A “Schur” Thing: The GDR’s First Homegrown Hero

Täve Schur: Sporting Hero

Born in 1931, Täve Schur entered adulthood just as the GDR came into existence in 1949 and in many ways he embodies the so-called Aufbau Generation (Construction Generation), that cohort of East Germans who, having experienced the horrors of World War II as children, strongly identified with the socialist regime’s official ideology which placed anti-fascism and peace at its centre. Under the new social order, capable members of this generation – young enough to be untarnished by collaboration with the Nazis – often found themselves thrust into positions typically reserved for their elders; many, like Schur, responded to these promotions by pledging loyalty to socialist ideals and East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED).

Front page of SED organ, Neues Deutschland on May 22, 1955. Photo from state banquet in Schur’s honour. Caption read: “Täve Schur thanks Walter Ulbricht, the great patron of sport.” (pg. 1, Neues Deutschland, May 22, 1955)

Täve Schur was a rather unlikely sporting star. He came to cycling late, at age 18, discovered during his daily 6-km commute to his apprenticeship in a small town outside of Magdeburg. He quickly made good on his considerable promise and demonstrated a commitment to the grind necessary to forge a successful road racer.

After several years earning notice on the GDR cycling scene, Schur’s first major success came as a member of the East German team which won the 1953 Friedensfahrt (Peace Race), a multi-stage road race which travelled through Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. Widely seen as the East Bloc’s answer to the Tour de France, this race had a high profile in the socialist bloc, and his first title as the race’s top individual rider in 1955 raised his profile considerably within the GDR (Schur would win the individual title once again in 1959; he won further team titles in this race in 1957, 1960 and 1963). Internationally, it was Schur’s two Olympic medals as a member of the United German team at the 1956 and 1960 Games along with his back-to-back wins at the 1958 and 1959 World Road Race Championships that established him as an elite-level sporting figure.

Scenes from the 1959 Peace Race’s riders in Karl-Marx-Stadt

Impressive though these achievements were, it was not one of his many victories that cemented Schur’s place atop the pantheon of GDR sporting heroes. Rather it was events at the 1960 World Road Racing Championships that sealed his status as the country’s undisputed number one sporting hero.

In 1960, the GDR remained largely isolated diplomatically. Athletics were one way the few ways which the country could assert itself on the international stage, so East Germany’s lobbying to host the World Road Racing Championships was particularly intense. When the GDR got the nod to host this high-profile event, it was a real coup for the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). The potential icing on what was already a very big cake was the possibility that the event might end with the East German racer Schur defending his world champion for the third time running.

GDR Post stamp featuring Täve Schur marking the 1960 World Road Racing Championships

This keen interest on the part of GDR authorities did not go unnoticed by Schur and his fellow riders in the East German road race team and the pressure them to perform to expectations was immense. To help its star on his way, the East German team designated a teammate, Bernhard Eckstein, to assist Schur in his title defence. Eckstein was to set the pace for Schur and, if necessary, “protect” him by impeding opposing cyclists.

On race day, Schur and Eckstein initially fell behind the lead pack, before closing the gap over the last laps until only a Belgian competitor stood between the reigning champion and victory. As the finish line neared, the Belgian fell in behind Schur, assuming that East German strategy was to manoeuvre him into position to win the race. So when Eckstein broke away from the other two racers, the Belgian ignored him, choosing instead to stay in Schur’s slip stream and wait for him to make his move.

Recognizing his opponent’s attention was focused solely on him, however, Schur stayed put and let Eckstein stretch out his lead. By the time the Belgian realized that Schur was putting his teammate’s success ahead of his own, it was too late and the Eckstein cruised to victory. Schur then added insult to injury by nipping out the Belgian in the sprint to the finish line so that the GDR finished 1-2 in the race. (Account based on post on Cycling4Fans.de, https://www.cycling4fans.de/informatives/rund-um-rennen/legendaere-rennen/strassen-wm-1960-amateure/) It may not have gone according to plan, but Schur’s decision to put his team’s success ahead of his own resonated deeply with his many East German fans and dovetailed perfectly with SED propaganda which preferred to emphasize the collective over the individual.

Schur himself has stated that it was these “wins” which were the most important of his career: “These titles are the highest honour of all, and I want to emphasize this. To be recognized, acknowledged by the people, the fans, there is nothing greater for any athlete. I remember the first time I won the World Championships (ed. 1958), I stood on the stage there in Reims, France and I teared up looking into the cameras because I knew that back at home there were millions watching me, standing with me.” (Interview with WDR Radio, Erlebte Geschichte, July 7, 2007, accessed online on January 31, 2020: https://www1.wdr.de/radio/wdr5/sendungen/erlebtegeschichten/schurtaeve100.html)

It is hard to overstate the resonance which Schur enjoyed amongst the GDR population. During the peak of his career, 1953-1961, he won the public vote for Male GDR Athlete of the Year nine years in a row. In 1989, 25 years after the end of his active athletic career, the memory of Schur and his achievements remained so strong that he won a vote for Greatest GDR Athlete of All Time taking nearly half the votes cast. (From Gustav-Adolf Schur – der Star und das Kollektiv by Klaus Ulrich Huhn in Zeiten für Helden – Zeiten für Berühmtheiten im Sport (Eds. Arnd Krüger, Swantje Scharenberg; Lit, Münster 2014).

Täve Schur: Role Model and Apparatchik

Party propagandists came to realize what they had in Täve Schur and as his sporting successes mounted, so too did the SED’s efforts to link them and him to the new state. In the wake of his triumphs, Schur was stylized a particularly socialist kind of sporting hero, his personal achievements lauded but often in the context of his team’s success. To capitalize on interest in Täve, several books were commissioned to tell his story. 1959’s Unser Weltmeister (Our World Champion) illustrates how authorities worked to connect the socialist regime to Schur himself: “Täve is a son of his time, a son of the German Democratic Republic.” (Klaus Ulrich, Unser Weltmeister, 1959, pg. 8)

Importantly, Schur was fine with this portrayal, identifying as he did with the GDR and its leading Party, the SED. In 1958, he offered some insight into his understanding of the appropriate relationship of high-performance athletes to the ruling party: “It is important for us elite athletes to be members of the Party and not stand on the sideline so that people aren’t sure if we understand what is at stake here and now. I am of the opinion that when an athlete wears the SED emblem on his lapel, it is a clear sign that he supports the goals of the Party. And when that athlete wins, it is a double victory: for the athlete and for the Party.” (Neues Deutschland, July 25, 1958, pg. **)

“Exemplary Collective Rewarded”: Täve Schur – “We support the peace policies of the GDR government”,
pg. 1 Neues Deutschland, May 19, 1957

Logically then, Schur had no issue allowing his sporting success to be instrumentalised by the SED, and a scanning of the East German press during the peak years of his career finds a number of examples of how the Party used his high profile to buttress their political aims. A good example is Schur’s speech at a public event to honour the GDR team which took first place in the 1957 Friedensfahrt. Speaking to an East Berlin crowd which included SED leader Walter Ulbricht, Schur played the role of loyal GDR citizen to perfection: “We consider this honour to be yet further proof of the great care and support which the GDR government and SED provide sport in our country.” According to front page report on the event in Neues Deutschland, Schur then turned his attentions to geopolitical concerns calling on “everyone to stand up against West German-NATO politicians and to do all we can to prevent an atomic war” before closing his remarks by stumping for the government slate of candidates in an upcoming election: “[Our team] always work to strengthen and consolidate Worker and Peasant power in our Republic. In this spirit, we will be among the first to cast our votes for the candidates of the National Front on June 23rd as a sign of our support for the policies of our government.” (Neues Deutschland, May 19, 1957, pg. 1)

Schur’s vocal and unwavering support for the socialist project clearly left a good impression on authorities and he was recruited to assume roles within the GDR Apparat. His first high-profile position came in 1957 when, at the height of his sporting career, he was elected to the national board of the German Gymnastics and Sports Federation (DTSB). A four-million strong organization, the DTSB oversaw all sporting activity in the GDR. With its primary focus on mass and amateur sport, the DTSB’s mandate areas dovetailed perfectly with Schur’s passion and from 1971 to 1990, he was second in charge of the DTSB’s Magdeburg office where he oversaw Propaganda, Culture and International Relations.

Schur at work in the Volkskammer during a December 1987 session of the GDR parliament.
(Photo: Peter Zimmermann, Bundesarchiv Bild 18301987-1218-026)

The next year the Free German Youth (FDJ), the GDR’s Youth Organization, capitalize on Schur’s good-standing among the country’s young people by including him in their slate of nominees for seats in the Volkskammer (People’s Chamber), East Germany’s rubber stamp parliament. Schur would go on to hold that seat in parliament until to March 1990, when East Germany held its first, and only, free and fair elections.

Schur’s good standing within the Party and as loyal supporter of the GDR system is confirmed by his having received the GDR’s Patriotic Order of Merit (Vaterländischer Verdienstorden) in all three classes: bronze (1957), silver (1959) and gold (1960), along with this award’s highest level Honour Clasp in 1969.

When asked in 2007, how he felt about these honours these many years later, Schur refused to diminish the awards, remarking, “Whenever I received such recognition, I always compared myself to the other recipients, working people from the shop floor who had been successful, had families, and all this despite the hurdles they faced. To be among such people, and then, as an athlete, receive the Order in Gold. It was such an honour for me and it came with such responsibility.” (WDR Radio, Erlebte Geschichte)

Täve Schur & The Wende: Bloodied But Unbowed

Like many of his generation who closely identified with the socialist project and who had spent their entire adult lives in the GDR, the Wende and reunification did not necessarily lead to a repudiation of East Germany’s real-existing socialist system. Indeed, Schur remained a vocal defender of the GDR after unification, but like so many other of his compatriots, he spent the 1990s trying to find his feet in the new economic realities of social market capitalism, working with two of his sons to start a bicycle store and small hotel.

In 1998, Schur returned to the public spotlight when was recruited by the SED successor party, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) to run in elections for the German national parliament, the Bundestag. PDS leader Gregor Gysi explained that Schur had been recruited because he “is a symbol , on the one hand, of the fact that there were upstanding and successful people in the GDR. One the other hand, he is proof that not all eastern Germans simply stuck their head in the sand after the Wende.” Another Party leader gave a more prosaic, but no less telling, justification: Schur, he stated is our “Super-Ossi”. (Alexander Osang, “Ein brauchbarer Held”, Berliner Zeitung, April 4, 1998, accessed on January 1, 2021 via https://silo.tips/download/ein-brauchbarer-held)

“More paper than in the Volkskammer”: Täve Schur on the difference between parliamentary work in the two Germanies; here in the Plenary Hall of the Bundestag, Bonn (Super Illu, April 8, 1999)

Reading between the lines, it’s clear that the PDS’ decision to reactivate Schur came from their reading of the changes in the social and political climate in the former East. Where the first years of unification saw a wholesale rejection of any and all associated with the GDR, the late 90s saw many eastern Germans asserting the view that their their GDR past had value and was not simply to be disposed of into the dustbin of history. In this new context, the PDS calculated that someone like Schur , a vocal defender of the Workers and Peasants State, might – once again – be useful to the Party as a figure of identification to mobilize popular support.

The gambit appears to have worked. While Schur didn’t win direct election to parliament (he finished second to a Social Democratic with a very respectable 26.1% of the vote), he was high enough on the PDS list to gain a seat in the Bundestag. However, he would serve only one term and Party bosses blocked him from running again in 2002, a move which apparently left Schur, nothing if not a loyal party soldier, deeply hurt. (WDR Radio Erlebte Geschichte).

(Interestingly, in researching for this piece, I read that Schur’s decision to re-enter politics was motivated not only by a desire to reactivate his political life, but also by his family’s finances; his son’s hotel had failed and the bank was threatening to take the family home which had been used as collateral. In these struggles, Schur was in a predicament that faced many of his fellow eastern German at the time. (“Ex-Radprofi Täve Schur: Ein Zeugnis über das untergegangene Land”, sportbuzzer.de, accessed on January 1, 2021 via https://www.sportbuzzer.de/artikel/ex-radprofi-tave-schur-ein-zeugnis-uber-das-untergegangene-land/))

Täve and Me

“With best wishes, Täve Schur, March 19, 1999”

While living in Leipzig in 1999, I encountered Täve while on a streetcar and worked up my courage to ask him for an autograph. The encounter helped underline for me Täve’s very specific level of fame.

When I approached him with my request, he looked confused, “But you don’t know who I am!”.

I assured him I did.

“But you’re not from here.”, he added, still perplexed.

I confirmed his suspricions, bu opened my diary to a blank page and presented it to Täve. Finally, bemused but finally compliant, he took the book and provided me with my souvenir!

Less Than A Fairy Tale: Täve and the German Sports Hall of Fame

Schur made headlines in unified Germany on several occasions when he downplayed or dismissed the role of doping in the GDR sports system. As a former high-level functionary of the German Gymnastics and Sports Federation, he faced repeated accusations that he knew of the country’s systematic approach to doping its athletes, charges which he denied in 1997: “We never discussed such matters in the DTSB’s national board where I was a member.” (“Gustav-Adolf und Jan Schur: Das sagst Du!”, Goldkinder: Die DDR im Spiegel ihres Spitzensports, Forum Verlag Leipzig, 1997, pg. 292.) Doubling down in 2011, he called claims that up to 10,000 people may have been victims of the GDR’s doping regime “a fairy tale”. (Frank Bachner, “Ein Musterland an sportlicher Gesundheit”, Tagesspiegel, August 5, 2011, accessed on January 1, 2021 at: https://www.tagesspiegel.de/sport/taeve-schur-verklaert-ddr-sport-ein-musterland-an-sportlicher-gesundheit/4470662.html).

These same comments reverberated in 2011 when the jury of Germany’s new Sports Hall of Fame rejected Schur’s nomination arguing that he had not sufficiently distanced himself from the negative aspects of the GDR’s sporting system. Schur responded by remarking that, “An upstanding individual would not have made the decision which they made.” (Jörg Leopold, “Warum Täve Schur in die Ruhmeshalle gehört”, Tagesspiegel, February 22, 2016, Accessed on January 1, 2021 via https://www.tagesspiegel.de/sport/radsportlegende-feiert-85-geburtstag-warum-taeve-schur-in-die-ruhmeshalle-gehoert/13000718.html)

Täve gave Super Illu magazine, the eastern German version of People, an inside look at his life as a Member of the Bundestag in an April 1999 issue; here he exercises on the balcony of his parliamentary-issued apartment (photo: Super Illu)

In the former East, the decision to keep arguably Germany’s most successful cyclist of all time out of this new national institution was met with widespread anger and disbelief. Letters to the Leipziger Volkszeitung in May 2011 give a taste of the reaction, some illustrating the marginalized position many eastern Germans still felt they occupied in the newly united Germany: “If not Täve Schur, then who does belong in the Hall of Fame?”, “This is a decision made by those who choose to live eternally in the past. Despite it, Täve remains in our hearts.”, “Täve is beyond reproach except for the fact that he has remained true to his communist ideals. This alone is enough to be excluded and defamed in this country.” And then there was one whose language suggested that it could’ve been taken from the pages of the SED party organ Neues Deutschland: “Despite the slanderous machinations of these Cold Warriors, Täve is and remains the best GDR Athlete of All Time.” (“Täve gehört in Ruhmeshalle des Sports”, Leipziger Volkszeitung, pg. 26, May 11, 2011).

The Third Book About Täve

Four books about Täve, the first two from the GDR era, the third Uwe Johnson’s Täve-inspired novel and the fourth, a post-Wende publication (photo: Dirk Andresen, Wikicommons)

By far the most interesting book related to Täve Schur, in my view, is Uwe Johnson’s Das dritte Buch über Achim (The Third Book About Achim), a novel which was published in West Germany in 1961, just before the building of the Berlin Wall.

Johnson was an important author in post-war Germany who grew up in Germany’s eastern territories before settling with his family in the Soviet zone of occupation during the postwar period. He would complete his doctoral studies in German Literature at the University of Leipzig, but confrontations with GDR authorities convinced him to flee the West in 1959.

Das dritte Buch über Achim revolves in large part around the life of an East German cycling hero (Achim) clearly inspired by Täve Schur, however, Johnson eschews any traditional novelistic approach and instead uses Achim’s story as a means to explore the ways in which the two Germanies paths were diverging and resulting in two very different societies. The book’s primary perspective is provided by Karsch, a West German journalist who while on a private visit to the GDR is convinced by publishing officials there to write a book on their country’s sporting hero (the third after two previous works) which they hope will be read by a West German audience.

Karsch’s experiences living and working the GDR create a number of irritations for him. He finds the street scenes and encounters with the locals to be jarring and very different from what he has grown used to in Hamburg. Then after beginning his research into Achim’s life, he uncovers a number of biographical details which do not fit into the image that GDR authorities have created for Achim. His encounters with both Achim and the publishing house employees to discuss these contentious aspects of the cyclist’s past are elliptical and opaque and he receives contradictory explanations for why these passages must be omitted. Finally, frustrated and tired, Karsch abandons the project and returns home to Hamburg.

Reading this unconventional work now, it is hard to imagine the controversy it set off upon publication. Johnson’s implicit argument that two socially and culturally distinct Germanies had emerged from the postwar order flew in the face of notions of Germaness and the unity of the German cultural nation which still very much prevailed in West Germany of the day. When the Berlin Wall went up just after the book’s publication, this cementing of Germany’s division gave added heft to Johnson’s thesis and helped drive changes in the way Germans, particularly those in the West, thought about their nation, culture and their relationship with their cousins in the East. As such, it’s an important cultural relic from the time of Germany’s division.

2 comments
  1. MIKE JOSS said:

    Cycling and the Stasi can be found in Herbie Sykes book, The Race Against The Stasi, the story of Dieter Wiedemann.

    I appreciate the web site and inspired me to visit several of the places you have mentioned

    Regards

    Mike

    • Thanks for reading and for pointing me in the direction of that book. I’ll add it to my list.

      And very glad to hear that you’ve enjoyed the site and sought out some of the places I’ve featured. That’s really great to hear.

      Best
      John Paul

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