Duncan R. Jamieson
Dept. of History, Ashland University
The first point impressed upon us in the research seminar I took in my Master of Arts in history was to present the fruits of my research, not the research itself, a point Professor Leach returned to repeatedly throughout the semester. I am sometimes more successful at this than other times, but I don’t believe I’ve ever gone as far as presenting the research rather than the fruits as Herbie Sykes does in The Race Against the Stasi. He offers the briefest of introductions, followed by short descriptions of the cast of characters and then completely steps aside for the next 371 pages. The story unfolds as recounted by the players, which includes local papers and press reports, and the German Democratic Republic’s secret police, the Stasi. This is followed by a brief conclusion that brings the story to a close.
Dieter Wiedemann was born in 1941 in Floha, Nazi Germany, and when World War Two ended he and his family found themselves living in the Russian Zone, which became East Germany, known officially as the German Democratic Republic. The two major sports in post-war East Germany were football (soccer) and bicycle racing. For the latter, stage races dominated, the major one being a two week event, The Peace Race, begun in 1948. Riders began in both Prague and Warsaw, racing in both directions. In 1952 Berlin was added to the venue, and the race changed to a unidirectional format. Unlike the more famous Tour de France, only amateurs rode in the Peace Race, most of whom came from the countries of Eastern Europe, although some Western Europeans entered with the hope of attracting sufficient attention to earn a spot on a professional team and then race in the Tour de France.
The protagonist in this story is Dieter Wiedemann, who dreamed of becoming a bicycle racer by age 14. The next figure is Sylvia, a young woman who grew up in West Germany, officially the Federal Republic of Germany. She met Dieter when she went with her family to visit relatives who lived in Floha. They established a friendship based on letters send back and forth. Dieter began racing, and attracted sufficient attention to ride in the Peace Race. The GDR hosted the first three stages, but Dieter lost all three, a major embarrassment for the East Germans. Nonetheless he established himself as a formidable rider and won a chance to compete for a spot on the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The International Olympic Committee required that the two halves of Germany present a unified team, which held its trials in West Germany. By this time Wiedemann had planned to defect to be with Sylvia. Therefore, he never joined the Communist Party, claiming himself to be apolitical. Because defection equaled treason, he kept his plans to himself, not sharing information with anyone. When the team reached West Germany, he simply went out on a training ride and never returned. The Stasi questioned other team members, his mechanics and trainers, and his family, all to no avail. Sylvia’s family secreted him in a distant hotel for fear the Stasi might try to forcibly return him to the GDR. His family suffered for his criminal action, with his brother denied the opportunity to continue bicycle racing and his father fired from his job. All the prizes Dieter had won racing were withheld while the ones already distributed had to be returned, along with the bicycle he rode when he defected. Treated as a criminal, Dieter became increasingly alienated from his family.
Highly politicized, the East Germans constantly preached that the West determined to destroy it. Dieter found the transition from East to West Germany difficult. Even though no language or culture barriers existed, the West proved to be as politicized, though in an entirely different fashion, as the East. Dieter and Sylvia married and he became a professional bicycle racer. He rode as a domestique for a German team in the 1967 Tour de France, and actually passed Tom Simpson, the British racing cyclist who died during the climb on Mont Ventoux from a drug overdose. Dieter’s cycling career ended shortly after the 1967 Tour de France, but he did compete for a while in cross country skiing. He and Sylvia had three children. They visited East Germany, but he never reconciled with his family.
Sykes’ presentation is part spy drama, part love story, part political reflection and part bicycle race. These pieces are all intertwined, held together by Dieter Wiedemann love for bicycle racing. While certainly interesting and overall readable, the Stasi documents are not exciting, written as bureaucratic reports, and it is hard to keep the minor characters straight. While the East Bloc nations claim the Peace Race to be the most significant event in the history of bicycle racing, the evidence does not support their claim. While a competent bicycle racer Wiedemann’s career is not stellar. Still, the events surrounding his career and his defection are intriguing.
Copyright © Duncan R. Jamieson 2015