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Interview: Herbie Sykes

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Herbie Sykes's The Race Against the Stasi was easily the best cycling book published in 2014. Here, Sykes talks about the difficulties of telling the story of a man practically no one had heard of - a man who, initially, didn't want to tell his story - in a manner that did justice to the personal and political issues of that man and his time.

The Race Against the Stasi
The Race Against the Stasi

Podium Café: Let's begin at the beginning: you were doing some research on the Peace Race - for the Rouleur articles you wrote, I presume? - and you came across a name you recognised, Dieter Wiedemann. How did you recognise the name, was it you remembered him from the 1967 Tour, where Franco Balmamion - The Eagle of the Canavese - captained the Italian cadets' squad, or had you come across his name in connection with the story of his cousin, Wolfgang Lötzsch?

Herbie Sykes: I'm not entirely sure how I knew, but it just seemed to ring a bell. Some years ago I'd been close to interviewing [Wiedemann's Torpedo team-mate Hans] Junkermann, so I'd done some research on him. I guess it may have come from that, but it was really just a vague idea. I hadn't realised he was from Chemnitz until I started work on the Rouleur stories and looked over the Peace Race results for the early 1960s.

Dieter Wiedemann
Wiedemann in his Torpedo jersey

PdC: Ok, so you've got the name, and you've got a link between the Peace Race and the Tour de France, which link - or a link with the Olympics - is practically a prerequisite in UK publishing these days. You've got the bones of a story but you've got a problem: Wiedemann didn't want to tell his story. He took quite a bit of convincing to change his mind, yes?

HS: The first thing to bear in mind is that I had no German. As such I spent many, many hours scratching about on the web, putting stuff into translation sites, that kind of thing. Ultimately I gave Timm Kölln, with whom I was working, a list of GDR cycling people I wanted to meet. In the first instance Wiedemann said he wasn't interested, but I told Timm to persevere. Eventually he said he'd consider it on the proviso that I supplied a list of questions beforehand. I sent them across and he finally agreed to meet.

The precondition was that if I so much as mentioned Lötzsch I'd be out of the door. There are a great many reasons for that, but they're far too complicated to recount here. When finally we met it became apparent that this was an extraordinary story, but I'd only three hours so we barely scratched the surface. As a journalist that presented me with a problem. I was convinced that I had something spectacularly good, but there was no way I could do it justice within the constraints of a magazine. I therefore didn't publish it in Rouleur, but rather sat on it for a year trying to figure out what to do.

At a certain point I had an email from Robin Harvie at Aurum. He'd read the Rouleur stories, and he asked me whether I'd be interested in writing a book about the Peace Race. I said I didn't feel confident in my ability to write a good one, and that to do so would cost a fortune and take at least three years. What I said I could give him was a book about Dieter Wiedemann, a guy neither he nor anybody else in Britain had ever heard of.

I still didn't have it sold to Wiedemann, but now I resolved to try. I flew to Germany and told Dieter and Sylvia I wanted to take a shot at it, and they agreed in principle. Then I explained how I was minded to do it. I told them that the Stasi file was non-negotiable for me, and I insisted on meeting Dieter's estranged brother. So it was clear from the outset that it was going to be an extremely difficult journey for them, though even I couldn't have guessed just how difficult. Bear in mind that, unbeknownst to me, Sylvia had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Next I flew to London. Me and my agent, David Luxton, set about convincing Robin to publish a book about precisely none of the things publishers like. I was offering him an unknown cyclist who finished third in an unknown race fifty years ago. There was no doping, no traditional narrative, and no famous person to hang it around. He was brave enough to give it a go, and that was the beginning of it. Robin was a joy to work with, but it's no exaggeration to state that this is the hardest thing I've ever done, professionally or otherwise. It put me and my family under enormous emotional and psychological strain, and likewise Wiedemann's family. Somehow, though, we got to the finish line. Just...

PdC: The strain of the book...obviously you've got the standard strain of an ever approaching deadline, which you added to by having access to the Stasi file come late in the process. But I guess you must have also felt a certain amount of pressure to do justice to the Wiedemanns' story as well. I'm also guessing - from what you said in the outro to the book - that the growing realisation of the full extent of the state spying system must have been quite hard to get your head around at times.

HS: There's always a degree of pressure in doing justice to the story; that goes with the turf. It's the fourth book I've written, and you're only as good as the commercial success of your last one. That in turn explains why it's much safer to write about famous people, because they put bums on seats.

I don't think you can ever get your head around the extent to which the Stasi conditioned people's lives, and the more you find out the more bewildering it all becomes. Bear in mind that Dieter Wiedemann was just one of thousands of GDR athletes, and his was one of millions of files. He's unusual in the sense that he defected, but there were other athletes who suffered incalculable emotional and psychological damage at their hands. Riders like Wolfgang Lötzsch and Martin Goetze were singled out as 'reactionary', with terrible consequences. A track rider I met, Uwe Troemer, was pretty much force-fed anabolic steroids from the age of 13. What they did to the gymnasts, swimmers and suchlike doesn't even bear thinking about.

The wider issue with this book was dealing with a person who'd grown up under the Stasi. I think there were times when he found it difficult to trust me, and of course our respective starting positions were quite different. I guess at root this was a form of authorised biography, and that's problematical for all sorts of reasons. Broadly speaking I set out to write a book about Dieter Wiedemann, but not for Dieter Wiedemann. That implied interviewing people he didn't like, people with whom he'd no direct relationship, even people whom he viewed as his enemies. It was hard for him to understand that for a book like this to be credible it needed voices from all corners of the political spectrum, because without them it would have been a worthless hagiography.

So I was asking him to have faith, whilst simultaneously including people like his estranged brother and Klaus Huhn, the hard-line communist who ran the GDR stages of the Peace Race. They were the last people he wanted in the book, but whether he liked it or not they were central to his story. Their inclusion created a lot of tension, and there were several points where I was very close to walking away from it. I suspect it was the same for Dieter as well. Goodness knows how he coped.

PdC: Would you say that, as a rule, you are more drawn to the stories told by people like Dieter Wiedemann than any of the recognised champions of the sport? I'm remembering back to Maglia Rosa here and how one of its best chapters was you going to tea with Tino Coletto and just letting him tell his story, or how some of the best stories in Coppi are from less well known riders.

HS: I like to think I'm driven by some sort of journalistic imperative, but I guess we're all drawn to certain individuals. I'm lucky in that I generally like other humans, and as a rule they seem quite happy to tell me their stories. At the risk of sounding arrogant, that's partly because I try to inform myself as best I can before I turn up. If they understand that you're bothered about what you're doing you've a far better chance of coming away with something.

This book was largely underpinned by the fact that I'd been fascinated by the Peace Race for many years. By the time I started it I had a reasonable understanding of its origins, and of its place in the sporting paradigm. I also knew that it was far, far more significant politically and culturally than the Tour, or indeed any other sporting event in European history. So it was a story that I felt needed to be told, but I wasn't interested in writing a big, sprawling history of the race itself. I'd done that with Maglia Rosa, but it wouldn't have worked in this context.

Peace Race poster
Peace Race poster

PdC: One of the attractions of Wiedemann's story is that it offers entry to telling a story about the Peace Race. And, of course, pleases publishers by having that link with the Tour. That link, though, the link between the Tour and the Peace Race, there are plenty of other riders you could have looked at, like Ian Steel who won the Peace Race and went on to start the Tour, or Jan Stablinksi who (like Dieter Wiedemann) finished on the podium and then went on to ride several Tours, or Vin Denson, who rode for others in both races. But they are riders from this side of the Iron Curtain who rode in the Peace Race and then the Tour...Wiedemann, he must have been one of the first - if not the first - to originally come from the other side of the Curtain, would that be right?

HS: Wiedemann wasn't the first Eastern European to ride in the west, and prior to the building of the wall a number of East Germans went over. A Pole named Wierucki rode the 1959 Tour, but he hadn't defected. Two other high-profile East German cyclists defected (Hartmut Scholz and Jürgen Kissner) but they were both trackies. So Wiedemann was the only East German defector to ride the Tour after they built the Berlin Wall. Conversely - and of course paradoxically - a great many western riders did the Peace Race as part of their apprenticeship, and later became famous professionals.

Obviously it's not a book about the Tour, excepting that his defection was predicated to a significant degree on his having grown up dreaming of riding it. So there's almost nothing in the book about the race itself, just the fact that he saw Tom Simpson collapse and that he got round. Then again Tour de France domestiques from back then don't remember much anyway. They were generally knackered by the end of the first week, and existed in a mindless bubble. Most of them didn't even know where they were from one day to the next, but they all remember Paris and they all understand the magnitude of what they accomplished.

I'd already written Ian's Peace Race story [in issue 108 of Rouleur], but the GB team of 1952 were pawns in a much bigger game. They set off with no idea of the sheer scale of it, and they certainly didn't understand that a bike race could be so important geopolitically. How could they, given that they were just a group of young British bike riders and that it was ostensibly an amateur race? Frank Seal alluded to it unwittingly when I first spoke with him. He mentioned a 'strange atmosphere' in Prague. Of course the 1952 race took place just as Stalin was purging Czechoslovakia, and the Czech communist party. Shortly after the race you had the Slansky show trials, when the Russians murdered fourteen high-ranking government officials at Stalin's behest.

Eleven of them were Jews, and anti-Semitism (or 'anti-Zionism') was a useful construct in buying up the Arab states. As Europeans we tend to localise the cold war, but it was a global phenomenon. Nothing wasn't politicized, and in a cycling context that explains why miniature Peace Races started to spring up all over the Arab world back then. It also explains why communist 'papers in France and Italy organized their own stage races...

So anyway you'd this beautiful, utopian ideal, young men riding across Europe disseminating the message of peace to populations devastated by war. And then, progressively, it became a propaganda tool like everything else. The fact is that they were being used to promulgate the notion that only through communism could peace be delivered, and all the while communism was doing unspeakable things to ordinary human beings. That's the great paradox, and that's what makes it such a unique historical event. It fascinates because it was a beautiful precept which mutated into something entirely other. It was the perfect sporting metaphor for communism, and for the cold war in general.

PdC: The idea for telling the story the way you did, the voices of those who were there telling it, you absenting told me before that you drew inspiration from Tony Parker and a book he wrote about the Troubles, and from others of his books, including one about the miner's strike, Red Hill. For those not familiar, would you mind filling in a little on who Parker was, when you came across him and what it was he did that stuck with you?

HS: I don't really know who he was, excepting that some of his books are very good and he was by all accounts a brilliant interviewer. I assume, therefore, that he was also a brilliant researcher, because those two are indivisible. I read his Belfast book about fifteen years ago, and I just thought it worked really well. What it doesn't have is a discernible central narrative, but rather a group of disparate voices. In that sense it's very different from my book, but it's an extremely valuable snapshot of a moment in time.

PdC: How early into the idea for the book - the idea for telling Wiedemann's story - did you decide on that way to tell Wiedemann's story?

HS: I decided very early on, for all sorts of reasons. Cycling was invented to create and then sell legends, and as such much of what passes for truth simply isn't. I'd just read yet another useless cycling biography, whose central tenet was basically a falsehood. So I was at a point where I couldn't actually stomach the idea of writing another interpretive text about bike racing, and nor did I want the quality of the prose to become the issue. I didn't want the book to be about my ability (or otherwise) to manipulate the English language, because there were far more important issues at stake.

In some way I was reacting against myself, and against my own inclination to extrapolate. I was trying, insofar as you can ever can within the medium, to distil it down to the truth about the Peace Race, and about Dieter Wiedemann's life. I wanted to chronicle, as a matter of fact, what the cold war did to him and his family.

PdC: You've been working on the book for quite some time, but you only got access to Wiedemann's Stasi file quite late in the day and the content of that file is quite important to the story told in The Race Against The Stasi. You must have had your own race against the publisher's deadline in order to digest the contents of the file and identify the entries you wanted to quote?

HS: Wiedemann's file was the final piece, necessarily. He and Sylvia had told me their stories, individually and collectively, and so in turn did the other witnesses. I wanted to explore the relationship between their memories and the prevailing conditions in the GDR, and I was astonished by the degree to which the two elements substantiated one another. Through his Stasi file and through Neues Deutschland, the party organ, I was able to corroborate almost everything they told me. I was also very fortunate, because Dieter has a photographic memory.

Choosing what to put in and what to leave out was extremely difficult, not least because it underscores the inherent contradiction of writing the book the way I did it. As I said, I set out to avoid making pejorative judgements about the Peace Race, and about everyday life in the GDR. However you can't reproduce a 450 page Stasi file in its entirety, partly because some is hand-written and illegible, and partly because to do so would be indescribably tedious for the reader. So by definition you've to be selective in what you put in, and of course the conversations I had with him weren't linear. Therefore you can't simply transcribe the testimonies verbatim, any more than you can put in every page from the Stasi files or every article from Neues Deutschland. The net result is that you're left with a huge jigsaw puzzle. You've to fit everything together whilst remaining true to the substance and spirit of what they said, and to what actually happened. That was much the most challenging part of producing the book.

PdC: I know I should be talking to you about Dieter Wiedemann, but there's another book I want to bring in here - one you recommended to me more than three years ago now - which is Uwe Johnson's The Third Book About Achim. I want to ask you about Johnson's Achim, who was really Täve Schur, but first that book itself: is there any likelihood of that getting a better translation and put back on bookshop shelves?

HS: I doubt it could work to be honest. I think that with a good translation it could be an excellent book, but only for people who understand the Täve phenomenon. It's not, ultimately, a book that a publisher would know how to sell. How do you sell an allegorical novel about Täve Schur in 21st Century Britain? In 21st century anywhere?

I'd love to write a book about the great generation of Polish cyclists from the 1970s. The reality, however, is that I can't afford to. Mainstream publishers are being squeezed all the time, and there's constant downward pressure on their margins. So whilst the current cycling boom was instrumental in their having published this, there are limits to what they will underwrite. Subject matter is everything in sports writing, so why produce an esoteric book about Szurkowski and Szozda when you can virtually guarantee a return on investment with one about Wiggins?

PdC: To Täve Schur then, who was to East German cycling fans what riders like Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil were to fans in the west. You interviewed him for The Race Against The Stasi, and one thing that comes across clear is his belief in the communist system. Now some of what he said, those of us who lean to the left can fully agree with. But Schur...he doesn't seem to recognise any flaws in the system.

HS: Schur is the most fascinating sportsman I've ever met, and probably the most fascinating human being. As far as I can see the Täve phenomenon is without parallel in the history of sport. I've thought about others - the likes of Max Schmeling and Nadia Comăneci - but no sportsperson was ever so synonymous with an ideology as Täve was. The GDR did something similar with Katerina Witt in the 1980s, but by then the whole edifice was crumbling around them. She was the party mascot, but she never enjoyed the same degree of public adulation as Täve.

People like him go to their grave believing that anything is permissible in the name of the party, because Marx is the one great truth. I tried to speak with him about it, but the language issue precluded any meaningful discussion. However he is unshakeable in his belief that Marxism is the only way, that it would have been fine but for the Americans, and that all it needed was more time. This is a man who maintains that his having ridden for communism PLC - and de facto for Stalin - is preferable to his sons' having ridden for a furniture retailer (Chateau d'Ax) when the wall came down.

Some believe that Täve's simply wearing a mask. The logic there is that only by putting it on could he survive being himself at the height of the Täve mania, and that to remove it would expose him as a massive hypocrite. It's not inconceivable I guess, but I don't buy it. He remains 100 per cent committed to the left at the age of 85, and he's very well-read politically.

Anyway I suspect it would take a much better, much smarter journalist than me to get to the bottom of Täve Schur. Maybe someone like the late Gitta Sereny might have been able to do it, but having learned a bit about life in post-war GDR, I genuinely believe that it just is what it is. People like him witnessed the catastrophe of the war first hand, and they were formed by it. They viewed communism as the way to a build a better, more righteous world, and who can blame them for that? You can no more ask people like Täve to renounce Marx than you can a devout catholic to renounce God. It's just pure faith...

PdC: A final question, and this time about Dieter Wiedemann. You've had some great reaction to the book, both in the UK and elsewhere. How do you think he feels about how people have taken to his story, and about reading his own Stasi file?

HS: The Stasi files were an extremely harrowing experience for Dieter, for all sorts of reasons. He got it whilst his wife was in hospital with a breast cancer which looked for all the world inoperable. In the event they saved her - miraculously - but this was a man under tremendous personal strain. He was already trying to deal with what seemed like the imminent loss of his soulmate, and then he was confronted with the venom in the files.

Dieter Wiedemann
Dieter Wiedemann and his wife, Sylvia

I'll give you an example, just one instant amongst many: One day I visited Dieter in Düsseldorf, where he had taken a flat while his wife was undergoing chemotherapy. We had our meeting - an exceptionally difficult one - and I started to say my goodbyes.

I was about to drive across Germany to Flöha, the town he grew up in and defected from. I had arranged a meeting the following day with his oldest friend, a guy named Reiner Müller. The two of them had been to school together, and had remained in postal contact after the defection. They'd re-established their friendship when the wall came down, and been best friends ever since. So here I was, about to leave Dieter and visit his closest friend, and Dieter handed me a brown envelope. In it were extracts from his Stasi file, and they identified another classmate of Dieter's as one of the people who'd been informing on him.

Only of course Reiner hadn't known this. He'd never seen his own Stasi file, and as such hadn't known that one of his best friends was Stasi. Well then it transpired that the guy was now ill in hospital, and that Reiner - his lifelong friend - was visiting him almost daily. Now imagine being Reiner. You're about to toddle off to the hospital to visit one of your oldest friends, and suddenly you're confronted with the fact that he was a Stasi informant reporting on another of your mates...

It's also important to bear in mind that Dieter defected when he was 23-years-old, ergo not a fully formed adult. He had a very hard time initially in the west, but the file acquainted him with the devastation his defection visited upon the family he'd left behind. It had been particularly ruinous for his father, and Dieter broke down quite often when we spoke about him. Equally, he'd had no idea of the extent of the vitriol people in the GDR felt for him when he left. In their eyes he'd committed the worst crime of all. He'd betrayed the republic, betrayed socialism, betrayed everything they stood for and believed in. What's interesting is that the GDR was only 15-years-old in 1964. That's indicative of just how effective the propaganda machine really was.

I think that Dieter is happy with the book. It's been published in German now and (irony of ironies) he's been given the freedom of the city he 'betrayed' all those years ago. Sylvia's fine as well, and the book means that their grandkids will know their story. Notwithstanding the fact that it was difficult for us both, I'd like to think that he got the book his struggle deserves.

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Herbie Sykes is the author of The Eagle of the Canavese (Mousehold), Maglia Rosa (Rouleur), Coppi (Bloomsbury) and The Race Against the Stasi (Aurum).

Herbie Sykes

You can find him on Twitter, @HerbieSykes

You'll find reviews of The Eagle of the Canavese, Maglia Rosa, Coppi, and The Race Against the Stasi on the Café Bookshelf, along with earlier interviews with Sykes.

Our thanks to Herbie Sykes for taking the time to participate in this interview.