“Workers’ football” is a nebulous phrase to many, a seemingly foreign concept. To be sure, people will be familiar with clubs generally regarded as “working class” due to their location and the traditional class composition of their supporters, but precious few, if any, major clubs of today’s world are actively seeking to fan the flames of revolution and upholding the ostensibly forbidden idea of class struggle, let alone competing in designated workers’ leagues or World Cups. A century ago, however, things were quite different.
The massively stratified societies of the gilded age of industrial capitalism and imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th century gave rise to two major, sometimes more, sometimes less, diametrically opposed approaches to physical recreation and competition in Europe (and elsewhere): bourgeois sports and workers’ sports. Under the guise of apoliticism, of political neutrality, the former used sports to solidify the hegemony of capitalism. “We have to use sports to occupy the working youth,” declared Professor Lachenmair of the Deutsche Turnerschaft, the German bourgeois gymnastics organisation, “so as to make it forget about its miserable existence.”
Theodor Lewald, president of the Weimar-era umbrella organisation for physical education and organiser of the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics, saw sport as an essential component of an ideal capitalist society, assigning it major importance for both state and business. Physical education was supposed to fill the gap left by the abolition of conscription as stipulated by the Treaty of Versailles and instil cleanliness and order; moreover, it was, in his opinion, fruitful for employers to invest in sports grounds and gyms for their employees so as to keep them fit, which in turn would yield increased productivity and reduce work-related injuries. Despite their frequent proclamations of non-politicalness, many bourgeois sports organisations also had a pronounced völkisch character, aiming to implant a love for the fatherland and the Aryan race in addition to iron discipline and militancy.
Workers’ associations similarly grasped the value of sports in “combat[ing] the bodily maladies brought about by modern production” and, of course, for militant and disciplinary purposes. But not to ready the populace for world war; they wanted a steeled, healthy vanguard for the coming revolution. Accordingly, workers’ clubs mushroomed in Germany in the early 1890s and eventually coalesced under the aegis of the Arbeiter-Turner-Bund (ATB; later Arbeiter-Turn- und Sportbund, ATSB), which was fraternally aligned with the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the country’s sole proletarian party at that time. By 1910, the ATB already counted a whopping 153,582 members.
That year, a new club joined the ATB’s ranks, one that would rapidly outgrow its humble adolescence and mature into a veritable behemoth of the workers’ game, winning title after title, constructing its own 18,000-capacity ground, and defeating the Soviet champions, before meeting an unceremonious and barbaric end at the hands of the Nazis – all in the space of a mere 23 years. The club in question was Dresdner SV 1910, established on June 1, 1910, via a merger of four “wild,” that is unaffiliated, small football teams in the East of Saxony’s capital with the express purpose of “fostering public health on a purely traditional proletarian basis…”
Having been founded by footballers, Fußball was, at first, the lone sport practised at the club, something of a novelty still as the playing of the game had only been officially sanctioned by the ATB precisely a year before (although it’s fair to assume that the game was being practised recreationally well before that). The playing of competitive football had been mainly a middle-class activity up to that point, hence the ATB’s reluctance to get on board despite the sport’s skyrocketing popularity. Although divided by class lines, Dresdner SV’s rapid rise to prominence can be partially explained by the rich tradition and prevalence of bourgeois football in Dresden. Saxony’s capital had been at the forefront of its development in Germany. In fact, research over the past two decades has revealed that it was in Dresden and not, as previously thought, in Braunschweig where the Reich’s – and perhaps even continental Europe’s – pioneering football club was founded when young Englishmen established Dresden English Football Club in 1874.
Much like in the history of capitalism, so in the history of (German) football did the bourgeois initially assume a vital, progressive role. Although playing the game in any kind of organised, systematic way was beyond the means of the working class because it lacked the hard-to-get, expensive equipment and time (only the failed revolution of 1918 brought the eight-hour workday to Germany, and it didn’t survive for long), attending games was much easier and, in the early years at least, more often than not free of charge. The bourgeoning EFC and its famous successor, Dresdner SC, brought the intoxicating game to a wide, cross-class audience in the heart of Saxony and showed that it was worth sinking precious time and money into, thus preparing the ground for the proletarian Dresdner SV to find a ready-made, football-acquainted support base.
Nonetheless, DSV’s beginnings were exceedingly humble as the team spent their first two years playing on an open, empty plot of land before moving to a miserly sand pitch, nicknamed “Sandwüste” (sand desert). Still, though, the side already showed their footballing credentials. In the autumn of 1911, the first city-wide workers’ championship was held and promptly won by DSV. In the build-up to the First World War, however, repression of the workers’ sports movement increased.
As per the Reich’s club laws, ATB organisations could be deemed “political” giving the authorities an ideal pretext to prohibit them from using public facilities, a significant blow to the proletarian game’s slow but noticeable development. These rulings were ultimately reversed with the outbreak of WWI and the SPD’s treacherous “Burgfriedenpolitik” – making common cause with the bourgeois parties and supporting the war effort – but the war itself proved to be much more fateful than any ban ever could – some 35,000 proletarian athletes (15,000 footballers) lost their lives on the battlefields, among them 22 DSV members; well in excess of 1000 ATB clubs ceased to exist during the war years.
Despite the ruinous state of post-war Germany, the proletarian sports movement gained increasing momentum. For all the offences of the SPD during and after the November Revolution, its incompetent, short rule did usher in a golden age for proletarian physical education. The eight-hour workday, short-lived though it was and only implemented out of fear of a genuine proletarian revolution (rather than a half-baked, slap-on-the-wrist SPD-reformist one), meant more time for practice. Neither brutal repression nor widespread poverty and malnourishment or artificial industrialist-maintained inflation could prevent the ranks of workers’ clubs from swelling. The ATB rebranded as the ATSB in 1919 and “openly proclaim[ed] its support of class struggle and socialism, but not the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” – a more radical line than that of the ruling SPD circles, to be sure, but still one inherently pervaded by reformist ideas that would repeatedly cause friction within the ATSB.
33 athletes picked up the threads of DSV and revamped the club in 1918. The following year, the footballers claimed the first of nine consecutive city championships, and in 1920, they were crowned the best team in Central Germany. Success puts bums in seats and spectatorship at DSV games soared accordingly. If it hadn’t already been abundantly clear that the “Sandwüste” was a wholly inadequate ground for a club the stature of DSV, now it was. Therefore, a new pitch was needed, followed by a proper stadium. The former was completed in 1923, and the groundbreaking ceremony for the latter commenced in 1924. In the meantime, the team was only getting better.
In the preceding years, DSV had repeatedly fallen short in crucial games against Leipzig-Stötteritz, but in 1924, they finally broke their duck with an emphatic 6-0 victory in front of 7000 spectators. The path to the ATSB championship lay open and they easily brushed aside teams from Nuremberg and Mannheim before defeating Stern Breslau (Wrocław) 6-1 in the final at the Ilgen-Kampfbahn (the future Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion, home of Dynamo Dresden). They had won their first national title, but that was not all. With its football section rapidly expanding, the ATSB established a national team, and the title-winning DSV side was chosen to represent it. In October of 1924, they faced off against a French workers’ eleven in two matches and resoundingly beat them 3-0 in Paris and then 4-1 or 7-1 (sources differ) in the return fixture back at the Kampfbahn in front of a mightily impressive 20,000.
Support for DSV in and around Dresden grew to such proportions that scores of workers answered the call for volunteers to help construct their new stadium. In total, 72,000 unpaid hours of work went into the building of the Stadion Dresden-Ost, completed and triumphantly opened with a week of festivities in the summer of 1925 – mere weeks after DSV retained their ATSB championship with a 7-0 demolition job of Berlin’s SV Stralau 1910. Shortly thereafter, on July 28, 1925, the ATSB national team beat Finland in the final of the first (official) Workers’ Olympics in Frankfurt, organised by the social-democratic Lucerne Sport International (LSI). Curiously, goalkeeper Sparke was the only player from the champions to feature in this side. Even weirder was the conspicuous absence of the world’s lone workers’ state – the Soviet Union – from the Workers’ Olympics.
The rift in the labour movement between reformist social democrats and revolutionary communists had deepened with the failure of the revolutions in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere, and the ensuing period of reaction and the rise of fascism was in large parts attributed to the reluctance of the reformists to affect radical change while in power. In the Germany of the early 20s, many communists were organised in the LSI’s ATSB – because there was simply no alternative – and official contact with Moscow or the Soviet-led Red Sport International (RSI) was resolutely prohibited without express permission from above. Negotiations between LSI and RSI over the participation of a Soviet delegation in the Olympics had failed time and again, even in the face of significant pressure from the former’s constituents. According to the RSI press, at one point, the LSI even suggested that the RSI should simply dissolve itself in a 1924 letter. The Soviets were personae non gratae and that was non-negotiable; not until 1926 did the LSI relent.
But just because the LSI leadership didn’t want anything to do with the Soviets didn’t mean that the rank and file shared those sentiments; quite to the contrary. Talks between German clubs and Soviet sports leadership rarely ceased after the establishment of Soviet power in 1922. The first instance of collaboration occurred in 1923 when a Soviet delegation played in Berlin and Stettin (Szczecin); a year later, the Soviets, in turn, organised a trip for Weser 08 Bremen to travel throughout the Union and face off against local sides. Weser accepted the invitation – a big deal at the time as it made them the first German football team to play on Soviet soil.
In 1925, Dresdner SV desired to partake in one of these so-called “Russenspiele” (Russian games) to celebrate the opening of their new stadium, but the ATSB had other ideas – and despite normalised relations and ongoing negotiations over an expansive trade agreement between the two countries, the German political establishment was also not particularly thrilled about the prospect of a visit from the hated Soviets. The players and members of DSV – more aligned with the fervently pro-Soviet Communist Party (KPD) than the SPD – refused to give up on their dream: they scheduled the game anyway with help from the RSI’s Berlin bureau. The visiting delegation from Kharkiv in Soviet Ukraine were the reigning Soviet champions no less, you couldn’t not play the game!
The first major hurdle was the question of how to get the Ukrainians to Dresden. Heading by train to the Latvian border and from there to Berlin, unsurprisingly, proved to be a challenge. The Soviets were met with acrimony by the border guards and any kind of “Bolshevik literature” was considered contraband. In the October 1925 issue of Proletariersport, the head of the Soviet delegation, “Comrade Sholtak”, related an anecdote about an incident at the Latvian border involving just such prohibited literature and the use of the word “comrade”: “The Latvian official…noticed a spread out issue of our Izvestia on the train carriage. Not wanting to let this contraband pass, this official ordered us to hand it over, to which one of our comrades replied: ‘But comrade, this is just an old newspaper to protect our clothes from dirt…’ To this remark, the aggravated official responded, ‘the Tambov wolf is your comrade,’ and, grabbing the trophy, he stormed away.”
Hundreds of enthusiastic workers and a massive police deployment awaited the Soviets at Schlesischer Bahnhof (Silesian Station) in the capital, but after being held up at the border, they didn’t arrive on time, and so it was that the game in Dresden, scheduled for August 22, had to be pushed back three days. When they did finally arrive, they were met with a massive outpouring of love and solidarity despite the authorities’ best efforts of keeping German workers and Soviets segregated. In Dresden, the team were given a tour of the city and its factories and even managed to catch a performance in the Semperoper thanks to a communist parliamentarian who got them access to a loge reserved for politicians by claiming that they were his relatives – much to the chagrin of the bourgeois attendees.
The Ukrainians bemoaned that they were under constant surveillance from police informants and their “Menshevik emigré” tour guide, but that didn’t stop them from socialising with German workers. At one point, they even decided to assume the patronage of a group of Young Pioneers to relieve the parents of this particular financial burden. It ought to be remembered that the players themselves were just regular workers and not professionals, so this must surely have been a non-negligible outlay for them, especially at the height of the New Economic Policy when widespread poverty was still rife in the Soviet Union (a Saxon football delegation travelling the Union two years later reported scores of begging children on the streets of Soviet cities). At a large banquet on the eve of the game, the guests presented their German hosts with a red flag bearing the coat of arms of the Ukrainian SSR.
Despite the extortionate travel costs facing the Soviet guests, entry to the game was capped at a measly 80 pfennig (cents) to enable everyone in Dresden who so desired to attend. Consequently, the Stadion Dresden-Ost was packed to the non-existent rafters with a capacity crowd of 18,000. As was customary for Soviet visits, the game was prefaced by a ceremony, including a speech by DSV chairman Otto Nagel – the driving force behind this game – the singing of the Internationale, and an exchange of pleasantries and gifts. When the game kicked off, the spectators were treated to a true footballing feast. The perceived underdogs of DSV were not at all intimidated by the Soviet champions, playing with a pizzazz that was tough to contain. And the visitors, so used to brushing aside workers’ teams when playing abroad, never did manage to contain it, ultimately falling to a shocking 3-1 defeat, the first of its kind. DSV had become the first German workers’ side to beat a team from the Soviet Union.
Undeterred, the Ukrainians continued their travels throughout the area, facing off against sides from other Saxon towns like Chemnitz, Pirna (my hometown!), and Freital before returning to Dresden to play against Allemania Dresden-Nord and again versus DSV in a rematch (a 1-0 win for Kharkiv). They then made their way back north to Berlin where they stopped off for a match against Berlin MSV, after which they departed again, having racked up a record of seven wins, one loss, three goals conceded, and 23 scored during their three-week stay in Germany.
As for DSV, their disobedience would have serious consequences. To punish them for ignoring their directives, the ATSB hit their reigning champions with a full-on ban, and any ATSB club that defied this prohibition and played against DSV were to suffer the same fate. What the ATSB bureaucrats didn’t anticipate, however, was the wave of solidarity that ensued. Scores of clubs, “like an avalanche,” made fixture arrangements with DSV, so that the ATSB was eventually faced with the choice of having to ban all of their biggest hitters or to retreat and reinstate the subversives in Dresden. They decided that the latter was the sounder option and the ban was lifted after just a few weeks.
Back in the ATSB, DSV went from strength to strength. In 1926 and 1927, they again retained their national championships, making it four on the bounce and a record of titles that has never been matched, all while occasionally facing off against international opposition from England, Finland, Belgium, France, Austria, Switzerland, and Czechoslovakia. The Stadion Dresden-Ost also hosted fixtures against the national teams of Austria and the Soviet Union, although DSV’s battles for national titles continued to be staged at the Ilgen-Kampfbahn. In 1927, nine DSV players were part of the aforementioned Saxon delegation that toured the Soviet Union. The club itself continued to grow as well, adding departments for shooting, billiards, athletics, chess, a choir, and whatever the hell this is…
By the end of the 1920s, despite not playing for the bourgeois DFB, DSV had firmly established themselves as one of the undisputed best teams in Central Germany, and even legendary Dresdner SC coach Jimmy Hogan, the “architect of Total Football,” was regularly attending games and scouting for talent. It is said that he had his eyes on a few DSV players, but was unable to bring them to DSC for “sociopolitical reasons.” The bourgeois DSC hierarchy had no qualms about signing players coming from a proletarian background – Hogan bringing sharpshooter “King Richard” Hofmann from Meerane 07 to DSC is a prime example of that – but they presumably drew the line at outspoken communists and socialists like those found at DSV, although one can only speculate.
It was, however, precisely those outspoken communists and socialists that were now causing trouble within the club and the ATSB at large because, in the meantime, the rift in the working class had continued to grow. Both sides had resorted to denouncing each other as fascists, which not only emboldened the real fascists but also weakened the labour movement in the face of the looming threat of a Nazi takeover. In line with their reformist stance, the ATSB and SPD increasingly departed from their original proletarian ideals, eschewed the class struggle and confrontation with reactionary parties, and embraced class collaboration. All of this inevitably culminated in the ATSB expelling communists and anyone opposed to the exceedingly anti-worker tendencies within the organisation. At the 16th National Congress of the ATSB, fittingly nicknamed “the Battle of Leipzig,” delegates from Berlin (a majority communist area) were accused of “damaging the organisation” and banished; entire departments within the ATSB and those in associations close to it were systematically purged of their members, among them such vile red fascists like the Naturfreunde (Friends of Nature) and the Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund (Workers’ Samaritan Foundation).
On May 26 of 1929, the KPD, which did not have its own sports association, corralled the expelled members into a group that was to negotiate with the ATSB to allow those “troublemakers” to return. But when these negotiations dragged on and proved fruitless, the KPD realised that this was a waste of time and instead set about building up its own umbrella organisation, the Kampfgemeinschaft für rote Sporteinheit (KG). Subsequently, splits within clubs and groups occurred throughout Germany with one side, the so-called “Bund loyalists,” remaining within the ATSB and the “opposition” breaking away. Sometimes even entire clubs defected to the KG.
Unlike in Berlin, where the loyalists were but a tiny minority, the ATSB remained the foremost workers’ sports organisation pretty much everywhere else. But the KG was growing nonetheless, and the discord also swept up Dresdner SV, so that in October 1929, a decision over the future of the club had to be made. Here, too, a split was the unfortunate result, but just like in Berlin, the communists were in the majority, and they retained the right of playing in their stadium, while the “loyalists” had to find a new home.
By the end of 1930, the ATSB still boasted more than half a million adult members, while the KG had around 210,000. But neither could compete with the one million of the DFB or the 1.6 million of the Deutsche Turnerschaft. While the DSV loyalists vegetated in stagnation, the communists were competing for titles. On August 29, 1931, DSV faced off against Sparta 1911 Lichtenberg in Berlin with the winners crowned national KG champions. 15,000 witnessed Dresden’s 3-2 triumph, but nobody at the time could have anticipated that this was to be the club’s final success. Hitler’s ascent to power spelt doom for workers’ sport.
During the night of the burning of the Reichstag in late February 1933, the Nazis began arresting communists and seizing their property. The following day, the Karl-Liebknecht-Haus in Berlin, one of the headquarters of the KPD, was closed down and occupied by the Nazis. KG competition ground to a halt, its functionaries and members were arrested, dragged off to concentration camps, tortured, and murdered. The ATSB met a similar fate in the following months. Those who refused to assimilate and renounce Marxism were barred from competing. Those deemed “reliable” were funnelled into bourgeois clubs and organisations like the DFB. Eventually, all workers’ clubs ceased to exist one way or another, though some, like Sparta Lichtenberg, continued their anti-fascist resistance under a new name.
The memory of those clubs was wiped from the official records, but not everything was lost. Tipped off about upcoming raids by sympathetic policemen, some were able to salvage documents and valuables, like the Saxon KG leadership, who were able to save records of a survey from the first half of 1932 about the composition of the KG in Saxony. It tells us that in February of 1932, the Saxon KG had 33,420 members (as opposed to 180,172 in the ATSB), 4600 of which resided in the Dresden area.
Among those 4600 were several hundred members of DSV, who refused to assimilate; the club managed to persist for a few more months before being forcibly dissolved in July. That was the swift and unceremonious end of one of Germany’s most illustrious workers’ clubs. 22 members were arrested by the Gestapo, 20 of them sentenced to a combined 19 years and four months in prison. Some met their end during the war. Following the Third Reich’s unconditional surrender, the members that had survived the Nazi terror were not allowed to reestablish DSV. Instead, SG Dresden Striesen was born and later incorporated into the cigarette business, resulting in its eventual rebranding as BSG Empor Tabak.
Tabak kept the legacy of DSV alive and enjoyed generous support from its Trägerbetrieb (enterprise) in the GDR, developing into one of the biggest sports clubs in Dresden, along with Dynamo and SC Einheit, thanks to engaged and enthusiastic functionaries. During the GDR years, contacts with Kharkiv were revived, and in 1967, on the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, the Stadion Dresden-Ost was aptly renamed in honour of the Society for German-Soviet Friendship, or the “Society with the Long Name” as it was known colloquially. Everything came full circle when Metalist Kharkiv toured Dresden and squared up with Tabak (and Dynamo) in 1985.
Two years prior, Tabak’s football team had managed to reach the second-tier DDR-Liga, but a restructuring and slimming down of the GDR’s second divisions meant that a seemingly solid ninth place wasn’t enough to stave off relegation. In 1989, Tabak counted around 2100 members with some 12 sports departments, but when the GDR disappeared, so, too, did the funding – and it did so seemingly overnight. Similarly to what had happened to DSV when the Nazis came to power (though I’m not saying that the situations were comparable), Tabak was stripped of its assets and had its property seized. As Marx said: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Tabak had been fully uprooted. Therefore, in June 1990, the members decided to bring back the famed name of DSV and start over. Ironically, though, the footballers went off to do their own thing, and they reestablished SG Striesen. Nowadays, almost a century after Dresdner SV reached their apotheosis as a club with the construction of their own stadium, successive national titles, and a win over the reigning Soviet champions, there are two sides claiming to represent this illustrious history: DSV, without a football department, it should be noted, and SG Striesen. What a farcical and absurd fate that an iconic workers’ club like DSV was reduced to a limp parody of itself with the onset of the supposed “end of history” and the much-heralded post-GDR freedom; that its legacy now finds expression in not one but two bourgeois clubs, the latter of which expressly states in its statutes that it is an “apolitical organisation.” A penny for Otto Nagel’s thoughts.
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