, 60, founder of the East German Museum, said that while reunification has brought benefits, it also has drawbacks.

He noted that the socialist state fostered a sense of community through mandatory meetings of youth, workers and community clubs, in addition to jobs in state-run enterprises. “I’m not saying this is about raising the East German flag,” Mr. Carden said. “But we lost something, we lost cohesion.”

Mr Carden built a museum dedicated to all things East Germany in 2005 and said ticket sales have been on an upward trend.

The May Day car meet is also growing in popularity. He estimates that this year he received as many as 3,500 visitors and hundreds of cars, which is likely to break last year’s record.

The meeting also featured some Western cars. Two custom-made stretched Volvo sedans were parked in a prominent corner, used by East German regime leaders. A huge radio in one of the cars played a loop of an illegally recorded police conversation in 1989.

Rockler, who plays the fake police officer issuing fake tickets, grew up in the former West Germany and moved there after his family 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 policeman was misunderstood in the West.

He’s also not sure his late father would have fully understood that.

“I wonder what my dad would say if he saw me wearing this,” he said, pointing to his carefully ironed suit.

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