August 20, 2017

Ostdeutsche Robotics: A Short History of BSG Robotron “Ernst Thälmann” Sömmerda

As both a student of both German Fussball and modern European history – interests that I can take back to the very early eighties – I always had an interest in the East German game. For a Western teenager during the Cold War era football in the so-called German Democratic Republic was a curious world, populated by strangely-named teams playing in grey, soulless concrete bowls in front of crowds dressed in ill-fitting clothes made of itchy man-made fabrics.

Those of us that know a little about the game in the former DDR before Die Wende would be more than familiar with the big DDR-Oberliga clubs: there was the infamous Stasi-run BFC Dynamo, SG Dynamo Dresden – founded as SG Deutsche Volkspolizei Dresden – and the likes of 1. FC Madgeburg, Lokomotive Leipzig and FC Carl-Zeiss Jena, all of which reached the final of the now defunct European Cup Winners Cup, with Magdeburg beating AC Milan in an historic final in 1974 in Rotterdam.

What had intrigued me more however were the many minor clubs in the lower divisions – the second-tier DDR-Liga (hereafter just “Liga”) and the third-tier Bezirksligen or district leagues. Clubs with such wonderful and at times amusing names as BSG Stahl Eisenhüttenstadt, BSG Rotation Plauen, BSG Motor Grimma and truly wonderful BSG Aktivist Schwarze Pumpe. It was however one club that stood out for me: BSG Motor Sömmerda, which later adopted the fascinating-sounding monicker BSG Robotron Sömmerda.

I would often spend time wondering what things must have been like in this otherwise obscure town located some twenty kilometres north of Erfurt – I visualised a rag-tag team playing on a muddy, rutted pitch somewhere in deepest Thüringen, playing in front of an organised crowd of factory workers in greasy blue boilersuits while in the background chimney stacks belched noxious fumes into the grey afternoon sky. In these factories one could find, at the end of the long production line staffed by a hundred employees – the Robotron, a magic little electronic tracker device that would be placed inside cheap alarm clocks in order to spy on the city’s population and report the findings back to some fashionably grey office in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen.

The reality was of course far removed from the pictures created by my vivid imagination that had been fuelled by the film Brazil; the Robotron concern were not responsible for the manufacture of surveillance equipment, but a number of interesting and typically East German electronic machines – a range of first-generation PCs, and the sort of gargantuan keyboard devices that could be found sitting on top of a spartan desk under the watchful eye of Lenin, Ulbricht or Honecker. Of course, such devices would not have been out of place amongst the props in Terry Gilliam’s satirical dystopian fantasy.

The 1950s and 1960s: Between the Bezirksliga and and the II. Liga

Having been founded in 1911 as VfB Sömmerda, the small Thuringian outfit never had the chance to set the world alight before being dissolved at the end of the Second World War – and was reformed in 1945 as SG Sömmerda. As was the fashion in the late 1940s the club went through a number of names – ZSG Rheinmetall Sömmerda (1948) and BSG Mechanik Sömmerda (1950) – before being given the name BSG Motor Sömmerda in 1951.

There were sixteen BSGs or Betriebssportgemeinschaften, each associated with a particular industry; as Sömmerda had been home to the famous Rheinmetall corporation that had produced automotive parts, it seemed logical that it would be named BSG Motor. Other examples of the many hundreds of BSGs across the country included Aktivist (mining, as in BSG Aktivist Schwarze Pumpe), Aufbau (construction, as in BSG Aufbau Börde Magdeburg) and Rotation (printing, as in BSG Rotation Plauen).

BSG Motor Sömmerda would never achieve top-flight status and throughout most of their history would be something of a yo-yo club between the second and third tier – in this regard the name BSC Rotation Sömmerda might have been more appropriate – but this lack of success doesn’t make the club any less interesting. When the then fourth-tier Bezirksliga Erfurt was reorganised for the 1952/53 season, Motor would finish in second place behind BSG Aktivist Bleicherode, but would finish the eighth place the following season before climbing back to third in 1954/55 before finish bottom of the table in the shortened 1955 Übergangsrunde or “transtional round” having collected a miserable five points from their fourteen matches.

The dismal performance in 1955 would be the prelude for a remarkable 1956 season, which saw the Thuringian side quite literally motor to the top of the table with an impressive forty-four points from their twenty-eight matches, scoring seventy goals in the process to secure their first Bezirksliga title and promotion to the third tier II. Liga. Motor would consolidate their position in the II. Liga Staffel Süd the following season – finishing in eleventh place – and would follow this with am impressive third-place finish in 1958 in the reorganised II. Liga Staffel V.

Unfortunately for Motor they could not continue this level of momentum, and they found themselves just about avoiding relegation in 1959 before finishing at the basement the following year having collected thirteen points from a possible fifty-two. As part of the ongoing restructuring of the league system the Bezirksliga Erfurt had by this time been reorganised into two divisions – Staffel I and Staffel II, and Motor managed to secure a respectable fourth place in 1961/62, enough to guarantee them a place in the reformed single district league.

The 1962/63 season would prove to be an unlucky one for Motor, as they found themselves unable to keep themselves out of the five relegation spots – finishing a single point behind newly-promoted Fortschritt Apolda. They would spend the 1963/64 season in the fifth tier – the lowest point in the club’s history.

Having had a fairly successful spell not even five years previously, Motor’s sudden demise probably had much to do with the way of life that was football in the DDR, where small clubs often ended up as victims of their own success on account of their better players being shipped off to more successful regional clubs. In Motor’s case, this would have been nearby Turbine Erfurt: in what can only be described as a complete coincidence, Turbine had managed to win promotion to the top-tier Oberliga at the same time as Motor had found themselves sinking like a stone into the ignominy of the local leagues.

The 1963/64 season would see a major restructuring of the DDR-Ligen, with the second tier and third tier Liga and II. Liga being merged to form a new second-tier Liga and the Bezirksligen providing the new third tier. The changes meant that having played just one successful season in what was effectively the fifth level of the DDR league system, Motor Sömmerda now found themselves back in the now third-tier Bezirksliga Erfurt.

Having returned to the Bezirksliga Motor achieved a solid eighth-place finish in 1964/65 with was followed by a tenth place in 1965/66, fourth in 1966/67, and two seventh places in 1967/68 and 1968/69 before they secured their second title in 1969/70. The complex workings of the league structure and the play-offs between the Bezirksligen winners would mean that Motor would miss out a winning a place to the second-tier Liga however, and the club had to wait until the following season before they were able to clinch second tier status for only the second time in their history.

The 1970s: From Motor to Zentronik to Robotron

It would not be as Motor Sömmerda that the club would begin its Liga campaign, but Zentronik Sömmerda, the club now being partnered with Volkseigene Betrieb (VEB) Kombinat Zentronik – a sort of East German “People’s IBM” that manufactured cumbersome calculators and office machines. The newly named Zentronik Sömmerda would consolidate their second tier status in the Liga Staffel E with a solid sixth place in 1971/72, which was followed by a seventh-place finishes in 1972/73 and 1973/74 and a sixth place in 1974/75. Things were looking bright for football in the Thuringian town when the club achieved a fourth spot in 1975/76, though they would return to a mid-table position he following year – finishing the season with yet another new name: BSG Robotron Sömmerda.

Perhaps the strangest of all German football club names...

With VEB Kombinat Zentronik having been dissolved at the beginning of 1978 many of its assets were moved to nearly Kark-Marx-Stadt, but the section that manufactured electronic typewriters and calculators would be incorporated into a new concern, VEB Kombinat Robotron – and the football club would be part of this uniquely East German exercise in rebranding. Officially named BSG Robotron “Ernst Thälmann” Sömmerda – the name of the pre-war KPD (German Communist Party) leader having been shoehorned into what was already an unwieldy name – the club crest would now incorporate the stylish yet simple Robotron logo.

The change of name and apparent endorsement by the ruling SED would not change much for the club, however. Robotron achieved an eighth-placed finish in 1977/78 before once again slipping down into the third tier the following season having finished on a dismal eleven points from their twenty-two matches. They had spent seven years in the Liga Staffel E, which would constitute their longest spell in the second tier.

The 1970s came to an end with Robotron back in the district leagues, and a fourth spot in 1979/80 was followed by a fifth place finish in 1980/81 and a second-place in 1981/82, which saw them pipped by TSG Ruhla on goal difference. Living up to their reputation as something of a yo-yo team, Robotron clinched their fourth Bezirksliga Erfurt title the follow year with forty-eight points from an available sixty – racking up ninety-two goals in the process – to secure a place in the Liga for the third time.

The 1980s: More Ups and Downs, and the Beginning of the End

A solid 1983/84 season saw Robotron finish in a more than respectable fourth place in the twelve-team DDR-Liga Staffel E, enough to secure a spot in the (again) reformed DDR-Liga which would contain two Staffeln with eighteen teams each. Sadly their first season in what was always going to be a more challenging Staffel B would once again result in relegation, as they finished rock bottom of the table with thirteen points from their thirty-four matches – nine points adrift of their nearest rivals Kali Werra Tiefenort.

The dismal 1984/85 season would be followed by an astonishing 1985/86, which saw the team fly to the top of the Bezirksliga Erfurt table, but once again found themselves missing out on promotion – as had been the case in 1971. However just like before, the team quickly recovered from the disappointment to claim their place in the second tier with an even more impressive performance the following season. In securing what would be their sixth and final Bezirksliga crown, Robotron took fifty-one points from an available sixty, finishing twelve points clear of their nearest rivals FC Rot-Weiss Erfurt II.

The PC 1715

Second tier football at the 5,000-capacity Kurt-Neubert Sportpark would be a little easier for Robotron the second time round as they achieved a respectable eleventh position in 1987/88, and the next year they would achieve their best finish in their history with a fine fourth-place finish. Fans in the late 1980s would be kept informed by Robotron’s concise and somewhat monochromatic eight-page match programmes, which provide an interesting insight into the East German game: in what was an uniquely small-scale East German equivalent of what could be described as “sponsorship”, the league table data and statistics would be provided by the rather quaint-sounding “PC 1715”.

The 1989/90 season would cause major upheaval for a number of DDR clubs, but – for initially at least – Robotron appeared to have overcome the initial storm. Finishing in a decent eighth position in the now renamed NOFV-Liga, the club too would be renamed once more. The club would droip the BSG to become FSV Robotron Sömmerda, which then became FSV Soemtron Sömmerda with Robotron having itself undergone a name change. The newly-named club would finish fifth in 1990/91, after which the DDR-Ligen would finally be disbanded and absorbed into a wider national structure.

Nach der Wende

The massive rearrangement that would then take place would not be kind to Soemtron, and they now found themselves in a new reunified third tier league – the Oberliga Nordost Staffel Süd. Following a fifteeth place finish they soon found themselves back among the also-rans in the newly formed fifth tier. In 1993 the club underwent its final name change, becoming FSV Sömmerda following the demise of the Soemtron concern, which like so many Eastern German firms had become unsustainable in the new reunified market.

BSG conceding a penalty in 1986 against Lokomotiv Leipzig

FSV were relegated from the new Thüringenliga in 1993/94, and found themselves in the sixth-tier Landesklasse, where they have been languishig ever since. They may not have been the greatest club to come out of Eastern Germany, but at the time of the Wende the then Robotron Sömmerda looked to have gathered enough momentum to have possibly secured a place in the DDR top flight. With their six Bezirksliga Erfurt titles, Sömmerda would end up as joint record-holders along with BSG Motor Rudisleben; the absorption of the DDR-Ligen into the new unified league structure would mean that this record will never be broken.

Over the years only three internationals played for the team from Sömmerda: two of these – Wolfgang “Molli” Benkert and Martin Busse – had been acquired from other clubs at the end of their careers, while the third was local boy Thomas Linke, probably the most famous Sömmerdaen to walk out onto a football pitch. Having played at youth level for Robotron between 1977 and 1983, Linke would move to nearby FC Rot-Weiß Erfurt before moving west to Schalke 04 in 1992 and then FC Bayern München in 1998. Between 1997 and 2004 the tall defender would play forty-three games for the German national team, scoring one goal.

Season Summary, 1952-1991

As BSG Motor Sömmerda:

1952/53 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 2nd
1953/54 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 8th
1954/55 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 3rd
1955 – Bezirksliga Erfurt Übergangsrunde, 15th
1956 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 1st (Promoted)
1957 – II. Liga Staffel Süd, 11th
1958 – II. Liga Staffel V, 3rd
1959 – II. Liga Staffel V, 11th
1960 – II. Liga Staffel V, 14th (Relegated)
1961/62 – Bezirksliga Erfurt Staffel I, 4th
1962/63 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 10th (Relegated)
1963/64 – II. Bezirksliga Erfurt (Promoted)
1964/65 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 8th
1965/66 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 10th
1966/67 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 4th
1967/68 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 7th
1968/69 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 7th
1969/70 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 1st
1970/71 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 1st (Promoted)

As BSG Zentronik Sömmerda:

1971/72 – DDR-Liga Staffel E, 6th
1972/73 – DDR-Liga Staffel E, 7th
1973/74 – DDR-Liga Staffel E, 7th
1974/75 – DDR-Liga Staffel E, 6th
1975/76 – DDR-Liga Staffel E, 4th
1976/77 – DDR-Liga Staffel E, 7th

As BSG Robotron “Ernst Thälmann” Sömmerda:

1977/78 – DDR-Liga Staffel E, 8th
1978/79 – DDR-Liga Staffel E, 11th (Relegated)
1979/80 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 4th
1980/81 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 5th
1981/82 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 2nd
1982/83 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 1st (Promoted)
1983/84 – DDR-Liga Staffel E, 4th
1984/85 – DDR-Liga Staffel B, 18th (Relegated)
1985/86 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 1st
1986/87 – Bezirksliga Erfurt, 1st (Promoted)
1987/88 – DDR-Liga Staffel B, 11th
1988/89 – DDR-Liga Staffel B, 4th
1989/90 – NOFV-Liga Staffel B, 4th (BSG dropped, FSV applied mid-season)

As FSV Soemtron Sömmerda:

1990/91 – NOFV-Liga Staffel B, 5th

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London-based but with his heart firmly in Fröttmaning, Rick Joshua's love of German football goes back more than thirty years and has witnessed everything from the pain of Spain '82 and the glory of Italia '90 to the sheer desolation of Euro 2000. This has all been encapsulated in the encyclopaedic Schwarz und Weiß website and blog, which at some three hundred or so pages is still not complete. Should you wish to disturb him, you can get in touch with Rick on Twitter @fussballchef. This carries a double meaning, as he can prepare a mean Obazda too.

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