Heartily joining in the drunken celebrations as his beloved BFC Dynamo became champions of East Germany yet again was one of the few things in life that appeared to animate Stasi chief Erich Mielke. As that pudgy face broke out into an unfamiliar, if still dead-eyed smile, you could only marvel at the charade on display. How the head of East Germany’s secret police could demonstrate such enthusiasm for a success that he to all extents and purposes had ordered in advance spoke volumes about East German football and the surreal fiction that was the GDR state as a whole.
In its final days the East German Oberliga table became a thoroughly discredited recognition of political connivance rather than sporting excellence; where football was served up for the benefit of the influential backers of state-sponsored clubs and rarely for the people who actually played or watched the game. And its rotten core was sited in East Berlin. While BFC Dynamo came to define the game in the GDR, Mielke’s pets were actually East Berlin football’s johnny-come-latelys; the malign and disagreeable version of an earlier and more estimable state-sponsored club shooed off the scene to make way for Mielke’s vanity project. This was a club of some standing, historically recognised as East Germany’s third most successful despite a de facto existence that spanned less than half of the four decades that the GDR Oberliga operated. That club was Vorwärts Berlin and this is its story.
Just as the perennial ‘bent champions’ BFC Dynamo dominated East German football in the 1970s and 80s, so the late 1950s and 60s belonged to Vorwärts, the state’s main army club. With its six titles and two domestic cups won between 1958 and 1970, the club was so consistently strong that it was rare to see it finishing outside the top three Oberliga places. In common with BFC Dynamo, as a club Vorwärts was a state-construct that enjoyed a number of competitive advantages over the Oberliga works teams. This privileged status was deeply resented in Dynamo’s case, but Vorwärts was a club that managed to earn respect and even admiration in a manner their local rivals never would, however many titles they won. The Vorwärts appeal even attracted a following from West Berlin in the years before the Wall was constructed.
Vorwärts (translating as Forward) was in many ways a contradictory club managed only by the purest and dourest of the party’s political ideologues, yet one that played skilful and inventive football quite at odds with the functional style that characterised the East German game in its earlier years. The club’s complex history spanned three cities, multiple name changes, numerous trophies and some fine players all creating a legacy as colourful as the club’s jaunty red and yellow shirts.
The Vorwärts Berlin adventure began in the 1950s and was shaped – as most of East German society – by political convenience. During the early years of that decade the East Berlin footballing landscape was as barren as the ruined city itself. With a lack of alternatives on offer and at a time when free travel between the sectors was possible, eastern fans flocked to the west of the city to watch Hertha, Blau-Weiß and Tennis Borussia play instead. Seeing this as an undesirable situation, the authorities sought to establish strong clubs as counter attractions in the Soviet sector. As the city was the political heart of the fledgling state and the location of its key ministries, the new clubs would be state-sponsored and representative of its two most powerful organs – the Ministry of Defence and the Secret Police.
With no existing Berlin clubs in the eastern sector fit for purpose, the authorities showed typical directness by forcibly relocating established teams from elsewhere in the state and grafting a new Berlin identity upon them. BFC Dynamo (originally and still commonly known as Dynamo Berlin) originated as a strong Dynamo Dresden team moved lock, stock and barrel overnight to the capital in 1954 to become the team of the Ministry Of State Security. The previous year a new army team had been manufactured for the capital in similar circumstances. The middling KVP Vorwärts club in Leipzig was the donor, simply because they were the most established of the state’s other army-affiliated clubs at the time. Little consideration was given to the players with these relocations and they were often forced to live in hostels, separated from their families for long periods.
This new Berlin army club began its existence as ZASK (Central Army Sports Club) Vorwärts Berlin and quickly gained promotion to the Oberliga, East Germany’s top division, in 1954. With their distinctive shirts, stylish play and a group of players respected far and wide for their sportsmanship and good manners as well as their talent, Vorwärts established itself rapidly in its new environs and became easily the more popular of the two new Berlin state-run clubs with the Soviet Sector’s football fans.
The official designation of Vorwärts as East Germany’s primary army club gave them a similar standing to other well-known showpiece Eastern Bloc army clubs like Dukla Prague, ZDSA Moscow, CDNA Sofia, Legia Warsaw, Honved and CCA Bucharest. One of the advantages that army affiliation brought was the right to appropriate the services of the best young talent from other clubs when those players were called up to perform their military service. This practice was seen as little more than asset stripping and made army clubs hugely unpopular with the fans of clubs deprived of their best talent in this manner. Being forced to relocate away from home for several years made this practice no more popular with the players concerned either, although this proved less of an issue in East Germany than in other Eastern Bloc countries. Often the seconded players were so impressed with the professionalism and the camaraderie at Vorwärts that they chose to stay on even after their military service had been completed.
A first championship arrived in 1958 and five more followed during the 1960s as Vorwärts fought – and generally won – a lively battle for national supremacy with Carl Zeiss Jena. While not a well-supported club by East German standards, Vorwärts attracted a loyal following of around 10,000 fans to their Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportspark home. The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 did little for their cause with hundreds of their West Berlin based supporters cut-off for good. The club now found its stadium backing directly onto the death strip adjoining a section of the Wall and sinister images of armed security guards watching Vorwärts playing from watchtowers were a stark reminder of the values of the East German state. For all the undoubted sporting virtues of Vorwärts Berlin, it could be difficult to separate those qualities from the club’s core function as high-profile propagandists and regime legitimisers.
This is Part One of the Vorwärts Berlin story and you can read Part Two here. In the meantime BTLM recently launched a Twitter account dedicated to bringing this famous old club’s name to the attentions of contemporary football fans, so do follow us @Vorwarts_Berlin