EVERY GOOD STORY needs a villain, and who would be a more appropriate subject of football fans’ wrath than a team that crushed its competition thanks to the state’s backing? Winning the league championship 10 times in a row is no mean feat, but it looks a lot more sinister when you establish that it was due to the secret police’s backing. That’s exactly what happened in East Germany in the tumultuous decades of the Cold War.
If you were asked to name Berlin’s prestigious football clubs, you’d perhaps struggle to remember the one that has won the most over the years. Yes, Hertha BSC is a Bundesliga recall, and enthusiasts of German football would likely also be able to recall Union Berlin from the second tier. However, the list wouldn’t be complete without looking at the dark underbelly of the city’s footballing history, which is connected to what was known as the Stasi-club in the Cold War era: Berliner FC Dynamo.
That word already carries concerning implications. East German teams related to the army had the word ‘Vorward’ in their name while the word ‘Dynamo’ implied an association with the police – in BFC Dynamo’s case, that meant that the club was essentially run by and for the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic’s secret police.
In fact, their greatest fan was Erich Mielke, the Minister for State Security who was in power for most of East Germany’s existence, holding the position for over three decades until the GDR’s eventual collapse. Evidently, the head of the Stasi would have gallons of figurative blood on his hands, but in his case, it was quite literal: in 1931, he was one of the assassins behind what is known as the Bülowplatz Murders, a political killing of German police officers committed by Communist sympathisers in Berlin.
In the upcoming years, all but one of the members of the hit squad died – one was executed by beheading, another hung himself in his cell to avoid a similar fate. Yet another one was killed in action in Spain as a member of the Second Spanish Republic’s secret police. Two fled to the Soviet Union alongside Mielke, but the others were eventually executed during the Great Purge.
Mielke was, perhaps unsurprisingly, an active participant of it, later returning home in 1945 as a police inspector and eventually becoming the head of the Stasi in 1957. Under his leadership, the organisation employed a staggering 85,000 full-time domestic spies – and that doesn’t even include the 170 000 Inofizieller Mitarbeiter, the civilian informants. Adding just a few football players to this gargantuan roster wasn’t going to break the bank.
Read | Remembering Dynamo Dresden: the fallen giant of East German football
In fact, the foundations were built in 1953 with the foundation of Berlin Sport Club Dynamo, an organisation that was originally made for members of the secret and regular police force but opened up shortly thereafter to the best athletes in the country in a variety of sports from swimming to volleyball. The conditions were great – at least by GDR standards – and the training has, of course, involved heavy doping, often without the players’ knowledge.
In 1954, players of Dynamo Dresden and other local police clubs were forced to move to the Berlin-based side. Unilateral player transfers were the name of the game in a bid to create teams that could potentially rival their Western counterparts for propaganda purposes. “Football success will highlight even more clearly the superiority of our socialist order in the area of sport.” That was Mielke’s dream.
For what it’s worth, he was a genuine fan. There are many pictures of him smiling in the stadium or kicking a ball at the club. He attended most of the games and would host parties in the Palast Hotel to celebrate league wins. He referred to the players as “my boys”. This led to many situations that seem quite amusing in retrospect to the outside observer, like a player with an ankle injury ending up next to the Stasi leader in the stands who kept leaping the air, celebrating his side’s performance. In the end, he decided that it’s safer to keep standing up with him despite the injury throughout the rest of the game, lest he ends up with many other broken bones for not being sufficiently enthusiastic.
The team – Mielke’s in all but name, with him taking up an honorary chairmanship alongside his role at the Stasi – achieved promotion to the DDR-Oberliga in five years, while also managing to win the domestic cup. However, the players poached from Dresden started to age, and the lack of capable replacements meant that they were relegated in 1967. Undeterred, Mielke pressed on, leaning in even harder to produce the greatest football club the world has ever seen. The team was re-established as BFC Dynamo shortly before the drop, and ended up as a new entity that was completely separated from the sports club it was once a part of.
This is where having a powerful mass murderer as your primary cheerleader really showed its benefits. Not only were the best senior and youth players aggressively steered towards Berlin’s hip “new” side, but Mielke exerted considerable pressure on the referees as well. Formerly, Dynamo Dresden was the top dog of East German football, a team that wasn’t quite good enough to crack international competition, losing to Bayern Munich in 1974 and never making it past the quarter-finals of the European Cup. The head of the Stasi wanted something better. Following Dresden’s title win in 1978, the players were told by Mielke that “it was BFC Dynamo’s turn”.
He wasn’t kidding. Between 1979 and 1988, the Berlin-based side won 10 titles in a row, often under controversial circumstances. Apart from the doping, referees were also strong-armed into helping out the Stasi-backed side, allowing blatantly offside goals – with one being so egregious that it was purposefully never shown on television – and giving out penalties for nothing.
Read | FC Fidel: when Cuba joined the German fourth tier
Without a doubt, the most famous example was in 1986, when a BFC striker fell to the ground in the opponent’s box for no reason and he was immediately awarded a spot-kick. “This cannot be happening,” was the earnest reaction of the radio commentator, no doubt echoing the thoughts of many around the country. The event is now known as “the penalty of shame” in German football folklore, and it was so extreme that the referee was actually banned in order to quell the public outcry – though supposedly a later re-examination of the scene indicated that it was, in fact, the correct decision. Whatever the case may be, it’s probably safe to say that sending off a player with a second yellow card for leaving the wall before a free-kick was taken was not correct, and that was exactly what happened earlier in the same match.
Even the German Football Association acknowledges that the team was favoured at the time, writing that “it emerged after the political transition that Dynamo, as the favorite club of Stasi chief Erich Mielke, received many benefits and in some cases mild pressure was applied in its favour”. In fairness, with stories stating that all referees were summoned after a rare BFC defeat and being told that “something like that must not happen anymore”, mild pressure is probably putting it mildly. There’s a reason the team was known as die Schiebemeister – the cheating champions.
Needless to say, they were universally hated by opposition fans – not just because of the events on the pitch, but because of many other privileges as well. Flaunting oranges and bananas on buses was not a way to endear yourself with starving football fans, and there are many stories about the players’ special accommodations angering the general public.
The derbies with Union Berlin – known as the peoples’ club – were extremely tense, with the whole stadium trashed in one of the games; benches were ripped out and hooliganism was rife. There were many jibes, ranging from the cheeky ‘We Welcome BFC Dynamo and Its Referees’ banners unfurled at the club’s away games to the slightly more aggressive “We don’t want no Stasi swine” chants that occasionally led to arrests. The first team was often referred to as ‘Eleven Pigs’ by the opposition fans.
To complicate matters even further, hooligans influenced by the West usually opted to follow Dynamo as an easy method of provocation – not that they were fans of the regime, adopting skinhead fashions in the mid-1980s. As one of them put it: “None of us really knew anything about politics, but to raise your arm in the Hitler salute in front of the People’s Police was a real kick.” Berlin derbies regularly ended with BFC fans chasing their rivals to the Friedrichstraße Station through the streets, which were closed down well in advance, with the police acting as amused bystanders while the brutal scenes unfolded.
As strong as they were domestically, BFC Dynamo never really made a mark on the European scene, where even the Stasi’s long reach couldn’t assist them on the pitch. They made it to the semis in the 1971/72 Cup Winners’ Cup, only to be eliminated by the KGB – sorry, I meant Dynamo Moscow – on penalties. Once they started dominating the East German scene, they became regulars in the European Cup but never really had any success. While the players certainly had some memorable nights at Anfield or in Rome, the Eleven Pigs only made it to the quarter-finals twice and never progressed beyond that stage. The people of Dresden might have had a few chuckles about that.
Read | Bayern Munich, Kurt Landauer and a defiance of the Nazis
Still, former players have many fond memories of the glory days, the privileges and the constant stream of victories. There were a few who managed to get past the close surveillance and chose to defect shortly before an international away match, but most chose to stay. As one of the defenders put it: “I could have left easily, that wouldn’t have been a problem at all, but I was well positioned at home, my family was there, I felt at home in Berlin.” He also added: “I never had the impression we were given any advantages in referee decisions.”
He joined BFC in 1984 and stayed there until 1991. A former teammate of his added: “You can’t manipulate 10 league titles. We had the best team in terms of skill, fitness and mentality. We had exceptional players.” History would probably beg to differ, at least to some extent.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former Schiebemeister followed a trajectory that was similar to other East German clubs: a rapid abandonment of symbols connecting it to the GDR era, with most of them changing their name and crest. Mielke was in no position to assist his pet club any longer; he was imprisoned at the end of 1989 for embezzlement, and, in 1992, he was finally put on trial for the Bülowplatz Murders. Even in prison, it was his firm opinion that “if the party had given me the task, then there would perhaps still be a German Democratic Republic today. On that you can rely.” He was released in 1995, at the age of 87, likely suffering from dementia.
Five years later he passed away, but unlike he and the GDR, his favourite team is still around. BFC Dynamo turned into FC Berlin for a while, but like many other ex-GDR teams, they eventually realised there was more to be gained by relying on the fan recognition and they subsequently returned to their original name and imagery. It was easier said than done in their case: they didn’t copyright their old crest, and the alternative options never captured the fan base’s imagination. Filing for insolvency in 2001 also didn’t help matters.
The crest’s 2009 version attracted a lot of controversy with lettering that reminded people of the SS, which could have been construed as an attempt to curry favour with the far-right groups still supporting the club. The team is currently in the fourth tier – a far cry from those tainted glory days.
In 2004, the German Football Association introduced a system allowing clubs to emblazon their shirts with commemorative stars depending on the number of titles won in their history. When BFC Dynamo initially petitioned the association, they received no reply. Originally, the system was going to exclude East German titles, but they eventually recognised those as well, meaning the shining stars of those 10 straight league titles are going to be there for everyone to see until the end of time, no matter the questionable circumstances that led to their acquisition. In a twisted bout of fate, this will be Erich Mielke’s longest-standing legacy.