BOOK REVIEW: Herbie Sykes, The Race Against the Stasi: The Incredible Story of Dieter Wiedemann, the Iron Curtain and the Greatest Cycling Race on Earth. (Aurum Press, 2014).
The Race Against the Stasi tells the story of Dieter Wiedemann, a small town boy with a love of cycling, who became one of East Germany’s sporting elite. In 1962, he was even chosen to represent the GDR in the annual Peace Race, the ‘Tour de France of the East’ and the biggest event in the sporting calendar for cycling enthusiasts in the Eastern bloc. During the summer of 1960 however, Dieter Wiedemann fell in love with Sylvia Hermann, a girl from the Western zone of Germany who was visiting relatives in Dieter’s home town of Floha. After Sylvia returned home, the two wrote to one another regularly, a correspondence that they maintained after the closure of the inner-Berlin border in August 1961. (“You assumed it was a temporary thing” said Dieter, when discussing his reaction to the construction of the Berlin Wall “The feeling was that the politicians would sort it out somehow, and that things would just go back to normal”).
As time passed, the division of Germany assumed more permanence, travel between East and West became more restrictive and it became increasingly clear that Dieter and Sylvia could not be together unless one of them was prepared to ‘switch sides’. So in 1964, when Dieter was sent to participate in a cycling qualification race taking place in Giessen, a town in West Germany not far from where Sylvia and her family lived, he began plotting his escape. On 4th July 1964, he took advantage of a break in training one afternoon to ‘take his bike out for a ride’, and never returned. Dieter was granted asylum in the FRG and started a new life there; gaining a professional contract to ride for the West German cycling team ‘Torpedo’, and even competing in the Tour de France in 1967. Dieter and Sylvia married, and raised three children together. Fifty years on, Herbie Sykes tells the story of Dieter Wiedemann for the very first time, drawing on a potent combination of personal testimonies and archival research.
While the love story between Dieter and Sylvia lies at the heart of this tale, it would be wrong to dismiss this as merely a Cold War romance; a pair of star-crossed lovers, separated by the ‘iron curtain’. The Race Against the Stasi also provides some fascinating insights into life in the GDR. Wiedemann’s story highlights the politicisation of sport in East Germany; sporting success was hijacked as propaganda, used to create popular patriotism within the GDR and raise the regime’s prestige overseas, with the sporting elite viewed as ‘diplomats in tracksuits’. Full-time sportsmen benefitted from generous state funding and enjoyed a privileged status, including the opportunity to travel overseas to compete. Sporting success bought material benefits and a certain amount of political influence, as shown by Dieter’s intervention to ensure that Sylvia was granted a rare travel permit for a second visit to Floha in 1964. However, poor sporting performance could also attract political pressure, as Dieter discovered when the GDR teams’ third place finish in the 1962 Peace Race was deemed ‘unsatisfactory’, bringing him to the attention of the Stasi who were ‘looking for someone to blame’.
While Dieter’s relationship with Sylvia was clearly the biggest catalyst for his decision to defect to the West, HE also outlines his growing frustration and resentment with the politicisation, oppression and tightening of social control following the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the more restrictive aspects of life in communist East Germany. In The Race Against the Stasi Dieter describes how, after 1961, his refusal to join the Communist Party led to questions being asked about his lack of ‘ideological loyalty’ to the regime, which begin to have an adverse effect on his sporting career:
“I just wanted to be able to race my bike, and to feel like I had the same chance as everybody else. Now it really dawned on me that I didn’t and probably never would have … I wasn’t political at all, but nor did I want my life to become politicised … the country was getting more and more oppressive. There were more police, more people being arrested and more Stasi” (Dieter Wiedemann, quoted in The Race Against the Stasi, pp168-173)
The Race Against the Stasi is structured around the different ‘lives’ of Dieter Wiedemann – his life in the GDR up until 1964, His ‘second life’ in the FRG following his defection, and his ‘third life’ as represented through reports and documents taken from Wiedemann’s Stasi file, which only became available after the collapse of communism and the reunification of Germany. Personal testimonies feature heavily throughout The Race Against the Stasi, as in addition to the inclusion of detailed narratives from Dieter and Sylvia, Sykes has collected testimonies from a range of other individuals who are connected to the story. Throughout the book the various narrators are allowed to ‘speak for themselves’, and Sykes’ own ‘voice’ (as author/interviewer) is almost entirely absent, limited to a short introduction and a few concluding comments. This is a very effective narrative trope, and the inclusion of multiple supporting narratives generally works very well (for example, the dual narrative between Dieter and Sylvia, describing their first meeting was a particularly nice touch) although there are also a few places where the rather frequent jump between multiple narrators is a little frustrating.
Sykes has also carried out painstaking archival research, as illustrated by the many documents interspersed throughout the narrative, including relevant press reports from Neues Deutschland and other media, multiple copies of confidential reports compiled by the Stasi, copies of some of the letters Dieter had written to Sylvia 1960-1964 (none of Sylvia’s letters to Dieter have survived as they were destroyed by his family after he left), and personal photographs of the couple and their families. The inclusion of so many sources interspersed throughout the book is a great addition, providing some wonderful insights, although at times the sheer volume of sources included does break-up the narrative flow. The extracts from Dieter’s Stasi file provide a great snapshot of the high levels of surveillance and social control that existed in the GDR, but also illustrate that errors and oversights were still possible – given their interest in Dieter, it seemed almost unbelievable that the Stasi remained largely unaware of the close relationship he had formed with Sylvia until after his defection, even with their frequent exchange of letters 1960-64 and Dieter’s personal intervention to request a permit to allow Sylvia to visit him shortly before his defection.
Finally, Sykes does not shy away from highlighting the damage that Dieter’s decision to leave the GDR caused for those he left behind. While Dieter and Sylvia got their ‘happy ending’, his family suffered terribly – not only had they lost Dieter, but they were subjected to close Stasi surveillance and endured numerous socio-economic sanctions (Dieter’s father lost his job and his younger brother, Eberhard, also a talented cyclist, was prevented from ever racing professionally). Ultimately, their family relationship was fractured beyond repair:
“Looking back, I suppose we were all victims … and no relationship could survive all that without being seriously compromised” (Dieter, quoted in The Race Against the Stasi, p386)
“At times, at the start, it felt like my whole life was a fight between East and West” (Sylvia, quoted in The Race Against the Stasi, p318)
The story of Dieter Wiedemann is an intriuging tale, encompassing a potent combination of politics, sport, love and betrayal. Herbie Sykes impresively balances the political and the personal, making The Race Against the Stasi an enjoyable, compelling and highly recommended read.
It’s funny how sometimes, certain dates seem to have particular resonance in terms of their historical significance. A quick glance through my Twitter feed earlier this morning reminded me that, even amongst all of the current excitement over Putin’s victory in yesterday’s Russian election, 5th March is a date that marks a number of significant developments in the history of modern central and eastern Europe. On this day, the following events occurred:
5th March 1940 – Stalin signed the order authorising NKVD officers to commence the execution and burial of over 20,000 captured Polish Army Officers who were being held in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk in Poland. Responsibility for the Katyn Massacre was subsequently denied by Soviet officials, who blamed the Germans right up until the dying days of the USSR, when Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted Soviet responsibility. However, Katyn has continued to cast a dark shadow over Russian-Polish relations in the post-Cold War period, as discussed in more detail in my previous blog post HERE.
5th March 1946 – Concerned by the rapid spread of communist influence across central and eastern Europe, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous speech at Fulton Missouri, where he stated that ‘an iron curtain’ had descended across the continent, separating East from West, The speech signalled the beginning of the end for the wartime ‘Grand Alliance’ and the hardening of formal spheres of influence in post-war Europe. Churchill’s vivid depiction of an ‘iron curtain’ dividing the capitalist west from the communist east became a key metaphor in Cold War political language. You can read Churchills speech in full HERE.
5th March 1953 – Soviet leader Josef Stalin died, aged 74, after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Stalin’s body had been discovered several days earlier, collapsed in his private chambers. It has subsequently been alleged that Stalin may have been poisoned by Lavrenti Beria, his chief of secret police, Stalin’s death marked the end to his 29 years in power, a period which had seen the Soviet Union transformed politically, economically, socially and culturally through a series of sweeping reforms which had enabled the USSR to emerge from World War II as a victorious superpower, but had led to almost unimaginable hardship and suffering for millions of Soviet citizens. So while many Soviet people openly wept upon receiving news of Stalin’s death, many more exchanged secret smiles and secretly toasted his demise. Today, Stalin’s legacy remains highly contested, both within Russia and internationally, as discussed in a previous blog post HERE.
Also on this day in (East European) history:
5th March 1871 – Socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was born in Zamosc (then part of Russian controlled Poland)
5th March 1918 – The Soviets moved the Russian capital from Petrograd to Moscow.
5th March 1933 – The Nazi Party won 44% of the vote in the German Parliamentary elections, allowing Hitler to assume dictatorial powers
“Hungary was where the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall” ~ former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, speaking to mark the reunification of Germany on October 4th 1990.
Today marks the anniversary of another key event linked to the collapse of communism across East Europe in 1989. Twenty years ago today, 19th August 1989, was the date of the Pan-European Picnic organised along the Austro-Hungarian border, in a field just outside the Hungarian city of Sopron.
The premise of the picnic was fairly simple: organised by members of the growing anti-communist opposition parties in Hungary, the event was planned as a peaceful event to demonstrate increasing Hungarian freedom under Glasnost, and to promote friendship between East and West. Austrian and Hungarian authorities agreed to open a small stretch of the common border at Sopronpuszta for just three hours, at 3pm, in order to allow small delegations representing both countries to conduct ‘an ordinary exchange of greetings between local populations’ on either side of the Iron Curtain. On the day, however, hundreds of East Germans arrived at the picnic to attempt to walk across the border into Austria. A sizeable group of around 600 people made it across the border that afternoon, in the first large-scale exodus of East German citizens to the West since the construction of the Berlin Wall back in 1961.
Cracks in the ‘Iron Curtain’ between Austria and Hungary were increasingly evident in the months leading up to August 1989 – most notably demonstrated on 27th June when then Austrian and Hungarian Foreign Ministers Alois Mock and Gyula Horn were photographed using bolt cutters to tear holes in part of the barbed wire fence marking the border between their countries:
However, the border between Austria and Hungary was not officially thrown open until September 11th 1989, and at the time of the Pan European Picnic, the Hungarian border guards were still officially working under orders to ‘shoot to kill’ anyone who attempted to cross into Austria illegally. Thus the events of 19th August were seen (as former Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth described earlier this week) as ‘a test of Gorbachev’s word‘ that he would not intervene militarily to prevent the cross-border movements of people, as the Hungarians remained unsure how Moscow would react. When confronted with the large group of Germans intent on attempting to breach the border, Lt. Col. Arpad Bella, acting commander of the Hungarian border guards on duty at Sopronpuszta that day, described how he had “just a few seconds” to decide what course of action to take in the absence of any clear orders from above. He decided that he “did not want to be a mass murderer” so he would “do the right thing“, and ordered his guards to stand aside and allow the people to pass, observing the reactions of those who had made it safely onto Austrian soil:
“What I saw on the other side was amazing. There were people who in their panic kept running further even though they were on Austrian land. There were people who just sat down on the other side of the border and just either cried or laughed”.
Laszlo Nagy, one of the main organisers behind the picnic, has claimed that at the time ‘we didn’t feel like we were making history‘ describing the events of 19 August 1989 as ‘just the world’s greatest garden party‘. In the intervening twenty years however, and in the context of events that took place later in 1989, the significance imbued on that day has increased. Earlier this week, Jose Manuel Barroso (current President of the European Commission) issued a statement claiming that the events at Sopronpuszta had ‘helped to change the course of European History’ marking ‘the beginning of the end of the division of Europe by the Cold War‘, while Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (representing the current EU Presidency) also referred to the anniversary in his online blog, where he stated that:
“What happened attracted enormous attention and set in motion the process which saw the wall fall in Berlin on November 9 … for the appearance of a hole in the Iron Curtain means that the curtain in its entirety became worthless. It was like a gigantic dam which suddenly had developed a little hole somewhere. And it was at Sopron where everything really begun to crack in all seriousness”.
To mark the anniversary of the Pan-European picnic an official ceremony is being held today at Sopronpuszta, where Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom, Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai and visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel are making commemorative speeches, meeting with some of the East Germans who crossed the border twenty years ago, and unveiling a monument called ‘Breakthrough’ to formally mark the 20th anniversary of events.
You can read more about Border Guard Arpad Bella’s account of the events of that day here, in a recent article from The Times Online, (published on 14th August 2009):
While former Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth spoke to the BBC World Service about his decision to open the border here:
And the BBC Website also hosts this video clip, of the first East Germans to cross from Hungary to Austria twenty years ago today: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8210356.stm