Border control

wsc299 Paul Joyce studies how the Berlin Wall divided the city arbitrarily and changed the lives of clubs, players and fans

Although post-war Germany was divided into two states in 1949, football clubs on both sides of the border were determined to maintain sporting relations. Despite political tensions between capitalist West Germany (FRG) and the socialist East (GDR), numerous cross-border friendlies took place on public holidays in the early 1950s. These proved massively popular with supporters on both sides of the divide. In October 1956, 110,000 East German fans filled the new Leipzig Zentralstadion to watch 1.FC Kaiserslautern, whose team contained five players from West Germany’s 1954 World Cup-winning side, beat SC Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt 5-3.

Situated deep inside GDR territory, the divided city of Berlin was an obvious location for such encounters. On Christmas Day in 1953 and 1954, two “reconciliation matches” were held between teams representing West and East Berlin. These were watched by a total of 90,000 fans. In May 1955, a joint XI consisting of players from both halves of the city beat Prague 1-0 in East Berlin’s Walter-Ulbricht-Stadion.

The open border between the communist East and West Berlin – a political exclave administered by Britain, France and the US – meant that footballers could live in one half of the city but play sport in the other. Two East Berlin residents, Wolfgang Schunack and Klaus Taube, were key players for the West Berlin side Hertha BSC and took part in a prestige friendly against Pelé’s Santos in 1960. As Hertha’s ground was located close to the border, they also attracted large numbers of East Berlin fans. Since these fans represented a lucrative source of revenue, special turnstiles were set up to allow GDR citizens to pay using East German currency.

After the official closure of the inner German border in 1952, Berlin was also the last remaining escape route for East Germans who wanted to flee to the West. By 1961, around 3.5 million GDR inhabitants had left the country  – 20 per cent of the population. On August 13, the governing Socialist Unity Party (SED) closed the final loophole by building an 87-mile long barrier to seal off West Berlin from East Berlin and from surrounding East Germany.

Cross-border sporting contacts came to an immediate halt. The West German club SSV Neckarsulm were playing a friendly in East Germany against Motor Weimar when news broke at half-time that the Berlin Wall was being built. “There was dejection among the Weimar players after that,” recalled Neckarsulm captain Eugen Lieb.

GDR teams on tour in the West were faced with the dilemma of whether to return home or not. Wolfgang Oeser, who was playing for a Dresden XI in Ulm on August 13, only found out the news from a West German newspaper. “We felt queasy during the coach journey back,” he said later. “Some of my team-mates thought that they wouldn’t let us back in.” Emil Poklitar and Ralf Starost, two Dynamo Berlin players who were on tour with the club in Copenhagen, managed to slip away from their Stasi (secret police) minders and escape via ferry to Hamburg.

Most East Germans were powerless to react. The centre-forward Klaus Taube was cycling from his East Berlin home to play for Hertha when he found the sector crossing points closed. “It was so unreal,” Taube recalled. “I stood at the border and didn’t understand what was going on. My career at Hertha was over in a matter of minutes.” Though Taube carried on playing in East Berlin, the SED’s stigmatisation of footballers who had played in the West as “workshy, criminal elements” meant that he was only allowed to compete for lower-level clubs.

Other football figures were used by the GDR state to defend their actions. On August 22, 1961, the front cover of the East German football magazine Neue Fußball-Woche had a photo of East German  football coach Fritz Belger on guard at the Berlin Wall with a rifle in his hand. “I’ve exchanged my tracksuit for the obligatory uniform of the combat group, and a leather ball for a machine gun,” Belger was quoted as saying.

West Berlin clubs also struggled to come to terms with the new situation. Due to the building of the Wall, more than 20 West Berlin sides lost first-team players who lived in the Soviet sector and their membership figures slumped. The West German football authorities tried to support West Berlin by guaranteeing Hertha a place in the new Bundesliga, which was created in 1963. The isolated location of the “island city” made it impossible to attract top footballers from other West German regions. Hertha were demoted from the Bundesliga in 1965 following attempts to bribe players to move to Berlin. Their replacements for the 1965-66 season, Tasmania Berlin, achieved the lowest ever points tally in Bundesliga history.

In order to follow their team on matchdays, Hertha’s many fans in East Berlin gathered by the Wall in the Bornholmer Strasse, from where they could hear the crowd at Hertha’s Plumpe stadium. Unable to reach the West, many instead travelled all over the Soviet bloc to watch matches involving Bundesliga teams. In 1971, about a thousand East German supporters went to Warsaw to support the West German national team in a European Championship qualifier against Poland. “You felt like you’d got your strength back when you were in the Eastern bloc watching football and could be with the players,” said Helmut Klopfleisch, a Hertha fan from East Berlin. “We always wanted one Germany and one city of Berlin, so for me there was no division.”

Klopfleisch became so well known among West German players and officials that Bayern Munich president Fritz Scherer once turned up at his East Berlin flat to bring him Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s shirt. Scherer had smuggled it across the border by wearing it under his pullover. “He got undressed right in the hall,” Klopfleisch recalled in amazement.

The Stasi responded to Klopfleisch’s Western contacts by locking him up before important matches and confiscating his passport. He lost his job as an electrician and ended up cleaning toilets, while his son’s football career was blocked. Ironically, his application to move his family to the West was finally accepted in May 1989 – only six months before wall fell. On November 11, 1989, two days after the borders were opened, over 10,000 East Berliners crossed into the West to watch Hertha play Wattenscheid 09 in the Olympiastadion. After 28 years, the separation was finally over.

From WSC 299 January 2012