Dresden’s Vanishing Act

The final whistle blew and the season was over. A large number of the 60,000 strong crowd howled in anger on that Sunday in April, but the 1949/50 season was at an end. ZSG Horch Zwickau had gone to enemy territory and won the day with a convincing 5-1 victory over SG Dresden-Freidrichstadt to become the champions. The first season of what we know as the GDR Oberliga, the first full season of football in the then-new German Democratic Republic had come down to a head-to-head between the two best teams in the league. On the day there could be only one. By the start of the next season, there would literally only be one.

Our story starts a little less than 20 years earlier. When the National Socialists took power in Germany, the Bundesliga as we know it today was roughly 30 years and a devastating war away. At the time the country was split into 16 regional leagues, the Gauliga (this expanded as Hitler conquered more territories), with the winners of each league qualifying for the knockout German Championship tournament at the end of the season.

In the 1930s and 1940s, one of the perennial big names in German football was Dresdner SC. Dresden, situated on the River Elbe in Germany’s east, played in the Gauliga Sachsen and were their province’s dominant force. From the eleven completed seasons between 1933 and 1944 (the 1944/45 season was understandably never completed), Dresdner SC in their famous red and black shirts were champions six times in front of ever-increasing crowds.

Whilst the world burned during World War Two, Dresdner SC enjoyed their glory years. Under famed coach Georg Köhler the club won five of the six Gauliga Sachsen titles contested between 1939 and 1944, the Tschammerpokal (the predecessor to the DFB Pokal, the German version of the FA Cup) in 1940 and 1941 beating Nürnberg and Schalke respectively and then in 1943 and 1944 they were champions of the entire German Reich, beating Saarbrücken 3-0 and LSV Hamburg 4-0 in the respective finals held at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.

Then the war came to Dresden. The firebombing of the city in February 1945 saw 40,000lbs of bombs turn one of the classical German cities into singed rubble. The Frauenkirche would be left in ruins for decades as a symbol of the destruction. The Russians came. It would be some time before they left.

When Germany surrendered at the end of the Second World War, one of the decrees from the Potsdam Conference was that many civilian organisations that flourished under the Nazis were to be disbanded. Football clubs were included on the list to be chopped and whilst teams in the Western Zones were simply allowed to reform, in the Soviet Occupation zone this rule was strictly enforced on institutions seen as a “bürgerlicher Verein”, a bourgeois or middle-class club.

Helmut Schön, Dresdner SC

Many of the Dresdner SC players survived the firebombing and many kept away from the front lines altogether thanks to club member Karl Mehnert, a Lieutenant General in the Wehrmacht and Dresden commandant, who saw the propaganda value in the football team doing well. It was truly a case of who, rather than what you knew in that sense but it still couldn’t save the club in its old form. The last ever champions of the German Reich were ordered out of existence by the 1st January 1946. Effectively needing to start again with what the new communist authorities called Sportsgemeinschaften, SG Friedrichstadt was born and named after the neighbourhood of Dresden in which the club was based. The new club kept the red and black colours as a nod to history, or perhaps subconsciously thumbing its nose towards the new order. It was an antipathy that would never truly go away.

Football would continue to be used for propaganda, just as it has under the Nazis. People wanted a sense of normality and so football started to resume again. There was no Sachsen League like the old Gauliga to start with, but things were played on a local level within the region. Striesen won the newly minted Stadtliga Dresden (Dresden City League) in 1945/46, but the familiar faces found their feet and Friedrichtstadt won it in the 1946/47 season.

The authorities decided for the 1947/48 campaign that, within the Soviet Occupation Zone in the east of Germany, there would be a football champion for the whole region to be decided in the way that it had been during the war. Friedrichstadt had a productive season in the Stadliga but were pipped to the post by Mickten; however as there were seven localities in Sachsen, Friedrichstadt was invited to take part in the qualifiers for the Ostzonenmeisterschaft (Eastern Zone Championship) to allow for an even number of teams.  Friedrichstadt beat Zittau 4-3 in their first game to give them a shot at qualification, but a 3-1 defeat to Einheit Meerane ended their season.

In 1948/49, the groundwork was being laid for something different. As the Soviets and Western Allies clashed over Berlin and supplies were airlifted into the western half of the stricken city, the move towards a new communist German state seemed to be developing. It would be the last season of the Ostzonenmeisterschaft; there would be a champion crowned in the old way but entry to the new Oberliga, a single top division to cover the entire zone would also be on the line. When you look at the complexity of the system that teams went through to win the title that year, you can understand the desire to simplify the system.

First Friedrichstadt had to make their way through their local Dresden league and the playoff to be champions of the city. After that was a round-robin against the other regional winners in Saxony with three teams moving on to the final round of qualification for the Ostzonenmeisterschaft. Along with Meerane and Industrie Leipzig, Friedrichstadt made it through to the final three with only two making the big show. A 1-0 win over Leipzig and a 3-2 win over Meerane saw Friedrichstadt qualify for the Ostzonenmeisterschaft. The champions of the old Germany had the championship of this new order in its sights.

However it would all come to a screeching halt. The Ostzonenmeisterschaft opened at the end of May 1949 with the quarter-finals and saw Friedrichstadt travel to take on the champions of Sachsen-Anhalt, ZSG Union Halle. 30,000 fans crammed into the stadium to see Halle win 2-1. There would be national league football for Friedrichstadt in 1949/50 but the 48/49 campaign ended on a deflating note.The top flight of East German football would beat the creation of the nation. Just over a month before the German Democratic Republic would declare itself into existence, SG Friedrichstadt started the first Oberliga season on the 3rd September 1949 away at the snappily titled BSG Märkische Volksstimme Babelsberg. Player/coach Helmut Schön, part of the cup and championship-winning sides during the war, chose not to play himself that day. He wasn’t needed. The visitors were 6-0 up at half-time and went on to win 12-2 with a double hat-trick from youngster Walter Werner. It would stand as the largest away win in the history of the Oberliga till its demise in 1991.

Defeats to Horch Zwickau and perennial bogey team Einheit Meerane dented their record, but by the winter break, Friedrichstadt’s superior goal difference meant they led a trio of sides with eight wins and two defeats. Helped massively by the result in Babelsberg and an 11-0 win at home to Anker Wismar (the Oberliga’s record home win that would also last till the division ceased to exist) meant Friedrichstadt sat comfortably ahead of Zwickau and Waggonfabrik Dessau as Christmas rolled around.

The 1950 half of the season started unbeaten with six wins from eight games and 26 goals scored. However, two results set up a dramatic final day of the season. An unexpected 2-0 defeat to relegation-threatened Altenburg in March 1950, as well as several drawn games, allowed Zwickau to keep on Friedrichstadt’s heels. On the penultimate round both teams won to stay level on points – but with Friedrichstadt having the vastly superior goal difference.

It was set up to be a clash of cultures. Both were clearly the best teams in the new League, but Zwickau sat much closer to the hearts of the new regime. The factory team of the car manufacturer Horch Zwickau were the workers’ team in the new communist Germany; Friedrichstadt with its players who had survived the war and won titles under the Nazis were popular in Dresden, but might as well have taken to the field wearing swastikas in the eyes of some of the party officials. They were the best-supported team in the league by some margin, they played high scoring and free-flowing football but these things didn’t matter in the grander scheme of things. However well Friedrichstadt played, the club was bourgeoise; the club was a ‘bürgerlicher Verein.’

Which brings us back to the start of our story and a piece of scheduling that seemed written in the stars, making it winner-takes-all for the first championship of the fledgeling country. 60,000 people made it inside the stadium paying anything between the official price of 80 pfennigs and the black market price of 100 Ost Marks to be there. There were even reports of counterfeit tickets being printed for the game. A further 40,000 fans were reported to have assembled outside the stadium.

The game started well for Friedrichstadt as defender Kurt Lehman put them ahead after just three minutes, though Heinz Satrapa’s goal for Zwickau would level things up six minutes later. Then disaster struck: in the 12th minute one of Zwickau’s players levelled defender Walter Kreisch with a crunching tackle that re-injured the meniscus that had troubled him for some time. Kreisch was one of the old guard: he had been there for the Tschammerpokal and Reich’s Championship wins but was now forced out of the GDR title decider. With no substitutes at the time, it meant Friedrichstadt had to play the remaining 78 minutes with ten men.

SG Dresden-Friedrichstadt v ZSG Horch Zwickau

The crowd was further incensed when a foul on Friedrichstadt’s goalkeeper Kurt Birkner went unpunished by referee Willi Schmidt allowing Herbert Heinze to score. When Siegfried Meier made it 3-1 to Zwickau before half-time, the game looked over as a meaningful contest. A hero in the first half, Lehman scored an own goal in the second and Heinze’s second of the afternoon gave the game it’s lopsided final score of 5-1.  Friedrichstadt left the field heads bowed, full of anger and unwilling to congratulate their opponents.

The crowd was incensed. A poor refereeing performance against a background of suspicion (though no wrongdoing has ever been conclusively proven) that suggested the right team needed to win, saw the police called to what is called a disturbance by some sources and a riot by others. Walter Ulbricht, who would later become head of the GDR, had talked about destroying the spirit of Dresdner SC at “root and branch” and here was his chance.

SG Dresden-Friedrichstadt v ZSG Horch Zwickau post-game riot

Despite the frustrations on the field, the Friedrichstadt players were outwardly magnanimous in defeat. Having been snubbed at the end of season celebrations by Ulbricht, the team never received their league runners up medals and the squad quietly ducked out of the formalities. Helmut Schön was quoted at a gathering as saying “Zwickau was undoubtedly the better team. We extend the hand of friendship to our comrades”.

Magnanimity wouldn’t save the club from the wrath of the authorities however. The local press wrote that the fans of Friedrichstadt were the old fans of Dresdner SC and, as the players hadn’t congratulated Zwickau on the field, this reflected their status as a club of the past. Retribution was heavy: a substantial number of the squad were banned for varying lengths of time. As their leader Helmut Schön was banned for a year for unsportsmanlike conduct and the club’s home stadium was not allowed to host football above regional level for twelve months. With the branches cut, the authorities then killed the roots. The club was ordered to be disbanded for the second time in five years.

There were no transfers of players in the GDR as we understand it. The local sporting authorities, who were in essence also the local political authorities, ‘delegated’ the players to an ‘acceptable’ local worker’s club called Tabak Dresden, the team of the local cigarette factory. Many of the players had had enough however. Schön announced he was going on holiday but took his furniture with him. Others hopped in a taxi and with no wall to stop them at the time, moved to West Berlin and started to play again for Schön at Hertha Berlin.

This left the sporting authorities in the East with a problem. They wanted a Dresden side in the top division given its status as an important city, but most of the players from its major club had walked. As Tabak would not have the services of the players delegated to them, the local police team Volkspolizei Dresden was promoted instead. A few years later the club would become Dynamo Dresden and continues in that form today. Other teams came and went in Dresden. Dynamo became the focal point but some of the Friedrichstadt players who stayed, as well as one or two who went to the west and came back, played for clubs with similarly evocative names like Rotation Dresden or Einheit Dresden.

Helmut Schön would not go back to Dresden but would come face to face with East Germany again. He enjoyed a successful career as a player, then as a manager and would coach West Germany at the 1974 World Cup Finals. East Germany defeated West Germany 1-0 in the first group stage before being eliminated in the next round. There would never be another qualification for a major championship again. West Germany shrugged off that loss to their unloved neighbours and went on to win the competition.

Helmut Schön, manager of West Germany at the 1974 World Cup

After the fall of East Germany, many old entities changed their names and organisations that had been deemed unacceptable by the communist regime returned. Dresdner SC was reformed with its old colours and currently play in the 7th tier of the German game in the same division as old Stadtliga foe, SG Dresden-Striesen.


The following sources were used in the writing of this piece:

Die Geschichte der DDR-Oberliga by Andreas Baingo and Michael Horn


Dresdner SC 1898 Club history https://dresdner-sc.de/verein/geschichte/

Dresdner SC v LSV Hamburg. 1944 German Championship play-off

Dresden-Friedrichstad v Horst Zwickau. 1950 championship play-off

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