Aue vs Dresden, and the Myth of the Ost-Derby

This Sunday, a monumental fixture is set to take place in the sleepy town of Aue, squirrelled away in the idyllic Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains). No silverware is at stake, nor does this match pit two teams against each other that have particularly impressed so far in this nascent season; what is on the line, however, is pride—lots of pride. The contest in question, this “duel for prestige,” as the local media has dubbed it, is the “Sachsenderby” between Erzgebirge Aue and Dynamo Dresden, the only traditional Saxon sides that have managed to retain a semblance of (sporting) relevance in post-reunification Germany.

This fixture is of particular interest not just because it is always a fiery encounter wherein both sets of fans frequently push the boundaries of audacity, but also because this rivalry goes against the conventional wisdom concerning East German football. Tension between the proletarian miners from provincial Aue and the city folk from the bustling baroque metropolis that is Dresden was palpable already back in GDR times, as was the disdain expressed by the former for the latter’s club, financed and staffed, as they were, by the East German police (although, ironically, Wismut Aue were also a state-sponsored institution that enjoyed certain privileges at least until the 1970s). However, the intense hatred that characterizes this fixture nowadays did not properly come to the fore until after the GDR was swallowed up by West Germany.

That is because the tables have turned since reunification. Whereas Dynamo were one of the undisputed behemoths of the East German game in the 20th century, Aue—albeit a noteworthy, well-supported side that won three titles in the 50s and never suffered relegation from the DDR-Oberliga—struggled to reach the same heights. Geographically speaking, too, there was no cause for friction besides the rural-city dichotomy. Aue’s real rivals were much closer to home; the West Saxon derbies against Zwickau and particularly Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz)—the city Aue were supposed to be unilaterally relocated to at one point—went down in GDR football folklore, while Dresden had bigger fish to fry, competing for championships against Magdeburg and their fellow Dynamos from Berlin.

An action shot from 1977—one of the countless GDR-era Dresden-Aue encounters (imago)

But when Dresden’s short-lived stint in the Bundesliga ended in disgrace, bankruptcy, and relegation in the 90s, it was Aue that took on the mantle of Saxony’s torchbearers, thanks to the shrewd backing of the Leonhardt Group, a local holding company. The metaphorical passing of the baton occurred in the 2002/03 season. Dynamo had just rebounded from their embarrassing demotion to the fourth-tier only to watch Aue claim the Regionalliga Nord title, aided, in part, by their going unbeaten against the Dresdner. Although the side from Saxony’s capital followed suit in 2004, a future of financial struggles and yo-yoing between the second and third divisions beckoned. Aue, on the other hand, enjoyed relative albeit unremarkable stability even if their time in the 2. Bundesliga wasn’t without interruption either.

Fast forward to today and both sides find themselves in the 3. Liga. Dynamo, true to their yo-yo credentials, immediately went straight back down after winning the division in 20/21, while Aue departed the second tier after six years. Both clubs responded to their demotion with sweeping changes. Aue hired Timo Rost from newly-promoted Bayreuth to steady the ship. Despite the obvious supposition that they should be more than capable of bouncing back after such a prolonged stint in the 2. Bundesliga, the 43-year-old made sure to downplay any expectations of a swift return—a savvy move considering that their rebuilt squad looks less than inspiring. Dynamo, meanwhile, took a punt on the embattled Markus Anfang, who had been out of a job since it came to light last year that he had forged his COVID-19 vaccine certificate.

After five games, it’s fair to say that both teams are yet to fully come to grips with their offseason overhauls. As is customary for Anfang teams, Dresden have been alright going forward, but their defending has really let them down, though they did get back-to-back shutout wins against Halle and Verl on matchdays two and three, respectively. Since then, however, their fortunes have taken a nose dive with losses to Viktoria Köln and Elversberg, the crackerjack promoted side that booted Leverkusen out of the DFB-Pokal a few weeks back and which currently occupy second place behind an 1860 Munich outfit that hung four on Dresden on opening day.

Erzgebirge Aue’s start to life in the 3. Liga has been even rougher with Rost’s men yet to taste victory. They showed some signs of improvement in their scoreless draw against Saarbrücken, which came off the back of a humbling 5-1 defeat at home to Wiesbaden, but they simply have not got going thus far. The fact that they’ve only scored three goals in these five games attests to that. What, then, can we expect for Sunday’s derby?

Given the occasion, it will likely be an end-to-end affair that could, at times, lapse into a stop-start slugfest as Aue will be keen to prevent Dresden from getting into an attacking rhythm. In this way, it would be similar to Aue’s match at Saarbrücken in which the visitors sat deep in a 4-4-2, absorbing the pressure of the more talented Saarbrücken side in the hopes of intercepting a ball that would enable them to spring a counter. Dresden certainly are the better-equipped team, but it’s been in transition (and from set pieces) where they have found the most joy thus far, so Aue would be well served by not overcommitting when counter-attacking opportunities arise.

Creativity knows no bounds on derby day (imago/Robert Michael)

The two sides’ head-to-head record in league play since 2011 is as evenly matched as it could possibly get—six Dresden wins, six Aue wins, six draws. The last time Dresden travelled to the “Schacht” (mine shaft), they came away with a 1-0 win, and they undeniably look the more capable of the two of getting something out of this match. That said, Dynamo’s defensive fragility could easily see them crumble under pressure.

Whichever way it goes, this game could prove pivotal for the remainder of the Hinrunde (the first half of the season), and indeed beyond. It’s too early to say that whoever ends up on the losing side must forfeit their job, but the pressure will certainly be ramped up to eleven, not to mention the outrage it will cause among supporters. One thing about this upcoming fixture is certain: the atmosphere at the gorgeous Erzgebirgsstadion will be electric because although it’s a fairly recent rivalry, it’s a vicious one.

The same can’t be said for many “derbies” that get marketed as such but are, in truth, nothing more than bog-standard intra-East German matches. Despite what the media likes to assert, not every game between East German sides is an “Ost-Derby” or an “Ost-Klassiker,” to use the more diplomatic sobriquet. Referring to low-stakes matches such as Zwickau versus Halle as “Ost-Klassiker“—as indeed even the official Halle website did earlier this season—simply because they are two once-great East German sides steeped in tradition feels somewhat patronizing as it devalues the real and complex rivalries that GDR football bred, like the aforementioned feuds between Dresden and Magdeburg or Aue and Chemnitz. Is a routine Bundesliga encounter between Köln and Frankfurt a “West-Klassiker“?

Honouring and celebrating the history and distinct identity of East Germany and its manifold constituent parts is important—as long as they are not misappropriated for reactionary ends, as they so often have, unfortunately—but the best way of doing that isn’t by manufacturing phantasmal narratives in order to give trivial events a patina of gravity; it’s by nurturing the things that came into being organically, be it in the GDR or afterwards, like the fierce rivalry between Erzgebirge Aue and Dynamo Dresden.

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