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A Crossroads In East German Football: Some Clubs Are Adapting to the Future, While Others Are Mired In the Past

berlin wall A Crossroads In East German Football: Some Clubs Are Adapting to the Future, While Others Are Mired In the Past

In November of 2014, Germans will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For decades, the Wall conjured up a number of negative feelings. While some said the Wall was built to keep East Germans from fleeing to West German, it can also be argued that the Wall was built to keep West German ideas from making their way to the East. Either way, the idea behind the Wall was to have a physical, social and economic divide between the two parts of Germany.

During the time of the Wall, one of the many divides that existed was in football. While the West German Bundesliga thrived with successful clubs, the same could not be said for the DDR-Oberliga. With the exception of some moderate success in Europe, which saw FC Magdeburg make it to the Cup Winner’s Cup final in 1974, most of the league was dominated by only three teams, which included FC Madgeburg, as well as Dynamo Dresden and Berliner FC Dynamo. In comparison to their West German counterparts, these teams did not have the caliber of coaches, staff and overall talent, and were rarely able to compete at football’s highest level. In the case of Berliner FC Dynamo, their connection to secret East German police, the Stasi, led to them winning ten straight championships between 1979 and 1989, mostly through corruption, intimidation, match fixing and a slew of other ethical questions.

Today, many East German football clubs still have had a hard time adjusting to a unified German Bundesliga. Some clubs, such as Berliner FC Dynamo and Dynamo Dresden, have decided to keep their communist past, as well as their East German-connected names, alive and well today. Other teams, such as FC Erzgebirge Aue, have shed most of their communist history and are concentrating on the present.

Even with this transformation, there is one thing that each team shares, which is a common connection to the idea of East Germany. Even the most anti-GDR establishment clubs, such as FC Union Berlin, still identify themselves as East German. While not necessarily supporting old East German values, they do show a sense of pride in being, if you like, Ost-Enders.

All of this might be explained through the idea of “socialist socialization”. After the end of World War II, Germany was eventually split up into East and West Germany. But what did it mean to be “East German”? Prior to 1945, Germans simply referred to themselves as Germans, since there was no distinction between East and West. This is mainly because the East-West lines were purely a result of post-WWII policy.

Since communism didn’t have any place in the old Germany, the creation of East Germany meant that a new “East German identity” had to be created. The newly created GDR government had to make their citizens “proud to be East German,” which was an entirely new concept.

There were two very important factors in building an East German identity. First, the GDR’s identity had to include the concept of socialism. The idea of a socialist government was new, as well as the political philosophy itself. Therefore, the East German authorities started to introduce the ideas of socialism in schools, the workplace, and even sports. While East Germany did have some of its own homegrown socialism, such as the works of Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, many communist ideas were borrowed from the Soviet Union. One of the biggest marks of this Soviet-borrowing was seen in the structure of sports organizations. Betriebssportgemeinschaft, or “company sports community”, connected certain aspects of the East German workplace and society to particular sporting clubs. For example, any club with Lokomotive in the title referred to their association with state-run railway company Deutsche Reichsbahn. Those with the name Dynamo connected teams with local police organizations. Therefore, East German sports clubs, especially those formed after World War II, were already starting to show proletariat qualities, as former sports clubs were seen as tools of the bourgeois.

The second idea behind socialist socialization was to create a separate East German history. Because the country was new, there were no East German historical traditions. Eventually, this would change throughout the years as the connection between East German and the Soviet Union led to historical achievements. But prior to this, there was no East German-specific history.

What is also important to note is that West Germany assumed the identity of “being German”, but not “West German”. Some might consider this a hijacking of German values by the West, but East Germany was more than happy to give West Germany all of Germany’s historical past. While there are many reasons behind this, there are two important reasons that need to be mentioned. First, old German history didn’t have a connection to socialism, so it was automatically rejected. Second, East Germany used Germany’s old history to claim that West Germany was the new “fascist state”, and nearly equated West Germans to the post-WWII Nazi movement.

With the groundwork being established, let’s fast-forward to modern-day Germany. Did socialist socialization work? Well, the answer is yes, but to differing degrees. As far as creating a pro-socialist society, the socialization does have a moderate impact. The Left party (or Die Linke), which was the successor to the GDR Communist Party (or SED), is still strong electorally in the East today. And while anti-GDR teams like FC Union Berlin were seen to be against the establishment, they aren’t necessarily anti-socialist teams. Basically, socialism wasn’t the enemy in East Berlin, but the authoritarian characteristics of the East German state were the enemy.

While the socialist aspect of socialization has mixed reviews, the creation of an East German identity was extremely successful. The best example of this is embodied in, yet again, FC Union Berlin. During the time of communism, Union Berlin was not only considered the most anti-GDR football club, but they were also the natural rival to the Stasi’s Berliner FC Dynamo, as both teams were located in Berlin. Those who were against the communist government, but were too afraid to take to the streets, instead took to the Stadion An der Alten Försterei, where they would show their anti-establishment feelings through songs and chants while cheering on FC Union Berlin. The Stasi would eventually keep a record of those who attended FC Union Berlin matches, which was later revealed after the declassification of Stasi files after the reunification.

Even though FC Union Berlin was openly against the establishment, the establishment did impact the views of Union Berlin. Like other East German clubs, supporters of FC Union Berlin still consider themselves strong East Germans and East Berliners. A 2001 article in The Telegraph newspaper makes this point clearly in an article about FC Union Berlin:

“The supporters, of course, are east Berliners through and through. A proposal to play next season’s big European matches in West Berlin’s Olympic Stadium led fans to plan angry demonstrations for the summer.

“East Berlin and the bad old days made us what we are. We must never betray our roots and our past. The next step is to become as big as Hertha. With our history and our charisma it can be done.”

Therefore, socialist socialization has worked in transforming the opinion of East Germans along post-WWII geographical lines. But what about the future of East Germans and club football? Socialist socialization might still have the last say. Clubs such as Berliner FC Dynamo have been highly unsuccessful in post-unification football.  Dynamo Dresden, while still hanging around in 2 Bundesliga, continue to struggle. On the other hand, other clubs, such as FC Union Berlin, have been able to build toward the future by trying to build a team that can compete in Germany’s top flight of football.

The different paths of German football might be most noticeable in the derby between FC Union Berlin and Berliner FC Dynamo. Dynamo, once the powerhouse of East German football, has now been reduced to a suburban East Berlin team that has been mired in hooliganism. As for FC Union Berlin, who were spied on by the Stasi and forced to transfer players under the old GDR system, they have moved on from their anti-Stasi past (though it is still a rich part of their history), and now have their eyes focused making Berlin a two-team city, by creating a friendly rivalry with Hertha Berlin. Yes, the team has had financial troubles in the past, but it seems that those problems might have also stayed in the past.

If Union Berlin succeeds in promotion to the Bundesliga in the near future, the model that they created could be a template for future East Berlin teams. That model is to accept your past, but look toward the future. Union Berlin accepts that they are East German, which was an identity created by the old GDR (who they openly rejected), and have used that to help build their identity. Still, this identity hasn’t blinded them from trying to move forward to become Berlin’s next top-flight team. But Berliner FC Dynamo has not been able to put the past behind them. A recent spat between the Berliner FC Dynamo and the German Football Association regarding the awarding of championship stars for Dynamo’s ten DDR-Oberliga championships shows the lack of moving forward by the former Stasi club. Berliner FC Dynamo argued that their ten championships should be recognized by the German Football Association.  The Association said that they do not recognize DDR-Oberliga titles, especially those by Berliner FC Dynamo, who obtained the titles by manipulation. Eventually the German Football Association allowed former East German teams to display their championship stars. Still, the GDR’s rejection of pre-war history almost cost the most pro-GDR team title recognition for past titles.

One saying in East Germany is that “the wall is still in the mind of East Germans”. This isn’t only happening in society, but in football as well. For East German football to be successful, clubs who seek to break down this wall will more than likely have a chance of succeeding in German football. Those who keep those walls up are almost certain to fail.

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6 Responses to A Crossroads In East German Football: Some Clubs Are Adapting to the Future, While Others Are Mired In the Past

  1. tb says:

    Fascinating article. People think the history of Germany football is only dominated by Bayern Munich, but there’s so much more to it, whether good or bad.

  2. Ivan says:

    Wow..very interesting and informative piece!

  3. Will says:

    Great read. Well done.

  4. Taylor says:

    Insightful article especially for long term football fans like me.

    It’ll be interesting to have the writer continue this article by writing the impact of “East German footballers” after the unification 25 years. I remember when German became unified, only Thomas Doll, Matthias Sammer and Ulf Kirsten as well as Andy Thom could break through the National Team. Yes, there were Dariusz Wosz, Olaf Marschall, Dirk Shuster and Heiko Scholz – but their caps were really limited.

    • Dave Trotter says:

      I’m going to write more, but at a later date. I am waiting to get back to university so I have more resources to study the subject. I will write about both the DDR-Oberliga history as well as the DDR national team.

      As far as the four players you mentioned, they played for one of the Dynamo teams. After reunification, Bundesliga teams bought most of the players from Dynamo Dresden and Dynamo Berlin. Hansa Rostock was left relatively untouched after reunification, which is the reason they have been one of the move successful East German teams after reunification. In fact, Hansa Rostock was seen as the team that spoke for post-unification East Germany until quite recently.

      Still, they came from the best organizations from East Germany. The other players that you mentioned didn’t come through a Dynamo team. The GDR authorities worked hard to make sure that the Dynamo teams were the ones who one the championships year after year, and they succeeded. Because of this system, it was easy for Bundesliga teams to know where to go to pick players up. So, if you played for Dynamo Someone, you were probably good. If you played for another team, not as much.

      I hope that answers the question a little.

  5. Taylor says:

    Thanks, Dave. I know the stories about those players – having been following football since 1980s and my comment was intended to highlight my appreciation to your interesting article.
    I do hope that a lot of reader of this website can appreciate this article as this can help their perspectives.
    Look forward to reading your next article. Great job!

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