Considered a poor cousin to its West German neighbour, with few of its clubs experiencing major success on the international scene, the 52-year history of the East German Oberliga nevertheless yielded some fascinating points of interest. Perhaps, the most notable story involves Dynamo Dresden and Dynamo Berlin, two clubs whose histories are intricately intertwined.
Though these teams had been the leading forces in the Oberliga – from 1975 to 1990 no other team won a league title – both suffered after the dissolution of the league and failed to achieve much of note in the reunified Germany. Thus far, Dresden have managed four seasons in the 1. Bundesliga, from 1991-95, and currently sit in the second tier of the German football pyramid. Berlin had it even worse after reunification, spending most of their time in or around the third or fourth tiers. However, the modern mediocrity of these two clubs belies an absorbing and complex past.
Founded with the intention of providing the city with a club more suited to the left-wing ethos of East Germany’s authorities, Dynamo Dresden – originally known as Volkspolizei Dresden – was essentially an amalgamation of several police-affiliated clubs. The early years of the club made it clear that they possessed some of the finest players in the country, something which was to have an impact on their subsequent history. In 1953, the Dynamo sports society founded by Erich Mielke, East Germany’s Chief of Secret Police (Stasi), assumed control of Volkspolizei and gave the club the name it still bears to this day.
The overall Dynamo organisation was very much based around the model of the Soviet sports society of the same name, also the brainchild of a secret police chief, Felix Dzerzhinsky. Clubs who were part of the Dynamo organisation across the former Eastern bloc countries were always associated with the secret police, and Dresden were no different. Unfortunately for them, however, this was both a blessing and a curse. In 1954, Mielke decided that the capital required a top-class football club and so, effectively, he simply stole Dynamo Dresden’s most talented players. On state instruction, these footballers moved to Berlin in order to take their places at the new Dynamo. Dresden’s football club, like its city’s sky-scape after World War II, was destroyed.
Ravaged by the loss of its players, Dresden dropped divisions rapidly before eventually managing to return to the Oberliga in 1962. Miraculously, the club would go on to once again become part the elite of East German football until the league’s eventual dissolution, in the process developing a fascinating relationship rivalry with their closest competitors in Berlin. Crowd trouble was a common occurrence at matches between the two, with 38 arrests being made at a game in 1978. The Berlin side were the most successful East German club and almost certainly owed their success to the manipulation of the league by the powerful Stasi.
Only when the hold of the secret police was loosened did other teams begin to taste victory, as indicated by Dresden and Hansa Rostock’s successes after ten straight years of Berlin victories from 1979-1988. Dresden gained something of a reputation as the club of the people, enjoying the largest support in the Oberliga, while Berlin’s obvious “assistance” made them unpopular with those opposed to the secret police. As written by Mike Dennis in Behind the Wall: “One [Dynamo Berlin] player complained, after the calamitous loss to Werder Bremen in 1988, that it was dispiriting to play in front of sparse crowds in East Berlin, unlike in Dresden where the atmosphere was much more stimulating.” Dresden’s flagship club seemed to have caught the imagination of its citizens, about which Dennis also notes: “So sensitive were [the Socialist Unity Party] leaders in Dresden to the impact of the team’s performance on the mood of the population that Hans Modrow, the First Secretary of the party’s Regional Executive, received regular Stasi reports on Dynamo Dresden’s games during the 1970s and 1980s.”
Interestingly, few East German teams enjoyed any meaningful success after the amalgamation of the East and West German leagues in 1991, with most of the Oberliga sides finding themselves in the lower reaches of the pyramid. Immediately after league reunification, only Dynamo Dresden and Hansa Rostock were included in the top division of competition, though neither managed to compete at that level on a lasting basis. Dresden’s decline was particularly severe after 1995, their last season in the 1.Bundesliga. Unable to replicate the financial power of the old West German clubs, and struggling with player recruitment, they fell to the fourth tier of German football and have only recently managed to rise above the third tier. Currently they are a mediocre 2.Bundesliga outfit, a far cry from their glory days in the old DDR.
Dresden’s collapse was mirrored in Berlin, where Hertha had always been the team for most of the divided city’s population. Hated by most football fans in the East as a result of their close association with the Stasi, state-media propaganda, and the spectre of match-fixing that surrounded their dominance in the 1980s, Dynamo Berlin could never compete for popularity with Hertha – even before reunification. Unfortunately for Hertha fans east of the wall, the club was located just on the Western side, and became a beacon of hope for many fans who retained their affection for Die Alte Dame despite the enforced separation. Many would often loiter near the wall in order to hear what was happening at the nearby stadium.
Despite the best efforts of the authorities, few ever bought into the notion of supporting Dynamo Berlin, so there was little chance they would maintain their success in the absence of state-sponsorship and malleable refereeing. East Berliners began pouring into Hertha’s Olympiastadion in the years after the wall came down, and Dynamo were left to rot whilst their best players found pastures new, eager to break their association with the old regime. The club were placed in the third tier of German football in 1991, and would never again play at the highest level.