The German Club Owned by the Secret Police
Standing on the terraces of the rickety Sportforum Hohenschönhausen in the shadow of a former Stasi prison, I feel like I’m at some kind of steroid-fuelled Soviet era sports day. The 12,000-capacity football field-cum-athletics track is the home of BFC Dynamo, who on this fine Berlin evening are taking on local rivals SV Babelsberg 03 in the Regionalliga Nordost – Germany’s fourth tier.
Although now scrapping it out in the lower leagues, prior to reunification BFC Dynamo were a powerhouse of East German football. They won ten consecutive league titles and made regular appearances at the top table of European football. The ‘Beast from the East’ even beat Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest 1-0 away in the 1979-80 European Cup.
However, their unparalleled success was not down to a Pep-ball inspired brand of football, or a Brighton-esque recruitment scheme; it was down to a secret police organisation.
Anyone who has seen The Lives of Others — what a film that is, by the way — has witnessed the invasive role that the ‘Staatssicherheit’ or ‘Stasi’ played in East Germany. The organisation, established by the government in 1950, had unlimited powers to monitor, arrest, and imprison citizens of the former German Democratic Republic as they saw fit.
The Stasi chief Erich Mielke decided that the GDR needed a football team that could compete on the European stage and demonstrate the sporting prowess of the Soviet satellite state. In 1966, Mielke’s vision became reality when Dynamo Dresden were relocated to Berlin in a Wimbledon-MK Dons style relocation.
Mielke and the Stasi used their all-encompassing power to bring the brightest and best names in East German football to the Sportforum. Unsurprisingly, very little negotiation was required.
On the pitch, the Stasi were often accused of bribing match officials. This very much being the ‘pre-VAR era’, scrutiny of referees was non-existent. It later transpired that many referees at the top level of East German football had a side gig as Stasi informants.
At full time, I headed to the former Hohenschönhausen prison which now serves as a memorial to the victims of the GDR-regime to speak to Hendrik Voigtländer, a former inmate and football fan. The east Berliner takes time to tell The Saint about the public attitude towards BFC Dynamo in former East Germany. “Dynamo were an object of hate in the GDR,” recounts Voigtländer. “They were associated with the Stasi which other football fans resented.”
Like many GDR citizens, Voigtländer was arrested in 1988 for attempting to flee the GDR, an act known as ‘Republikflucht’. He was brought to Hohenschönhausen where he endured a brutal nine-hour interrogation. The Stasi had no respect for international laws on the rights of prisoners and prisoners were subject to physical and mental torture. Thirty per-cent of former inmates at Hohenschönhausen have PTSD to this day.
In the years prior to his arrest, Voigtländer “went to watch Hamburger SV away at Dynamo in 1982. The atmosphere at the ground was completely different to matches today. Although you couldn’t see the Stasi presence, it was like everyone was in fear. There was very little chanting or applauding”.
Many east Berliners, a large number of whom like Voigtländer had suffered under the Stasi, took a shine to Union Berlin, Dynamo’s city rivals. “Union stood against the GDR regime, which made them much more attractive to the public than a Stasi club,” says Voigtländer. “Fans would even travel across the border from the west to lend their support to Union.”
Chants of “Ra-Ra-Rasputin, scheiß Dynamo Ost-Berlin” to the tune of Boney M’s 1978 hit were sung from the Union terraces. I feel no translation is required here.
The hatred of BFC Dynamo wasn’t only external. Many of their own fans resented the club’s affiliation with the GDR-regime. In 1983, a group of Dynamo fans unfurled a banner in support of their former player Lutz Eigendorf, who had fled to the west. The fans were subsequently punished by the Stasi.
Following German reunification in 1990, Erich Mielke was thrown into Hohenschönhausen, the very prison which he had commissioned. The same cannot be said for all of the senior figures in the Stasi, many of whom served no punishment for their crimes and reside near the Hohenschönhausen prison to this day.
Along with the Berlin wall, Dynamo’s star came crashing down. They were simply unable to keep up with the more financially stable clubs in the west. Dynamo has been in decline ever since.
There was a dramatic political shift at Dynamo in the years following reunification. “The fans have gone from one political extreme to the other,” Voigtländer explains. “Unlike a lot of clubs in the East of Germany you don’t see any GDR flags at Dynamo Berlin. Many choose to reject the club’s Stasi past. If a known former Stasi officer attended a BFC game, I have no doubt they would be beaten up.”
The club became synonymous with right-wing football hooliganism. A BFC fan was found guilty of beating a French policeman into a coma at the 1998 World Cup.
It would, however, be unfair to tarnish the whole BFC fanbase with the same extremist brush. The club is taking steps to make Dynamo a more inclusive community. There are plans to move to a new ‘family-friendly’ stadium in the Yuppie Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin.
Back in the present, Dynamo romp home to a comfortable 3-0 win against Babelsberg. Eyes are certainly on promotion for ‘Die Weinroten’ (The Clarets) this season. The Dynamo engine is revving back to life.
Images: Ben Bagley and Hendrik Voigtländer