A RECENT trip through the German Democratic Republic confirmed what I had long suspected: After Goethe, Beethoven, and a love of strong beer, what unites the Germans more than anything is their shared passion for the automobile. It used to be that the German-German border sharply divided two automotive realms: to the east, the land of the diminutive, pollution-belching Trabants (affectionately known as Trabis) with their moped-sized engines and late-1950s look; to the west, the land of sleek and powerful Mercedes and BMWs, purring Audis and Opels, and jaunty Volkswagens. Only on the transit highways linking West Berlin and the Federal Republic did East and West rub axles.
The opening of the border in November changed all that. Trabants are a familiar sight putt-putting along highways throughout the Federal Republic, often loaded down with an alarming number of family members and the results of a day's shopping in the West. The roads of the GDR, meanwhile, vividly illustrate the level of penetration of the East by West Germans; virtually every second car is a Western model.
The GDR's road system can scarcely cope with the deluge of cars that has poured in since the opening of the border. Streets are for the most part narrow and poorly marked, and it is a rare intersection, even in a major city, that features a traffic light. The result has been severe congestion and more than a few accidents. The West Germans' aggressive driving style and reluctance to abide by the poky 100 km/hour (60 mph) speed limit on Eastern autobahns have only made the chaos on the roadways worse.
Towns that were once isolated border outposts have become busy crossroads for East-West traffic; their residents post signs begging motorists to turn off their engines during traffic jams, and parents, fearful of speeding BMWs, no longer let their children cross the street alone.
As the two countries merge, the two automotive landscapes seem destined to blend into one. It has already become more difficult to spot East Germans by the cars they drive, since they are buying Western cars just as fast as their limited deutsche marks will let them. It's no secret that the West Germans are car crazy - West German traffic jams have nearly come to rival those of Los Angeles; and every attempt to impose a speed limit on the autobahn brings howls of protest that recall the cries of NRA members when gun control is advocated. The frustrated automotive lust of the East Germans, however, is just beginning to be appreciated.
Not that they were so badly off even under the previous regime - the GDR featured one car for every four inhabitants, a ratio not far behind Japan's. A large proportion of the East Germans who crossed the border last fall - first as refugees, later as tourists - did so in their own cars. But what cars! - an embarrassment for any self-respecting German. Most often a drab beige in color, with go-cart-sized wheels and a shape that defied every principle of aesthetics and aerodynamics, the Trabant looks like a parody of a socialist-bloc car. Of course, looks aren't everything, but the Trabi also gets low marks on reliability.
In the West, Trabi jokes quickly became the rage. (Customer in an auto parts store: ``Can you give me some windshield wipers for my Trabi?'' Clerk: ``Sure, that seems like a fair trade.'') Naturally, most East German drivers can't wait to shed this badge of automotive inferiority and get a real German car.
Since the border opening, but especially since the currency union on July 1, so many East Germans have been spending their newly acquired deutsche marks on used Volkswagens, Audis, Opels, and even Mercedes and BMWs that the price of used cars in the Federal Republic has skyrocketed. It is predicted that some 500,000 used cars will have been sold in the GDR by the end of the year - many on credit, despite the uncertain economic outlook and rising unemployment.
There are a few signs of feeble resistance to the extension of West German automotive culture to the GDR. Occasional signs of Trabi pride are in evidence, such as the bumper stocker that reads, ``Anyone can drive a BMW, but Trabi-drivers are the toughest.'' And a certain resentment of overbearing West German drivers clearly does exist; after I had inadvertently driven our car, with its West German license plates, up a one-way street, an irate East German driver yelled, ``I suppose you all think you can drive however you want over here!''
But for most East Germans, the coming of West German car culture is one of the most tangible and welcome benefits of unification. Conversations with GDR citizens, which often began on elevated political topics, frequently ended up on the subject of automobiles. They wanted to know about the car in which my West German friend and I were traveling. How much did one like that cost? How many horsepower did it have? How much did one have to pay for automobile insurance in the Federal Republic?
After one such interrogation, a Weimar man said to my friend, ``All I want is a Volkswagen like yours. I don't need a Mercedes or a BMW or anything fancy. But I would only buy a German car, of course - never one of those foreign cars.'' My friend vigorously nodded her agreement. There was a moment of profound German-German communion, and suddenly I understood; with the Germans on the road to unity, the rest of us had better buckle our seatbelts.