We continue our story of the history of famous old East German club Vorwärts Berlin. This is the second and final part; if you missed the first part then you can view it here.
Youth development was at the heart of Vorwärts Berlin’s 1960s success with the club developing a network of 35 youth teams based at its training base. A mix of players from the club’s own ranks combined with the best army conscripts created a talented and close-knit group and a number of long-serving mainstays for both club and the East German national side.
Karl-Heinz Spickenagel and Alfred Zulkowski were talented keepers who competed at club and country level for the number one jersey; Peter Kalinke and Otto Fräßdorf impressed in the full-back positions with their different styles – one great going forward, the other an excellent tackler. Gerhard Körner was a clever and astute wing-half while Werner Unger ran the midfield with his metronomic passing. In attack the clinical finisher Günther Wirth was often partnered with the speedy striker or winger, Rainer Nachtigall.
The most popular player of the Vorwärts Berlin golden era was a journalist and inside-forward from a famous sporting family. Jürgen Nöldner’s father had been a famous athlete and Nazi-resistance fighter and had both a station and a square in East Berlin named after him. Jürgen followed in his father’s footsteps enjoying a fine football career and to this day is still considered by many to be the best left-footed player ever produced in the GDR. He was nicknamed ‘the little Fritz Walter’ by his teammates. That strong team bond was discussed many years later when Nachtigall wrote a book reminiscing fondly about his years with the club: “There was army discipline and no lack of players wishing to escape other clubs and join us. Team spirit was first class and players even washed their own shirts.”
What was notable about the successes that followed for Vorwärts Berlin was that they were achieved relatively cleanly. In those days political fiddling didn’t extend to blatant referee manipulation and score fixing to anywhere near the same degree it would in later years, primarily because few in positions of power cared enough about the game to be bothered with the effort. Team sports like football were viewed with suspicion in the corridors of power and were considered of a low priority compared with track and field pursuits, simply because they were that much harder to manipulate for propaganda purposes.
Not that there weren’t controversies. A couple of dubious decisions in favour of Vorwärts swung important games their way and helped smooth the way to their title successes in both 1960 and 1966. The common factor was Erwin Vetter, the referee behind both those calls and one who was known to favour BFC Dynamo with his calls in later years.
The prevailing political winds started to blow in a different direction from Vorwärts towards the end of the 1960s, this at a time when the club was still the preeminent force in the East German game and a growing presence on the European stage. The state’s policy of ‘concentration’ intensified and in 1966 Vorwärts was among a small number of clubs granted ‘focus club’ status. Both Berlin’s state sides shed their links to other sports in 1968 and became exclusively footballing institutions – Vorwärts reflecting this by adopting the FC prefix instead of ASK. These changes seemed designed to reinforce the club’s privileged position, but in reality this process started to undermine their special status with BFC Dynamo the ultimate beneficiaries.
Privilege was determined by political clout and Mielke and his Ministry of State Security had gained considerable influence in the city at the expense of the Defence Ministry. Mielke was plotting the ultimate in ‘performance focus,’ a scenario where his favoured club would tower over all others in the hierarchy of patronage. East German clubs had started to press Vorwärts harder for the return of their players after military service was completed and the DFV – the East German Football Federation – became unusually compliant with these requests. East Berlin’s football scene was being slowly reshaped around a new twin axis: the civilian club Union Berlin, disliked by the regime but considered too difficult to break up because of its large fan base and, of course, BFC Dynamo. The longer term prospects of Vorwärts looked bleaker as the club’s talented 60s generation grew older and close to retirement while talented replacements were now no longer so straightforward to recruit.
It’s hard to imagine how the 1971 displacement of Vorwärts from the capital 65 miles east to the town of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder could have happened anywhere but East Germany. This was the state’s most successful club after all, one that just 12 months earlier had won the Pokal, finished runners-up in the Oberliga and run eventual winners Feyenoord close in their European Cup quarter-final tie. And yet some might suggest the club was getting a taste of its own medicine. Just as Vorwärts had been moved to Berlin 18 years earlier to fill a competitive void, so their lock, stock and barrel move east now fulfilled exactly the same function. Frankfurt-an-der-Oder had always been something of a footballing backwater and after the disbandment of their local SG Dynamo team the previous year, the town now had no football representation whatsoever.
The relocation might have been little more than typically clumsy East German bureaucracy at work in resolving a geographical and political situation, but the more widely held view suggests it was deliberately facilitated by Mielke’s Ministry of Defence and State Security. The departure of Vorwärts from the city would allow BFC Dynamo to acquire their stadium and, in theory, their disenfranchised support to boost their own meagre gates. Vorwärts had heavyweight party support from the likes of Colonel Willi Steinhöfel and the leading political commentator Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, but the all-powerful Mielke held sway and the move was formalised.
Newly christened as Vorwärts Frankfurt/Oder, a number of the club’s players including Jürgen Nöldner moved with the team and settled well enough in their new environment. Less content with the relocation were the player wives who had grown used to relatively cosmopolitan lives in East Berlin and now found their sleepy new home limiting for shopping and cultural attractions. Initially attendances held up around the same 7,000 figure the club had been attracting in Berlin and a fifth placed finish in their first full season even represented an improvement on their final season in the capital.
In 1976 the focus on the major clubs narrowed again and now just six were designated as centres of excellence. That Vorwärts Frankfurt/Oder was one of those clubs was more a discrete nod to their heritage than an indicator they could be a force in the East German game again. Marooned away from the political heart of the state, the new Vorwärts had become little more than a middling club making up the Oberliga numbers. A second placed League finish in 1983 was the closest the club would ever come to trophy success in its post-Berlin incarnation.
By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 the blatant favouritism in favour of BFC Dynamo had rendered East German football a moribund irrelevance. By now a lacklustre Vorwärts Frankfurt/Oder drifted aimlessly between the top two divisions and would suffer badly – as did all state-funded clubs – from the collapse of the communist regime.
How much DNA the club now shared with its venerable predecessor was questionable anyway, but what little remained was diluted further when a winding-up order was issued in February 1991. A new civilian club renamed as Viktoria 91 Frankfurt emerged from the wreckage and in one final act of indignity this new entity went out with a whimper, finishing bottom of the last ever Oberliga table.
By some distance the two poorest supported clubs in that final season were Viktoria 91 Frankfurt (the renamed Vorwärts Frankfurt/Oder) and FC Berlin (the renamed BFC Dynamo) with both struggling to attract four-figure attendances. With sixteen titles between them it was an undistinguished ending for the two dominant, state-sponsored powerhouses from different eras of the East German game. Few would mourn the demise of the hated BFC Dynamo, but the two-decade journey of Vorwärts Berlin from GDR-Meisters to unrecognisable and provincial irrelevancy was a much sadder loss to the game.
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