Split up by the wall, rebelling against the Stasi, bleeding for the club, a stadium built by its own fans and a 30,000 Christmas sing-a-long; Rory Price explores the incredible history and the astonishing loyalty of Union Berlin and its supporters.
In recent years, many amongst the Celtic support have developed an affinity for FC. St Pauli, a Bundesliga 2 club located in the heart of Hamburg’s famous Reeperbahn District. With the club’s outspoken stance against racism, homophobia, fascism and sexism immortalised in its institution, the politics of Germany’s most supported club among females resonates with much of the Hoops faithful, resulting in a strong relationship being forged between the two supporters’ groups.
Three hours south-east from Hamburg, in Germany’s capital, lies a club just as worthy of the Celtic faithful’s attention with its own unique link to Glasgow’s green and white. In a city that has been flattened, rebuilt, partitioned and then thrown back together again, Union Berlin symbolises its very hometown.
The cultural hub of Germany, Berlin endured a long struggle to forge its own inherent identity and has certainly failed to match Europe’s fellow major cities in cultivating world-class football clubs, such as Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid. Amongst the museums and nightclubs, it would be easy to assume that Berliners have no time for football, yet within this metropolis 12 clubs ply their trade.
The truth is that Berlin is a city far more passionate about football than your preconceptions would lead you to believe and you’d be hard-pressed to find a set of supporters more passionate about their club than the Eisern of Union Berlin.
Union began life in 1906 when they formed as FC Olympia 06 Oberschöneweide in eastern Berlin’s Oberschöneweide district, incorporating Union into their name four years later. During the inter-war period, Union were one of Berlin’s outstanding clubs, regularly winning local championships as well as competing on a national level. In its infancy, the club developed the nickname Schlosserjungs (metal-work boys) due to the resemblance between their all-blue kit and the typical uniforms worn by workers in the plethora of factories which populated the industrial Oberschöneweide district. Furthermore, the supporters’ popular chant of ‘Eisern Union!’ (Iron Union!) was also born out of this early era in the club’s history, which cemented the working-class roots that are still an integral part of the club’s identity to this day.
Problems began to ensue for Union, as they did for all German clubs, after Germany’s defeat in the Second World War. In 1945, the occupying Allied authorities demanded the dissolution of all German organisations, including sports teams. Following a few years playing in local Berlin leagues, the escalating Cold War prevented the East Berlin-based Union team from traversing the border for matches with Western clubs. This resulted in two Union teams then emerging, as the majority of coaching and playing staff fled to the West to for Sports Club Union 06 Berlin. This incarnation of Union currently languishes in the lower echelons of German football, playing their matches before measly crowds which pale in comparison to the sort of numbers they managed to draw to the Olympiastadion before the construction of the Wall.
Following a handful of name changes, the eastern-based FC Union Berlin reformed in 1966 during East Germany’s sporting reshuffle. The club quickly tasted success by winning the East German cup in 1968, a feat which remains Union’s greatest achievement. However, the taste of success would soon wear off as the club battled through a demoralising existence in the corrupt system of East German football.
As the divide between East and West became deeper and deeper, the Communist authorities in the East developed an urge to throw their weight around. GDR officials, unimpressed with the dominance of Dynamo Dresden, longed for a successful team to be based in Berlin. This wish culminated in the Government enforcing the relocation of Dresden’s all-conquering squad to the lowly BFC Dynamo, a mediocre police club based in Berlin, creating what would become a bitter rival for Union.
This rivalry was not played out on an even playing field, as Dynamo enjoyed the backing of Government officials, most notably Erich Mielke, leader of the Stasi, the infamous Security Service of the authoritarian state. The support of Mielke, who was made honorary chairman of the club, handed Dynamo with the power to manipulate the system however they pleased in order to reap success. This saw referees being paid off or coerced, rival players receiving threats and even declining from playing to their full ability when facing Dynamo, for fear of state retribution.
It has even been said that whenever Union led Dynamo towards the end of the match the referee would just keep playing, adding on time for Dynamo to come back. Unsurprisingly, Dynamo went on to romp their way to 10 straight league titles between 1979-88, marking a miserable time to be a Union fan.
Nonetheless, one of the most fondly remembered games amongst an older generation of Union fans is their 1976 triumph against Dynamo. After trying everything from threats to added time to penalties, Union could not be defeated and sealed the win, which ensured Dynamo could not be crowned champions. This result was considered as a crime against the state, although not many of the 20,000 Union fans who proceeded to parade through Freidrichstrasse, alongside the Wall, cared too much about state opinions of the game.
Though the state began to take more notice of Union and soon men in suits began to appear at Union games where they would meticulously observe the crowd and take photographs (British football fans today might think this sound familiar).
This did nothing to quell Union fans, who revelled in their identity as the rebels. By this point being a Union fan wasn’t so much solely about your footballing allegiance but rather a matter of political identity. Union had become the anti-establishment club with people from all walks of life: students and artists or skinheads and punks, all flocking to the Stadion An der Alten Försterei (Stadium at the Old Forester’s House) which, before long, became a meeting point for those wishing to rebel against the totalitarian establishment.
With this, Union became more than just a football club, but a figurehead of rebellion in the face of true oppression. This ensured the rivalry with Dynamo ran even deeper than football, as it incurred the Establishment vs Rebels dimension. As with the Stasi who backed them, the fans of Dynamo had a thirst for violence and a petulant desire to have things the way they liked it, which often led to violent clashes between Dynamo and Union fans as Dynamo’s followers basked in their state-sanctioned privilege.
Today, Union are no longer able to regularly lock horns with a fierce cross-city rival but 22 stops westward on the S-Bahn lies the grandeur of Charlottenberg, an affluent district in West Berlin, home to the iconic Olympiastadion and its Bundesliga tenant – Hertha Berlin.
Due to the contrast in their footballing fortunes, this clash of East vs West between Union and Hertha has been an extremely rare sight to behold. In fact, Union have only ever faced Hertha four times in competitive matches, with these coming in Hertha’s two embarrassing – yet brief – spells in 2. Bundesliga in seasons 10/11 and 12/13 respectively.
Perhaps the most significant meeting between the pair was a friendly played on the 27th of January 1990, just 79 days after the fall of the Berlin Wall and many months before reunification was set in stone. Over 50,000 fans packed into the Olympiastadion, paying for their tickets in their differing currencies. A group of 100 or so Dynamo fans also appeared at the game, intent on inciting violence and division. However, this was not to be, as the supporters from East and West joined in unison to drown out the troublemakers with chants of “Stasi Out, Stasi Out”.
The stability that came with reunification was unable to rub off on a struggling Union Berlin. At the same time as Celtic were blighted with financial hardship Union also had their fair share. The Berlin outfit managed to weather the storm and eventually earn sponsorship, but only after being crowned Champions of their division in 93 and 94 and being refused a license to 2. Bundesliga on financial grounds. However, it was the Union fans’ response to the existential financial disaster that loomed over the club in 2004 that inspired my admiration of the Eisern fanbase.
In 2004, the German FA demanded that Union pay a sum of €1.5 million to play in the regional league. This inspired the incredible ‘Bluten für Union’ (bleed for Union) campaign which saw the fans raise the necessary funds to help the club meet the FA’s demands. In Germany, when you donate blood to a blood bank, you are rewarded in cash. This led to thousands of Union Berlin fans making trips to the blood bank and literally bleeding for the cause, an immense symbol of the unrelenting loyalty that the inspiring Union support possesses for their lowly club.
The fans managed to contribute to the €1.5 million fee required and the club secured its place in the fourth tier of German football. Just a few years later, a rejuvenated Union became one of the founding members of 3. Liga, which they won in its inaugural season, securing promotion to 2. Bundesliga. In the middle of that year (2008) the decision was finally taken to modernize the Stadion An der Alten Försterei which was now exceptionally run-down, with weeds growing through the harsh slabs of concrete steps which constituted the stands.
Once again money was tight and the support stood up to ensure the club’s visions could be met. The Union faithful banded together and built the ground themselves as an army of volunteers. 2,500 Union fans put in over 140,000 hours of work between them and renovated Berlin’s largest football-specific stadium into a ground of 22,000 capacity, 80% of which is standing.
Following this mammoth effort, the Union support then bought the stadium, with each club member contributing €500 each to the purchase. In turn, the general stability this ownership has kickstarted allowed the club to consolidate their position as a 2. Bundesliga club – a level that seemed light-years away back in 2005 when Union found themselves in German football’s fifth tier.
The hard work of the supporters was celebrated with the official full opening of the modernized stadium in the summer of 2013 against – that’s right – Celtic. The game was the first played out before the new main stand and saw Union run out 3-0 victors in what was the Hoops’ fourth consecutive defeat in a lackluster pre-season trip to Germany.
The opening of the new stadium has only deepened the club’s commitment to the fan experience. During the 2014 World Cup, the club gained global recognition through coverage of its quirky ‘World Cup Livingroom’ in which football supporters were invited to bring their sofas onto the Alte Försterei pitch to watch the action from Brazil on a purpose-built big screen.
A further Union initiative that has been tremendously popular with supporters is their newfound tradition of Christmas Caroling. The 2. Bundesliga enters a winter break which means that the Union masses are unable to support their side over the festive period. Union fans remember how in 2003, with the club in the midst of a desperate era, supporters would stand together on the terraces but were so dejected by the dross on the pitch that they would forget to even wish each other a Merry Christmas. So, a proposal was made amongst Union fans that they should get together on the night before Christmas Eve and sing together for 90 minutes for one last time before Christmas.
In the first year, only 89 people showed, yet at this point it was a fairly underground event and the stadium was closed. By 2015, the event had developed into a Union club tradition and drew a crowd of 30,000. The Union players even attend the event with their families and bask in the club’s community spirit, and it is not uncommon even for supporters of Hertha to join their cross-city rivals and wish them a Merry Christmas.
These creative fan initiatives go a huge way to fortifying the bond between the community and their club,
Such ingenuity is regrettably nowhere to be found in Scottish football, where football fans is still stereotyped by far too many as hordes of hooligans and thugs. This is just one of the many things that are to be admired about this intriguing club.
The Union support remains politicised to this day, but they have left their political troubles of the past behind them – something sections of the Celtic support should consider – and now focus more on money’s corruption of football.
The latest cause that the Union fans united behind was the protests against Red Bull’s ownership of RB Leipzig. In a game against the fellow Eastern side in 2014, the Alten Försterei was awash with Banners reading ‘In Leipzig stirbt die Fussballkultur’ (Leipzig’s football culture is dying) and at the entrance, Union fans were supplied with black ponchos by fellow supporters. For the opening ten minutes of the match the Union support stood in silence as if at a funeral, causing the Leipzig fans to be taken aback in what was a symbolic demonstration of the death of a footballing city once rich in history to the corporate powerhouse of Red Bull.
Such a surrender of their identity is something that would never be allowed to happen at Union. In fact, in 2009 the club let go of their main sponsor ISP because their manager was found to have worked with the Stasi for ten years. The club’s values and identity are more important than any sum of money, it’s the common man in the crowd that Union relies on and caters for.
This attitude that they don’t need to be dependent on sponsorship money is even peddled in the club’s official anthem, in which Nina Hagen sings ‘Wer lässt sich nicht vom Westen kaufen?/ Eisern Union, Eisern Union! (Who won’t be bought by the West?/ The Iron Union, the Iron Union!)’.
Once more, this is an aspect of Union Berlin that is refreshing to see, especially amongst the footballing scene in nations such as England where the working classes have been priced out of watching the sport they love. The result is stands full of prawn sandwich lovers and football tourists, a combination that has led to the death of atmosphere in the English Premiership and a product bereft of a soul.
Perhaps the football tourists should skip out the chance to embrace the £60 silence of a Premier League game and take themselves to stand amongst the fans of Union Berlin in a stadium steeped in history and a support more loyal than any they’ll ever see. For Celtic fans, the club from the east of a great city is one which would be a kindred spirit in rebelliousness and solidarity.