Germany’s Stasi dilemma

Andy Newman

A remarkable row has broken out in Germany that may prevent national figure skating coach Ingo Steuer from attending the Turin Olympics. Following evidence that he was a Stasi secret police informant (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter) in the former DDR he has been dropped by the German Olympic Committee, although that ruling is now subject to a further court case.

Steuer himself won a bronze medal in the 1998 Olympics as a pairs figure skater alongside Mandy Wötzel and the world championship in 1997. He is currently coach to Aljona Sawtschenko and Robin Szolkowy, who are among Germany’s strongest hopes for a Gold medal at the Turin Olympics. They recently won Silver at the European Championships and they won Skate Canada in October 2005.

Steuer’s participation is very important to the talented couple who train in Chemnitz. They work with him on the ice for about three hours every day, five days a week in the summer, and then increase their training to over five hours a day during the season. Steuer also choreographs the couple's programs and chooses all their music.


When is nationality not nationality

Sawtschenko only moved to Germany in 2003 and before then competed for the Ukraine with her partner Stanislav Morozov. They won the 2000 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, and she even competed for the Ukraine in the 2002 Olympics. It is boldly hypocritical that politicians who support immigration controls are so keen to relax the rules when sporting prestige is at stake.

Despite some liberalisation in German nationality laws in January 2000, there is still an absolute residency requirement of 8 years before a foreigner can be naturalised. However, Sawtschenko has been granted Citizenship seemingly outside the rules.

Germany is not alone in this last minute scramble to grant citizenship. Only last month Canadian-born figure skater Tanith Belbin gained her American citizenship, and will by competing for the USA in Turin, and Jamaican-born Bobsleigher Lascelles Brown is seeking Canadian citizenship in time for the 2006 Games.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge has spoken out against athletes switching countries to get to the Olympics, but his biggest concern has been large financial incentives handed out by countries such as Dubai, who wants to make a mark when it stages the Asian Games next year.

Under the Olympic Charter, any athlete who changes his or her nationality must get permission from their country of origin before competing for their adopted homeland. Cuba precipitated a storm of controversy in the build up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, by refusing to grant such permission to three athletes who had defected to Spain.

President of the Cuban athletics federation Alberto Juantorena said. "This is not a political question, it is a question of rules." Juantorena was himself 400 and 800 metres gold medallist at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. He was quoted in the Guardian as saying "Niurka abandoned the Cuban team in 1997 when she left Cuba. She is the fruit of Cuba's sports movement. She is being depicted as a victim, and she is not a victim. How are the Cuban people supposed to feel? They have supported her training for 16 years so she can compete under another flag. Cuba develops talent. It does not rob talent. This is a trafficking of people."

Although socialists support the free movements of people and oppose immigration controls, Juantorena is drawing attention to the plundering of sporting talent from poor countries in order to improve the medal count and prestige of the rich countries. This is no different from the poaching of health service professionals from developing countries by the British NHS.


National prestige and “socialist Sport”

Steuer competed for the DDR, where bizarrely sport was built into the country’s constitution: under Article 18 “Physical education and sport are elements of culture for all citizens, contributing to their physical and intellectual development”, Article 26; “Art, Culture, Sport and Tourism are integral parts of the scientific and technical revolution and contribute to the development of the personality”; Article 34: “every citizen has a right to physical education and sport”. A Declaration of principle by the State Council in 1968 sated: “In the DDR the programme of socialism corresponds to the interests of the workers and the youth. This makes it possible to satisfy their desire to practice physical education and sport in a new socialist way, for the benefit of the people as a whole” (my emphasis)

State sport was strongly recommended – or in other words compulsory. The DDR was in some ways like a sport prison. With a population of just 18 million, the DDR excelled at international competitive sport, for example in the 1988 Olympics, the last in which the DDR competed they got 37 Gold medals compared to 36 won by the USA, and 102 medals in total compared to 94 by the USA. Between 70% and 80% of the population belonged to competitive sports organisations, usually linked to their employment, through work based clubs (Betreibsportsgeschaften.)

In 1972 the French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur quotes a leaked school inspectors report from the DDR saying that it was essential to start selecting elite athletes in the first or second year at primary school, aged 4 or 5, “otherwise there is a danger that children will become interested in subjects or get into circles that have nothing  to do with sport”.  Every child engaged in 4 to 6 hours compulsory sport every week; and there were examinations, failure of which being just as serious as failing in maths or German.

Partly this sporting regime was to drill people into compliance and acceptance of discipline, as well as providing a social life pretty much controlled by the state apparatus. It was also important for the prestige of the ruling SED party, and the national prestige of the DDR, who could compare their sporting achievement with that of the far less successful West German Bundesrepublik (BRD). And of course there were real benefits for the population, in terms of recreational facilities. In 1969, East Germany had no less than 31500 sports centres. This included 350 stadiums, 650 swimming pools, 800 sports fields and nearly 7000 specialised training centres.

But what is remarkable is the degree to which the DDR excelled at sports that rely upon discipline and transforming the human body into a machine: weight lifting, swimming and track and field events. The concept of sport as fun or play seems almost entirely absent.


Steuer the informer

The enormous scale of state surveillance and the huge informer network in East Germany has been well documented. A particularly accessible account is Anna Funder’s Stasiland, but this book is slightly flawed by her naivety about the degree to which western country’s also enforce social conformity and surveillance, and to a certain extent she conflates some aspects of German, or even European, culture with her critique of the surveillance state (for example, having lanes in swimming pools isn’t a particularly totalitarian practice; and her shocked descriptions of Stasi bureaucracy and architecture will be oddly familiar for anyone who has dealt with, for example, the British military or MoD). A rather more psychologically perceptive and interesting book is Timothy Gorton Ash’s The File, in which he tracks down individuals who informed on him, and interrogates them about their motives.

What is clear is that people became Stasi informers for a variety of reasons, including blackmail and bribery, and sometimes idealism. Ingo Steuer is alleged to have become an informer when he was just 18. Remember this is a young man who will have been cocooned away as an elite sportsperson from being a young child, and I am sure that any threat that he would be prohibited from international travel, and therefore competition, would have had an exaggerated influence upon him. Up until now the Bundesrepublik has been only too happy to turn a blind eye to the Stasi influence in the DDR’s sporting infrastructure, as they have sought to benefit from the legacy. For example, it has now been revealed that 56 year old Monika Schweibe, who is due to replace Steuer was also a Stasi informer.


The hypocrisy of the Bundesrepublik

To a large degree the DDR was systematically and deliberately undermined by economic sabotage by the Western powers. West Berlin was artificially subsidised, contrary to any market driven logic, in order to provide a honey trap for individuals fleeing from the East. The terrible consequence was the Berlin wall, which while indefensible, but was also the logical consequence of the Bundesrepublik’s policy.

What is more, West Germany itself operated the policy of Berufsverbot. The so-called Radicals Decree (Radikalenerlass) issued in 1972 by the Ministers-President of the Länder (the German states) required all public servants to guarantee to demonstrate active support at all times for the current constitution. Membership or support of a political party seeking to change the existing constitutional order even by lawful means was deemed to be incompatible with this, even in the case of individuals occupying minor posts. This was ostensibly an anti-fascist measure, but in practice was used almost exclusively against the left

In an almost mirror image of the Stasi, routine investigations were conducted by the Federal and Länder Offices for the Defence of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz) as a vetting procedure before any applicants were hired. This Berufsverbot applied to teachers, nurses, clerks, indeed anyone on the public sector, and when it was introduced in 1972 actually led to the sacking of a number of long standing employees. This legislation is still on the stature book, although now rarely used.

Reunification has bought some benefits to the people of East Germany, but it has also caused them to lose comprehensive education, women’s rights, full employment, rent controlled accommodation, and they are often treated today like second class citizens. Otto Steuer was a political pawn under the DDR, it would be a tragedy if he now becomes a political pawn in the united Germany



Picture credits:   




Jan 2006

> > home page > >