Tuesday 21 November 2017

Defecting cyclist was subjected to Cold War craziness

Book review

Alan Aherne

The Race Against the Stasi
The Race Against the Stasi

Cold War politics has been heavily dramatised in recent times, with well-established series 'The Americans' followed on to our television screens more recently by 'Deutschland 83'.

Sometimes producers on both the small and big screens can be accused of over-egging the pudding and allowing their imaginations to run amok in depicting events from our past.

However, Herbie Sykes' fascinating book, 'The Race Against The Stasi', proves if ever it was needed that the levels of paranoia and people-watching that existed in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall were on a grand scale.

The book is sub-titled 'The Incredible Story of Dieter Wiedemann, The Iron Curtain And The Greatest Cycling Race On Earth', and it marries a tale of sporting persistence and excellence with an innocent tale of love across the divide which would have lifelong repercussions for its subject.

Wiedemann was born in 1941 and grew up in East Germany at a time when the Stasi, founded nine years later, effectively controlled the lives of the population by spying on their every activity.

This was to ensure full compliance from the subjects of their socialist society as they perceived it to be superior in every way to the capitalist west.

Sykes brings the reality of existence in East Germany to life by re-producing a series of Stasi intelligence-gathering files and correspondence. The book is liberally sprinkled with these documents and it highlights how vast their network was, with citizens turned informants spying on their work colleagues and neighbours.

The State also used its sporting stars in the propoganda war against the west, and Weidemann fell into that category in the early sixties after attaining a podium finish at the Peace Race.

This was an annual cycling event organised for the first time in 1948 and held initially in Czechoslovakia and Poland only, with East Germany quickly added to the list of hosts.

It was labelled the 'Tour de France of the East' and the 'world's biggest amateur cycling race', and performing to a high level in it ensured hero worship in the GDR.

However, Weidemann - an extremely shy man with no interest in politics - had fallen in love at the age of 19 with a girl five years younger who hailed from the West, after a chance encounter when she was visiting her uncle and aunt in his homeplace.

The book also re-produces letters between the couple, with their affection continually growing to a stage where an opportunity presents itself for Weidemann which he simply has to take.

In order to be with the love of his life, and also to pursue his cycling ambition of competing in the Tour de France, he had to defect to the west which was regarded as the most treacherous of all crimes by the rulers of the east.

The opportunity presented itself in 1964 when he was selected to take part in an Olympic qualifier in West Germany. It all goes smoothly in terms of his safe passage, but Weidemann struggles to adjust to his new-found freedom.

Coming from a society where his every move was effectively controlled and monitored by others, even the most mundane of daily tasks and functions prove difficult at the outset.

And while he fulfils that lifetime ambition of competing in the Tour de France, the growing alienation of the family members he left behind in East Germany crushes his spirit.

This is a remarkable tale that will hold the reader's attention, opening a window to a world that has happily been left behind.

Visit The Book Centre on Wexford's Main Street for the very best selection of sports books.

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