Germany flagThe 2011/12 Bundesliga 2 season kicked off last weekend, and when historians of German football look back in years to come, they may see it as one of the most significant at any level since the East and West German leagues were unified 20 years ago.

The reason this particular campaign is of more interest than usual to anyone outside towns like Braunschweig, Bochum or Dusseldorf, is the presence of 5 clubs from the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in the second tier.

For the first time since the two countries were re-united and clubs from the East German Oberliga were incorporated into the new national league structure 20 years ago, they are climbing up the leagues rather than freefalling down them.

The question now is whether or not any team from the East can take the final step, and establish themselves as a force in the Bundesliga 1.

For past two decades, football fans from the Eastern part of the newly-united Germany have been largely excluded from the almost continuous success story of the Bundesliga. Last season the German top flight boasted the highest average attendance of any league in Europe and the highest goals-per-game ratio of any of the major leagues. But it did not include a single team from the regions that once comprised the GDR.

In many ways, the travails of East German football post-reunification have mirrored the socio-economic problems of East Germany as a whole. Thousands of jobs in the East were shed during the early 1990s as economic shock therapy, including widespread privatisations, forced previously Government-run corporations to compete without subsidy on the open market.

In the same vein, the giants of the Oberliga, shorn of the patronage of various state departments, were driven to the brink of bankruptcy. Teams forced to spend much of the past two decades languishing in the regional leagues as a result of severe financial hardship included Dynamo Berlin, who won 10 consecutive titles from 1979-88 (thanks in no small part to the high-level support they enjoyed as team of the hated Stasi secret police agency); Dynamo Dresden, the 1990 Oberliga Champions; Lokomotiv Leipzig, who narrowly finished runners-up that year; and FC Magdeburg, who defeated Milan in the 1974 European Cup Winners Cup Final.

With travel restrictions on East Germans also lifted as the Berlin Wall came down, players like Matthias Sammer, Jens Jeremies and Michael Ballack followed the money on offer at clubs like Bayern and Dortmund, reflecting the movement of thousands of other migrants who headed West in search of higher wages.

Meanwhile in the East, as the immediate euphoria following reunification subsided, the population fell, the economy struggled, and uncertainties grew. Far right extremists began to gain a foothold in regional Parliaments and developed an active following amongst football supporters throughout the region.

As crowd numbers dwindled, hooliganism became rife. Energie Cottbus and Hansa Rostock (the last ever champions of the Oberliga) were the only ex-GDR sides to enjoy brief forays into the Bundesliga 1. Neither troubled the upper echelons of the table. Cottbus were relegated for the second time in 2009 and haven’t really looked like bouncing back since.

Over the past two seasons, however, the first green shoots of a footballing renaissance in the Eastern part of Germany have begun to emerge in the lower leagues. As a result of promotions last year for Hansa Rostock and Dynamo Dresden, Eastern clubs now account for 5 out of 18 teams in the Bundesliga 2.

The newly promoted outfits join Cottbus, Ezgebirge Aue and 1.FC Union Berlin, the latter of whom were only promoted themselves in 2009/10.  This is the highest number of former GDR sides in the top 2 divisions since 1998, and with 5 out of 36 clubs, it is more or less representative of the proportion that the old East Germany forms of the population of Germany as a whole (roughly one sixth).

While this upturn is slightly tempered by the fact that none of them are in the top division, that situation is likely to be remedied in the coming few years. If it maybe unrealistic to expect any of the ex-GDR sides to challenge for promotion this season, their longer-term prognosis looks good.

Dresden and Hansa both now occupy modern, recently constructed or renovated stadia. Union, backed by voluntary labour from fans in the building trade, will soon commence the second phase of re-development work on their ‘Stadion An der Altern Forsterei’. All three are likely to be amongst the best supported teams at their level, with average crowds of around 14,000 (Union and Rostock) and 17,000 (Dresden) in the last campaign proving better than all but a handful of clubs in the Bundesliga 2.

And just as the ill-starred fortunes of the former GDR clubs mirrored the struggles of wider East German society throughout the noughties and nineties, so their nascent revival reflects a more general optimism currently pervading across the East.

Though the declining population continues to present a demographic challenge, the most recent report on reunification estimated that the former GDR regions now account for about 10 per cent of German wealth, up from 2 per cent in 1992. Unemployment across the regions is at its lowest levels since 1991.

At the heart of Eastern Germany, Berlin has long been one of the most vibrant cities in Europe, but its centre of gravity has begun to shift to bohemian districts such as Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain on the Eastern side of the former wall. As a thriving capital of 3.5 million people plus surrounding area, Berlin ought to be able to comfortably support two top flight teams, and Union, the most popular club in East Berlin, are well-placed to eventually join Hertha, from the West of the city, in the Bundesliga 1.

The re-generation of Dresden, Germany’s cultural capital before the Second World War, is also beginning to pay dividends. The ‘Florence am Elbe’ is amongst the fastest growing cities in the country with a population of over 500,000 and has once again become a major tourist destination. Allied to a footballing pedigree that extends back to the 1920s, when Dresdner SC captured numerous titles in the regionalised league system, it too appears to have the potential to host top flight football in the not-too-distant future.

It is in this context that the progress made by clubs in the former East Germany should be seen – improved facilities, bigger crowds than their divisional rivals and success on their pitch, taking place against the backdrop of a economy that is slowly, painfully catching up with the former West.

The increased number of Eastern clubs in this season’s Bundesliga 2  provides a platform from which the region can finally establish permanent representation amongst the country’s footballing elite. As such, the progress of Dresden, Union, Hansa et al will be fascinating to watch, both over the coming campaign and beyond.

By Luke Hildyard

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona