The immediate post-war period in Germany was one of great social and political transformation. Rebuilding the ruined and now-partitioned country was an arduous task. Football sometimes, though not always, offered a brief escape from the everyday drudgery and dangers the famished populace faced as exhibited by its tremendous popularity during this timeframe. Football, however, has never existed in a vacuum and it has always been highly political. This was particularly true of the Cold War epoch, and even more so in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) where the state (or the party, the SED) sought to establish an entirely new social order in sharp contrast to the capitalist one, an ambitious undertaking that necessitated its ideology to permeate every aspect of daily life, including, of course, football.
Similar to West Germany’s obverse approach of depoliticising sports, the East’s attempts at explicit politicising often ran into trouble. From bemoaning clubs’ adherence to bourgeois principles to exhorting (or coercing) players to be responsible socialist personalities, the authorities frequently discovered that trying to reshape society was easier said than done, made all the more problematic by the lingering “German question” with all the economic troubles and subversion it engendered.
These circumstances and conflicts, then, created a unique, fascinating, and occasionally downright ridiculous footballing environment, which I will explore in this admittedly lengthy article. The scope of this piece is limited to football during East Germany’s reconstruction period (1945-1960) and will mostly deal with the game’s epicentre of that time, Saxony. For the sake of brevity, I won’t outline the post-war history of the two Germanies as initially planned. Instead, before getting into the wild and wacky world of East German football, I will give merely a brief overview of the two German states’ approaches to denazification and a short history of pre-war football as it pertains to the later period in question.
Denazification, the historic duty of purging Germany of Nazi influence, was one of the “Four Ds” stipulated by the Potsdam Agreement. In West Germany, however, it was treated as a minor concern, too inexpedient for containment and rollback, the United States’ Cold War policies. Washington’s puppeteers bestowed the role of Europe’s anti-communist bulwark upon West Germany, and Nazi expertise was invaluable in combatting socialist influence and muzzling the masses. To be sure, some fascist notables were brought to trial and given (often paltry) sentences, but overall the policy was one of exoneration and facilitating the escape of war criminals to foreign lands. Nazi luminaries like Hans Globke, Adolf Heusinger and, perhaps most notoriously of all, Reinhard Gehlen were allowed to rebrand as champions of freedom and democracy and played outsized roles in the West German state, military, and intelligence agency.
In the East, denazification was, on the whole, a much more rigorous undertaking. The education, judicial, and security apparatuses were reformed and thoroughly cleansed of Nazi influence and consequential government positions filled with anti-fascist resistance fighters in an attempt to comprehensively break with the rotten past. That it was impossible to extirpate every unrepentant Nazi from society is self-evident. Lacking sufficiently qualified personnel, the leading cadres in some industrial plants remained unchanged because it was imperative for this small country bereft of natural resources and industrial infrastructure to get production up and running as soon as possible. During the infamous 1953 protests, for example, the self-appointed strike committee at the Buna Werke in Schkopau was headed by three ex-NSDAP members and a former SS trooper.
To get a feeling of the acute incongruences between East and West, it’s instructive to look at the two countries’ Olympic Committees. The first president of the Eastern OC was Kurt Edel, an avowed anti-fascist who left his home in Hamburg after becoming disillusioned with the lack of denazification there. By contrast, the first three presidents of the Western OC had all been eager Nazi collaborators: Kurt Ritter von Halt, a close associate of Heinrich Himmler, had given substantial financial support to the NSDAP; Adolf Friedrich zu Mecklenburg, a colonial aristocrat and acquaintance of Hitler, used to travel around the globe and establish economic contacts in the name of the Reich; and Willi Daume had previously employed some 65 forced labourers at his metalworking business in addition to his informant gig for the intelligence service of the SS.
Football proved to be an arena of constant struggle between the old and the new order, too. Outside of the divided city of Berlin, strife emerged most acutely in Saxony. This state bordering Czechoslovakia and Poland was one of the most (relatively) resource-rich and industrially advanced regions of the Eastern Zone, boasting three of the territory’s five most populous cities in Leipzig, Dresden, and Chemnitz (later Karl-Marx-Stadt), as well as some of the country’s most storied football teams in VfB Leipzig and Dresdner SC. These iconic clubs, however, ceased to exist after WWII. To understand why, the pre-war history of football in Germany should offer some clues.
Moreso than in today’s age of the supposed “end of history” where governments and media assiduously suppress any notion of class struggle, sports clubs in pre-Nazi Germany were sharply divided along class lines. There were explicit workers’ clubs, Arbeitervereine, and bourgeoisie clubs, bürgerliche Vereine, like VfB Leipzig and Dresdner SC. The latter, of course, enjoyed considerable patronage (while the former frequently endured intimidation and, at times, severe repression), and if you wanted to truly make it as an athlete, you had to join a bourgeoisie club (if you were allowed to, that is), which is why readers have probably never heard of such illustrious workers’ clubs as TV Fichte or record football champions Dresdner SV, or, as a matter of fact, that France hosted history’s only Workers’ World Cup in 1934.
Sports clubs—and organisations disguised as sports clubs—also served explicit political purposes, instilling an iron discipline, shaping their members’ worldview, and often acting as overtly paramilitary training environments. One of the most notorious examples of this was the Sturmabteilung (SA), the main paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party until the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. Founded on August 3, 1921, as the NSDAP’s Turn- und Sportabteilung (Gymnastic and Sports Division), the SA was one of the myriad militaristic far-right groups of that time that utilised sporting parlance to conceal their true purpose.
That fascist influence in the realm of physical recreation was a serious issue even before the Nazis officially came to power is demonstrated by Ernst Thälmann’s For Red Unity in Sports! speech at the “Rot Sport”-Reichstreffen rally on June 8, 1930. In front of tens of thousands of working-class athletes, the leader of the Communist Party (KPD) called for “the fiercest struggle against the fascist workers’ sports clubs, against the reactionary bourgeois sports societies, which drive the fascistisation and militarisation of the proletarian youth.” Many of these “reactionary bourgeois sports societies”—like, for example, the DFB—later actively cooperated with the fascists.
After Hitler’s ascension to power, the Nazis set about crushing every independent workers’ sports organisation, starting with the KPD-adjacent Kampfgemeinschaft (KG). KG clubs were liquidated, their possessions confiscated, and thousands of functionaries and members arrested and dragged off to concentration camps, among them former Reichstag politician and head of the KG Ernst Grube (left to die of typhus fever in Bergen-Belsen in 1945) and footballer Heinz Steyer (having been forced to enlist in the Strafdivision 999 penal military unit, he was executed in 1944 when the Nazis were informed that he had built an underground resistance network with fellow soldiers and Greek partisans).
Not content with exterminating only communists, the larger and older but less radical social-democratic Arbeiter-Turn- und Sportbund (ATSB) was next up on the list of undesirable institutions that had to be eradicated—despite the ATSB offering to collaborate with the regime. Athletes who wanted to keep practising and competing had to join bourgeois associations but were only permitted to do so if they could conclusively prove that they weren’t Marxists. The DFB, for its part, beseeched its clubs not to absorb too many worker-athletes. Eventually, sports became wholly subordinated to the Nazis’ Reichsbund für Leibesübungen.
In order to completely root out any ideological dregs still festering after more than a decade of all-encompassing Nazi indoctrination, the sports structure had to be overhauled after the war. To do that, the Allied Control Council, on the USSR’s initiative, issued Directive 23 on December 17, 1945, demanding the “restriction and demilitarisation of sports in Germany.” The document’s first line read: “All sporting, military, and paramilitary organisations…that existed in Germany before the surrender are prohibited from operating and are to be dissolved by January 1, 1946, at the latest.” Furthermore, traditional German sports with militaristic connotations like shooting and fencing were banned indefinitely.
This was, however, only a directive and not a law, meaning that, since there existed no process of accountability or guidelines delineating what exactly constituted proper enactment, the four Allies could choose to implement it to whichever extent they saw fit in their respective occupied areas. Emblematic of the differing approaches to denazification, the old club structures remained mostly intact in the West, while in the East, the entire system was uprooted. This, consequently, led to the dissolution of hallowed institutions like the aforementioned behemoths Dresdner SC and VfB Leipzig, among thousands of others, including even workers’ clubs that predated the Nazi era, such as Dresdner SV.
Prior to this decree, the policy and attitude toward sports had been contradictory and confusing, owing to the chaos that reigned in the aftermath of the Reich’s collapse. Though clubs had been barred from competing after liberation, as early as June 17, just a little over a month after Germany’s surrender, Dresden’s Sportamt, the new governing body overseeing sports and physical recreation, organised a match between sides representing the Altstadt (old town), sporting the kits of Dresdner SC, and Neustadt (new town), donning Sportfreunde Dresden’s black and white stripes. One of the players celebrating the Altstadt’s 6-1 victory that day was Helmut Schön, a man instrumental in the rebirth of Saxon football in the immediate post-war years and later in shaping the destiny of West German football.
That same month, once the streets of Saxony’s bombed-out capital were cleared of the rubble, the city played host to a bicycle race, and in August, the first horse races were again taking place in Leipzig. However, assumptions that normal service had resumed dissipated fairly quickly when, on September 8, the Soviet City Government issued a ban on all sporting competitions in Dresden and announced the liquidation of the Sportamt. This prohibition was only lifted following the foundation of the Free German Youth (FDJ), its regional branches thereupon responsible for organising sports-related events and competitions, on March 7, 1946, by which point, the old institutions had long since been replaced.
The vacuum left by the dissolution of Dresdner SC and the rest of the clubs in the Friedrichstadt neighbourhood of the capital was filled by the newly-founded Sportgemeinschaft Dresden-Friedrichstadt, for all intents and purposes the official successor of DSC, retaining the old colours, personnel, and, crucially, bourgeois character. This put a target on their back because embracing the legacy of DSC meant picking up the threads of one of the Third Reich’s foremost clubs, a club that had won two Tschammerpokale and the final two Nazi championships. They were thus seen as a vestige of the past—and a quite influential one at that—and this was not something that the East’s new leadership was prepared to tolerate. More on that later.
Elsewhere, too, Sportgemeinschaften (SGs) sprouted up out of the ashes of extinct clubs. Dresdner SV, for example, was superseded by SG Striesen, which later became the iconically named BSG Empor Tabak. Striesen started life with a bang, triumphing in the truncated 1945/46 season and thus becoming the first official Stadtmeister (city champion) with a 4-1 victory over SG Löbtau, the side that had won the unauthorised 1945 edition. Clear favourites Friedrichstadt paved the way for Striesen by dropping out of the competition after the opening game (a 16-1 victory!) due to a lack of players. In the Messestadt, VfB Leipzig, Germany’s first-ever national champion, became SG Probstheida, the precursor of Lokomotive Leipzig. Other clubs founded in those disorderly days that would be of significance during the GDR’s 40-year existence included SG Planitz (later Sachsenring Zwickau), SG Leipzig-Leutzsch (later Chemie Leipzig), SG Chemnitz Nord (later FC Karl-Marx-Stadt), and SG Aue (later Wismut) to name just a few.
In the following years, as the division within Germany grew ever more acute due to the West’s currency reform and the subsequent Berlin Blockade, an increasing centralisation was taking place in the Soviet Zone. In step with this development, the FDJ and the Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB) created the Deutscher Sportausschuß (DS) on October 1, 1948, the East’s first central umbrella organisation responsible for the management of sporting matters. That same year, another (somewhat surprising) founding—or, rather, refounding—took place: that of teams representing the Länder (states). Originally established in the Third Reich, the Landesauswahl Sachsen was reconstituted in the spring of 1948 and entrusted to Helmut Schön.
The new Saxon “national team” played their inaugural Auswahlspiel in May, defeating neighbouring Saxony-Anhalt 6-2 in front of almost 30,000 spectators in Halle. They were pretty good, which was to be expected because Saxony could take advantage of a better footballing infrastructure (and heritage) than any of the other states of the Soviet Occupation Zone. It wasn’t until their fifth game that Schön’s side tasted defeat for the first time, their fixture against Berlin in January of 1949 ending in a 3-1 victory to the visitors. As if this wasn’t already strange enough, things got even stranger in June when Saxony lined up to take on the Eastern Zone’s national team with 40,000 in attendance in Leipzig, an Eastern Zone squad coached by, you guessed it, Helmut Schön. In their first-ever (unofficial) outing, the side that would later evolve into the GDR national team beat Saxony 1-0—a much more auspicious start than when they actually began playing officially sanctioned fixtures in 1952.
Saxony didn’t just face “domestic” teams, however. Despite the rift between East and West deepening, the all-German Länderpokal was revived in 1949, but it only encompassed the entire country for one season; in 1951, the GDR hosted its own Länderpokal, but that, too, only survived for one edition as its five states were replaced by 14 counties during the administrative restructuring of 1952. At the 1949 tournament, the green-whites defeated a capable Niederrhein (Lower Rhine) XI in Leipzig before falling short in the final against dominant Bavarians. Sandwiched between these two intra-German outings was a fixture against what the papers referred to as a Hungarian “trade union delegation” composed of incredibly talented players from Szombathely and Csepel. Interspersed among this delegation were several senior internationals like the outstanding Stefan Nagy and Mihaly Keszthelyi.
Die neue Fußballwoche (FuWo), the GDR’s newly-founded chief football weekly, devoted extensive coverage in its inaugural issue to this encounter, complete with little illustrations of the Hungarian visitors all while making a point of stressing the nascent Workers’ and Peasants’ State’s invincible fraternal union with their fellow Volksdemokratie (People’s Democracy), dubbing the encounter a “battle of friendship.” The game, staged as a celebration of the DS’ one-year anniversary, was a resounding success, despite ending in a 2-1 defeat for Saxony. 35,000 packed out the Stadion Mitte in Berlin to watch a thrilling back-and-forth encounter in which the underdog held their own and “showcased the upsurge in the performance levels in football in the Eastern Zone.” The quality of the Hungarians, who would enjoy a veritable golden age in the subsequent years, ultimately won out, but the spectators in attendance “witnessed Berlin’s best post-war game of football.”
There was a smorgasbord of similar fixtures involving these Auswahlmannschaften—sides consisting of the best players from a specific area—that took place between, for example, cities. Contests that pitted the Stadtauswahl of Zwickau against Berlin, or Dresden vs. Erfurt come to mind. Intergenerational matches in which Eastern Zone veterans faced youth teams also weren’t out of the ordinary. Though privation was a constant in the lives of East Germans during the late 40s and early 50s, there was never a shortage of top-quality football action.
In the meantime, more changes had transpired in league football. Not only was the first Eastern Zone Championship played in 1948 (won by SG Planitz) but following the creation of the DS, a change in club structures was taking place. The increasing centralisation in the East meant a reorganisation along more socialist—or Soviet—lines. In order to ensure financial stability, clubs were to be subordinated to one of the many branches of the East’s trade union system and assigned to Trägerbetriebe, enterprises thereupon responsible for the running of the clubs. Each branch created its own overarching Sportvereinigung (SV) to which the teams now belonged.
Readers will be familiar with well-known SVs birthed from these modifications such as Dynamo (state security), Chemie (chemical industry), and Lokomotive (railway industry), but there was much more diversity than meets the eye at first glance. Teams representing Vorwärts (military), Turbine (energy sector), and the largest SV in terms of membership during the mid-50s Motor (metalworking, car manufacturing) made significant headway, particularly in the early decades of GDR football, and even the education sector boasted its own sides, going by the moniker Wissenschaft. At the micro level, individual football teams were renamed in line with these changes, adding the prefix Betriebs (enterprise) to the aforementioned Sportgemeinschaft to form a Betriebssportgemeinschaft (BSG) sometimes by way of the intermediate denomination as Zentrale Sportgemeinschaft (ZSG) denoting that it had been formed via mergers. This policy of assembling BSGs was carried out rigorously but not without encountering opposition from some teams.
Whereas other sides in Zwickau jumped at the opportunity to link with influential local car manufacturer Horch, fusing to form ZSG Horch Zwickau, reigning champions Planitz resisted, leading the authorities to bemoan their devotion “to the old bases of bourgeois sport.” This dispute between club and state reached boiling point after a contest against ZSG Industrie Leipzig in which the referee had made several suspect calls against Planitz. Outraged by the questionable decisions, the partisan stadium announcer and even the city’s mayor accused the official of having been bought and fixing the match to favour the more “politically reliable” ZSG. Indignant supporters, spurred on by these impassioned allegations, stormed the pitch and proceeded to besiege the referee who had fled into the catacombs of the ground. “Watching dignitaries,” writes Alan McDougall in The People’s Game, “drew the obvious conclusion. The Planitz team was dissolved and its best players incorporated into a newly created BSG, Horch Zwickau.”
Supporter unrest, as exhibited by Planitz fans, was a relatively frequent occurrence in those days, both at home and abroad. In light of the “rioting on football pitches throughout the world,” FuWo reporter Hans Jarke deliberated in the newspaper’s November 15, 1949 edition whether or not radio broadcasts of games should be halted when disturbances erupt. Football, evidently, wasn’t always just a quiet day out, and more often than not the officials were the ones who felt the ire of the masses. When infuriated Einheit Meerane fans charged onto the field after a 1-1 draw with Franz Mehring Marga in October 1949, not even a police cordon could prevent the troublemakers from kicking the referee. And even a Marga player caught a hook to the face! Compared to what had happened to Planitz, though, the punishment meted out to Meerane by the DS was negligible: Einheit’s ground was merely closed down for a month.
Another such incident transpired later on in the season in Dresden, an incident that would turn into a publicity disaster for the young GDR. It was the culmination of a saga that began in earnest in the 1949 Eastern Zone Championship final round when ZSG Union Halle beat Friedrichstadt 2-1. Halle, an archetypal club of the new BSG system, were clearly favoured by the footballing authorities: while other clubs had to play at neutral venues, the side from Saxony-Anhalt enjoyed home-field advantage in two of their three matches, and when Friedrichstadt charged that Halle had fielded not one, not two but four ineligible players, their protests fell on deaf ears at the DS.
Friedrichstadt, detested, as mentioned, for what they represented and because they had made (negative) headlines for publicly advocating for an overhaul of the amateur system utilised in the East as well as their refusal to become a BSG, were to be condemned to obscurity one way or another, the authorities decided. Still, though, they persevered, being crowned champions of Saxony in 1949 and thus qualifying for the inaugural DS-Liga campaign, later renamed DDR-Oberliga. During the second half of the 49/50 Liga season, Friedrichstadt were in inspired form, surging up the table and setting the pace until the final day when they met second-placed Horch Zwickau. 60,000 euphoric spectators crammed into Dresden’s Heinz-Steyer Stadion—Friedrichstadt were Germany’s attendance leaders in those days—ready to watch their beloved team get the due reward for an impressive campaign in this showcase fixture. What they ended up witnessing on the pitch, however, was cause for anything but celebration.
The home side were thoroughly dominated by the West Saxons—aided by the referee—and ultimately lost 5-1, resulting in the worst crowd trouble the young republic had hitherto witnessed, which was then used as a pretext to decimate the team. Player-coach Helmut Schön was banned for a year and Friedrichstadt dissolved, their remnants to be absorbed by BSG Tabak. This never actually happened, though, because several players (some sources say 11, others 18), following in Schön’s footsteps, defected to West Berlin where they joined up with Hertha BSC. The West German press lapped this up, of course; der Weltspiegel ran with the pompous headline, “a football team chose freedom.”
Freedom, however, wasn’t so kind to the exiled Friedrichstädter who now, as part of the Hertha network, referred to themselves as DSC again. By the summer of 1951, the squad had fallen apart, their acronym unceremoniously scratched from the Hertha name. A few players ended up moving to Baden-Württemberg where they established Dresdner Sport-Club Heidelberg, but that proved to be a relatively short-lived endeavour, too. One of DSC’s standouts, Hans Kreische, eventually returned to Dresden and everything finally came full circle when his son, Hans-Jürgen, attained legendary status at Dynamo Dresden, the club whose predecessor had taken the place of Friedrichstadt in the Oberliga.
Schön, on the other hand, had a much better time of it in West Germany than did his teammates. After stints coaching SV Wiesbaden and the national side of the still-autonomous Saarland, the Dresden-native became an assistant to German national team manager Sepp Herberger, his former mentor (and rival), whom he eventually succeeded in 1964. Under Schön’s tutelage, the DFB-Elf played some of the most aesthetically pleasing football in the history of the international game and triumphed at the 1972 Euros as well as the 1974 World Cup, making him the national team’s most successful Trainer to date.
It should be noted that the relationship between Friedrichstadt and those in power wasn’t always so openly antagonistic. On New Year’s Eve 1949, the Steyer-Stadion hosted Germany’s first-ever game under floodlights as the side from Dresden found themselves pitted against the not-yet-FIFA-approved GDR national team in a friendly that also served as a testimonial for “King Richard” Hofmann, DSC’s legendary one-eared striker. Born into a workers’ family and celebrated as an “activist from the first moment in the reconstruction of sports,” Hofmann’s association with SED leadership was manifestly more affable than that of his peers. By 1949, the now-43-year-old wasn’t quite the audacious forward that he had been during DSC’s golden years, but his star still shone brightly even if only as a substitute coming on to raucous applause. Friedrichstadt ran out 2-0 victors, although the result was only of minor import in this commendable contest.
Not quite so commendable was the major turmoil that engulfed GDR sports in 1953 during, and in the wake of, the June 17 uprising. Mythologised by the West to no end—West Germany, without a hint of irony, commemorated the occasion as “the Day of Unity”—the uprising was a pivotal moment in East German history, no doubt, but it has been propagandised to a point where accurate accounts of the events and its consequences are hard to come by; an exemplary case of history being written by the victors. But let’s not open this can of worms. As stated in the opening, football, contrary to what many people would like to believe, doesn’t exist in a vacuum and thus was also affected by the events of June 1953.
While most footballers, like the vast majority of the general population, adopted a non-partisan attitude toward the demonstrations or even endorsed the government—like some players at Oberliga side Chemie Leipzig—others were actively involved, illustrating the complexity of the situation. Consulting the work of McDougall again, we find that the entire first team at the Chemie outfit in Radebeul near Dresden participated in the protests. In Görlitz, the birthplace of Michael Ballack straddling the Saxon-Polish border, a player from local outfit Empor was arrested and remained in police custody for over a month after heading one of the strikes. Perhaps the most drastic response was the defection of several players at Saxony-Anhalt-based 1952 Oberliga champions Turbine Halle. Once unrest had been quelled and things settled down again, policymakers set about fixing a more sports-related issue that was plaguing the nation: its lack of international competitiveness in football.
A common theme throughout the entire history of GDR football was the constant chopping and changing, the repeated state interventions in order to maximize the footballing potential of the little republic. Even though the GDR was an overachiever in football in relation to its size, the public perception at home and abroad was quite different. Bluntly put, the national team was generally regarded as an abject failure and clubs more often than not struggled to assert themselves against elite Western opposition. To rectify that, the first batch of several wide-reaching reforms was implemented in 1954.
The SED’s directive “for the further immediate development of physical culture and sports” gave license to the trade union associations to create Sportclubs (SCs), thereby providing high-calibre athletes with an increasingly professional schedule and training environment than had previously been possible at the more labour-oriented BSGs. Consequently, eight Oberliga sides were transformed into SCs. Conspicuously absent, however, was Leipzig’s foremost club, Chemie. Instead of the 1951 Oberliga champions, the Halle branch was deemed the main priority of the Chemie establishment and resources ended up being concentrated there. Meanwhile, in Saxony’s largest city, Lokomotive and Rotation were designated as the elite footballing institutions with Chemie’s squad transferred to Lok and the city’s most popular club unceremoniously relegated to the fourth tier.
The ill-calculated nature of this move is illustrated by the fact that both Lok and Rotation struggled to generate the same kind of local interest that Chemie had managed to create, nor were they particularly successful on the pitch. By 1963, it had become abundantly obvious that the experiment had failed. Lok and Rotation merged and the players that didn’t make the cut were delegated to Chemie, who had been awarded the vacant Oberliga spot. The following year, “the rest of Leipzig” pulled off the Oberliga’s biggest fairytale story as Chemie’s verdure-clad motley crew, tipped for relegation prior to the season, claimed the club’s second and final Oberliga title.
One exemption to the general state of embarrassing insignificance that Lok and Rotation found themselves in could be observed on derby day. When these two faced off, life in the city ground to a halt and all eyes were fixed on whichever ground the game was taking place in. After construction on the massive Zentralstadion finished in 1956—thanks to the outstanding commitment of thousands of volunteers, symbolic of the GDR’s reconstruction era—the object of the city’s gaze was, well, quite large, and so too were the attendances. On September 8, 1956, this massive bowl with a capacity of 100,000 was filled to the brim for the Leipzig Derby, recording what to this day remains Germany’s largest attendance at a football game.
Chemie weren’t the only club hit hard by the reforms back in 1954. Three sides were to be relocated as part of the comprehensive reorganisation efforts, but BSG Wismut Aue successfully resisted their move to nearby Karl-Marx-Stadt (although they did take the latter’s name) thanks to the influential Wismut miners and players who threatened strike action. Just how deeply embedded mining was in the community and its culture can also be illustrated by a more benign example: after Zwickau’s 1950 Oberliga success, the players “showcased their connection to the pitmen” by working a shift in the local coal mine named in honour of anti-fascist resistance fighter Martin Hoop.
Unlike Aue, tiny Empor Lauter just down the road weren’t so triumphant in resisting the new order. Despite—or perhaps because of—their incredibly surprising start to the season, sitting atop the Oberliga by the time of their move, the Saxon minnows were delegated across the country to the GDR’s prominent Baltic port city of Rostock, which lacked an elite team. Dresden suffered the same fate, with Dynamo forcibly transferred to Berlin and their phoenix club spending the next 15 years in footballing no man’s land. The latter decision helped stoke the fierce rivalry between Dynamo Dresden (police) and Dynamo Berlin (state security) that would come to characterize East German football—and society—in the subsequent decades, serving as an exemplary demonstration of the fact that, though they were both constituents of SV Dynamo, their co-existence was anything but peaceful.
Yet more reforms followed in 1957 in the wake of the foundation of the GDR’s mass sports body, the Deutscher Turn- und Sportbund (DTSB), created to untangle the bureaucracy and “fragmentation” that had heretofore reigned—besides the DS, there had been several other organisations with controlling stakes in sports up to this point. The trade unions’ influence henceforth waned as clubs reconstituted themselves as part of the regional DTSB sections, now representing not their SVs but their cities and districts, the exceptions being the armed organs (Dynamo, Vorwärts) and the state’s most prized assets (Lokomotive, Wismut) who, to use official terminology, existed as “independent sports organisations within [the DTSB].”
The last fact shows that some institutions—especially those closely tied to the state—enjoyed a privileged status within the GDR sports ecosystem and this couldn’t have been more true of Dynamo, the favourite plaything of state security boss Erich Mielke. His BFC attained infamy in the late 70s and 80s for their record ten consecutive Oberliga titles, but even back in the 50s, when Mielke, a passionate sports fan, was still only the number two at the Stasi (Ministry for State Security), he was already laying the groundwork for BFC’s future success through his patronage of SV Dynamo. Having become an influential member in sports governance through savvy manoeuvring and effective self-promotion, Mielke was the driving force behind the creation of the Stasi’s Sportvereinigung. From the moment of its conception, future success—and the eventual collapse of GDR sports—was basically guaranteed as Dynamo combined the manpower of the police with the influence of state security to create an all-conquering behemoth, even if repeatable footballing success was initially hard to come by.
The functionaries of favoured institutions certainly knew how to bring their influence to bear. This was evident not just when they unilaterally decided to move the entire Dresden team to Berlin—a team, it should be mentioned, which was assembled just a few years earlier by amassing the country’s best police footballers in Saxony’s capital—but also when it came to the touchy subject of transfers. To call player acquisitions a taboo in GDR football would be an exaggeration, but it is true that they were frowned upon, particularly in the early years. The idea was always that a player shouldn’t move unless they were delegated to a different side, had to move due to a job-related relocation or, in exceptional cases, if their current club environment hampered their development and thus their potential contribution to the “democratic sports movement.” The press frequently derided the Western practice of transfers as “players being reduced to banknotes.”
In late 1949, Kurt Weißenfels moved from second-tier Nagema Chemnitz to top-flight side Hans Wendler Stendal, but the DS refused to permit him to feature for his new team because the transfer had come about “in a way that wasn’t tenable.” When he lined up for Stendal anyway, their 4-3 win over Erfurt was annulled, the leaders of the two BSGs sacked, and the player himself banned for a month. The following week, to discourage any similar shady business, the DS unveiled an entirely overhauled set of rules regarding transfers. Players were not allowed to move more than twice a year and any transfer resulted in an automatic ten-week suspension. There were, however, two exceptions: the suspension was reduced to a fortnight if a player switched sides as part of the aforementioned work-related relocation or if they signed for a police club.
Granting certain institutions not insignificant concessions set an unhealthy precedent as early as 1949. Unsurprisingly, dispensations and legislative loopholes were ruthlessly exploited. But the police didn’t always get their way. Their dodgy transfer practices came under real scrutiny two years later when Volkpolizei Dresden, Dynamo’s predecessor, attempted to lure Zwickau’s goal machine Heinz Satrapa to the state capital. Satrapa, the previous season’s golden boot winner, agreed to the transfer under the influence after some policemen got him drunk, it was alleged. Nothing ultimately came of it because outraged teammates showed up at his home in the nick of time to convince the reportedly still-intoxicated striker to stay, successfully thwarting the move. But when the spicy details of this ignominious ordeal emerged, it caused an unmistakable racket.
At the height of the drama, Saxony’s SED leadership abashedly reported that “a general mood of discontent” was noticeable among Horch workers in Zwickau. The police’s already blemished image had been damaged further and the “democratic sports movement” thoroughly discredited. Conciliatory efforts by local SED cadres were in vain. Even a month later, open hostility was still tangible. The issue was only dropped and subsequently memory-holed on the orders of SED General Secretary Walter Ulbricht; the club, naturally, got off scot-free, again illustrating the liberty they enjoyed. This privilege not only survived the police’s subsumption into Dynamo but it was further expanded. Dynamo were notorious for their frequent Abwerbungen—the poaching of athletes by offering inducements—precisely the kind of shady business the DS had excoriated in 1949.
In conclusion, I think what this piece has shown is that football was at the mercy of what contemporaries like legendary Chemie Leipzig coach Alfred Kunze derided as “sledgehammer politics.” Football, then, was just one facet of a larger, more general issue. A clear lack of sensitivity and a gross overestimation of the people’s commitment to socialism—and, by extension, the “democratic sports movement”—meant that the cacophony of seemingly arbitrary measures undermined many previous creditable achievements and ultimately contributed to severing the trust the SED government and its institutions tried to forge with East Germans.
When analyzing the GDR, be it its approach to sports or any other area, the larger geopolitical context must be taken into account. Due to its unique position as the “weaker” of two German states, the “superiority of socialism” had to be ascertained with much more diligence than perhaps elsewhere. Rather than simply being content with building a relatively prosperous, less socially stratified society—which it objectively was—the GDR was constantly attempting to catch up with the West, ruinously force marching this small, geographically disadvantaged republic up an unscalable hill. But then again, it had to because otherwise, the populace became restless—this was one of the GDR’s contradictions: unable to catch up, but forced to try anyway.
In sports, this vain one-upmanship eventually degenerated into the abandonment of the “sports for all” ethos—or “everyone, everywhere, sports once a week” in the famous words of Ulbricht—resulting in the neglection of mass sports, the very thing the GDR cultivated its sporting image around. While elite athletes enjoyed unrivalled backing, amateurs—the beating heart of the entire ecosystem—were mostly left to fend for themselves. SED leadership, in sports and elsewhere, lost touch with the people. Privileged state-sponsored institutions such as Vorwärts and particularly Dynamo, despite often bending or outright breaking the rules, enjoyed protection from SED notables because they possessed the wherewithal to consistently produce the talent able to carry the GDR’s torch, thus facilitating a vicious cycle of malfeasance that eventually spiralled out of control—so much in fact that the DTSB considered liquidating Dynamo in 1983/84, but found itself powerless to do so. The chance for a much-needed reckoning never came.
Contrary to the idea promulgated in Western propaganda, the GDR was far from a footnote in history. For all its flaws, there were innumerable admirable features in the approach to sports and in the larger context of how a society should function. If applied in today’s day and age, several aspects of the GDR’s footballing practices would help towards returning the game to those it belongs: players and fans, not billionaires and consortiums. Ticket prices and membership fees were laughably low, making sports available to absolutely everybody; the disconnect between players and fans was minimal as they were often colleagues and the former, though enjoying more privileges than the Average Joe, was still a regular member of the community expected to pull their weight outside of the pitch.
Moreover, if you’re prepared to look beyond Dynamo and other elite institutions enjoying unfair advantages, you will find that, at the core, the game was in a healthy state. Due to their funding and leadership being derived from local enterprises, clubs were not only run by people acting in their best interest (although some, in their overzealousness and unbridled local patriotism, occasionally overstepped the line) but also economically sturdy and not at the mercy of the whims of investors. Strict transfer regulations meant that teams couldn’t simply buy their way to the top, they had to nurture and rely on regional talent—not for nothing was the GDR’s system of talent identification and development the envy of much of the footballing world and still endures in one form or another in some countries to this day.
One could argue that less state intrusion and “sledgehammer politics” would have left the game in an even healthier state. It’s certainly up for debate whether every club should have been dissolved after the war, especially workers’ clubs; it’s up for debate whether the Stasi, the police, and the military should have been allowed to have their own competitive teams; whether clubs should have been wantonly renamed and relocated; whether players should have been delegated to teams without their consent. But this is where a look at the bigger picture is instructive again: the GDR could have been a less authoritarian state, but then it likely would have been swallowed up by West Germany much sooner.
The point is that mistakes were always inevitable. There is no universally applicable template of how to completely overhaul an entire social order. New generations seeking to build a world—and, yes, that includes football—free from the oppressive vices of capitalism ought to learn from the failings of the past. Just as the struggle for a more egalitarian and just society continues, so does the struggle for a more egalitarian and just football. In the final analysis, then, the GDR’s contribution to these struggles was immeasurable. Looking at it this way, the immortal words of late historian Kurt Gossweiler ring particularly true: the GDR was not merely a footnote consigned to the dustbin of history, the GDR was “the first chapter in the history of socialism on German soil.”
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