Here’s a little-known East German vehicle that’s actually amazing

While the Trabant is a car made in East Germany that’s known for being noisy, slow and extremely polluting, the Simson Schwalbe - a moped from the GDR - is a wondrous vehicle that comes with lots of advantages.

Here’s a little-known East German vehicle that’s actually amazing
An original Simson Schwalbe in the colour "Bieber Braun," or beaver brown. Photo: Shelley Pascual.

I don’t own a house or a car, but I am a proud Simson Schwalbe moped owner – an original one at that. (Several modern versions have been produced of late).

Purchased four years ago in mint condition from an elderly man in a small town close to Bremen, it’s probably the best investment I’ve ever made.

Built in 1985 in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), it’s older than me. But of all the years I’ve had it now, it’s never let me down.

For about two years, aside from the wintertime, I drove it every day to work and back – about 20 kilometres. In addition to its durability though, there are many more reasons why owning a Schwalbe is so awesome.

Firstly, it’s fast. With an engine size of 50 cubic centimetres, the Schwalbe can go up to 60 kilometres per hour, which stands in stark contrast to newer mopeds.

With a standard driver’s license in Germany, you’re technically only entitled to drive a moped with an engine size of 50 cubic centimetres at a maximum speed of 45 kilometres per hour. Many scooters produced nowadays are designed as such and the Schwalbe is an exception.

The Schwalbe is also rather easy to fix yourself, which means it’s cheap to maintain if you’re handy.

My partner is an engineer and he’s been able to repair our Schwalbe on multiple occasions instead of us having to take it to the shop. For instance, we once saved an estimated €50 when he changed the gasket of the moped himself.

According to him, the Schwalbe is engineered in such a way that it is simple and compact, lending itself very well to being fixed by amateurs. He says that there are lots of helpful tutorial videos online for Schwalbe repairs that even people who aren’t good with their hands can follow (like me).

A further benefit for those that do choose to get their hands dirty is that parts for the Schwalbe are very accessible as there’s a pretty huge after-sales market for the model, too. By comparison, getting your hands on spare parts for a Vespa moped is much more difficult.

Not only is maintenance cheap, the cost of driving a Schwalbe is relatively low.

When I was driving it to work every day, petrol cost up to €32 per month – about half of what I would’ve had to pay if I had gotten a monthly transit pass. Not to mention insurance only costs around €40 a year.

Hitting the open road. Photo: Shelley Pascual.

But none of these advantages top the best thing about owning a Simson Schwalbe, which for me is the unique experience it offers.

Before I owned one, I never knew what it was like to ride down the street on a two-wheeler and to turn people’s heads. People often give me the thumbs-up sign with big grins on their faces as I’m out for a ride on my Schwalbe.

I also had never before been stopped by random strangers in parking lots who, fascinated by my moped, started asking me questions about the Schwalbe such as its age, where it’s from and how I got my hands on it.

This kind of thing happens quite often whenever I’m out on my trusty steed; it’s shown me that not all Germans despise small talk, particularly when it's on the topic of something interesting or meaningful to them.

So sure, it’s great that the Schwalbe’s reliable, fast and cheap in terms of maintenance and petrol costs. The fact that just over one million Simson Schwalbe vehicles were produced in the GDR is pretty cool, too. This means that it'll likely get harder to get your hands on an original as each year passes.

Nowadays you can spend anywhere from €500 to €1,000 for a second hand Schwalbe (we spent €1,000 on ours) and up to €2,000 for a fully restored one.

The only potential downside I’d say about the vehicle is that it’s manual rather than automatic. This meant it took me a few days to learn how to drive it and about two weeks until I felt confident driving it.

Still, the pros definitely still outweigh the cons. Another pro is that it can carry up to two people.

What this means is that you can share the experience of joyriding on a Schwalbe at 60 kilometre per hour speeds through the countryside with someone else – one of my all-time favourite pastimes.


How the Stasi failed to silence Rolling Stones fans in East Germany

The little known tragedy of the 1969 rumoured Rolling Stones concert captures both the East Germans’ determination for freedom of expression, and the horrors of life under the Stasi.

How the Stasi failed to silence Rolling Stones fans in East Germany
The Rolling Stones performing at the Hague in 1967. Wikimedia/Nationaal Archief NL

In the 40 years of the GDR, East Germans created a unique culture which is often remembered with a quirky sense of nostagia, or “Ostalgie” (the German term for a longing for lost aspects of life in East Germany). 

READ ALSO: East Germany – 10 things you never knew about the GDR

However it is important that we acknowledge and remember the more unpleasant aspects of life in East Germany as we approach the 30th anniversary of the Mauerfall (Berlin Wall fall), such as isolation, censorship and the presence of the Stasi (the East German secret police).

How did the Stones become so popular in the GDR?

In a country where British music was only available to buy on the black market at staggering prices, and Western songs were strictly limited on the radio, it may seem surprising that the Rolling Stones achieved such popularity in East Germany. 

The British rock band were firmly on the banned list at East German radio stations, as “beat music” was considered by the authorities as subversive. However, this only fuelled young East Germans’ desire to seek out Rolling Stones' records, whatever the cost, and illegally tune into West German radio to hear them play.

Günter Schneidewind, host of the GDR youth radio station DT64, explained that the Rolling Stones captured a spirit of freedom which was irresistible to East German youth. 

The Rolling Stones are still going strong, performing a concert in the USA this year. Photo: DPA

“They had provided a sense of upbeat get-up-and-go which was unparalleled in post-war East Germany. They simply threw overboard the things that were being preached in schools and official places”.

“The Stones had long hair, they made extremely loud music and they even made a lot of money with that – it was clear that young people idealized them,” Schneidewind said. “The official youth ideals in the GDR were based on socialist morals and ethics and were posted in each and every class room. This was completely the opposite of what the Stones were about”. 

However as Schneidewind points out, “authorities saw a real danger that young people might get rebellious,” with the GDR government fearing that a growing love for rock and pop would “stir the already simmering discontent of young people”.

READ MORE: 10 surprising uses of English in former East Germany

How did the GDR Government respond to young people’s love for the Rolling Stones?

Once East German leaders began to fear that Western music could steer young people towards Western politics, they put their minds to creating their own, state-approved version of youth culture. 

Jürgen Breski, an Ex-Stasi officer who was ordered to monitor and infiltrate the punk scene, explained to the BBC that the authorities “wanted to bring a kind of socialist lifestyle to the people, so we tried to combat anything that didn't belong to that. The aim was to control 'the scene' as it expanded, and to stop it from becoming too well known”.

The “Lipsi” was a dance created as a politically correct alternative to dancing influenced by rock and roll. David Byrne, lead singer of American rock band Talking Heads, described it as “a weird sexless popular dance that the government attempted to insert into popular culture as a kind of immunisation against Elvis’s rock-and-roll gyrations”. 

Dagmar Hovestaedt, a senior figure at the BStU (The Stasi Records Agency), who investigates the archives of the East German Secret Police, told the BBC that, “the older generation, the war generation, was aghast at what youth was doing. But you can't organize a youth culture, that's not how it works”.

Did The Rolling Stones really plan a concert in East Germany?

It was widely believed across the GDR that on October 7th 1969, a National Holiday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the country, the Rolling Stones would perform a concert for East Berlin. However this was simply a rumour, started as the result of a throwaway comment by a radio DJ. 

On RIAS, a West Berlin station that many in East Berlin tuned in to, a DJ casually expressed the notion: Imagine, if the new publishing house built by entrepreneur Axel Springer in the West, right next to the Wall, staged a concert featuring the Stones on its roof so Easterners could come and listen too.

The comment quickly became rumour, then it turned into widely believed fact. Thousands expected the Rolling Stones to play and some East German roads were even chalked with slogans instructing fans to come to Berlin for the show.

We know this through Stasi photographs and reports which detail how they tracked down and arrested those who chalked the messages. 

READ ALSO: Why Germany will never forget the Stasi era of mass surveillance

Though the Stones never appeared in Berlin on the day, hundreds of their fans did, as well as the GDR authorities. They arrested and beat up those in the crowd as they moved towards the Brandenburg Gate. The BBC reports that in particular cases, teenagers were arrested and even exiled to the West away from their families, convicted of being an “anti-socialist element”, simply because they turned up hoping to see the Rolling Stones live. 

The Stasi kept tracks on those who spread the word about the rumoured Rolling Stones concert in East Berlin. Photo: Federal Stasi Records (BSTU)

The Rock and Roll Legacy in East Germany: An Art that Changed Society

This brutal reprisal from the East German government was an attempt to deter young people from Western music. However instead, it sent a signal to the authorities that there are rock and roll fans in the GDR who are no longer willing to hide.

Fans of rock music continued to be subjected to relentless pressure from the Stasi, and East German rock fans were often praised by musicians in the West for creating their own cultural space amid all of the regime's pressure.

Campino, lead vocalist of the West German punk rock band Die Toten Hosen tells the BBC “they had a certain kind of pride, a belief. They said, 'You in the West you've got the best clothing, the fashion, all those things. But we've got friendship and we help each other and we're not superficial’”.

Their friendships “meant more because they had to pay a bigger price for everything that went wrong”.

READ ALSO: Talking 'bout my generation: What unity means to eastern Germans

For many young people living in the GDR, the Rolling Stones became a soundtrack to freedom. The Stones helped young people access unique spaces in their minds, which couldn’t be restrained by the Stasi.

In fact, the Stones outlived censorship laws in East Germany, with the government eventually relaxing the rules on Western music and even releasing an LP of selected songs by the Rolling Stones on a GDR record label in 1982. 

Günter Schneidewind believes that the Rolling Stones and other bands like them contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago this November,  “the people got mesmerised by what the Stones did. They read the lyrics and discovered the literary concepts and found philosophical ideals beyond Marx and Engels”.

“Many claim that art does not lead to changes in society. But I believe it can.”