It is hard to believe that it has already been over 20 years since the wall came down that divided Germany for over four decades, a split that shaped the socio-economic and political landscape not only within its own borders but throughout the world. That separation also seeped into every aspect of life including sports, the repercussions of which had a significant effect on both East and West German football.
Whereas football and life thrived in the West, it was a different reality in the East. Politics, fear and state control ruled East German society and football was no exception. One man in particular had his foot print all over East German football, namely Erich Mielke, whose own interest in the game as well as its political value shaped the narrative of the sport in the East from its infancy until its last breaths in 1989.
East Germany’s Minister of State Security, Erich Mielke, symbolized the country’s corrupt, tyrannical, invasive and scrupulous image. As head of the “Stasi”, or Secret Police, Mielke employed a vast network of state spies to keep tabs on millions of people, often leading to arbitrary arrests, brutal harassment, kidnappings, and the unwarranted detainment and imprisonment of thousands of suspected state dissidents. In fact, so ruthless was Mielke that he was even feared by members of his own ministry. Suffice to say, an iron grip and an eager willingness to utilize it made Mielke a very powerful man.
But aside from being the manipulative megalomaniac history proved him to be, Mielke was also football crazy and as it were, his political impulses very much sculpted East German football. That ruling parties or politicians exploit popular activities such as sports to boost their own popularity is nothing new but Mielke’s story is also the story of BFC Dynamo, the Berlin based football club representing the security agencies. In East Germany, many clubs were associated with different industries and branches of the government and BFC Dynamo, or Berliner FC Dynamo for full disclosure, were established, or re-established as will be outlined later, as the club to represent Mielke and the country’s security forces.
BFC Dynamo, under the tutelage and support of Mielke and the state’s wide array of resources, would go on to win ten consecutive DDR Oberliga titles (East German football’s highest tier) between 1979 and 1988, albeit under rather dubious circumstances. Again, we will expand on that later. For now, let us focus on the early days of East German football and the origins of BFC Dynamo. Mielke, being the altruistic football supporter he was and the city being the capital, felt that it needed a strong football club to represent it. A strong capital after all meant a strong state and reinforced the policies and ideals coming out of it. Before 1966, the club that eventually became BFC Dynamo went through various transformations and name changes that no sane man could keep track of, all ending largely unsuccessfully on the football pitch, at least they certainly failed to live up to the standards worthy of the state’s proud security forces.
Methods were attempted earlier to lift Berlin’s football out of the proverbial slums of mediocrity when Dynamo Dresden’s players, then one of the better sides in the country, were ordered to leave their club in 1954 to relocate to Berlin and form a competitive team up north, leaving their side with just their reserve players. The effects were brief and the club was again re-organized in January of 1966. Before the football club “rebranded” itself as BFC Dynamo in 1966, they were part of the security agency’s general sports organization (Sports Club Dynamo, or SV Dynamo) of which Mielke was the founding president. To have a more profound impact though, they disassociated themselves from the sports organization as part of a nationwide restructuring of football in the country. BFC Dynamo were thus born under the patronage of Mielke and East German football would never be the same.
That is not to say Mielke did not face obstacles in his grand socialist sporting project but he was never beyond taking whatever measures necessary to get rid of them, even if they defied all ethical and moral codes and meant destroying other football clubs. The first of those obstacles was actually a side not too different from BFC and one that too was associated with the East German police. That other club was Dynamo Dresden who were the country’s most successful football side until BFC’s ascent. Mielke could not stand the fact that East Berlin was second fiddle to the city of Dresden who carried a bourgeois reputation. That was a big reason why Mielke decided to relocate Dresden’s talent pool to East Berlin in 1954, depriving Dresden of its best players including their first internationals Johannes Matzen, Herbert Schön and Günter Schröter. His other motive of course was an exigent need for the self-legitimization of state doctrine and the socialist ideology, proclaiming, “Football success will highlight even more clearly the superiority of our socialist order in the area of sport.”
The “relocation” of Dynamo Dresden’s best players left the club to fend for itself in the second tier of East German football with a group of inexperienced young reserve players. Things got so bad that by 1957 they were languishing in the fourth tier. Not until 1969 did they reestablish themselves as a consistent side in the first division. Meanwhile BFC Dynamo had been making strides in the DDR Oberliga but just as they finally established themselves in the top tier Dresden were there to spoil the party once more. Dynamo Dresden became East Germany’s most successful side in the 1970’s, winning five league titles and two domestic cups and became a hugely popular club in the country. Participation and relative success in Europe added to that popularity, beating powerhouse clubs like Porto, Juventus and Benfica in the UEFA and European Cup on their way to four quarter final finishes.
Again furious that his favorite club and the capital of East Germany were just a sideshow Mielke took a more hands on approach at the end of the 1970’s. Up until then state officials had in large part kept away from the football pitch but with pride and political reputation at stake, the status quo was inadequate and Mielke felt it necessary to intervene although he did so in a more clandestine manner. It is said that after Dynamo Dresden’s league win in 1979 an enraged Mielke stormed into their locker room, proclaiming at the top of his lungs that BFC Dynamo were going to win the league the following year. Sure enough, results gradually started going BFC Dynamo’s way and no sooner had they won their first league title in 1979 that rumors started floating around about referees and players being coerced by Stasi officials to help BFC’s cause. Those “rumors” persisted throughout the club’s dominant run in the 1980’s to the point where what was really happening was beyond doubt.
For the next ten years, BFC Dynamo would come to dominate East German football and the DDR Oberliga with the help of Mielke and the various means he used to manipulate results to maintain that dominance. Those means included crooked referees, unfair player transfers from other teams and an array of other unsportsmanlike practices. BFC Dynamo quickly became reviled by the public for what was perceived as blatant cheating, even incurring criticism from other members of the Politburo (the political party’s central committee). The questionable methods were so apparent that a fixed result in their 1986 championship match against Lokomotiv Leipzig led to a nationwide protest. Despite the public outrage though, the only one punished was match referee Bernd Stumpf. In the three decades preceding BFC Dynamo’s first championship, the DDR Oberliga had thirteen different champions compared to just three until its dissolution, an example of the firm grip Mielke’s side had on football in East Germany.
Throughout the 1980’s, more and more of East Germany’s talented players were ordered to play for BFC Dynamo and Mielke was not afraid to flex his muscles to ensure that he had help from the referees as well. Knowing Mielke’s influence in deciding which East German referees would be sent to the West to work an international match, something all referees in East Germany desired, they were all too eager to please and keep him happy. As such, BFC Dynamo were conveniently awarded penalties when they needed them and opponent’s goals were mysteriously disallowed. As Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger noted in his book Tor!, even some of Dynamo’s own players could not believe the nature of some of the calls going their way. Of course, not every player and referee was an automaton that readily troted the party line. Bernd Heynemann, currently a member of the German parliament, was a referee in East Germany at the time and readily admits being approached by Mielke with money to affect the outcome of matches but refused to comply. His admission does reveal the extent of Mielke’s influence and reach though and what part it played in maintaining BFC Dynamo’s dominance in that time period. Suffice to say, it put a stranglehold on the league and East German football as a whole.
And there was the other matter of personal protest, namely the issue of defection, one of the state’s biggest obstacles in establishing and perpetuating their strict utopian ideology. In fact, some 615 athletes defected to the West between 1950 and 1989, a fair share of them being footballers. Anything west of the wall became a sacred haven for those wishing to escape the doldrums of East Germany. As such, the state was always weary of international matches and trips outside the country because players could use them to solicit escape plans. This led to many footballers being drafted as informal collaborators to the Stasi, spying and reporting on any suspicious activities within their clubs and around them. The atmosphere that created only perpetuated the desire to defect though and some of the most prominent East German footballers became entangled in the drama.
In January 1981, Dynamo Dresden and East German National Team players Gerd Weber, Peter Kotte and Matthias Müller were all supposed to go away on international duty for a tournament in South America. The long trip away from their sheltered home in itself was enough cause for concern for paranoid state leaders. But an even bigger cause of concern, unbeknownst to the Stasi, was that all three were offered contracts by West German club 1. F.C. Köln if they defected. An ironic twist in the story was that Weber himself was one of the Stasi’s informal collaborators and could have easily exposed his teammates but the offer was too enticing even for him. But before anyone could even move ahead with a decision they were found out and arrested at the Berlin airport. For their troubles, all three were thrown out of the National Team and were banned from playing in East Germany’s top tier of football. Weber even received a prison sentence. The mystery over who leaked the information to the Stasi revelas how deep their network of informal collaborators and spies ran.
Perhaps Mielke’s and the Stasi’s ruthless streak is best embodied in the story of Lutz Eigendorf. Unlike Weber and his teammates, Eigendorf was a BFC Dynamo player, Mielke’s pride and joy. In fact, Eigendorf had been with the club since he was 13 and was considered a player with great potential and talent. To make a long story short, on a trip to a friendly against Western club 1. F.C. Kaisersluatern in 1979, Eigendorf decided to leave his old life in East Germany behind and clandestinely defected to find a better life. He ended up playing for Kaiserslautern but was unlucky with injuries and never quite lived up to his potential. Four years later he was found dead in a car accident with a high blood alcohol concentration at the ripe age of 26.
The story doesn’t end there though. As the case unfolded, what originally appeared a drunken and reckless accident was anything but. As more and more evidence unsurfaced after the fall of the wall it became clear that Eigendorf’s defection meant a lot more to those in charge in East Germany, particularly to a certain Mr. Mielke. Apparently, and predictably if you’ve been following along so far, Mielke was furious with Eigendorf’s defection. Not only had one of East Germany’s brightest young talents escaped but it was also a BFC Dynamo player. It could not have been more personal for Mielke, something that could not go unpunished. It was later discovered that some fifty undercover agents had been sent to spy on Eigendorf’s activities in the West including an old friend of his. Furthermore, documents were dug up revealing plots to poison Eigendorf and other unbelievable methods of sabotage. Later testimony even went as far as to suggest assassination plots.
What Eigendorf’s story highlights is Mielke’s considerable hand in not only the sporting side of the game in East Germany but also in the personal lives of its participants. It was as much a measure to maintain his autocratic order as it was a personal obsession. Because of Mielke, football in East Germany to a large extent became synonymous with the Stasi’s illicit and incredulous behavior and was never allowed to grow to the heights of its western counterpart.
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