The Race Aganist The Stasi, Herbie Sykes (2014)

A gripping account of one man’s cycle race across the cold war’s battlefields

Arum Press, Quarto 399 pp 9781781313084 £18.99

Deiter Weidemann achieved a unique cycling double. In 1964 he was a podium finisher in the Warsaw Pact’s premier sporting event, the Peace Race. Three years later, he finished a credible 52nd in the Tour De France. Between the two, he defected from the German Democratic Republic (GDR), evading the Stasi and competed successfully as a professional cyclist in western Europe.

Sykes tells his story through a collage of first-person interviews, voluminous Stasi files, and contemporaneous newspaper reports. It is a tale as compelling as it is disturbing.

The GDR was the eastern area of Germany administered by the Soviet Union in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. In 1949 it became a doctrinaire communist country and remained that way until it was amalgamated into its western counterpart in 1990.

Wiedemann, born in Flöha, near Chemnitz in 1941, paints a vivid picture of his early life in a war-shattered country in the process of reconstruction to a strict socialist pattern. More telling than his accounts of the food shortages and the enforced political education, though, are the Stasi files. Reputed to be the largest and most effective state security service ever assembled, the Stasi had, at the time of its dissolution, 91,000 employees and over 170,000 unofficial informants. Their reports detail Weidemann’s approach to his work, his family’s level of political engagement, the regular visitors to their home and an assessment of the relationships between family members. The agency’s reach was chilling.

Despite industrial-scale intrusion, however, the spooks overlooked the successful young cyclist’s brief encounter and, by exchange of letter, entanglement with a teenage woman from the other Germany. Eventually Wiedmann risked his life, forsook family, and abandoned a successful cycling career to peruse a love nourished by textual intercourse alone.

For all the Stasi’s verbal threats, surveillance and dirty tricks, Weidmann’s flit was straightforward when it came. Once in the west, sheltered by his fiancé’s family, he found work and quickly took up a professional cycling career. His family back in the east were less fortunate. His younger brother’s cycling career came to an immediate end, his father was sacked. His mother’s fate is still unclear, suffice to say that it was possibly the most miserable of them all.

It is clear at the opening of the book that Sykes is sympathetic to ‘actually existing communism’ as it was once known. Eventually the weight of evidence is such that he has to concede that ‘in its colossal hubris and arrogance, lay the cancer at the heart of the Easter Bloc dystopia’.

Perhaps it is this trajectory that makes his accounts of the early Peace Races so attractive. The race was conceived to bring together recently warring neighbours. Despite GDR’s ‘nothing-to-do-with-us’ attitude to its Nazi past, Polish and Czech fans did not initially welcome the Germans pedaling toward their capitals on roads so recently traversed by Panzers.

Nevertheless, by the 1950s, the amateur stage race was a sensation. The crowds on its route between Berlin, Prague and Warsaw were bigger by far than those awaiting the Tour de France, according to Weidemann – one of the few who experienced both.

His account of moving from saturation political education, to a state where politics was crowded out by consumerism, is a reminder that in its ideals, if not its execution, communism embodied much that is noble.

Nevertheless, Skye’s most compelling impression remains the horror of neighbour spying on neighbour, a population under surveillance and state objectives pursued regardless of human cost.

But while typewriters, trench-coats and the Berlin Wall are credulity-stretching anachronisms, the Stasi’s analogue regime is today surpassed by global networks and super computers harnessed by state security agencies. If Wiedmann’s case begs any question, it is this – will an account of modern surveillance techniques and their consequences sound equally horrific half a century hence?

TD Oct 14

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