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Stasi skeletons

July 29, 2011

Union Berlin, the second biggest football club in the German capital, is proud of its anti-Stasi reputation, dating from communist times. But revelations about its president have dented the image.

Union Berlin fans
Union Berlin have a unique history and fans who are proud of itImage: pIcture-alliance/dpa

"I'd rather be a loser - than a stupid Stasi pig!"

That was just one of the many chants they used to sing in the 1970s and 1980s in the Alte Försterei stadium in Köpenick, on the outskirts of Berlin, where 1. FC Union Berlin still play.

The chant was directed at city rivals BFC Dynamo, who won ten championships in a row between 1979 and 1988, and who were openly supported by the Ministry of State Security, or the Stasi.

It was a song of defiance against the imbalanced world of football in communist East Germany, where the best talents produced by any other club were - sooner or later - transferred to one of the two serial winners of the East German league: BFC Dynamo or Dynamo Dresden.

Even though the tables have turned now – with Union riding high in the second Bundesliga, and BFC Dynamo languishing in disgrace somewhere in the nether-regions of Germany's local leagues – the past still rankles at Union, who are proud of their anti-authoritarian history.

"Not every Union fan was an enemy of the state, but every enemy of the state was a Union fan," the editor of East German satirical magazine Eulenspiegel is quoted as saying in a biography of the club.

Enemy within

So it sparked much outrage in the Berlin press when it was revealed last week that FC Union President Dirk Zingler spent three years (1983 - 1986) of his military service in the "Feliks Dzierzynski" regiment of the East German army.

1. FC Union President Dirk Zingler
Dirk Zingler spent three years in an elite army regiment in the GDRImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

Named after the head of the Soviet secret service, the Dzierzynski regiment answered to the Ministry of State Security, and has been described as "the military arm of the Stasi." Its soldiers were involved in suppressing popular protests in 1953, and helped to secure the area when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. Its routine duties included guarding party and government buildings.

That the press - and Union's fans - might expect some answers is understandable. After all, when it was revealed two years ago that the head of the board at the club's sponsor International Sport Promotion (ISP) had been a Stasi officer, Zingler cut all ties immediately, at great financial cost to the club.

The press jumped on the news that Zingler himself had Stasi skeletons. The Tagesspiegel said "the perfect world of the club has gone off the rails." This revelation doesn't "fit the myth of the perennial underdog." It added that the club has predictably been trying to play down the whole business, "except - it's failing to."

It's true that the club did not handle the news very well. Contradictory statements emerged about which members of the board knew what, and when. This prompted the Berliner Morgenpost to describe the club as having a "siege mentality," while the Tagesspiegel made unflattering comparisons to "North Korean information policies."

Siege mentality

The club's relationship with the press declined. Before last weekend's home match against Greuther Fürth (an abject 4-0 defeat), press spokesman and stadium announcer Christian Arbeit appeared before the crowd brandishing a newspaper. "I don't think we need to have things explained to us by people who weren't here at the time, and came to Berlin at some point later," he told the 15,000 fans.

As far as Arbeit is concerned, it's a little hypocritical of former West German newspapers to make judgements on decisions made by people in the GDR.

Zingler - 18 years old at the time - said in a recent interview in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, "They told me, if you want to stay in Berlin, you have to serve three years. Berlin was very important for me, as an Union fan. I didn't know at the time that the regiment was subject to the Ministry of State Security."

Fussball, 2. Bundesliga, Saison 2011/2012, 2. Spieltag, 1. FC Union Berlin - SpVgg Greuther Fuerth,
Union were humiliated at the hands of Fürth at the weekendImage: dapd

"I'm surprised by how negatively it was reported," Arbeit told Deutsche Welle. "It's not as if Zingler was a Stasi officer. I think in order to be able to judge this properly, you have to have experienced it. There are things that happened in West Germany that we wouldn't be able to judge well either."

But Arbeit says the club's history often gets oversimplified by the press anyway. "We do have a very unique history, compared to other clubs," said Arbeit. "But it wasn't us that always claimed we were this big anti-Stasi club. These are stories that get simplified in the media."

Swapping stories

And Arbeit said the fans had not been shaken by the revelations about Zingler. "His position as president is not being questioned," he said. "But what is happening is that the fans are swapping their stories. A lot of the fans have their own stories of the GDR. You see how multi-faceted were the many different decisions that each person had to make for him or herself."

On the club's online fan forums, fans have been exchanging their stories – explaining the difficult choices they had to make. "People tried to muddle through as best as they could in the GDR," one fan told Deutsche Welle. "Some did it with more backbone than others. But he was not a Stasi agent."

New age, new enemy?

In the club's post-Wall history, Union has been identified as Berlin's "alternative" club - the underdog that gets by without Hertha's big money and Olympic stadium. This image was reinforced in 2009, when Union ran out of money to rebuild the Alte Försterei terraces, and thousands of fans worked for free to get the stadium finished in time for their new season in the second Bundesliga.

The Berliner Morgenpost - implying that commercialization had replaced the Stasi as Union's new enemy - claimed that the club had defined itself in the past few years by its "us against them" unity, and that this would prove a stumbling block to establishing itself in the world of modern professional football.

This too is an oversimplification, says Arbeit. "I think it's going too far to call it an enemy. We do try and keep the football side of things free from marketing. We don't have adverts for things flashing up in the stadium during the injury breaks or anything - we try to keep the football-watching experience as authentic as possible. But of course, we also have sponsors and economic partners. That's part of it."

And it seems that the fans are - with perhaps a few exceptions - resolutely behind Zingler. They haven't forgotten that it was Zingler who saved the club in 2004 and led it back to professional status. At the weekend's match against Fürth, many wore t-shirts decorated with a simple statement of loyalty: "Pro DZ."

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Mark Hallam