The Peace Race: Socialism’s Grand Cycling Tour

Paul Scraton on one of East Germany’s most significant sporting events…

We travelled west towards Magdeburg on country roads in early summer, ignoring the temptation of the fast-moving autobahn just beyond the horizon. The heat shimmered on the tarmac surface. Wind farms turned slowly in the breeze. The fields were the brilliant green of young corn and wheat, or else they shone yellow with the flowing rapeseed. We were approaching the Elbe river in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, but – as we passed a group of mid-week cyclists in bright lycra – it looked like the landscapes of the first week of the Tour de France.

We crossed the Elbe and its flood meadows on either side, spying the twin towers of Magdeburg cathedral from the high bridge before we dropped down again and into the next small, anonymous agricultural village. The storks had returned. Red kites hovered against the blue sky. A tractor worked the field. It felt like a timeless scene, but as so often in Germany, we approached the village of Kleinmühlingen with the knowledge of all that happened in these towns, across these fields and along the banks of the great river we’ve just crossed.

In Kleinmühlingen, a place that can trace its origins back to the Middle Ages as a Slavic village, that lost a third of its population during The Plague, was almost completely destroyed in the Thirty Years’ War, flew the swastika flag under National Socialism and found itself in the Russian occupied zone after World War II, we pulled up outside a small museum dedicated to none of these events but linked to the last: a new-ish building on a sidestreet, with a Dutch flag hanging from the guttering, a white dove of peace above the door and a mural on the side wall depicting cyclists struggling up a steep cobblestoned road in the middle of a town.

The Peaxe Race Museum in Kleinmühlingen. Image by Friedrich-Otto Schönig.

Before we were even out of the car, a cheerful man had stepped out onto the pavement and waited by an old blue turbo-trainer that he’d presumably left there for any local Kleinmühlinger who fancied a workout. This was Horst Schäfer, the man who built the Radsportmuseum Course de la Paix together with his wife and his friends, drawing cycling fans from around the world to his museum dedicated to the story of the Friedensfahrt – the Peace Race.

Born out of the ruins of World War II, this two-week stage race would become known, by those who didn’t really know it, as ‘The Tour de France of the East’. “But we don’t call it that,” Horst says with a smile, shaking my hand. “It was something different. Not to be compared. But come on, let me show you and tell you all about it…”

Inside, Horst’s wife Gudrun is in the kitchen making coffee. It looks like no museum I had ever been to before. The ground floor is an open space with a long table. There are cycling posters on the walls, and other bits and pieces of memorabilia, but in general it looks like a classic German ice cream cafe owned by someone with a particular hobby. The exhibits, Horst informs us, are mainly upstairs. But first he has a film to show us.

All Horst knew from our contact was that I was originally from the north of England, that I lived in Berlin, and that I wanted to write about the Peace Race. With this information he had decided he wanted to start the story from the beginning. He looked beyond me at my travelling companions. I was in Kleinmühlingen with my in-laws, Fritz and Gabi. They had, they told Horst, their own memories of the Peace Race, growing up in the GDR. He smiled. Once he discovered Fritz had spent his childhood in Potsdam, we became the ‘Potsdamer’ for the rest of our visit.

“I knew already, in 1991, that we would have to fight to keep the race going,” Horst says, as we settle down with our coffees. The Wall had come down, Germany was reunified, and traces of the socialist story of the previous forty years were being washed away by the tidal wave of history. “People needed to know that it was more than communist propaganda.”

It took another nine years before he began to build the museum. In 2007 they found the location. In 2012 they finished building work and opened the doors. “When I started,” Horst says, “I didn’t know I was building a museum… but people needed a place to find the history.” The race itself struggled on until 2006, when the abandonment of the last of its sponsors brought about its final demise. If anything, that hardened Horst’s resolve even more. And after visiting his museum, it’s hard to disagree that the Peace Race is a story that needs to be kept alive.

Image by Friedrich-Otto Schönig.

In 1948, journalists from Poland and Czechoslovakia had come up with the idea of a cross-border race between Warsaw and Prague as a way of building solidarity between the populations of the two fledgling socialist states still living with the physical and mental damage of World War II. By 1950 it had been renamed ‘The Peace Race’ and had adopted Picasso’s white dove as a symbol. It was an amateur race and open to all, distinctly and purposefully opposed to the capitalist-driven professionalism of the Tour de France.

There is no writer in the English language who has done more to tell the story of the Peace Race than author Herbie Sykes, who described the aims of the new event in a piece for Prendas Ciclismo in 2018:

“They would ride not for money, and much less still to propagate consumerism. Instead, they’d pedal the idea that sport – and specifically cycling, the most popular sport of all – might build bridges between their respective nations. Here on socialism’s western frontier, bike racing would unite Germans with Poles, Christians with Muslims, socialists with former Nazis. Riding through communities defiled by fascism, they would broadcast the notion that sporting values could promote unity on a continent torn asunder by hate.”

In 1950, riders from the German Democratic Republic took part for the first time, despite misgivings from many in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Two years later, the race held its first stages on German soil. Warsaw to Prague became Warsaw–Prague–Berlin, and the three capitals shared these flagship stages of the race from then on.

If the Peace Race was important symbolically, as a reflection of the new socialist Europe emerging from the ruins, it was crucial to the GDR. It not only conferred legitimacy on the new GDR state, but also – thanks to the enthusiasm with which it was greeted by the public at large – helped develop the socialist-tinged patriotism needed to build a new country. The sight of the GDR team working together and, hopefully, the victories that would come, would help build pride in the nation and the new German Democratic Republic.

On the other side of the border, football would play a similar role, not least thanks to the epic victory over Hungary in the 1954 World Cup, seen by many as the first properly positive communal event in the Federal Republic since the defeat of the Nazi regime nine years earlier: it was subsequently mythologised as ‘The Wonder of Bern’.

Author Paul Scraton at the museum. Image by Friedrich-Otto Schönig.

Sitting with Horst in the museum, we watch a short documentary about the history of the Peace Race, with an emphasis on 1952, the inaugural year that the race crossed the border into the GDR. The race was won by Scottish rider called Ian Steel, and the team prize – equally, if not more valued in the Peace Race than the individual yellow jersey – was claimed by his ‘English’ team.

Herbie Sykes interviewed Steel for his book The Race Against The Stasi, a fascinating exploration of the story of one East German bike rider, Dieter Wiedemann, who rode in the Peace Race and would defect to the west and eventually compete in the Tour de France. Steel noted three abiding memories from the race. First was the camaraderie of the riders, which he remembered as completely different to his experiences in the Tours of France and Spain later in his career; then there was the sheer number of spectators who turned out to watch, whether in Poland, Czechoslovakia, or in the GDR; and then there were the places themselves:

“Above all I remember Warsaw. It was seven years on from the war but most of it was still in ruins. Britain had never been invaded, so we’d had no perception whatsoever of the degree of devastation. It was almost total, and I think we were all genuinely shocked by what we saw there. They were at pains to show us what the Nazis had done, but also to demonstrate how they were building a new future.”

But if a triumph for Steel and Scotland as they entered Prague on the final stage was not exactly what the socialist organisers of the event might have hoped, 1952 also saw the debut of a rider who – in the German Democratic Republic at least – would become the embodiment of cycling and sport in that country, a two-times World Champion and Olympic medalist, and perhaps the ultimate icon of the Peace Race among German fans: Täve.

“Täve was Karl Marx and Gino Bartali, Elvis Presley and Roy Rogers”, writes Sykes. “Heart-throb and philosopher, diplomat and prole, he was all things to all men, the very personification of the ‘neue Mensch’. He was, quite simply, political gold dust; the living, breathing synthesis of socialism’s greatest victory.”

In the early days of my relationship with his daughter, Fritz and I bonded over sport. I forgave him his affection for Manchester United and he tolerated my love of Liverpool. We sat together (and still do) on winter weekend afternoons after a big lunch, watching ski jumping and bobsleigh. We’ve been to the Mercedes Benz Arena to watch basketball, and the velodrome for the Six Day Races. And in our conversations about sport, Täve’s name would return to Fritz’s lips time and again. Despite Fritz being too young to directly remember Täve’s greatest achievements, the cyclist’s legacy was so great that he remained a favourite even to those who only ever saw his prowess on black and white newsreel footage.

Image by Friedrich-Otto Schönig.

Gustav-Adolf “Täve” Schur was born in 1931 and took up cycling at the somewhat late age of 19. A year later, he was part of that first GDR team to ride at the Peace Race, and in 1953 he was a fundamental part of the next team to enter and the first to win the coveted team prize. It was, according to Neues Deutschland – the newspaper and mouthpiece of the ruling SED party in the GDR – “the greatest sporting success in the history of our republic.”

“And yet,” the newspaper report continued, “the triumph of our team is but a victory for the movement for world peace. As America’s lackeys in Europe continue their imperialist war against the Soviet Union and the people’s democratic countries, the best cyclists from almost the whole of Europe were brought together in democracy. The great International Peace Race ran through the heart of Europe, demonstrating by example that peaceful and friendly understanding between its peoples is quite possible. Under the banner bearing the same logo as the blue jerseys of the victorious GDR team, namely Picasso’s dove of peace, a huge new victory was won.”

Täve would go on to win the yellow jersey for best individual rider in the Peace Races of 1955 and 1959, as well as those world championships and Olympic medals mentioned earlier, but the story that cemented his legend – and one that Fritz has told me a number of times – was how he sacrificed his own chances of a third world title in 1960 to allow a teammate to win. With a team-mate up the road in a breakaway, Täve’s only chance for the third title was to bridge the gap but potentially pull other rivals with him. In deciding to hang back, he guaranteed his team-mate’s victory and further built his reputation of a rider willing to forsake personal glory for the good of his team, and by extension, the GDR and all that it represented.

Cyclists have commented that he was just obeying normal road race tactics to guarantee one of the GDR team took home the gold medal, but it cemented the myth. From 1953 to 1961, Täve was the GDR’s Sports Personality of the Year for nine straight years, and when a poll was taken, he would later be voted the greatest East German sportsperson of all time, 25 years after he retired.

Täve would remain a committed socialist throughout and beyond his cycling career. He was elected to the GDR’s Volkskammer (Parliament) even while he was still racing, and would remain a member until reunification in 1990. A member of the SED’s successor party the PDS (now merged with a western German party to form Die Linke), he was a member of the Bundestag between 1998 and 2002. The link between cycling, socialism and the society being built in the GDR, was clear to Täve from the beginning:

“In capitalism everyone just did their own thing. A professional cyclist could always say, ‘OK, today I don’t have the legs. I have enough money, and so it doesn’t matter if I don’t race today.’ It wasn’t like that for me. I was never ambitious for money or fame, but I understood that every time I raced I was defending the values of my country and my society.”

In Kleinmühlingen, we climb the stairs to the exhibition spaces on the first floor, filled with bicycles, jerseys, photographs, newspaper cuttings and all manner of artefacts from the nearly 60 years of Peace Races that were held between the first in 1948 and the final race in 2006. As we explore, both Fritz and Gabi impart their own memories of the event during their childhood and beyond.

Fritz had gone out with his father as a young boy whenever the race came through Potsdam, and we flick through the collection for stage route maps to try and work out which years that might have been. Gabi remembers, as both a child and then later when her own kids were at school, the projects and wall charts around the race that all primary schools in the GDR got involved in, even in places through which the race never passed.

It seemed, in talking with Horst, Gabi and Fritz, that the Peace Race’s grip on the popular imagination was very real, and not restricted to those who bought wholly into the ideals of socialism, or even cycling fans. In 1962, Horst was asked by his teacher to carry out a Peace Race project similar to the one Gabi had described. He was supposed to write up each stage over the course of the two weeks, based only on newspaper and radio reports as there was next to no coverage on the television, even if you had one. “The first stage was always well written,” Horst says with a grin, but even if his enthusiasm for the school project waned, his interest in the race never did.

In 1962, another rider caught Horst’s attention who would become, for him, the symbol of what the Peace Race was all about – even more so than Täve or any of the other East German heroes. In that year, the race began in Berlin, opening as usual with the teams standing against their respective national flags. Behind a woman flying a distinctive red and white flag with a green cedar at its heart was the solitary rider of the Lebanese team, Tarek Aboul Zahab. Riding alone, Zahab would make it through the two weeks to finish in a highly respectable 41st place. And along the way, the story of this rider captured Horst’s heart and gave him the love for the race that he holds to this day.

A year later, Zahab was back in the race, which passed through nearby Magdeburg. “I had to see him!” Horst says. He travelled to the route and searched out the best spot. “It wasn’t allowed, but in order to get a better look I climbed a fruit tree. And it worked. I saw him!”

Throughout the years of watching the Peace Race from the sidelines, Horst has enjoyed his favourite riders like Täve Schur and Tarek Aboul Zahab from a distance, and has met many more of the greats through the museum. Täve himself is a regular visitor for the annual events and get togethers held at the museum, and Horst delights in showing me pictures of the visit of Scottish rider Sandy Gilchrist who rode for the British team in 1972 and 1973.

With tears suddenly forming in his eyes, he tells me about the day in 2012, five years after the museum opened, when a childhood dream came true and Tarek Aboul Zahab arrived in Kleinmühlingen with his daughter Nehmat. “He was so proud to be part of the history of the race,” Horst says, “and I was so happy for him to be there.”

Image by Friedrich-Otto Schönig.

As with so many things when it comes to the history of socialism and the GDR, the Peace Race could not escape the growing realities of paranoia and oppression. As the years went on, the gap between the rhetoric and ideals of the state, and the lived experience of the average East German, could not be ignored.

As Sykes writes: “The Peace Race had always promulgated the idea that sport was no mere consumable, but gradually it became a pawn in a massive, all-consuming ideological chess match.

The desire to prove the superiority of the socialist system led to the GDR creating one of the most elaborate, and effective doping systems the world had ever seen. In Sykes’ book, cyclists such as Dieter Wiedemann explain how the corruption of the system extended down through sport and would influence who was selected for which races, whilst all the while operatives from the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) were compiling files on the athletes to see who could be trusted to race beyond the GDR’s borders.

“What you need to remember,” comments Horst, standing beside a patch of wall at the top of the stairs that had been signed by all the visiting Peace Race riders, “is that this is not a GDR museum. Or a socialist museum. It’s just about this race. And when a rider from Australia, all these years later wants to come and visit us, what could be more about peace than that?”

Downstairs in the museum, the reason for the Dutch flag above the window is finally explained as four cars with yellow number plates pull up outside; a group of cyclists led by an old friend of Horst’s – on their way to Saxony to take part in a memorial ride for the victims of the Holocaust – have arrived for coffee and cake.

As Horst begins to share with them many of the stories we’d just been listening to, we sit with Gudrun at the other end of the table and marvel at his enthusiasm, at the place they have created, and the people they have drawn to this little village in Saxony-Anhalt. As Horst continues to talk, Gudrun leans over the table and speaks in a low voice. “In the end, this is not really a museum. Yes, we have exhibits. Things to look at. But really we are a meeting place for all lovers of the Peace Race. This is a place to talk. To share our experiences.”

I think again of Herbie Sykes, who wrote: “The Tour de France of the East? Nie, ne, and categorically nein. The Tour is a thing of wonder, but ultimately a thing of Coca-Cola, PMU and Credit Lyonaisse. It’s bookmakers and bankers, Spanish mobile phones and Dutch travel agents. The Peace Race was something else, and the clue is in the name. It was – and remains – the greatest idea in the history of sport.”

Many might dream of a return of the Peace Race, a two-week stage race taking in Warsaw, Berlin and Prague, as well as legendary locations like the ‘Steep Wall of Meerane’ depicted on the mural outside the museum. In the last couple of years, a new initiative has been created to establish a ‘Peace Ride’ in the spirit of the old race. An annual, non-competitive cross-border event began in 2021 with a two stage ride from Chemnitz to Prague and back again. In 2022, the event was extended to include Poland. Of course, Horst was in Prague to welcome the riders at the end of the first stage, as well as former Peace Race competitors from across Europe.

Perhaps this is a more fitting legacy than any attempt to re-boot it as a race, with the necessary sponsors, team cars and television deals. As one of the Czech competitors said in a short film about the 2021 Peace Ride, they were “proud – you can see – but also glad that we have this idea of coming together, of meeting people of different nations… the whole idea of peace.”

 

Visit the website of the Peace Race Museum here

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