Book Review: The Race Against the Stasi: The Incredible Story of Dieter Wiedemann, The Iron Curtain and The Greatest Cycling Race on Earth
by Herbie Sykes
Published in Hardback by Aurum Press, September 2014, RRP: £18.99. Also available on Amazon.
Review by Dave Nash
The author Herbie Sykes is both a sports journalist and historian and anyone who has read any of his books on road cycling will testify to his unerring ability to delve into stories that have remained unrecorded, breathing life back into forgotten chapters of the history of the sport and providing an insight that few writers provide. His exploration of the era he is writing about is forensic in its comprehensiveness, often calling on recollections of the very people who made the stories he tells, many of whom are well into their dotage.
The Eagle of Canavese was an illuminating biography of Franco Balmamion, who dominated the Giro d'Italia in the early 1960's, whilst Coppi was as much a study of Il Campionissimo as a celebration of the careers of the humble gregarios who rode with him. In Maglia Rosa Sykes charted the history of the Giro d'Italia, again stumbling on stories and recollections that would have been lost without his extensive research. It is, arguably, the best book on cycling history - a rollercoaster ride through the decades, never holding back from delving into the murkier aspects of the sport in Italy, yet the authors' passion for the Giro is apparent throughout.
In his latest book, 'The Race Against the Stasi: The Incredible Story of Dieter Wiedemann, The Iron Curtain and The Greatest Cycling Race on Earth' to give it its full title, Sykes has turned his attention to an era and episode that little is known. The book tells the story of the cyclist and hero of East German sport, Dieter Wiedemann. Had Sykes not had the determination to track Wiedemann down (and then persuade him to talk!) his story would have been lost, but fortunately Sykes persevered and the result is a moving historical document focusing on one man, but revealing far more about the sporting and cycling culture behind the Iron Curtain and the sinister shadows that sort to control the very lives of the men and women who excelled in their respective sports.
Wiedemann's story is one of love and betrayal, played out against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Peace Race - the 'Greatest Cycling Race on Earth' referred to in the title - a two week circuit of the Eastern Bloc drenched in political posturing that rivalled the Tour de France in popularity and ruthless rivalry.
The Peace Race in the 1950's. The billboard in the background reads 'Praise the Polish Miners - heroes of Socialist labour.'
In a fascinating introduction, Sykes provides us with the necessary foundations on which the story is built and how the East German authorities pursued a systematic doping programme which catapulted its athletes to Olympic domination. Sport, Sykes explains, was 'a crucial propaganda instrument. In performing so spectacularly, they apparently underscored the moral and political supremacy of communism to their countrymen, but also to the capitalist west.'.
The Peace Race, first run in the late 1940's, was an event of massive popularity and contested by cyclists from within the Iron Curtain and beyond. It was heralded as 'The Tour de France of the East' and for many offered a short respite from the harsh realities of life in the Eastern Bloc, where one's every move and every word was scrutinised for chinks of disloyalty. The recollections of Horst Schäfer, who now curates the Peace Race Museum in Bördeland in central Germany, introduces the book: "It was about different peoples, from different countries, crossing borders and coming together. It was about genuine fellowship, and that was its beauty and virtue. For two weeks a year it offered us a window on worlds we were denied access to."
A poster advertising the 1953 edition of the Peace Race
Wiedemann was a podium finisher in the 1964 Peace Race and like many heroes of East German sport his every move was monitored by the infamous secret police, the Stasi, and his every act recorded by willing informers. Sykes himself was shocked by the 'malevolence and reach' of the Stasi and the politicisation of daily life, including sport, in the GDR. The Stasi, Sykes notes, were 'everywhere'. Wiedemann was spied upon by neighbours, trainers at his cycling club, SC Karl Marx-Stadt, and even former classmates, all of whom would routinely report his movements to the secret police.
In 1964, however, Wiedemann did the unthinkable and defected to the West.
His decision to do so was no doubt made easier by his reluctance to embrace the Communist ideology, but the reason he defected was simple: he fell in love. Sylvia Hermann was only fourteen when she first spotted Dieter from her bedroom window when visiting her Aunt and Uncle in East Germany, but the attraction was both immediate and mutual and their recounting of their first tentative meetings provides a touching passage in the book.
Sykes presents the story of Dieter's life, career and his defection to the west not with his own words, but with a chronological juxtaposition of interviews with the main protagonists of the story - including both Dieter and Sylvia - interspersed with with newspaper cuttings, official government documents and, most sinister of all, extensive excerpts from Wiedemann's Stasi file.
Dieter and Sylvia pictured together in 1963, a year before his defection.
It's an interesting, somewhat jolting editorial method to present the story of Wiedemann's life story and, initially at least, I hankered for Sykes' flowing, informative prose to unravel the story. The verbatim reproduction of the Stasi files, however, make for fascinating reading and the way that Wiedemann's every move, both before and after his defection, was monitored, scrutinised and acted upon reinforces the lengths the authorities in the GDR were prepared to go to in order to keep the Communist ideology intact. Quite simply, the actions of 'enemies of the state' could never be tolerated, let alone forgiven.
Wiedermann's defection was an event of catastrophic embarrassment to the East German authorities and, not surprisingly, they sought to repatriate him by whatever means possible. One Stasi file, recorded in the book and dating from July 1964 is chilling and offers a foresight of the impact his defection would have on his immediate family:
The objective of the operative reconnaissance process is to check all available, genuine possibilities for repatriating W [Weidemann] to the GDR. To this end the nature of his relationships to those left behind, including possibilities for operative exploration in order to establish collaborations.
For fear of telling the story in full I will hold back on recounting the often ruthless methods that the Stasi used in their efforts to entice their sporting hero home. Wiedemann, himself, appears surprisingly nonchalant when talking about his defection. His motive had primarily been love for Sylvia and his primary concern was to start a new life with her in the West. He was deaf to the protestations of his family - protestations, it should be addes, that were encouraged by the East German authorities. He continued his cycling career, signing for the West German team, Torpedo, soon after defecting and competing in the Tour de France in 1967, but the impact of his defection would have ramifications for his family back in East Germany and his relationship with them for many years to come.
In The Race Against the Stasi Herbie Sykes has once again produced a fascinating historical document and though its focus in one man, one cyclist, it is story that transcends the sport of cycling. Like Sykes' other books, it is a moving account of what life in the Iron Curtain held for both sportsmen and women and the fear that permeated everyone's life and the courage required to rise up against a system that sought to control the populace by intimidation. Dieter Weidemann's story is set against one of the very darkest periods of recent European history, yet the personal journey on which he embarked was prompted by his love for a woman who just happened to live in West Germany.
Had he not met Sylvia, it is likely that Wiedemann would have stayed in the GDR, taking part in the Peace Race to the end of his career, whilst snatching reports of Anquetil, Gimondi and Merckx contesting the Tour de France. That, however, was not the life that opened up for Wiedemann and we should be thankful that Sykes has captured, once again, an astonishing tale before the voices are gone forever.
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