East Bloc Military Vehicle Festival
By Kent Saunders

The Germans have a habit of combining two or more (often many more) existing words to make a new word when they feel it necessary to describe something. A fairly recent addition to the German lexicon is "Ostalgie," which combines "Ost" (East) and "Nostalgie" (Nostalgia) to describe the feeling of nostalgia for day-to-day life in the former DDR/East Germany. It tends to excuse, as it must, the totalitarian nature of the regime.

That having been said, the biggest "Ostalgie Fest" in Germany has to be the annual 3 day gathering of The International East Bloc Vehicle Association, which takes place on a former Soviet Naval Aviation base near Putnitz. It is deserted except for the Technology Association of Putnitz Museum which hosts the event and has its collection housed in two of the old aircraft hangers on the site. The base is huge, with dozens of now overgrown concrete aircraft bunkers positioned around the various runways, decaying barracks buildings, and what used to be a memorial to various Hero's of the Soviet Union. This author, having been stationed in West Berlin and West Germany during the Cold War, it was really quite an experience just to be there.

Over 10,000 people, including whole families, show up to camp out for the weekend and remember "the good old days." Many more attend the event but don't camp out. With them they bring hundreds of vehicles (a somewhat bewildering variety actually) from a ZSU-23/4 tracked anti-aircraft unit, BMPs, trucks, and GAZ jeeps to fire engines, Volkspolizei cars and dozens of sidecar equipped Russian copies of the WWII era German Army BMW motorcycle, now all privately owned. (One can wonder if the irony was appreciated...) There was a daily organized parade of these vehicles around the site, with much "cruising" of the area by individual owners on an ongoing basis. One older gentleman dressed up as a General was constantly being driven around in a small staff car with speakers blaring Communist propaganda songs while he stood at attention in front of the passenger seat, holding a salute as if reviewing the troops. It was amusing the first day; by the third day not so much.

Rides were available to the public in BMP Armored Fighting Vehicles as well as an Antonov biplane and two-seat primary trainer aircraft. Food is available on site as well, as the town of Putnitz is actually a short drive away.

Various participants of the "fest" take the occasion to dress up in East German or Russian uniforms, although great license is taken with authenticity. Nicolas Von Nollendorf, an authority on uniforms/decorations of all nations and a Berlin militaria dealer/film consultant with whom I attended the event was on more than one occasion seen with an amused expression on his face. He pointed out one individual that had insignia elements of infantry, armor and the air force, with a mix of officer and enlisted, all combined into what he was wearing. Being in the spirit of the event was pretty much the primary consideration.

There was however, one retired officer of the DDR Grenztruppen (Border Guards) who was present in full uniform, complete with his dagger by his side, who was undoubtedly what he claimed to have been. He stated proudly that he had retired after almost 30 years of service. I was introduced by Nico as having served in the U.S. Army's Berlin Brigade. There was definitely a feeling of former adversaries meeting in good spirits, and I couldn't bring myself to spoil the moment by telling him that I had helped 14 people escape from the DDR as a member of what the STASI (Ministry for State Security/Secret Police) referred to as a "Kriminalmenschenhandelbande" (criminal people moving organization).

These people are "Ossie's" (Easterner's) and proud of it. That's really what this event is about; trying to relive the old days, to remember the way of life and preserve their memories, and in that sense it is "living history." One customer browsing through the selection of items for sale at our table heard me speaking English and asked Nico, "Who's that guy?" Nico replied that I had served in Berlin, to which the customer replied stiffly, "Not on OUR side."

I was struck by the realization that this half of Germany had never been "de-Nazified" in the sense that the people had gone from one totalitarian society directly into another with no frame of reference for anything else until less than 20 years ago. There is a difference between knowing this, as everyone familiar with the history does, and actually feeling it. That's what attending this gathering allowed me to experience. It's a unique event, and if you have the opportunity to be anywhere near the Rostock/Putnitz area in the first week of July, I recommend it highly. Come for the vehicles and militaria and stay for the window into a bygone culture and meet people who lived it.

International East Bloc Vehicle Association

Technical Association Putnitz

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V14N11 (August 2011)
and was posted online on November 1, 2011


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