The East German curse: how footballing reunification failed

The East German curse: how footballing reunification failed

When RB Leipzig were promoted to the Bundesliga in 2016 they were only the fifth club from the former East Germany to grace the Bundesliga, and the first since 2009. Of those five East German clubs, two were automatically admitted upon reunification – Dynamo Dresden and Hansa Rostock – whilst the other two, VfB Leipzig and Energie Cottbus, have spent just seven years in Germany’s top flight between them.

In addition to the lack of representation in the Bundesliga by former East German club sides, there is also a lack of East German player representation at senior level too. In Germany’s World Cups squads in 2010 and 2014, only one of the 23 members had been born in what was East Germany – Greifswald’s Toni Kroos – despite former territory accounting for over 15 percent of Germany’s entire population.

These discrepancies indicate at least some kind of a failure of footballing integration since German reunification in 1991, but why? There are a host of possible answers to this perplexing question: unresolved socio-cultural issues, serious political failures, a lack of national sporting identity. The genesis of this question, however, stretches back to the days and years in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.


A brave new world


With the culmination of World War Two came the division of Germany into western zones of occupation – split between the UK, France and US – and an eastern zone – controlled by the Soviets – where the idea of a single national football league was quickly dismissed. Immediately after its creation, the GDR was left drastically isolated. With the splitting of Germany into East and West, both sides had attempted to claim that they were the legitimate representatives of a new Germany, however, according to Sheldon Anderson in Soccer and the Failure of East German Sports Policy, “the task was more difficult for the GDR, which was recognized by the Soviet Union and its satellites and allies, but few other countries.”

As a result, the two sides entered into a race to create a new German national identity. Even though they had been constituent parts of the same whole prior to 1945, East and West had very little in common. In her book detailing the history of Berlin, Faust’s Metropolis, Alexandra Richie makes the point that Berliners often felt themselves to be more Russian than German, there they were understood, in their own country they were strangers, and this was the feeling for much of East Germany. It is in this context that sport in East Germany took on a new importance: “Sport was a means for the GDR to gain diplomatic recognition from the West, which was the dominant political issue for West German-East German relations in the 1950s and 1960s,” says Sheldon Anderson.

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Despite this, football was not popular amongst party leaders in Communist Germany. Whilst they found many of the founding principles of football to be in line with their own ethics – the collective spirit of the game, the teamwork required – football did not provide enough prestige or political clout to the nation’s communist leaders. Instead, ‘success’ sports which were internationally renowned and in which they could be suitably compared to West Germany were pursued, most significantly those in the Olympic games.

“In 1969 the Socialist Unity Party of Germany decided that the number of medals to be won at the Olympics and other international championships was the most cost-effective way to showcase their socialist system, especially in comparison to West Germany. The medal count would be an objective measure of the two systems.” Sheldon Anderson

And so this would prove to be the case with impressive Olympic medal hauls in comparison to their western competitors, although to the severe detriment of football. The GDR diverted youngsters’ affection for football towards other sports in which multiple medals at the Olympics could be won, such as swimming and rowing, and not at a small scale but on a massive level. Why are there no tall players in East German football teams, a West German reporter once asked a coach from the GDR. His response? “Because they’re all rowers.”

The neglect of football in the early years of the GDR was a mistake on a political, social and sporting level. West Germany went on to heroically beat the Magnificent Magyar’ of Hungary in the 1954 World Cup final, a competition that East Germany did not even enter, and thus their own fans were prompted to cheer on their old compatriots. This betrayal was duly scribbled down in the notebooks of the State’s secret police, the Stasi.

As well as support from East German’s for the West German national team, there was also a thriving hatred of some of the clubs in their own regions, particularly those with the Dynamo name. The Dynamo prefix had been created in the Soviet Union and was a state-sponsored programme that ensured fitness in society alongside Communist principles. Even today the name is synonymous in football, and indeed almost every former Soviet bloc country has their own Dynamo team: Moscow, Sofia, Zagreb, Berlin, Kyiv, Minsk.

Berlin’s Dynamo team, Berliner FC Dynamo, were regarded as Stasi-schweine and the “least loved club in Europe” according to Simon Kuper in Soccer Against The Enemy, whilst in a political statement, fans flocked to their city rivals FC Union Berlin. BFC Dynamo’s success added to fans’ hatred of them, with their Stasi links propelling them to 10 consecutive but controversial Oberliga championships between 1979 and 1988. This record still stands today, but it’s an achievement that in the eyes of most symbolises the haunting aspects of East German rule.




Despite football being sidelined from the GDR elite in favour of sports that would generate success in the Olympics, passion for the sport did grow. In fact, by the 1980s, football was sweeping the East, and so rather than working against this, the powers that be in the GDR decided to make the best of the situation and incorporate it. According to Alan McDougall in The People’s Game: Football, State and Society in East Germany, in the years of East German isolation, “Football, like the Church and popular music, occupied a liminal space between the public and private, where ways of being were not determined solely, or even primarily by the dictates of the state.”

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Football was a kind of social movement, which the state could not keep down and became a fluid identity for people that transcended politics and became something that simply was. Communist countries had long seen sport as an integral part in creating a national identity, and they were right, although football did not create the national identity they wanted.

Whilst West German football had long been heralded as more successful than its Eastern opposition, this was not always the case, as the 1974 World Cup proved. The tournament, which was symbolically held in West Germany, included East Germany in their only ever finals appearance. In the only competitive meeting between the two nations, which took place in the group stages, there was a remarkable 1-0 victory for the East German side, played in a partisan atmosphere in Hamburg. This victory, however, papered over cracks.

Despite there being no more ties between the two national sides, the club teams of the respective leagues did meet in European competition, although not until the 1973/74 season, when the West German champions Bayern Munich met the champions of the East, Dynamo Dresden. It was the battle for the true German champion. While the game in Munich was not quite a sell-out, the return leg in Dresden saw a request for over 300,000 tickets. In a clash of the German titans, Bayern ran out 7-6 aggregate winners. Finally, Germany had its true champion.

In fact, after this first game between the two nations, the match-ups became a more regular occurrence, and some incredible games came up as a result, not least the Miracle of the Grotenburg and the Miracle from Uerdingen. The latter contained a comeback in the most remarkable sense. The game, which was a Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final saw Bayer Uerdingen of the West face off against Dynamo Dresden.

In the first game, Uerdingen peeked behind the Iron Curtain, which was defiantly swung shut, Dresden running out 2-0 winners. The trend was copied in the return leg, when at half-time Dresden led 3-1 on the night and 5-1 on aggregate. Then it all changed, with the gods of football looking down on the West that night. Uerdingen scored six unanswered goals in the last 45 minutes of the tie, winning the game 7-3 and the tie 7-5.

Besides the remarkable result is the equally remarkable story of Frank Lippman. As the Dresden team awoke the morning after the embarrassing defeat, it emerged that Lippman, their star player, was missing from the team hotel. As angry officials eventually found out, he had fled overnight to the West, committing the treasonous act of Republikflucht. On review of the highlights of the game, he could be seen celebrating Uerdingen’s second goal. In 1981 the Stasi found Lippman and attempted to hire him as an informer in the West, however he flatly refused, living the rest of his injury-plagued career in West Germany. He became another famed story in the GDR’s relationship with escapology.

In a trend that was followed, East German sides became adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Between 1973 and 1991, there were 17 European double-legged ties between East and West German sides. Out of these 17, 12 of them were won by West German clubs, and all four between the two in the most prestigious European Cup were dominated by West Germany, and so an inherent feeling of inferiority was set in these conquered and befallen East German clubs. The clubs of East Germany were always the underdog, the awkward family member at a wedding. They were booed when they won and cheered when they lost.


The shirts


The negativity surrounding East German sides impacted on the players too. Some of the stories that are told by former East German players are intriguing and provide another layer to the footballing failure of reunification. Bayern Munich’s Sporting Director Matthias Sammer, for example, spoke of the struggles he faced as a young and promising footballer.

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As the goal-getter for a thriving Dynamo Dresden, Sammer was frequently displaying his characteristic flair and individualism. With the side doing well, all the players were treated to new boots from state officials, although the undisputed star of the team had a few problems with his. Sammer explains: “One day the entire squad was awarded with new boots; mine were the only ones that did not fit, being three sizes too large. It is not a secret that it was a form of harassment, as individualism was not tolerated.”

Football was permitted, but only for a purpose. As East German Minister of Sport Manfred Ewald stated: “Sport is not private amusement, it is social and patriotic education.” Even in the late 1980s, children were allowed to play football but predominantly only for educational purposes, not merely for enjoyment.

Whilst being a footballer in the GDR was vastly different from being a footballer in West Germany, it wasn’t all bad. East German footballers were actually reimbursed relatively well. For most East Germans, the average monthly wage was between 800-1,100DDM per month, whilst footballers comfortably received at least 4,000 per month. This ‘overspend’ was not easy for some to stomach, as Alan McDougall states: “To the very end, the DFV grappled with the contradiction between the desire to make GDR football competitive – one 1964 report noted the correlation between paying players well and international success – and socialist distaste for spendthrift excess on a sport that brought more trouble than rewards.”

However, as is the case today, the economics of football proves a law only unto itself, which even the dictatorial communist regime couldn’t keep a cap on. The interference of the state in footballers’ lives was extensive. The aforementioned Lippman, after his escape to the West, got off lucky when the Stasi effectively let him be. The case of Lutz Eigendorf, however, was something else.

In 1979 after a friendly between BFC Dynamo and West German side Kaiserslautern, the coach carrying the Berlin team stopped at a petrol station to top up with fuel. During the stop, Eigendorf got off the bus and into a taxi, which quickly sped off towards the western border, rather foolishly leaving behind not only his team but also his wife and child in East Berlin. Such defections were by no means uncommon, however this particular defection was particularly embarrassing as Eigendorf was one of the best players in the East and played for the Stasi-sponsored Dynamo team.

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Four years after his defection, Eigendorf was driving back from a party at which he had just had a couple of beers, before a truck turned on its beams, blinding Eigendorf and forcing his car into a tree. He died of his injuries a few days later in hospital, where blood samples show he was way over the limit, which according to many at the party simply was not possible, and the case has been treated as suspicious ever since, with common logic and historical research all leading to the likely fact that the Stasi organised the incident. The death of Eigendorf was a reminder to all that football to the communists was, quite literally, a matter of life and death.


Contemporary failures


Eight years after the death of Eigendorf, the wall had come down and the country was unified. As East Germans acclimatised themselves with their new lives, football was joined together again. Gone were the pressures placed on East German footballers to work within the constraints placed on them by the communist system, and gone was the unquenchable pressure put on them to succeed.

Despite their reluctant inclusion, West Germany has clearly failed to integrate these East German players and clubs into their existing system. The stark reality is that after the Soviet Union fell, their satellite states and republics, including the GDR, were left facing stark financial inequalities, which in the context of football meant that the East German clubs were left way behind.

As well as this is the basic fact that footballers in the East had been taught, effectively, a different game, where showmanship was prohibited and team togetherness was demanded, even if at the detriment to the ultimate result. The most successful clubs in the East, who no longer had their Stasi backers, found that playing on an even keel was too much, and simply fell away.

Berliner FC Dynamo now play their football in Germany’s regional leagues, and whilst there is a resurgence in Leipzig, this has happened under controversial circumstances. Germany has undoubtedly overseen a footballing failure since reunification, the reasons for which are many, however there may be a future for East German clubs.

The team which the brave opponents of the Stasi flocked to, Union Berlin, experienced a resurgence last year in the 2. Bundesliga, and have gotten there by the fans’ determination, dedication and passion. Facing a shortfall of cash, fans donated blood in the city’s local blood banks, giving the money to their cash-strapped club, literally bleeding for the cause. When the stadium was forced into renovations in order to fulfil the criteria’s for promotion, the fans of the club were the ones who lifted the stones, built the stands, physically moulding the stadium in their image.

If they are to one day succeed and ply their trade in Germany’s top flight, maybe there’s light at the end of the tunnel for East German football after all. And maybe, just maybe, the Ost will rise again.

By Jack Fildew @jackfildew

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