Friday, 19 August 2016

Book Review: The Race Against the Stasi by Herbie Sykes

The Race Against the Stasi: The Incredible Story of Dieter Wiedemann, the Iron Curtain and the Greatest Cycling Race on Earth by Herbie Sykes (Aurum Press, 2016)

This is a compelling book even if read alone for the story of Dieter Wiedemann. The apolitical East German cyclist fell in love with a girl from the west and, frustrated by the political decisions that were hampering his career, decided to defect while attending an Olympic trial in West Germany. The book, however, comes into its own as a textbook case of all that will go wrong when government uses sport to relentlessly promote its own ideology while depicting its declared enemies as the Evil Other.

The German Democratic Republic realised early on that it could counter its outcast international status as both a communist and a post-Nazi state by using sport to showcase a more positive image of the putative workers’ paradise. It focused on football, athletics and cycling. In the book’s early chapters, Sykes and his sources tell the fascinating story of the Peace Race, the eastern Bloc version of the Tour de France that covered Poland, Czechoslovakia and the GDR over two weeks, and which included teams not just from the socialist states, but politically sympathetic riders from countries like the UK and the Nordic nations.

The Peace Race was massively popular as both a sporting and a social event, while being touted by the Iron Curtain countries as a way to build brotherhood across nations on the road to socialist perfection. Take away the socialist part, and it’s the same sentimentalist tosh that Fifa and the IOC parp out as a matter of course to put an altruistic gloss on their criminal activities. For young sportsmen like Wiedemann, being selected for their country’s team in the Peace Race was one of the highest goals they could aim for.

Professionals in all but name, GDR cyclists trained all day and were well-paid compared with other workers. They were celebrated in their communities, were rewarded with gifts like fridges and TVs if they did well, and were able to travel abroad to compete. They were encouraged to join the Communist Party, but if you kept a low profile and trained hard, like Wiedemann, they could generally stay out of politics. At the same time, they were constantly cited by the unreadable GDR propaganda organ Neues Deutschland to highlight the fraternal brilliance, solidarity and invincibility of the state’s riders.

Wiedemann’s problems started after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 and the GDR was initially barred from international competition in the west. This narrowed the number of events he could take part in, and he found himself excluded from teams when passed over for riders in more politically favoured institutions, like the Stasi-backed Dynamo club, or the elite, Leipzig-based Deutsche Hochschule für Körperkultur. He was also marginalised because he didn’t go out of his way to promote the Party or talk to journalists. Driven too by his innocent young love for a western girl he’d met and had corresponded with for three years, Wiedemann decided that he’d had enough.

“So I’d missed out on both the [1963] Peace Race and the Tour of the GDR,” Wiedemann tells Sykes. “I was like a tree that can’t bear fruit, and the only things growing were anger and resentment. I’d started to hate all the hypocrisy of GDR cycling, and to resent the fact that my career was being hijacked by politicians.”

Although the Stasi had Wiedemann in its sights, like it did for any athlete who travelled to the west, it seemed as surprised as anyone when the apparently compliant Sportfreund defected during the Olympic trials that were held jointly with West Germany for an all-German team, ahead of the 1964 Olympics. The ubiquitous security service then put immense pressure on his family, in order to punish him indirectly for his ‘treason’. Wiedemann’s younger brother’s own cycling career was effectively over, his dad lost his well-paid job as a cycling mechanic, and they were granted no visas to visit Dieter in the west. The gifts had to be returned. Worst of all, Wiedemann’s mother ended up primarily blaming her son for his defection, above the manipulative state doctrines that had put the brakes on his promising career.

This book is an absorbing history of sport, political meddling and state oppression in the GDR. I did find myself speed-reading some of the Stasi reports and the extracts from Neues Deutschland. Important as they are, they don’t make for good literature and could perhaps have been cut or occasionally summarised. However, as an impeccably researched work reflecting the perils of ideological interference in citizens’ lives in order to shore up the total power of a paranoid, authoritarian elite, The Race Against the Stasi merits a prominent place in sporting literature’s leading pack. Thoroughly recommended.

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