The names of the clubs at the forefront of German football’s recent renaissance are familiar to even the most oblivious of football fans. Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke have successfully lifted the Bundesliga back into the heavyweight division of European league football alongside the behemoths from England and Spain.
Other major German clubs such as Stuttgart, Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg are also easily recognisable to the average football fan, especially given that Bundesliga football is now beamed around the world in a similar fashion to Premier League and La Liga games. Suddenly, the famous shirts of Bayern Munich and Dortmund are beginning to appear amongst the sea of Chelsea, Liverpool and Real Madrid shirts in football’s most lucrative commercial markets.
Given this rise in recognition for German football, it is all the more astonishing that a club which once won a top-tier German title for 10 consecutive years could possibly go unnoticed, not least given that the club reside in the nation’s capital, and were often present in the European Cup. But this is not the tale of a forgotten giant whose achievements have been consigned to the annals of history by mountains of debt. Nor is this a retelling of the story of Pro Vercelli, a historically significant club eventually gazumped by giants from major cities. Instead, it is the tale of BFC Berliner Dynamo, a club struggling to escape from its controversial past under the rule of the Stasi.
While much about BFC Dynamo has changed since the Wine Reds won their last title, it is difficult to see with the naked eye. While the stands are no longer packed to the rafters with fanatical fans, the stadium looks almost exactly as it would have done in 1988 when the club won its tenth and final DDR-Oberliga title in 1988 on goal difference ahead of Lokomotiv Leipzig.
The Dynamo Stadion is still a large multi-purpose oval exposed to the elements, identical to hundreds of other stadiums across the former Soviet Union. While the stadium was renovated in accordance with UEFA regulations in 2006, the history of the club which once resided there remains the only unique feature of such a drab, yet functional relic to sport in the former DDR. Yet to look around the club, you wouldn’t know of its achievements, and the reason for that is the manner in which the club came by such staggering success.
It doesn’t take an esteemed historian to know of the huge political significance of Berlin in post-World War Two Europe. In accordance with the Allied protocol, Berlin was divided into East and West Berlin, with the iconic Berlin Wall separating the capitalist West from the communist East, with the city essentially becoming a microcosm of the state of world politics. But with neither side committed to a direct conflict which would conceivably have ended the world, a propaganda war, the likes of which the world had never seen, ensued. Anything from sport to music was seen by the power brokers from East and West as a means of proving the supremacy of their ideology, and it was such a propaganda war which gave birth to the club now known as BFC Dynamo.
In 1954, it was decided that a new East German football club should be founded on the propaganda frontline against the West. The new club was to play their regular home games in the north-eastern suburb of Hohenschönhausen, while major European games were to be played at the much larger Friedrich Ludwig Jahn Sportpark, significantly situated a matter of metres from the Berlin Wall. In order to prove a successful venture for the East German Stasi, the new club would need to make a lasting impression not only on the East German domestic scene, but also on the European scene deemed to be of utmost importance in their battle against their ideological enemies in the West.
To generate instant success, members of Dynamo Dresden, one of the most competitive East German teams of the era, were ordered by the Stasi to move to the Wine Reds. During the early years, the project seemed to be reaping the desired rewards. Within five years of their inception, the Stasi sponsored club had achieved promotion to the DDR-Oberliga and an East German Cup victory. The dream of an East German powerhouse on the propaganda frontline was becoming a reality.
Just four years later, the dream was starting to fall apart. With the uprooted Dresden squad beginning to age, and a lack of an established youth infrastructure leading to a lack of talent coming through the ranks to replace them, Dynamo Berlin started to fade from the limelight, culminating in their relegation from the Oberliga in 1967. But this was only to prove the end of the first incarnation of Dynamo Berlin. Pre-empting the club’s relegation from the Oberliga, Dynamo Berlin were re-established as BFC Dynamo in January 1966, bringing together a new squad and separating from the wider organisation of the Dynamo Berlin sports club. This rebirth was to prove the beginning of the club’s most controversial era.
Despite the initial failure of the project, the potential significance of a dominant East German side in European football was not lost on the Stasi, especially in a football-mad nation such as Germany. Furthermore, the Stasi recognised that they were now losing the football propaganda war in play across the Berlin Wall. Dynamo Berlin’s demise in the East had coincided with the rise of Bayern Munich in the West, a team packed with West German stars such as Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller.
By 1976, Bayern had racked up four of six Bundesliga titles and, more significantly, three consecutive European titles. By comparison, East Germany’s biggest club, Dynamo Dresden never made it beyond the quarter-finals, and were famously defeated 7-6 on aggregate by Bayern Munich in 1974. Mere months later, the East Germans famously defeated West Germany in the 1974 World Cup, a victory dubbed “The triumphal march of GDR sport and the certainty of victory in the class struggle with West German imperialism” by the Stasi, only for the reshuffled West German “imperialists” to be crowned World Champions weeks later.
The continued success of West German football compared with the limited achievements of the East Germans caused the Stasi to once again change the face of East German football. The only difference this time was the intervention of the infamous leader of the East German Stasi, Erich Mielke. Mielke believed that “football success [would] highlight even more clearly the superiority of our Socialist order in the area of sport” and was infuriated not only by East Germany’s failure to make a major impact on the international scene, but also by the domination of the DDR-Oberliga by provincial clubs Dynamo Dresden and FC Magdeburg.
In an attempt to achieve more recognition for East German football in the wake of the 1974 World Cup, Mielke began the process of artificially moving BFC Dynamo to the pinnacle of East German football. From 1979-1988, with the assistance of bribed officials and the opponents of BFC being intimidated into mistakes by the increasingly influential Stasi, the Wine Reds won ten consecutive Oberliga titles.
Such was the obvious nature of Stasi intervention, fans of other clubs would greet BFC and their fans with chants declaring them the “champions of cheating”, with BFC’s farcical victory in the 1986 Oberliga final against Lokomotiv Leipzig resulting in nationwide protests. But with Mielke’s help, the only man facing repercussions from the result was referee Bernd Stumpf, and BFC’s dominance of the Oberliga was allowed to continue until the re-unification of Germany in 1990.
However, while Mielke was able to manipulate results in the Oberliga with little significant opposition, he was unable to help BFC Dynamo achieve any significant success in European competition. While they reached the semi-final of the 1972 Cup Winners’ Cup, BFC never made it beyond the quarter-finals in the blue ribbon European Cup competition, being knocked out by opponents from western nations in most of their European campaigns, culminating in an embarrassing 5-0 defeat by West Germans Werder Bremen in their final European Cup appearance.
Unsurprisingly, with reunification bringing about the demise of the Stasi, and in turn terminating the overwhelming influence of Erich Mielke in BFC’s fortunes, the Wine Reds slid from the limelight. Attempts were made to distance the club from its controversial past, with the club being rebranded FC Berlin in 1991. The rebranded club were readmitted to German football in 1991, and placed in the third tier of the Bundesliga structure, a position which it has never bettered. Since 1992, the club have been languishing in the fourth and fifth tiers of German football. What was once an artificial colossus on the landscape of German football had been reduced to rubble.
However, despite initial attempts to distance the club from its Stasi influenced past, the club continues to have a complicated relationship with its golden era. In 1999, the financially troubled FC Berlin club changed their name back to BFC Dynamo in an attempt to associate the club with success once more, and in turn bringing in a larger fan base. The plan failed to draw enough support for the club to revive its fortunes, and BFC Dynamo was declared bankrupt in 2002. By 2004, the club had been reinstated, and recovered to win the fifth tier Verbandsliga Berlin title in time for the club to cause yet more controversy.
In 2004, the DFB chose to introduce the ‘Verdiente Meistervereine’ star system to honour the most successful teams in Germany since the advent of the Bundesliga in 1956. However, this system only included triumphs in the West German Bundesliga, and not victories in the East German Oberliga. In accordance with this system, BFC would not have the right to emblazon their shirt with three stars to mark their ten tainted triumphs under Stasi rule, which meant that when the club petitioned the league to allow them to display the stars, the DFB did not reply, leading the club’s hierarchy to take matters into their own hands and incorporate them into the club badge.
The issue was soon resolved, with the DFB deciding to recognise Oberliga titles, but the unashamed nature of the BFC protest unsettled many who believed that rather than flaunting their dubious past, the club should be doing more to distance itself from an era of success attained through Stasi terror and bribery. Whatever lies in the future of BFC Dynamo, it is unlikely that the club will ever escape from the lingering shadow of its Stasi-sponsored era of domination, existing only as yet another reminder of Germany’s divided past.
By Simon Cripps. Follow @AI_Football