‘Iron Union!’: East Berlin’s Favourite Football Team

East GermanyTo understand the lay of the land in footballing terms in “Berlin – Capital of the German Democratic Republic”, it is helpful – appropriately enough – to take a dialectical approach. On the one end of the spectrum, you had Berlin Football Club “Dynamo” (BFC), the country’s most successful, and despised, team thanks in large part its “sponsorship” by the state’s security organs including the notorious secret police the Stasi. BFC’s opposite, in every sense, was 1. FC Union Berlin, a team with strong, genuine working class roots and a level of fan support unparalleled in the East.

Forging “Iron Union”: History to 1950

FC Union Berlin has its roots in the club SC Union 06 Oberschöneweide, one founded in 1906 and made up in large part of employees of this southeastern district’s many factories. This connection to local industry helped give the club its working class image (not to mention its fans’ iconic cheer “Iron Union!”) and would continue through the GDR period when the team’s  “sponsors” were a local cable factory and a transformer manufacturer. The team enjoyed some significant successes prior to World War II but was pulled apart afterwards when a 1950 Soviet order forbade the club from participating in all-German competitions.

Union Oberschöneweide 1922-23
Union Oberschöneweide 1922-23

This in turn resulted in most of the team departing for the western part of the city where they continued operating. This part of Union 06 went on to play in front of large crowds at the Olympic Stadium until the building of the Wall in 1961 robbed it of many of its fans. Even after this event, though, Union’s connection to the western part of the city, never completely disappeared and remained – much to the annoyance of GDR authorities – an aspect of club’s image and appeal through to unification.

Meanwhile Back in the East . . .

The remnants of Union 06 which stayed on in the eastern half of the city continued under a number of names before becoming 1. FC Union Berlin in 1966 as part of the East German Football Association’s efforts to professionalize the sport. Receiving the designation “Football Club” ostensibly put Union in an elite group of teams, however,  its proximity to the favoured BFC meant the team typically only received the city’s second best quality of player. As a result, Union did not enjoy much success on the pitch with its most notable achievement being a 2-1 victory over FC Carl Zeiss Jena in the 1968 Free German Trade Association Cup. Typically, 1 FC shuttled back and forth between the country’s highest tier, the Oberliga, and division two, the DDR-LIga.

Union Berlin win the 1968 FDGB Pokal in 1968
Union Berlin win the 1968 FDGB Pokal in 1968

Fan Culture Köpenick Style

Independent of the team’s success on the pitch, however, Union enjoyed remarkable level of fan support from Berliners, primarily workers and their children from the districts of Köpenick and Oberschöneweide. The club played its home matches in Stadion an der Alte Försterei (roughly translated as “Stadium By The Old Forester’s Place”), a spartan ground made up largely of terraces which put fans close to the action and created what many remember as an unequalled atmosphere.

One old-timer recalls, “When I started going in 1973, the stadium hadn’t been expanded yet, so it the fans were packed in tight and the atmosphere was really one of a kind.” In an East Berlin where the options for combating boredom were few and far between, Union quickly gained a reputation for being a place where some action could be found.

In addition to the attractive stadium experience, the Union club also benefited, paradoxically perhaps, from its “weak sister” status vis-a-vis BFC. Accounts of the derby matches between the two clubs are rife with stories of preferential treatment from league and match officials and rumour of these perceived injustices (never publicly aired in the GDR media of course) helped burnish Union’s popular image as the club of “the outsiders”, a status that was largely cemented by subsequent events.

Who Holds the Power on the Spree? – Union Fans versus BFC (and the State)

During the late 1970s, a number of developments had a profound impact on the Berlin football scene and helped cement Union’s reputation as the refuge of those opposed to the GDR. First, BFC emerged as the dominant force in GDR football and began its series of ten consecutive league championships. This success attracted a considerable number of young fans and while these were still significantly fewer than those mobilized by Union, this influx of young blood invigorated the rivalry between the two sides and fueled often violent confrontations between the opposing groups. Unwilling to see any fault in “their” fans from BFC, security services tended to blame Union supporters for such problems and often considered them a real and present danger to order in the “Workers and Peasants’ State”.

Union Berlin v BFC Dynamo ticket

Another key development was that Union’s fans began to organize themselves into clubs and even put together a football league in which these could face off against each other. In a society where the state was obsessed with ensuring its control over all goings-on, such developments raised considerable suspicion. That chanting from Union’s terraces was often directed against manifestations of state power (Popular were “Stasi out!”, “Shit Dynamo!” or “The Wall has to go!”, usually popular when a team built one to defend a free kick) further reinforced suspicions that authorities had about the Köpenickers and their Club.

A further aspect that made Unioners suspect to authorities was their open “fan friendship” with supporters of Hertha Berlin Soccer Club (BSC), the largest team on the western side of the Wall. Western Hertha fans often made their way to Köpenick for Union matches and initiated interactions which many authorities felt constituted “contact with the Enemy”. Such feelings would only have been confirmed by the text of this song sung which was sung from time to time at “The Stadium By the Old Forerster’s Place”:

“I live in thirty metres in a square
Mines and barbed wire just over there
Now you know where I call home
Home for me in is “The Zone”
We belong together, yes we do
Blue-white Hertha and FCU
Only two teams are on the Spree
Union and Hertha BSC.”

Cumulatively these developments led authorities to the conclusion that Union was home to what it understood as a “negatively-oriented youth culture”. To address this situation, security services and the Party took a two-pronged approach. First, the District Office of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) gave the Free German Youth (FDJ) the task of organizing Union’s fan base in a formal way with an eye to “steering” this. Theo Koerner, Union’s original “Fan Relations Supervisor” and an employee of the Club, not the FDJ,  recalls that this official oversight was rejected by some fan groups, but that others welcomed the resources that came with this status. For example, trips to away matches could be booked through the state travel agency raising the level of comfort for fans and groups got access to space for meetings with players or to prepare banners and the like. According to Koerner, the FDJ never managed to completely take charge of things and the official status helped “create a bit of room to manoeuvre during a time where things were not that easy.”

The second reaction of authorities to the challenges posed by Union’s fan base was, not surprisingly, the “iron fist”. Persecution and prosecution of any Union fans who made themselves conspicuous through their “rowdy” behaviour was stepped up from the mid-70s onwards. The East German legal code was sufficiently vague to give People’s Police and District Attorneys considerable leeway in determining what acts were criminal and which were not, an arbitrariness which Union fans in particular came to know rather well.

Union Berlin v BFC Dynamo

An examination of police records after unification showed that Union fans were far more likely to be arrested for their activities than were their counterparts at BFC. In addition, Unioners tended to face considerably harsher penalties for their offences. Preferred means of dealing with the Köpenickers were jail time, forced emigration to West Berlin or the Federal Republic and early conscription to the National People’s Army. For BFC fans, punishments were typically far less severe and often involved “community service” and probation though stiffer sentencing was used on some occasions as well.

Cover of a 1978 issue of Union Informationen, the club's programmeI have a copy of the club’s publication Union Informationen from the halfway point of the 1977-78 season, a period when the team’s popularity was at a high and authorities clearly had the club and its supporters in their sights. That FCU officials were feeling the heat which this situation was generating is reflected in some of the content of this lovingly-assembled time capsule. For example, in the letters to the editor section, a Wilhelm Meissgeier from 116 Berlin defends the Club’s fans and leadership from those who would criticize them:

“In conversation, I have repeatedly determined that some downplay the sporting success of Union by pointing with a raised finger at the rowdy behaviour of some so-called Union fans. I just want to say the following in response:

First, this activity is not just a Union matter: other stadiums in our republic are unfortunately having similar problems. . . . Finally, the responsible parties at 1. FC Union have shown their commitment to order and security not only through a number of organizational measures, but also in the form of educational methods. I think here of the posters “Iron Union – Sporting and Fair” and on the different flyers . . .”

Another humorous article features a fictitious conversation between two Union fans touching on the sensitive subject of fan behaviour and its possible ramifications for the Club while simultaneously making light of and acknowledging Unioners’ feelings of persecution:

Tute: Look, as far as I’m concerned you can scream like a rutting stag
at the matches, as long as what you say has something to do with sport.
Benno: Drop the moralizing, brother! I’m not falling for that!
Tute: I’m not asking you to, but think about it. What happens if
we finish in the top four and then don’t get to play against
Inter Milan because our fans are so rambunctious? . . .
Benno: Fine, you’ve got a point. But as the people say, every
backside has two cheeks.
Tute: So, what’s the other?
Benno: I’ve had it up to here that whenever someone wearing a
red and white scarf happens to run a red light, he is immediately
treated like he’s some sort of career criminal.
Tute: I’m not sure I understand.
Benno: Well, I know a few that they’ve got their claws into for running
out on their beer bill, beating their old lady, or shoplifting – but do you
think you ever hear about how they belong to the Chess Club, the
Technology Chamber or Urania (Ed. GDR society dedicated to
spreading scientific knowledge)? Etc., etc., But if they are Union fans,
well, you’ll hear about that!

Another favourite bit in this program is a short entry entitled “Important Note for Souvenir Seekers”. It reads: “Because of the many inquiries, we want to let everyone know that we are currently out of stock of team crests. We are doing our best to address this situation, but cannot say when we will have this item in our inventory again.” A nice little window into the consumer world of the GDR football fan in 1978.

Union = Opposition?

Interviews with Union supporters conducted within the last several years suggest that the Club’s reputation as the home of the “opposition” was exaggerated to a significant degree. Theo Koerner, the Fan Relations man, argues,

“The great majority of Union supporters were just normal fans. By the end of the 80s, many people had had it up to here [with the GDR] and came to Union games to get their unhappiness off their chest . . .  Union fans were always quick, but you shouldn’t make resistance fighters out of them. Provocation is a part of football and people yelled out whatever they knew they could get away with without too much trouble.”

Another longtime fan offers, “The cliche is that Union was the club for “Enemies of the State”, but that wasn’t us.” While another gives a perspective which I’d suggest is probably as close to the truth as one can get, “I think the claim that all Union fans were against the GDR is a fairy tale. I think that this critical attitude towards the system was something that football fans across East Germany had in common during the 70s and 80s. That’s youth’s prerogative in every era: to be against the ruling doctrine.”

Union Berlin 1988
Union Berlin 1988

The East German film studio DEFA produced a documentary on Union’s fans in 1988. “And on Friday’s we go to ‘Green Hell’” follows a group of Union supporters to both home and away matches and features extended interviews with several in an attempt to paint a picture of the many sides of this football subculture.

Union Since Unification

After German unification in 1990, 1. FC Union was in a similarly difficult position to many other eastern German soccer teams. After failing to qualify for the upper leagues, the team was placed in the 3rd Division and experienced a number of turbulent years and more than one threat to the club’s very existence. The condition of the team’s stadium was one cause for particular concern as the aging facility required considerable upkeep in order to meet licensing requirements placed by the German Football Association.

I attended a match at the stadium in the summer of 1998, a friendly between Union and English side Wolverhampton Wanderers (a head shaking meeting at the time, but I’ve since learned that trips to the GDR by English clubs from working class towns were not uncommon pre-1989. Apparently this match versus Wolves was an example of attempts to reanimate old connections). My recollection is of a stadium in the “old school” style with plenty of terraces and a small group of fans out on a beautiful summer’s evening. Apparently Wolves won it 2-1, but my main memory is of a sun-dappled tramp down a forest path to get to the stadium from the S-Bahn station. My friend remembers a few skinheads in Docs and bomber jackets making the Hitler salute and generally attempting to draw attention to themselves, something that would certainly fit with the tenor of those times in East Berlin, but my photo above doesn’t confirm that recollection . . .

Union versus English club Wolverhampton Wolves at die Alte Försterei, July 1998 (photo - editor).

At any rate, by the mid-2000s, the stadium’s condition was such a problem that Union was in danger of losing its license unless action was taken. When the city of Berlin refused to fund a renovation, a most remarkable thing happened: the club’s fans stepped in and, in large part, fixed up the stadium themselves. What they achieved is remarkable and has apparently managed to maintain the ground’s storied atmosphere and proximity to the pitch while fulfilling all the mandarins’ safefy requirements. For a sense of the project, check out this English language article written while work was still going on in 2009. Below, a video shot just before renovations began in 2008 and which gives a sense of the stadium as it was in the late period GDR and for twenty years afterwards:

Union Berlin contemporary badge

On the pitch, things have looked up for Union as well. They’ve enjoyed four straight years in the German Second Division and finished the 2012-13 season in 7th place, just edging out 8th place Energie Cottbus for the “title” of best team in “East German football”.

About the Author

John Paul Kleiner resides in Toronto, Canada and runs The GDR Objectified site which is his attempt to add to the “footnote of world history” that was the German Democratic Republic. His interest in the GDR arose out of the contradictions between the utopian aspects of the state’s socialist ideology and the realities of everyday life for the vast majority of East Germans.

John Paul holds an M.A. in History from York University, Toronto, Canada and wrote his major research paper on how the Saxon city of Leipzig dealt with manifestations of the East German state in its public spaces during the ten years following German unification. He has contributed to Einblick, the magazine of the Federal Republic of Germany’s Bundesrat, on topics related to East Germany.

3 thoughts on “‘Iron Union!’: East Berlin’s Favourite Football Team

  1. Interesting piece. Ive like the bit where fans stepped in and fixed the stadium afterthe city of Berlin refused to fund its renovation,… a true people’s club

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