On November 3rd 2019, German striker Sebastian Polter scored from a late penalty to earn a 1-0 victory for FC Union Berlin over their city rivals Hertha Berlin, in the first ever Berlin Derby in the history of Bundesliga. It wasn’t particularly a prestigious regional derby akin to those of Glasgow, Manchester, Milan, or even capital derbies in Madrid and Roma. But it was surely one for the history books, and a gateway to understand German football a little bit more.
Union Berlin hails from small town of Köpenick in southeast Berlin, and is the first ever club from East Berlin to ever play in the Bundesliga. West Berlin club Hertha Berlin currently plays in the Bundesliga for their 7th consecutive season, and is widely regarded as Berlin’s biggest club. But their records and honours are massively underwhelming compared to footballing giants from much smaller cities of Munich, Dortmund, and Leverkusen.
Berlin itself isn’t renowned as a footballing powerhouse, unlike many other capital cities in Europe, but so are many other cities in the eastern part of Germany. In fact, many clubs spend most of their existence in the lower leagues, often with uncertain financial conditions. Union Berlin was only the sixth football club from the former East Germany to ever play in the Bundesliga. The list includes VfB Leipzig and Energie Cottbus, who spent 7 years combined in the top flight; Dynamo Dresden and Hansa Rostock, who were automatically admitted after German reunification; and the best of the bunch, RB Leipzig.
RB Leipzig, shortened from RassenBallsport – not Red Bull – Leipzig, is a unique and controversial case that deserves a different storytelling, hence I won’t go deep into this, but one thing for sure is it resembles something that is completely different than what can be found in the rest of the former East Germany; a clear footballing ambition and direction, with investments to back that up. The rest of the region, meanwhile, reaped minimal success.
This discrepancy is rooted deep into Germany’s war-ridden history, and the complications brought by the separation and reunification of Germany that scrambled the football landscape. Jack Fildew explored this history in his article for These Football Times, tracing back to the end of World War II. The splitting of Germany into West and East was one of the most pivotal moments, but more so what comes after. As both separated states look for ways to show the world that they represent the best Germany, the leaders of the East also sought for legitimacy and diplomatic recognition from the western world using sport as one of the means.
However, it was determined by communist party leaders in East Germany that “the number of medals to be won at the Olympics […] was the most cost-effective way to showcase their socialist system”, as written by Sheldon Anderson in Soccer and the Failure of East German Sports Policy. Football was a distant afterthought as aspiring athletes were trained instead to win gold medals, and not the World Cup. This turn of events had set in motion the road for East German football depraved of success and accomplishments, at least by standards outside East Germany itself.
There was still football being played there, though, and SB Nation’s Kirsten Schlewitz summarised this part of history quite tidily in her article. Come forth the DDR-Oberliga, the East German football league, although it was more of a hegemony than a competition – ironically similar to most European leagues of today albeit with different factors. In this era, clubs formed and backed by German police, characterised by the prefix ‘Dynamo’ that originated in the state-sponsored programme in Soviet Union that ensured fitness in society alongside Communist principles, pretty much ruled everything. Dynamo Dresden enjoyed much early success, but history would remember another, more infamous, ‘Dynamo’ club; Dynamo Berlin.
The punchline? Well it was formed by the head of the East German secret police – or the Stasi – Erich Mielke, who saw the appeal of football as a way to highlight socialist superiority. He basically “invited” every decent-to-good player there was in East German land to play for his club and win him titles, which his team did, for TEN CONSECUTIVE SEASONS. It’s a record that still disgusts many German football fans and was regarded as an accurate depiction of how football was under the socialist rule; lifeless, strict, and controlled by the powers that be.
Of course, Dynamo Berlin’s regional success mainly relied on state backing, so when the Berlin wall fell, not only did it take the Communist rule along with it, but also the success of East German football. Their best players were snatched up by West German clubs, sponsors and investments became scarce, and clubs couldn’t adjust to completely new systems.
The difficulties were staggering, so much so that the effects are still felt to this day. However, something else coexists between all the financial failures and lack of footballing success. In some places, fans find football not only as a competitive sport where people are only driven by the desire to win, but also as means of cultural and political resistance, and subsequently, existence.
“Football was a kind of social movement, which the state could not keep down and became a fluid identity for people that transcended politics.”Jack Fildew, These Football Times
Jack Fildew captured this with a quote from Alan McDougall’s The People’s Game: Football, State and Society in East Germany; “Football, like the Church and popular music, occupied a liminal space between the public and private, where ways of being were not determined by the dictates of the state”. Fildew then summarised it perfectly; “Football was a kind of social movement, which the state could not keep down and became a fluid identity for people that transcended politics.”
As much as the communist rule used football as they wish means to boast socialist superiority and to gain recognition, it alternately was used by fans against that idea, as some sort of resistance. In times of oppression, a sense of identity becomes the desired destination for the people, and football was one of its rare ways.
During the 1950s, in an industrial city of Aue, where football has significant political and economic importance for its people, fans of the local club BSG Wismut Aue – who are also miners – resisted against the planned relocation of the club by threatening to down their tools. The 3,000 protesting miners managed to push back the authority and cancelled the relocation of their prized football club, and signified its importance as a symbol of working-class identity.
In Berlin, during Dynamo Berlin’s supremacy, fans turned their support towards another East Berlin club Union Berlin, as a political statement against the Elf Schweine – ‘eleven pigs’, referring to the Dynamo Berlin’s links to the fascist Stasi. But by no means that Union’s identity was only created out of spite. After the reunification, there was willingness to keep hold of that identity, despite the dire situation revolving the club.
“For most people, Union was all that left”, said Gerald Kalpa, a club official, to The Blizzard. The dire economic effects had hit the locals quite hard, which made the value of football more significant. “Union was a place of retreat” added Kalpa. During Union’s struggle in early 2000s, fans gave blood donations to raise funds for the club. When the stadium was in poor condition, fans gather in their hundreds to do shifts pouring concrete and painting handrails. Simply put, “the terraces of Alte Forsterei (Union’s stadium) were literally built by those who stand on them”. When the club was looking for sponsors in 2011, their tagline was “We are selling our soul, but not to anyone!” The club is truly seen as a fundamental part of their community.
Although Union’s recent success isn’t shared among many other East German clubs, the mood is more or less the same. The city of Magdeburg hosts the only East German club to ever enjoy win a European title, FC Magdeburg. The club has severely plummeted after reunification, but the club still holds a special place for its people. “The club is important for the city of Magdeburg,” says fan Oliver Wiebe. “Particularly in the era when identification is becoming more difficult.”
In Leipzig, before the gentrification brought by corporate giants Red Bull, Lokomotive Leipzig was the team of the city. When times were getting difficult and unemployment was aplenty, many found the empty terraces of their football grounds to be ideal platform to express their increasingly extreme politics, and this is why politically-motivated violence and hooliganism were commonly found in 1990s Leipzig.
But on the other side, many fans still see their relationship with the club as something to be cherished, not feared. “At this club, you feel like you can really be part of something, like you have an influence,” a superfan told The Blizzard. People find home in this club, and what better way to depict this than a celebration of the club’s 50th year anniversary in a cosy beer hall filled with 400 ordinary fans.
Modern football, for the most part, has ambitious perspectives; a club can only be defined by its success, titles, promotions, wins, star players, and TV money. After all, this is what most fans boast about to their rivals. However, although truth may be objective, reality is not. The remnants of past wars and negligence is found in the empty trophy cabinets and bank accounts of East German clubs, but it should not be the only way to define East German football and its fans.
Instead of having a desire for titles, they seek a platform that acts as a representation of who they are, where they’re from, or what they’re about. It’s never wrong to be ambitious, but it’s never right to not have a place where you belong.
“Well if you define culture as being about success, and being about titles, and being about numbers and industry, fuck off. You will have to go to Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund. If you want real football culture, this is the place to be.”Liquit Walker, Union Berlin fan