The Oddities of East Berlin: A Football Culture Like No Other

In the haunted world of East German football, it doesn't get any better than Berlin.

The first thing one acknowledges upon arrival in Berlin is the cold. With the exception of the summer months, Berlin’s cold is as ubiquitous as it is fierce, and as fierce as it is significant – a quite literally chilling reminder of the city’s infamous and enthralling history. This is no British drizzled chill, and neither is it an arctic blast; Berlin’s cold is dead, omniscient and inescapable. It sits like the chill of an unheated swimming pool, a cold bath of historical significance which, to the foreigner, incites illusions of finding oneself in the middle of a John Le Carré novel. Berlin, after all, is the city of stereotypes: cold war clichés and uninformed prejudices have forever dominated its representation and culture, and its football is no exception.

Football in the GDR is, as a general rule, equally subject to uninformed stereotypes. The monotonous, uncompetitive and largely illegitimate nature of the East German Oberliga has traditionally rendered it incomprehensible to western observers. The “Wessi” football fans who surveyed, and still survey, the soccer experience of their Eastern neighbours made their conclusions with at best incomprehension and at worst damnation. The fixed nature of most Eastern competitions – even their national team’s most famous victory over the BRD in 1974 is subject to suspicion of match throwing – forces the Western viewer to conclude that this football is meaningless, no more than a further extension of the power and manipulation of the Stasi and the SED. Uli Hesse Lichtenberger’s blunt description of GDR football as “a strange world” is perhaps more accurate however. As any dictator who has ever attempted to utilise the People’s Game will tell you, football is dastardly hard to manipulate. Hitler found out to his great chagrin at the 1936 Olympics that simple Aryan physical supremacy was not sufficient to dominate in such a complex, intricate and beautiful game as soccer, and indeed the GDR’s best efforts to use football to serve their political purposes were largely incomplete, if not entirely ineffective. Berlin remains the most notable example of this difficulty – a paradoxical city which typifies the paradoxical, confusing and indeed strange world of the beautiful game in the German Democratic Republic.

Football in East Germany transcended sports for Union Berlin fans.When one thinks of football in East Berlin, it is once again traditional clichés which spring to mind. As ever with the GDR, the reported history of this city’s football finds itself splitting the “Ossis” into two camps: those who opposed the system and were persecuted by it, and those who endorsed it and were rewarded accordingly. This most famous, and overly simplified, rivalry was manfiested in football through East Berlin’s two most famous clubs: 1. FC Union Berlin and their fierce, Stasi endorsed rivals, BFC Dynamo. While Dynamo, later FC Berlin, represented the dominance and manipulation of the State, Union became the epitome of civilian dissent, a bastion of worker independence and escapism within the confines of the Oberliga.

Dynamo’s traditional logo, also synonymous with the Stasi

This, certainly, is evident in the two teams’ differing levels of success during the Oberliga’s most significant years. Both Union and Dynamo were founded under those names in 1966, and existed in the same form right up until reunification – and in Union’s case, beyond – but it was Dynamo who would become world renowned for their unstoppable, if slightly illegitimate success. While the dissent of Union, the civilian “Irons”, was rewarded with a distinct lack of success, and a period of yo-yoing between divisions, Dynamo, a team endorsed and even created by the Stasi – the club was effectively formed by Stasi Minister Erich Mielke’s mass relocation of the previously dominant Dynamo Dresden’s players to the capital – enjoyed 10 successive Oberliga titles. The nature of this most divisive club history is perfectly symbolised by the debate of 2004, in which the club was denied the right to place three representative stars over their club emblem to indicate their title winning record in the same way as clubs such as FC Bayern, on the basis of the perverted nature of their success. That Dynamo’s extended tenure at the top of East German domestic football was very little to do with football is, furthermore, in no doubt: following their final Oberliga title win in 1978, the players of Dynamo Dresden were told by Mielke that “it was now the turn of BFC Dynamo.” This team was indeed the undisputed FC Stasi, or, as their nickname condemned, the “Eleven Pigs”.

1. FC Union Berlin, conversely, became the epitome of anti-authority cultural protest. The fans of “An der Alten Foersterei” provided one of the GDR’s few consistent manifestations of political dissent. While their fanbase was arguably as much made up of lazy and drunken hooligans as it was fierce anti-autocracy political activists, and few of their players or fans would have ended up conclusively in Hohenschoenhausen, the club certainly gained itself a negative reputation within the sinister annals of Stasiland. The inescapably German efficiency of the Stasi’s awareness of their people was the foundation of their success and their infamy, and applying it to the football world proved to be perfectly within their capabilites: trusted IMs (Stasi informers) were often increasingly placed at the heart of Union’s fan societies, in a bid to rat out “negative influences”. This, of course, created the wonderfully Eastern irony that, while Union were famed for being the loved, unsuccessful, and non-Stasi club of East Berlin, their stands were probably filled with just as many State sympathisers as those of BFC Dynamo.

And indeed, it would be lazy – but not uncommon – to split the two clubs into such defined camps. While it is often maintained that the chants of the honest, libertarian Union fans were always overwhelming of the quiet, uninterested murmurs of BFC’s suited Stasi officers, this is, quite typically, yet another cliché. If Dynamo’s success is indicative of their Stasi background, it also does a great disservice to their large civilian fanbase. Unfashionable and unattractive they may have been, but it is with the nostalgic eye of the western romantic that BFC Dynamo are seen as unloved. Mielke and his despicable cronies – or rather subjects – were not the only people that the GDR’s most successful club could count among their supporters. The celebrated novelist and playwright Thomas Brussig, whose success has survived the Reunification as well as it did the SED before that, has professed himself to having been a BFC fan. That he is ashamed to admit it is somewhat beside the point; many of Dynamo’s “normal” fans would have been most discontent with their team’s fabricated dominance of the 1980s, but fandom is contained in the blood. While this team was undoubtedly Stasi material, it should not be forgotten that it remained a football team, and football is a game which, as stated before, suits people better than it does governments.

Union Berlin circa 1988.

Union, moreover, are equally poorly represented by the romanticism of history. While their militant opposition to the dominance and manipulation of the authorities should not be overlooked, there is also a great significance to be taken from the period in which their rivalry with BFC really came to fruition. Dynamo’s success, and Union’s opposition to it, collided after all with the 1980s, a period in which the western side of the Iron Curtain saw football hooliganism reach its most concerning levels. As with most western cultural fads, furthermore, hooliganism was mimicked by those who wished to in some small way fight against State oppression in the GDR. The violence of western cities was a perfect way for many disgruntled Berliners to express their anti-Stasi sentiment without too much risk of never seeing the light of day again. Thus the glorious revolutionary fervour of Union was in many ways as ugly as the violence and poor behaviour which plagued the streets of London and Glasgow in the same period. Cries of “Stasi out!” were accompanied by racial slurs against BFC, citing both Turks and Jews as the sinister powers of Union’s rival club and, by extension, the State. Though it is would be something of a large step to attribute the contemporary Neo Nazism which has become a growing concern in the states of the former GDR to this primitive form of football hooliganism, it is not unfair to hypothesise that the two bear a similar significance. Moreover, the ease with which political dissent can turn into uninformed bigotry – even when it is directed at an authority as repulsive as the GDR – should not be overlooked in the case of 1. FC Union Berlin; the romantic clichés of their history should not be allowed to cloud the uglier side to their mantle as the club of the people.

Dynamo, champions in ’79, now enjoying the relative obscurity of lower tier football.

Such cloudiness however, is typical if not inevitable when it comes to East Germany. Perhaps it is as a result of Union’s relative success since Reunification – they currently sit at a comfortable mid table perch in the second division, while BFC’s success is confined to the ironically named but embarrassingly lowly Oberliga North – or perhaps it is simply an extension of the victor’s having written history, but the portrayal of Union and Dynamo as the Rebel Alliance and Galactic Empire is arguably not frequently enough called into question. This is not to justify Dynamo’s twisted titles – and certainly not to offer any “ostalgic” sympathies for State manipulation of League football – but merely to blur the rather too pompously defined lines between good and evil.

What is undeniable, however, is the individuality of East Berlin’s soccer culture. While western teams such as FC Bayern and Hertha BSC remained popular among the GDR citizens – the story of Eastern Hertha obsessive Helmut Klopfleisch is an enthralling tale – it is the GDR’s own teams who provide the most fascinating insight into East German sporting and political culture. A strange world it may have been, but “Ossi” football will always be one of the most enthralling aspects of an equally strange nation’s psyche. Berlin‘s football clubs, true to form, provide as many red herrings, myths and uncovered truths as the spy novels which use the city as their backdrop. It is cold, unforgiving, uncomfortable and enthralling. It is beautiful, ugly, grey and distinct. It is football. It is history. It is Berlin.

 

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KitHolden

Kit Holden is a freelance sports writer, specialising in German football. Alongside his contributions to the Bundesliga Fanatic, he provides regular Bundesliga coverage for The Independent Online, Total Football Magazine, Talking Baws and others. He is based in Cambridge, where he allegedly does an undergraduate degree in French and German.

3 Comments

  1. I feel so ignorant of Eastern Germany. It is a blackhole, abyss for me. I don’t know anything of the famous, old football sides there. I know Dresden and Leipzig are heralded for their passionate fans, but not much else. I like the story of Union Berlin fans building their own stadium. I hope for more Eastern German teams in the BL 2 and BL 3…although I’m not sure that extends to Red Bulls garbage.

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