Dominic Brown reviews a book on soccer under the Stasi infused communist regime of the German Democratic Republic. Dominic Brown lives in Glasgow and works in education.
One of the great things about football is that it allows different societies to be compared. The rules of the game are the same everywhere, so differences between different countries’ football cultures often provide insight into the societies themselves. In this context, Alan McDougall’s The People's Game: Football, State and Society in East Germany traces important strands in the country’s history, from the idealism of the late 1940s through the disillusion of subsequent decades to the collapse of 1989/90. The GDR regularly boasted the highest living standards in eastern Europe, but thousands risked their lives to leave; between 1950 and 1990, the country’s population fell by 12%. However, much recent scholarship shows that, contrary to perceptions, the Communist Party (SED) was never completely in control; and football, as in Franco’s Spain, was identified by both rulers and ruled as a space where identities and influence could be contested.
Post-1945, clubs were reconstituted in an attempt to cover all traces of their pre-war bourgeois nature. In the brave new world, sports clubs would come under the auspices of state-owned companies, engendering (it was hoped) supporter identification with these bodies, which included the police and army. East German athletes would succeed at the highest international level, proving their system’s superiority and fostering patriotism. Recreational sport would promote health and allow workers to exchange workplace experiences socially after games, thus improving productiveness. Crossroads would no doubt witness dancing by comely maidens.
But football proved recalcitrant. To suit the wider political agenda, clubs could be forcibly relocated in mid-season, but traditional supporter identities were resistant to state diktat; meanwhile, the egoism of industrial leaders in foregrounding their own clubs led to tensions with centralised priorities. Unlike the GDR’s considerable Olympic success, East German football very rarely scaled the heights.
Not least among reasons for this were the temptations of professional football in West Germany, which led the SED to distrust top footballers much more than other leading athletes. Savvy clubs across the border arranged shopping trips for dazzled East German players before UEFA games, hardly ideal preparation for the planned-economy visitors. At recreational level, local pride led to unbalanced competition and allegations of cheating. This flew in face of state interest in the sport. Football didn’t easily fit the system’s mould; an incongruence which led to its importance as a space where the dictatorship’s limits were reached. The rule that players (with their nominally amateur athletic status) must be paid according to their vocational qualifications was widely ignored, and enforced only on small clubs. In theory, all transfers had to be organised centrally; the state controlled the mechanism of exchange. Big clubs, predictably, ignored this. The system might be nominally communist, but won’t individuals always buy and sell in pursuit of their own interests?
Particularly striking, in terms of the state’s limits, is the case of Dynamo Berlin, whose ten-in-a-row league championships (1979-1988) were underwritten by a conveyor belt of biased officials. Partisan refereeing, apparent to all who could be arsed switching over from widely available West German TV, was rarely criticised by commentators. Both pundits and referees, after all, were necessarily members of the SED, and Dynamo were sponsored by the police, a state department which included the Stasi.
None of this is particularly surprising. However, what’s fascinating is that the state actually didn’t want Dynamo to win all the time; a one-horse race discredited the country internationally, fomented anti-Berlin sentiment, and made the state (who, of course, ran the football association) look crooked. The establishment, in fact, attempted to stop Dynamo’s winning streak, suspending referees who had helped the club in crucial games including the 1985 cup final. Such sanctions deprived the referees of the rare privilege of foreign travel, and yet so pervasive was the internalised fear of the Stasi that the dodgy decisions continued almost until the end of the GDR in 1990. In effect, the people were so intimidated that the state was unable to act in its own interest.
Reactions to the club’s domination provide a rare GDR example of public opinion. McDougall comments that “no other collective cause in the 1980s - certainly not in the church, peace or environmental movements - was as public, popular [or] united” as the movement against Dynamo Berlin, which served as a space where dissident sentiment could be articulated. The campaign made effective use of written petitions to government, a tradition used by the authorities to gauge public sentiment, and to make concessions on relatively unimportant matters. Nevertheless, the unwillingness of referees to go against their (incorrect) perceptions of the state’s agenda is reflective of the climate of fear in which it was widely believed that one in four of the population was an informer. (The true figure, apparent only after the system’s fall, was closer to one in a hundred.)
Also apparent were the limitations of the state in fostering a specific East German identity. The GDR’s victory over West Germany in the group stage of the 1974 World Cup gave the comrades a buzz, but failed to make many converts to the cause of communism’s superiority; most East Germans cheered again when West Germany became world champions two weeks later. Many also supported West German clubs; a thousand East Germans, genuine fans all, followed Bayern Munich to Czechoslovakia in 1981, compared with a mere 70 from the Federal Republic. With a precision that possibly says more than the statistics themselves, the Stasi estimated that 204 out of 1303 East Germans who travelled to the 1971 Poland/West Germany game “openly” supported the decadent bourgeois capitalists.
The highbrow cultural tastes of SED leaders often didn’t include football, and a low proportion of party members were actually workers. As with youth in many western countries, increased cash and leisure time were accompanied by disdain for the older generation’s values, and the 1970s and 80s saw disturbances around football. Not surprisingly, fan unrest was blamed on the “class enemy” but in fact those convicted were mainly workers.
With the withering of the state (although not in the manner envisaged by Marx) in the 1980s, parallels can be observed between (on the one hand) the emergence of peace, environmental and religious groups, and on the other, independent player-organised leagues and unofficial fan clubs (many named in English, a language with subversive undertones). Football allowed spaces for differentiation of identities, both from the state and from fellow citizen-workers, creating tensions with the “we’re all in this together” ethos. Petitions in the 1980s complaining of the poor national team can be read as a metaphor for frustration at the sclerotic state of the nation, and as indicative of the awe in which the state’s inflated power was held.
The path taken by football since 1989 underlines that Germany experienced not reunification, but absorption of east by west. Despite having a fifth of the combined population, only two teams from the former GDR were allowed into the twenty-strong Bundesliga for the first season after the wall came down (1991-92). Most of the former top teams are now genuinely amateurs, including FC Magdeburg (the only GDR club to win a UEFA trophy), while Dynamo Berlin play in a local league. Grassroots football was thrown to the free market wolves in the 1990s; participation rates in the former west outnumbered those in the east by four to one in the 1990s, as people had more pressing concerns acclimatising to the new system. Petitions for funding to the new all-German government were ignored; such petitions had often been successful in GDR days. Nevertheless, as if to symbolise the triumph of the individual over the collective, three of the German team which reached the 2002 World Cup final had been born in the GDR, just as the personal fortunes of many have risen as the ex-GDR society declines. Ostalgie (nostalgia for the old East) is often viewed as misplaced; in the context of football, however, the quality really was better in the old days.
Alan McDougall, 2014. The People's Game: Football, State and Society in East Germany. Cambridge University Press. ASIN: B00QAV850A