Get With the Program! – GDR Soccer Programs as Socialist Pedagogy

I’ve amassed a small number of programs from matches involving East German teams over the last number of years. As a fan of the “beautiful game” I naturally gravitated towards this ephemera because of its often attractive design, but a closer examination of these mementos reveals them to be a very good reflection of the state socialist society that produced them.

Program - Stahl Riesa cover

Given the close control exercised by the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) over all aspects of life in the GDR, it comes as no surprise to find numerous manifestations of the Party’s ideology throughout these programs. As I’ve written elsewhere, East German authorities had a conflicted relationship with soccer. On the one hand, it was by far the most popular sport in the country and as such offered an excellent platform for reaching the masses with the state’s ideology. Additionally, soccer’s nature as a team sport in which the skill of the individual was put into the service of the collective good dovetailed nicely with socialist teachings.

The reality of GDR soccer, however, frequently left Party officials exasperated. This started at the elite level where the country’s national and top club teams rarely achieved the level of success that would’ve made them useful to East German leaders as “diplomats in tracksuits”. Furthermore, the country’s domestic league also gave authorities headaches by frequently serving as a catalyst for rowdy behaviour among fans such as street fighting, public drunkenness and vandalism and served to exacerbate regional rivalries and antagonisms between the populace and its ruling Party (for more on this see my earlier post on BFC Dynamo Berlin). These “inadequacies” helped elevate soccer to the status of “Problem” in the eyes of some in Party leadership.

At first glance some of the programs don’t necessary betray their state socialist origins. Others, however, bear hallmarks that make little secret of this provenance. For an example of such a program, have a look at the one above. This design was used by BSG Stahl Riesa (Factory Sport Society Steel Riesa) for their home matches in the 1980s. It depicts the team’s home ground, the “Ernst Grube” Steelworkers’ Stadium, against a backdrop of smoking stacks belonging to the local steelworks which gave the team its name. These images clearly harken back to Soviet design of the Stalin era with its romanticizing of heavy industry, a visual language that enjoyed popularity with GDR authorities throughout the country’s existence.

A couple other good examples of teams using what could be understood as socialist iconography in their programs can be seen below. In the one on the left we see a program produced by the Factory Sport Society of the Schwedt Petrochemical Combine for its team’s 1983 DDR League (2nd division) match versus Energie Cottbus. Here the hometown side has chosen to adorn its program with the city’s two socialist “landmarks”, the Centrum department store and the tower of aforementioned petrochemical refinery. Just so this wasn’t too incongruous, the designer added a soccer ball emerging from the roof of the store. Despite this design flourish, however, I would contend that the emphasis here is more on the achievements of the GDR state and not so much on the match of the day.

The program on the right comes from 1. FC Union Berlin, the “second team” of the East German capital, and features East Berlin’s distinctive television tower (a subject on which I recently posted). For the East German regime and its supporters, this structure was clearly understood as a symbol of socialist technical achievement and East German modernity, so its appearance here could certainly be interpreted in this way. However given that Union was an organization that didn’t tend to cultivate an overly close relationship to GDR authority (for more on this see my post on the club here), it’s more likely that the team’s use of the tower here was to be understood more as an example of East Berliners’ “local patriotism” than an endorsement of the state socialist system.

Controlling the Information Flow

However, it is not just in the images used that the programs betray their socialist roots. Indeed a close examination of all my programs turned up a series of numbers on each one, a code that could be found on virtually any item printed in the GDR which was intended for public consumption. You’ll see an example on the lower right-hand corner of the back page of a Dynamo Dresden program from February 1979. This code indicated that the document had been officially approved, that is, been vetted by a responsible representative of the ruling Socialist Unity Party, and deemed acceptable for popular consumption. This “approval” (or censorship) process was something that had its roots in the immediate aftermath of WW II. At that time both Soviet authorities and their Communist allies in their zone of occupation made establishing control over all surviving printing presses a top priority, recognizing that controlling the flow of information would be key to consolidating their grip on power. This approach remained valid throughout the GDR era until the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.

Here the back page of a Dynamo Dresden program from 1979; note the print approval code in the bottom right corner (photo: author).

Here the back page of a Dynamo Dresden program from 1979; note the print approval code in the bottom right corner (photo: author).

Sport Through The Ideological Lens

After spending a bit of time inspecting the contents of these programs, I have come to the conclusion that the GDR’s founding fathers should’ve called their country the “Workers and Pedants’ State” because flipping through them the paternalistic, ideological nature of East German life is on full view. Most of the time this sort of thing is found in short texts – typically uncredited – found inside the front cover of the programs and which were intended to set the stage for the day’s match. As in programs elsewhere, there is much talk of recent results and current form, but since this is East Germany, a pointed finger and admonishment are frequently not far away either.

The best example of this is found the Stahl Riesa program where, under the headline “Get the monkey of our back!” (Den Bock endlich umstoβen!), the author decries the team’s disappointing  recent play in the wake of the club’s relegation from the top flight the previous season. This development had evidently meant the loss of a number of key players, but the author rejects this turnover as a valid reason for the team’s struggles. Instead, he uses his platform to question the ideological fitness of the team and its trainer:

“[I]t would seem to us [ed. – note the use of the “royal we”, an ambiguous choice that allows one to understand the perspective as being that of the team’s fans or the Party] that ideological problems among the experienced players are the cause. They seem to think that the battle for points in this league will be a walk in the park. In our opinion, the lack of harmony in the team hasn’t just appeared, but rather requires a consistent educational work and training regimen . . . We expect that our experienced players, including first and foremost captain Jens Pfahl, recognize their responsibility in this unsatisfactory situation so that we do not lose further ground but rather slowly work our way back to the top of the table. . . . We expect our collective to appear today as a unit showing a will to win.” (BSG Stahl Riesa match program, September 25, 1988)

Further evidence that East German functionaries saw soccer as an important site in the efforts to shape the so-called “socialist personality” is found on the next page of the same program where a Stahl functionary, Erwin Michalke, delivers a bit of classic, if oblique, Communist “self-criticism”: “I sincerely regret my unsporting, uncontrolled behaviour after the match against BSG Chemie Böhlen on August 17, 1988 and I would like to use this opportunity to offer my apology for this.” Both the fact that no details are given and the statement’s brevity suggest to me that the sentiments expressed by Mr. Michalke may not have been entirely heartfelt, but rather an ‘educational measure” imposed on him and the team by the Party.

The program for 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig’s European Cup October 1981 match against Yugoslav side Velez Mostar provides another example of how soccer was used to propagate the ruling ideology. Here a player profile of Lok’s Stephan Frtizsche lists under his “Goals and Wishes”: “To further consolidate his position within the collective, something that he’s managed very well so far thanks to the considerable support of the collective, in order to contribute to the successful realization of the goals of 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig. A decisive prerequisite for this is the further development of his personal play.” (1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig match program, October 21, 1981) This statement could not better reflect the official SED ideology which preached the constant development of one’s abilities, not to facilitate personal gain, but rather to contribute to the greater good.

However, soccer programs weren’t used only to present players as exemplars of the socialist lifestyle, such as Fritzsche, or rebuke those who failed to live up to these standards, as in the case of Stahl Riesa. Fans too frequently come into the line of sights for their behaviour in the stands. Examples this are found in the pre-match essays found in two programs in my collection. The first is from a program for the February 1979 Oberliga game between Dynamo Dresden and FC Karl-Marx-Stadt. In this, the ubiquitous anonymous author closes his text with the statement: “Our Dynamo team can certainly reckon with the full support of our fans today, but we [ed. – again with the “royal we”] also expect them to respect the decisions of the referees’ collective and the performance of our opposition,” an allusion to Dresden fans’ reputation for having extreme reaction to officials’ decisions that failed to go “their” way (Dynamo Dresden, match program, February 24, 1979).

Similarly, the unnamed author of the opening essay in the match program for a promotion round game of BSG Chemie Leipzig in June 1983 also uses the opportunity to exhort the Chemie’s notoriously partisan and rough hewn fans to good behaviour on the terraces: “Today our opponent will try their best to avenge last week’s loss to us, a task that no one can begrudge them. However, it should go without saying that discipline and decency should be a matter of course in the stands today.” (BSG Chemie Leipzig, June 5, 1983). I’m not making the case here that the calls for peace on the terraces found here are unique elements of the GDR’s state socialist ideology, but there’s no question that these exhortations to order and respect for authority and society reflect central aspects of the SED’s vision for “the better Germany”.

While there was much implicit ideological content in evidence, explicitly political exhortations are not all that common here. Occasionally, however, a slogan makes its way in, much as a banner would’ve found its way into the street scape as one made one’s way around an East German town or city. In the Dynamo Dresden program, a space underneath the league table on page three is used for such purposes with the insertion of the statement “High levels of sporting achievement for the 1980 Olympic Games – Our Contribution to the Allround Strengthening of the GDR”. If you’re struggling to follow the line of argumentation put forth here, it ran something like this: good sporting performances by the athletes of socialist block countries, such as the GDR, demonstrated the superiority of the socialist system and helped establish these countries in the community of nations which increased socialism’s attractiveness to citizens of non-socialist countries, something that would, eventually, lead to socialism in these countries as well. In the GDR, the formula was clear: Sport = Politics.

Program - DD Olympic Exhortation

 The Exception That Proves The Rule

Program - Hansa cover

Not all the programs in my collection are steeped in SED ideology though. One produced by FC Hansa Rostock for its September 1978 match against 1. FC Lok Leipzig manages to steer entirely clear of SED hectoring and keeps the focus on the sporting side of things. The highlight of this program is a nice recollection of Hansa’s 2-1 victory over Inter Milan in November 1969 during the home leg of their 2nd round UEFA Cup draw, a match commemorated in a nice beer glass I have as part of my collection as well.

Post-Wende Programming

If the program I have from FC Karl-Marx-Stadt’s match against Fortschritt (Progress) Bischofswerda from April 28, 1990 is any indication, it didn’t take long for East German soccer clubs to eliminate the ideological ballast from their programs. In fact, the home team’s name, an honorific bestowed upon the city by the SED in May 1953, is about the only notable reference to the older order found here. (Interestingly, no mention is made here of the referendum that had taken place only five days earlier in which residents voted 76% in favour of returning the city’s name to its historical Chemnitz. However, a mere two months later, FCK would change its name to Chemnitzer FC.)

Program - FCK 1990

Instead, the focus is on soccer, but there is much here that reflects the dramatic transition that was taking place in East Germany at the time. One good illustration of the spirit of the age is the section with suggestions from readers as to how the program could be revamped to better serve fans. (Fans’ ideas include printing information on the train schedules to away matches along with maps showing the location of opponents’ stadium as well as profiles of FCK’s fan clubs and the inclusion of colour photos.) Another is a promise by club managers to “respond to the wish of our fans for more direct contact with the soccer club by making ourselves available to meet every two weeks during the season.” (ed. – it would be interesting to know how long the spirit of Glasnost lived on in Ch.) A report on an impending match between the East and West German Referees’ Associations’ national teams in Brandenburg also attests to the coming together of the two Germanies that was happening at the time as does the program’s back cover filled as it is with advertisements from a nascent travel agency and the West German sporting goods maker PUMA (for a clear idea of the sort of change this meant, see below for an ‘advertisment’ for People’s Own Construction Combine Dresden as found in the 1978 Dynamo Dresden program.)


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