Berlin’s rival clubs set to meet for first Bundesliga derby since fall of wall

Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German capital's FC Union and Hertha Berlin will meet for their first Bundesliga derby, with fans wondering if a real rivalry will grow or if the spirit of reunification will prevail.

Berlin's rival clubs set to meet for first Bundesliga derby since fall of wall
Hertha fans at a game in 2016. Photo: DPA

Union and Hertha's stadiums are 26 kilometres apart, but the Iron Curtain that divided communist East Germany from capitalist West Germany had kept the two clubs at a much bigger distance.

Elmar Werner, 65, underlined the extraordinary significance of Saturday's game when Union play host to west Berlin's Hertha.

“It will be a very special game, especially as it comes 30 years after the fall of the wall,” Werner, who has carried Union membership card number 467 since 1979, told AFP.

Saturday's game will be only the fifth competitive match between the two Berlin clubs.

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Their first meeting was on January 27th, 1990, when Hertha hosted a friendly at the Olympic Stadium 79 days after the Berlin Wall fell.

A capacity crowd of 52,000 sang on the terraces about Germany's imminent reunification as Hertha won 2-1.

It would be 20 years before the clubs met in a competition. They played four times in Bundesliga II after Hertha were relegated in 2010 and again in 2012. Union did not win any of the games as Hertha bounced straight back to the top division both times.

This weekend the two sides are playing their first top division derby after Union won promotion for the first time last season.

FC Union Berlin greet fans in their stadium 'An der Alten Försterei' on August 18th. Photo: DPA

'Not enemies'

Ahead of Saturday's historic game, Andreas Cramer, 60, was at Union's fan shop buying giant posters which he plans to plaster along the streets to greet fans heading to their homeground stadium Alte Foersterei at the leafy Berlin suburb of Koepenick.

Visiting Hertha fans will find the area plastered in Union's red and white colours, while slogans will scream “Berlin sees red!”.

But the provocation against blue-and-white-clad Hertha fans will stop there, long-time Union fans said.

“We have a friendship with Hertha, they're not enemies,” said Cramer, a Union fan for “more than 40 years”.

“For us, this is not a derby but a city championship.”

While football's top derbies are often marked by deep enmity and ending in violence and chaos, Saturday's meeting of Berlin's crosstown rivals appears set to take on an unusually warm atmosphere.

Underlining the friendliness, Werner noted that among anthems sung by fans of both sides before reunification was one declaring that “we hold together like the wind and sea, the blue-white Hertha and FC Union”.

West Berlin-born Hertha fan Manon Duering, 55, also said she “was delighted when Union came up” to the top division.

“I grew up with the Wall. I was in my 20s when it came down. Berlin offers so much, but it needs a stronger football culture,” she said.

“It sounds idealistic, but my wish is Union will grow a little with Hertha, who can also benefit from Union. Football isn't as important here as in other cities.”

Union have always been viewed favourably as the east German anti-establishment club, a likeable alternative to Dynamo Berlin, linked to the hated Stasi secret police.

Many of the songs Union fans sing are aimed not at West Germany's Hertha, but at Dynamo, who won 10 consecutive league titles from 1979 to 1988 but now languish in Germany's fourth division.

Sebastian Polter from FC Union at a game in Bavaria this past Saturday. Photo: DPA

'Living symbol of history'

Despite the warm words from both sides, police will be on high alert as around 22,000 fans pack into Union's ground, as Duering admits, “no one knows
what will happen”.

Cramer also noted that while old-timers like him had a fraternal feeling towards Hertha, “it is different with the younger generation — the younger ones can't stand Hertha”.

Union fan Daniel Rossbach voiced hopes that the derby will not “grow vicious”, but it will “always be a rivalry”.

Timo Dobbert, a Hertha fan for 30 years, also hopes the derby can grow into something reflecting Berlin's chequered history.

“It would be great if Berlin were the only city in Europe where both clubs and fan groups support and celebrate each other,” he said.

The Berlin derby “could become a living symbol of the city's history, divided, then reunified, that you wouldn't find anywhere else.”

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‘Wall of Shame’: How the Berlin Wall went up 60 years ago

In the early hours of Sunday, August 13th, 1961, communist East Germany's authorities began building the Berlin Wall, cutting the city in two and plugging the last remaining gap in the Iron Curtain.

'Wall of Shame': How the Berlin Wall went up 60 years ago
A cyclist passes the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Straße in Berlin. The wall was erected 60 years ago on August 13th, 1961. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Rumours that the border between East and West Berlin was about to be closed had been swirling for 48 hours.

On Friday, the parliament or People’s Chamber of communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) had given the green light to take any measures necessary to halt the exodus of its population westwards.

READ ALSO: What it was like voting as an American in Germany right before the Berlin Wall fell

Over the preceding 12 years, more than three million citizens had fled the strict regime, opting for the freedom and prosperity offered by West Germany.

News flashes

At 4:01 am on that Sunday, a top-priority AFP flash dated Berlin hit the wire: “The army and Volkspolizei are massing at the edge of the Eastern and Western sectors of Berlin to block passage.”

In a second flash, the story was firmed up. “Berlin’s metropolitan trains have for the past two hours not been going from one sector to the other.”

Then one flash after another fell:
– 4:28 am:  “The GDR’s Council of Ministers has decided to put in place at its borders, even at those with the western sector of Berlin, the checks usual at borders of a sovereign state.”

– 4:36 am: “An order from the East German interior ministry forbids the country’s inhabitants to go to East Berlin if they do not work there.”

– 4:50 am: “Inhabitants of East Berlin are forbidden to work in West Berlin, according to a decision by the East Berlin city authorities.”

Barbed wire and guns

In the very early morning, AFP’s correspondent at the scene described the situation on the ground.

“Barbed wire fences and defensive spikes have been put in place overnight to hermetically seal the border between East Berlin and West Berlin.

READ ALSO: What happened during Germany’s ‘catastrophic winter’ of 78/79?

“The road is practically cut off for refugees.

“Most of the crossing points between the two sides of the city have been cut off since sunrise and are heavily guarded by the police patrolling with machine guns on their shoulders.

“Only 13 border crossings remain open between the two Berlins, controlled by numerous reinforced units of armed police.

A sign on the wall next to Brandenburg Gate reads: “The wall is coming down – not in 30, 50 or 100 years.” This photo was taken a year before the wall fell. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

Dramatic escape

“Germans from East Berlin can no longer go to the West without a special pass, the controls are excessively strict.

“As the net falls over the communist part of the city, a young Berliner from the East manages against all odds to ram with his car the barbed wire separating the two sectors of the city.

“Seeing the young man arriving at high speed in a Volkswagen, the police were too taken off guard to be able to stop the car, which carried the barbed wire placed across the street right to the French sector,” AFP wrote.

‘Death strip”

Little by little, the kilometres of barbed wire will give way to a 43-kilometre-long (27-mile-long) concrete wall cutting the city in two from north to south.

Another outer wall, 112 kilometres (70 miles) long, cuts off the enclave of West Berlin and its two million inhabitants from the GDR.

Constantly upgraded over its 28 years of existence, more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the wall is made up of slabs of reinforced concrete, 3.60 metres (12 feet) high, crowned with a cylinder without a grip making it almost impossible to climb.

The remainder is made of metal wire.

Along the eastern side of what is widely called the “wall of shame” stands a “no man’s land”, 300 metres (990 feet) deep in places.

Border soldiers from the DDR look over the wall in May 28th, 1988. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

At the foot of the wall a “death strip” made up of carefully raked ground to make it possible to spot footprints, is equipped with installations that set off automatic gunfire and mines.

However hermetic this formidable “anti-fascist protection rampart”, as it was officially known, would be, it would not prevent the escape of nearly 5,000 people until it fell on November 9th, 1989. Around 100 fugitives lost their lives trying to cross over.