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The cars they left behind

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Twenty years ago, Prague’s historical quarter Malá Strana became a huge scrap yard of Trabants, Wartburgs and other eastern European cars. At that time, thousands of East Germans were fleeing the regime of Erich Honecker, and they used the West German embassy in Prague as a gateway to the west. They would leave their “trabbis” parked wherever they could. All around the embassy, there were hundreds of abandoned vehicles. “It looked like the scene of some catastrophe,” says Oldřich Tůma, head of the Institute for Contemporary History.

Josef Mihalík, who works at Prague City Hall, served in the traffic police 20 years ago. “There were so many of these cars. People complained that they were blocking the streets. We would tow them a couple of metres so that they wouldn’t get in the way,” he told Aktuálně.cz.

What StB archives say about the cars
The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes allowed Aktuálně.cz to study a report containing documents compiled by the StB, Czechoslovakia’s Communist secret police, about Prague’s West German embassy. Dozens of pages in the document are devoted to the abandoned vehicles – proof that the Trabants posed a serious problem.

Included in the report are several lists of cars with an East German licence plate that were parked at various places in Prague’s centre. Notes from an official meeting between Czechoslovakia and East Germany refer to resolving the “automobile crisis”.

A document from 25 September 1989, for instance, mentions that nine cars were relinquished behind the garden of the West German embassy. “The vehicles in question were parked at a time when there was no surveillance in place, that is, at night or in the early morning,” the StB document says. “According to information obtained from the watchman at Malostranské náměstí parking lot, several cars belonging to East German citizens were already towed last week with the assistance of the West German Embassy, which covered the parking costs and towing fees,” says a report from the same day.

A document from several days later lists some 90 abandoned parked cars. And the number of cars kept growing exponentially.

Take your cars to West Germany
Communist officials found this situation unpleasant because it had a destabilising effect on Czechoslovakia. That’s why they put pressure on their friends in East Germany to come take the cars away. At the beginning of October 1989, Herbert Huber, a secretary at the East German embassy assured his Czechoslovak colleagues that they were working on removing the Trabants and Wartburgs.

“Comrade Huber informed us that, based on an agreement with the Prague mayor, they are working diligently to remove the vehicles. A taskforce has asked 50 drivers to join the team of 64 to help with the problem,” says the document. The archives don’t reveal, however, whether all the Trabants were eventually returned to Eastern Germany.

Tůma speculates that some of the abandoned Trabants were taken back to East Germany after the first wave of emigration. The second wave came at the beginning of November 1989, and by that time, Communist officials didn’t have enough time to try to resolve the car situation. The Berlin Wall fell, and shortly after that, the Velvet Revolution arrived in the Czech Republic.

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