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What happened to East Germany's top football clubs?

October 3, 2021

After German reunification, East Germany's top football clubs were integrated into the Bundesliga pyramid. But they struggled to compete and some huge names have slipped down the leagues.

Fußball l Achter DDR-Meistertitel für den BFC Dynamo - 1986
Image: picture-alliance/A. Altwein

What went wrong with the reunification of German football?

Thirty years on from the historic reunification of Germany, debates still rage about how successful the undertaking has been. From politics and age to jobs and economic output, huge differences remain between the 11 "old" Bundesländer of the former capitalist West Germany and the five "new" states of the former communist East. And football is no different.

Particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, clubs from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) made regular appearances in the latter stages of European competitions.

Magdeburg won the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1974, while Carl Zeiss Jena and Lokomotive Leipzig both made the final of the competition. Dynamo Dresden played an East German record 98 games in Europe.

Following reunification, the clubs of the old East German Oberliga (the top division in the GDR) were integrated into the West German pyramid. The top two were added to the Bundesliga, third to sixth joined the second division, while seventh to twelfth entered a play-off to qualify for the second division.

Fast-forward to 2020 however, and there have never been more than two eastern German clubs in any one Bundesliga season. This season, only Union Berlin and RB Leipzig are based in what was the GDR, although the latter was only controversially created in 2009. There are currently three more eastern German clubs in the second division: Hansa Rostock, Dynamo Dresden and Erzgebirge Aue, known during the GDR as Wismut Aue.

What's happened to them all?

Hansa Rostock (second division)

The last ever East German champions, Hansa Rostock, qualified directly for the Bundesliga after surprisingly winning the 1990-91 Oberliga.

Although relegated in their first season, the club from the Baltic coast bounced back and were mid-table Bundesliga ever-presents from 1995-2005. With a total of 12 Bundesliga seasons, no eastern club has spent more time in the reunited German top flight than Hansa.

Since 2013, however, Rostock found themselves stranded in the third division, in which they regularly finished in the top half but not close enough for promotion. They still attracted crowds of over 12,000 however, and boast one of Germany's most notorious fan scenes. Last season, they were finally promoted back to the second division.

Fußball Berlin Fans von Dynamo Dresden zünden bengalisches Feuer
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Gora

Dynamo Dresden (second division)

Eight-time East German champions and seven-time cup winners Dynamo Dresden finished runners-up in the final Oberliga season, also qualifying directly for the first all-German Bundesliga in 1991, where they remained for four seasons.

In 1995, however, drowning in debt, they were relegated directly to the third division. By the turn of the millennium, a restructuring of the league pyramid saw them drop to the fourth tier.

Since then, they have gradually climbed back up the leagues thanks to fanatical support — last season, over 30,000 Dynamo fans traveled to Hertha Berlin away in the German Cup — and a new, modern stadium.

Over the course of the last decade they looked a settled second-division side, and even pushed for promotion to the Bundesliga in 2017. In 2020 though, they were relegated back down to the third division, but have bounced straight back as champions.

- Read more:  Dynamo Dresden and the SoKo Dynamo - '58 affected, but they mean all of us'

Magdeburg (third division)

The only East German club to win a major European trophy, beating AC Milan to win the Cup Winners' Cup final in 1974, Magdeburg can lay claim to the GDR's greatest club football triumph.

Club striker Jürgen Sparwasser also scored the winning goal in East Germany's famous World Cup win over West Germany in Hamburg a few months later.

By the time of reunification however, the club from Saxony-Anhalt finished tenth and went on to spend the best part of three decades yo-yoing between the third and fourth tiers, battling bankruptcy.

In 2015, they finally returned to the nationwide third division, winning an historic promotion three years later before going straight back down.

Like rivals Hansa and Dynamo, Magdeburg's fan scene also enjoys a notorious reputation.

Fussball l Das Sportforum Berlin in Hohenschönhausen
Image: picture-alliance/K. Kleist-Heinrich

BFC Dynamo (fourth division)

In East German football, the prefix "Dynamo" denoted a club which was backed by the Stasi (secret police). They were given access to the country's best players and were hated by opposition fans due to the perceived favorable treatment received from referees — and none more so than BFC Dynamo.

The East Berlin side were the pride of Stasi boss Erich Mielke and won a record ten Oberliga titles in a row between 1979 and 1988. By the time of the final Oberliga season however, playing under the name FC Berlin and without Stasi backing, they missed out on the Bundesliga.

Since then, BFC has been decried as a Stasi club due to its history and a Nazi club due to its hooligans — but also loved as a community club by those fans who remain loyal.

- Read more: 'Stasi club' BFC Dynamo: What happened to the record East German champions?

Carl Zeiss Jena (fourth division)

Originally formed in 1903 as a works team by employees of the optical company Carl Zeiss, Jena went on to become one of the GDR's most well-known teams. It won the Oberliga three times, the East German cup four times and made the 1981 European Cup Winners' Cup final, losing to Georgia's Dinamo Tiblisi.

Despite qualifying for the second division in 1991, Jena have only spent eight seasons at that level since, generally plying their trade in the third and fourth tiers. Three consecutive years in the third flight came to a crashing end last season when Jena finished rock bottom having won just five games and conceding 85 goals.

The football might have been bad on the pitch, but the views around the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld in Jena are some of the most spectacular in Germany. The south stand is home to the club's ultras, the Horda Azzuro, one of the more progressive fan groups in eastern German football.

Lokomotive Leipzig (fourth division)

So close, yet so far — that's probably the best way to sum up Lokomotive Leipzig, whose predecessors VfB Leipzig were the first ever German champions back in 1903.

During the GDR years, Lok Leipzig won four East German cups but were losing finalists on three more occasions. They also finished Oberliga runners-up three times and lost to Ajax in the 1987 European Cup Winners' Cup final.

Despite one Bundesliga campaign in 1993-94 (back under the name of VfB), the club were relegated to the fourth tier and went bust in 2004, only to be reformed by fans and climb back up to the fourth tier.

In the 2019/20 season, after the campaign was abandoned due to the coronavirus, Lok were crowned champions on points-per-game but lost a promotion play-off against SC Verl on away goals. So close, yet so far.

- Read more: When Tottenham Hotspur played Leipzig behind the Iron Curtain

Energie Cottbus (fourth division)

Before Union Berlin's promotion in 2019, the last club from the former GDR to play in the Bundesliga was Energie Cottbus, relegated in 2009.

The side from Brandenburg, near the Polish border, played only a secondary role in the former East. They managed only six years in the Oberliga, and didn't match the national or international palmares of other clubs listed here. They didn't even qualify for the second division after reunification but did manage to work their way up to the Bundesliga by the year 2000.

Fourteen years in the top two divisions followed before a drop to the third tier and then to the regional fourth tier, where they remain today.

Energie have made more headlines off the pitch in recent years due to the presence of right-wing extremists within their support - but other Cottbus fans are determined to improve the image of their club.

- Read more: 'Not a neo-Nazi club': Energie Cottbus supporters battling right-wing image

What went wrong with the reunification of German football?