Of Martyrdom and Tobacco – Dresden’s Heinz-Steyer-Stadion

After decades of neglect, the Heinz-Steyer-Stadion in Dresden will soon undergo extensive renovations and modernizations. This massive €37m investment will be undertaken in the hopes of making Saxony’s capital fit to host national athletics competitions and in turn to cement it as a “sports city”. This means that by 2023 – when construction is scheduled to be completed – the new and improved ground will look very different from the historic multi-purpose stadium currently gracing the Ostragehege sports complex. For people who are fond of GDR football or just history in general, it’s a bittersweet if necessary development as the extant HSS is an oft-overlooked jewel of Dresden’s sporting landscape.

Opened in 1919 as the Stadion am Ostragehege and expanded a decade later to support a capacity of up to 65,000, the HSS was the city’s foremost sports venue for much of the 20th century, even hosting German national team games prior to World War II. The home side, Dresdner SC, was one of the country’s preeminent teams during the Nazi years, winning two German championships in the early 40s. After the war, however, the DSC was dissolved not to return until 1990. Its place was initially taken by SG Dresden-Friedrichstadt, but they, too, soon disappeared and in 1950, the local police club moved in – three years later, that team would be rebranded as Dynamo Dresden.

Nestled in a scenic location between the Yenidze (an early 20th-century orientalist, mosque-like tobacco factory) and a now-abandoned bathhouse right on the banks of the Elbe River only a stone’s throw away from the famed Old Town, the Stadion am Ostragehege became the first German stadium to boast floodlights in 1949. That same year, it hosted the Soviet Occupation Zone’s football championship and also two FDGB-Pokal finals in the 50s after the GDR was established. In 1954, the ground was renamed in honor of Dresden-born communist footballer turned resistance fighter Heinz Steyer, who was executed by the Nazis ten years earlier. Steyer was imprisoned, tortured, and even held in several concentration and labor camps during the 30s, before being forced to enlist in the army and getting shipped off to Greece, where he continued his agitation and even managed to supply Greek partisans with food and ammunition until he was caught and sentenced to death by firing squad.

The Yenidze towering above the Südtribüne of the Heinz-Steyer-Stadion (Dietrich Flechtner)

When Dynamo Dresden moved into the smaller, more compact Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion in 1957, the Heinz-Steyer-Stadion’s importance as a football ground began to fade. The GDR national team still occasionally came to visit – it had played its first-ever home game there in 1955 – but the club sides that subsequently called the Steyer-Stadion home never quite succeeded in capturing the imagination as the DSC and Dynamo had done. With that said, the ground still retained its status as an athletics hotspot, with all kinds of competitions taking place there until reunification.

In 1990, the reestablished DSC moved back in, but, much like the teams that preceded them, they never again hit the heights of yesteryear, constantly being overshadowed by Dynamo Dresden, who by now had qualified for the Bundesliga and, as time went on, even by their own women’s volleyball department, who have been everpresent in the top flight since gaining promotion in 1997, winning five league titles and six cups.

Nowadays, the DSC, toiling in the meek seventh-tier Landesklasse, shares the ground with American football outfit Dresden Monarchs and former women’s Regionalliga side Fortuna Dresden, who were relegated to the fourth tier Sachsenliga in 2019 – quite a fall from grace when you consider that Dresden was the cradle of women’s football in the GDR (where the sport was never banned unlike in the West). Despite at one point being considered as a potential host venue for the 2006 World Cup, the stadium has increasingly fallen into disrepair; so much so, that its permitted capacity has been limited to just 4500 due to safety concerns.

The new Nordtribüne and the one-million marks, state of the art electronic scoreboard installed in 1978 (Christian Müller)

Renovations are slated to start in September and will turn this storied ground into an almost unrecognizable modern athletics cathedral. It will spell the end for one of East Germany’s most iconic stadiums and it means that another relic of the GDR will be lost to the sands of time, but it may also herald a new era for sports in the city of Dresden, a city that is dying for more elite representation in Germany and internationally.

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