The Football Manager Hunted by the Stasi
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The Football Manager Hunted by the Stasi

Jorg Berger had not been allowed to accompany
the GDR Under-21s team he was coaching to a game in the West since December 1976. That month, the authorities had found out
he was about to divorce his wife, Harriet. Single men were considered a flight risk.
Berger was told to move back into the Leipzig apartment he had shared with Harriet and their
young son Ron if he wanted his travel privileges reinstated, but he refused. The former Lokomotive Leipzig player also
rejected an offer to become one of the 174,000 informal collaborators the Stasi ran until
the fall of the regime in 1990. In March 1979, Berger was at last permitted
to go with the junior national team to a match in Subotica, Yugoslavia. But the Stasi were
still nervous about him defecting. They broke into his apartment to search for clues he
might be planning his escape. He later read in his file they had made a drawing of the
regular route he drove to see one of his girlfriends near Berlin. The situation became especially fraught when
BFC Dynamo player Lutz Eigendorf, one of the most highly-rated East German footballers,
defected to the West five days before Berger’s under-23s were boarding their plane. The Stasi were under huge pressure to prevent
any more famous athletes fleeing. He decided he had to take the chance regardless.
Like thousands of fellow citizens who attempted to escape the economic hardship and political
repression in the GDR each year, Berger had long dreamt of a better life over the Wall.
He needed to be free. In Subotica, Berger left the team’s hotel
at 5am, took a train to Belgrade and sought help from the West German embassy, who issued
him with a fake passport. A huge manhunt was underway. All newspapers carried the story.
Berger was even recognised by a border policeman just before crossing into Austria, but he
was let go and arrived in Munich a few hours later. “My father had committed a crime against
the state and was now considered a traitor,” His son, Ron Berger, says, sitting in a cafe
in Frankfurt 40 years later. “But I didn’t have much of an idea what all of that actually
meant as a nine-year-old boy. Was he out of my life for ever? Family members of GDR deserters
were also discriminated against in their work life or in school. And those who knew about
the flight in advance could go to prison.” Well aware of those dangers, Jorg had been
careful not to incriminate Harriet or Ron “My mum didn’t know”, Ron say, “but
she felt something was going on, especially when he visited us for the last time before
heading off to Yugoslavia. Harriet was brought in for lengthy questioning.
The Stasi alleged she had been tipped off about Jorg’s intention to defect to the
“non-socialist economic area”, as the GDR referred to West Germany, but ended up
believing her account. Ron doesn’t remember anyone treating him
differently at school at first but in the following weeks, strangers would come up to
him and ask whether he was in contact with his father in the West. He was, but only intermittently.
Jorg only phoned every three months or so. The calls had to be pre-registered two hours
in advance. “I sat by the receiver, waiting for the
phone to ring, a bag of nerves. My father wasn’t able to explain himself to me and
I didn’t feel free to talk either. There was a crackling in the line. You knew the
Stasi were listening in. We couldn’t relate to each other as father and son anymore.” Following Jorg’s defection, the state auctioned
off his belongings to raise funds for the monthly alimony of 120 Ostmark, worth about
20 West German marks on the black market at the time. Via friends or family, Jorg would
secretly send his son gifts — a set of coloured markers, bars of chocolate, a pair of trainers
— but Ron could never show those to outsiders. Jorg was hired as coach of Bundesliga 2 club
SV Darmstadt 98 in May 1979. During his next jobt, at SSV Ulm 1846, he proved himself an
effective firefighter avoiding relegation to the third division. He eventually came to be seen as an expert
in lost causes. Bundesliga sides Eintracht Frankfurt, 1. FC Koln and Schalke 04 all escaped
the drop under his energetic guidance. “Jorg Berger is such a good coach, he would have
saved the Titanic, too,” Norwegian striker Jan-Aage Fjortoft said after he helped Frankfurt
stay up for a second time in 1999. Throughout the 1980s, the Stasi continued
to regard him as an enemy of the state. GDP agents followed his every step in West Germany.
Once, two men approached him in the street late at night and warned of dire consequences
for his parents, who still lived in Leipzig, if he didn’t agree to meet his mother in
Sweden. Why Sweden? He sensed they were planning to
kidnap him. After the fall of Communism, his Stasi file revealed there had indeed been
at least two attempts to get him back to the East. Once, a wheel came loose as he was driving
at high speed, another time, his tyres were slashed. For a while, he slept with a gun
underneath his pillow. Berger became very ill in 1986. He was unable
to walk or pick up things. Doctors diagnosed polyneuropathy, a disease affecting the peripheral
nerves. He recovered after a few months. A university professor who looked at his case
later on suspected he had been poisoned by lead or arsenic. There were attacks on his reputation, too.
His file showed that the Stasi had a journalist working for Kicker magazine spread a rumour
that Berger was homosexual, which was taboo at the time. Ron Berger kept pace with his father’s career
watching the “class enemy” TV stations of West Germany. Almost everyone did, flouting
the law. In his flat, the terrestrial aerial was positioned near the door so it could be
quickly hidden when unknown visitors arrived. “Growing up in the GDR, it was normal to
support two clubs,” says Ron. “You had your hometown club — Lok(omotiv) Leipzig,
in my case — and a Bundesliga side. Most were fans of Bayern Munich or Hamburger SV
at the time but I chose Eintracht Frankfurt.” At GDR top-division games, kids and teenagers
would meet outside the ground and trade Western fan memorabilia — scarves, stickers, badges,
posters, magazines — that had been smuggled in on the black market. He and Harriet lived in a socialist mega-block
of apartments, containing 85 units on each of the 10 stories. Fast and agile, Ron played
for the youth teams of Lok Leipzig, the same side his father had represented in the late
1960s. He was widely seen as the biggest talent of his age group in the GDR. Just like his
father, Ron stretched the yellow shirt’s long sleeves until they covered his thumbs.
The resemblance was uncanny “The way I played and moved reminded many
of my dad”, Ron recalled. “I had apparently inherited many of his mannerisms. It got to
the point that my mother felt she had to get involved. She walked up to the fathers of
the other players and asked them to please stop all those comparisons with my dad.” But there was no escaping the stigma that
clung to his second name like a clump of mud. He was never named captain, never got called
up to any of the youth national teams. Travelling abroad for matches was out of the question,
too. Then, his victimisation became more obvious.
In 1985, Lok Leipzig Under-15s were playing a game to entertain an 80,000 crowd in Leipzig’s
Zentralstadion as a warm-up for a GDR vs France World Cup qualifier. Ron was already inside
the stadium when he was told there was no point him getting changed. “They explained it was impossible that ‘Berger’
should appear on the scoreboard. I was the son of a traitor.” Soon after, his fledgling
football career was over for good. Lok Leipzig kicked him out. “You have your father to thank for that,”
their president said. “My dream of becoming a professional died
that day,” Ron says. “It would have been too embarrassing and too risky for the GDR
to see me, of all people, turn into one the country’s elite players.” School became a problem as well. Ron wanted
to stay in college to do his Abitur, the equivalent of A-levels. His grades were good enough but
he was turned away. In the summer of 1989, the Iron Curtain was
twitching. 50,000 GDR citizens fled to the West via Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Jorg and Ron agreed to meet in Prague. With the help of a politician who sat on Eintracht
Frankfurt’s board, Jorg secured a diplomatic passport — an insurance policy in case the
Stasi were still attempting to repatriate him. Some people recognised the Eintracht Frankfurt
manager and asked him for autographs and photos in the street. “ I couldn’t quite deal with the situation
and hardly spoke a word”, remembers Ron. Back at the hotel, he unpacked a suitcase
full of gifts, shirts and memorabilia from Frankfurt, but I hadn’t come for presents.
All I wanted was to meet my father, to get to know him. It felt more as if I had won
a weekend with a Bundesliga coach in a competition.” After the Wall came down five months later,
Ron moved to an apartment not far from the home of his father “Little by little, my son started trusting
me again. It simply took much longer than I had thought,” Jorg wrote. He himself needed
another 20 years until he could publicly acknowledge that his family and friends should have been
more important to him than the glory and success he had sought for “selfish and superficial”
reasons. Some were able to adjust to the new realities
in the reunified Germany much quicker. Jorg was outraged to find Wolfgang Riedel
working as a treasurer for one of the German FA regional federations in 1991. Riedel, a
former GDR FA official, had been a communist hardliner and responsible for organising the
manhunt for Jorg after his getaway from Subotica. Another man, a doctor Jorg had last seen handing
out all manner of colourful pills to his GDR junior team in the mid-Seventies, had become
the German FA’s official anti-doping commissioner. He also uncovered that two of his closest
friends had spied on him for many years in service of the Stasi. One of them, football
coach Bernd Stange — until recently the manager of the Syria national team — had
agreed to set up a meeting with Jorg with a view of getting back him back to the GDR.
“They had planned to abduct me,” Jorg wrote in disgust. There’s a Stasi file for Ron, too. But he’s
never been tempted to read it. He doesn’t want to delve into the past for fear of unearthing
some unpleasant truths about friends, team-mates, teachers or coaches. Jorg passed away in 2010, aged 66, after an
intermittent seven-year-battle against cancer. His father’s death led Ron to reassess his
own life. He had founded and run a very successful sporting-goods company but had neglected himself
and his family for decades in the process. To find a much healthier balance, he sold
the firm a couple of years ago. The 30th anniversary of the Wall’s fall
has brought about a renewed interest in Jorg and the footballing aspects of the Cold War
in Germany; a theatre play about him was staged in Frankfurt recently. Ron is pleased people
still admire him as one of the Bundesliga’s most charismatic operators, especially in
Frankfurt, even if his own memories will continue to be coloured by the events of March 1979.


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