Peering through the Iron Curtain: the Hertha BSC fan who supported his club from East Berlin

Peering through the Iron Curtain: the Hertha BSC fan who supported his club from East Berlin

BERLIN: AUGUST 1961. An already fractious relationship between the Allied powers and the Soviet Union descended into chaos and crisis as the Soviet-controlled government of East Germany erected a makeshift wall along the Oder-Neisse line in order to curb the rate of emigration from the already struggling East Berlin to the West Berlin controlled by the Allies. People were separated from their jobs and businesses, families were torn apart. The Cold War had escalated, and the people of Berlin were on the front line.

For Helmut Klopfleisch, it was the start of a tale of forbidden love. A fan of Hertha Berlin, the city’s most successful club, Klopfleisch, despite being just 13, a born anti-communist, found himself on the Eastern side of the Wall upon its erection. But this was not to stop him from finding ways to follow his beloved Hertha.

Klopfleisch was part of a group of Hertha fans who every second Saturday would stand beside the wall to gauge the team’s performance by the cheers and jeers which emerged from Hertha’s Plumpe Stadion, which lay just a kilometre across the divide. A mass of reinforced concrete may have stood between him and Hertha, but nothing would stop the young Klopfleisch from being at the Plumpe at least in spirit. But what had seemed like a harmless act was tantamount to treason in a city as driven by propaganda as 1960s Berlin. The Stasi took note, and so began a 28-year battle between one football fan and one of history’s most infamous agencies.

An eccentric individual, Klopfleisch did not hide his anti-communist tendencies, and he was well known to the Stasi. His file, constructed by an agent who spied on Klopfleisch’s ‘Little California’ home from the adjacent church, was as thick as a phone book, and most of his offences were football related. Driving all over the Eastern Bloc, Klopfleisch would find out where the Western teams were visiting the East so he could travel and cheer them on, much to the dismay of the East German authorities.

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After embarrassing the authorities by travelling with around a thousand East Germans to Warsaw to cheer on West Germany, Klopfleisch soon gained a reputation for betraying communist principles on his travels. Klopfleisch’s behaviour at a match between Soviet-controlled Bulgaria and West Germany was observed by a Stasi observer in the crowd as causing “significant damage to the international reputation of the GDR”, while in 1985 he was arrested for presenting a toy bear, a symbol of a united Berlin, to Franz Beckenbauer after a match between Czechoslovakia and the West Germans.

As Klopfleisch’s reputation grew among Stasi agents, his situation became increasingly apparent to West German football luminaries. This was helped in no small part by Klopfleisch’s extremely risky habit of meeting Western players after the matches he attended, and he soon became familiar with players, supporters and officials of West German sides. Officials from his beloved Hertha, including “every Hertha manager of the era” would cross the border to pay a visit to Klopfleisch’s illegal ‘Hertha Society’, while a photo album in the Klopfleisch home contains pictures of him with Roger Milla, Franz Beckenbauer, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton.

But with Hertha largely absent from European competition (Klopfleisch only saw his team play once in 28 years behind the wall), the Hertha man felt he needed a team to follow that he could cheer on more often in person. But rather than choose a team from the DDR’s deeply corrupt Oberliga, he instead became infatuated with West Germany’s brilliant Bavarians, Bayern Munich.

With Bayern making visits to East Berlin, Dresden, Magdeburg and Leipzig on their European travels, and Klopfleisch almost ever present, the bond between the club and their supporter became stronger. Klopfleisch, who had once told an appalled school teacher that his favourite player was Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, met a host of Bayern stars, including Beckenbauer, Maier and Kalle himself, who were taken aback by Klopfleisch’s boldness.

Aware of the risk Klopfleisch was taking by following them across the Bloc, Bayern chairman Fritz Scherer took it upon himself to reward Klopfleisch for his loyalty in the face of adversity. Bearing a signed Karl-Heinz Rummenigge shirt addressed to Klopfleisch which he had smuggled into East Berlin under his jacket, the Bayern chairman made his way to Klopfleisch’s flat, before getting undressed in the hallway of Klopfleisch’s flat to give him the shirt he had longed for.

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Before long, Klopfleisch was punished for his constant fraternisation with contacts from the West, and he was banned from attending football matches involving Western teams, his passport confiscated. The impact of this upon the now weary Klopfleisch cannot be underestimated. He felt incarcerated by the regime, deprived of the one activity which made him feel alive. For a man who truly lived for football, who once said that “you felt like you’d got your strength back when you were in the Eastern bloc watching football and could be with the players”, being banished from football was a cruel punishment.

The impact of Klopfleisch’s apparently unpatriotic behaviour branched out beyond the man himself, and soon his family were caught in the crossfire. Klopfleisch’s son Ralf who, according to his father could have become a professional, tore some ligaments in his knee at a military boot camp. Ralf was refused treatment due to his family being “enemies of the state” and would never play football again.

The regime’s callous punishment did not end there. In May 1989, Klopfleisch’s mother lay on her deathbed. Soon after, Klopfleisch was visited by the Stasi and handed an ultimatum. His application to depart the East, made in 1986, had been accepted and his choice was a heart-breaking one. He was to leave now, leaving his mother to die alone, or never. He chose the former, and his mother died just hours later. Soon after, ‘Little California’ was confiscated and gifted to an East German official. Klopfleisch has tried and failed to have the official ousted from the place he had described as a sanctuary away from the overwhelming communist propaganda.

Just six months after Klopfleisch had made the most difficult decision of his life, the Berlin Wall finally fell. Berlin and Germany were united once again. Remembering this period of his life is still painful for Klopfleisch. Now 70, he still bears the wounds from a bruising 28-year battle which led him close to destruction. Asked by Simon Kuper if his frequent altercations with the East German hierarchy were in any way like a football match, Klopfleisch sighs deeply: “A match lasts 90 minutes,” he says, “This one went on forever.”

By Simon Cripps. Follow @AI_Football

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