German football and the far right: ‘If we see that flag again, we’ll shoot you’

Estimated read time 19 min read

As Stefan R left the stadium of his favourite German football team in the summer of 2019, a powerfully built man dressed in black approached him, grabbing his arm. Then, at least two other men came from behind. He was surrounded.

The men had been waiting for him on the street and the chilling message that followed was delivered at speed.

“If we see that flag again, we’ll shoot you,” said the man holding him, before one of the other assailants added his own warning.

“Now get the f*** out of town.”

Stefan, whose name has been changed in this article for safety reasons, had promoted a banner that championed diversity, hanging it from one of the terraces at Stadion an der Gellertstrasse, the home ground of Chemnitzer FC, around 150 miles south of Berlin, during a German cup game against Hamburg.

The lettering was presented in rainbow colours and included the words “cosmopolitan” and “tolerant”.

The banner at Chemnitzer FC that put Stefan R in danger (Simon Hughes/ The Athletic)

Stefan had previously been involved in a supposedly apolitical fans’ group where some of the fringe members harboured Islamophobic and anti-refugee views. His discomfort at these extremists ultimately led Stefan to form the “Diversity Section” at Chemnitzer FC.

It was then that, as he puts it, “the Nazis realised what we were trying to do” and he was targeted by his fellow fans — men he has subsequently been able to identify through Facebook searches. 

That incident occurred five years ago, but for Stefan the impact still reverberates — and especially in recent months when the rising tide of right-wing extremism in Germany and how to respond to it has been dominating the domestic news agenda.

Since that day, he has not taken the banner to the stadium: he considers it too dangerous. The extreme right-wing element of the Chemnitzer FC fanbase might not be huge, but it is highly influential and also has links to local boxing and MMA scenes.

It means that on a matchday especially, Stefan feels like a target. He avoids the south curve, which the extremists occupy like a state force. He is no longer a part of any visible fan movement.

“I would feel nervous approaching the stadium and leaving,” he tells The Athletic. “But I know by staying at home, they have won.”

Unlike in English football, where tribalism tends to revolve around inter-city or regional rivalries, the German game has long been linked to politics.

Many clubs’ fanbases are unabashedly left-wing — St Pauli, based in Hamburg, being among the most famous — but others have historically veered to the right. Borussia Dortmund are perhaps the most widely known, although the club has worked hard to eliminate the more extreme elements of its support in recent years, but they are far from alone.

In normal times, such affiliations may mean little, but these are far from normal times. Germany, in common with many European countries, is seeing a spike in support for right-wing political parties, in particular the Alternative for Germany (AfD). They are surging in the polls and are now the second-most popular party in Germany, taking between 20 and 23 per cent of the national vote. 

The AfD’s chances of taking control of Germany are slim because other parties have so far refused to work with them in a coalition, but if they are as successful as they are projected to be in the east of the country, they will have new powers such as appointing judges and blocking laws.

AfD’s rise has been met with mass protests across Germany, including one in Berlin last month which drew crowds of 150,000, featuring banners carried by fans of several of the city’s football clubs.

Anti-AfD protests in Berlin last month (Hami Roshan/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)

The anti-right-wing message was endorsed by Bayern Munich, Germany’s biggest club and, in recent years, politically left-leaning. After Uli Hoeness, the club’s honorary president, had criticised AfD’s policies, manager Thomas Tuchel endorsed the protests. 

“We can’t stand up enough,” he said. “There’s no doubt about fighting against all forms of extremism, but obviously also against right-wing extremism in particular given the discussion and our history. There can be no doubt there.” Similar sentiments were expressed by Bayer Leverkusen manager Xabi Alonso and Freiburg’s Christian Streich. 

Tuesday’s Champions League game between Bayern and Lazio, the Italian club with a notorious right-wing fanbase, placed politics front and centre again with a group of Lazio supporters singing fascist songs at the Hofbrauhaus am Platzl, where Adolf Hitler announced the founding of the Nazi Party in 1920.

In Germany, politics permeate every level of the game.

At the start of February, Chemnitzer FC, now in the German fourth division, faced Energie Cottbus — another club with a fanbase that has a strong right-wing presence. 

The south curve at the Stadion an der Gellertstrasse used the opportunity to comment on transgender people. While one banner declared: “There are only two genders, even a blind person can see that,” another read: “DFB fan shop: men, women, babies and children.”

Chemnitz’s fanbase is politically split (Karina Hessland/Getty Images for DFB)

After Cottbus fans displayed another anti-trans slogan in their next game — “There are only two genders, both despise the DFB” — Georg Pazderski, an AfD politician, described the message on X, formerly Twitter, as a “cool action”.

Such interventions should not be surprising. In places like Chemnitz and Cottbus, AfD are at around 30 per cent in the polls, meaning they are on track to win as many as three of the country’s eastern states at the federal election later this year. 

It has been nearly six years since far-right demonstrations in Chemnitz turned into riots. The city has tried to change its image — its appointment as European Capital of Culture for 2025 is evidence of that — yet there remains a sense that the city, previously Karl-Marx Stadt and one of the biggest in the old East Germany, has been left behind. Despite a relatively short distance from Berlin, it takes more than three hours to reach Chemnitz by train given the lack of a high-speed rail network. 

A bus stops outside the Karl Marx monument in Chemnitz (Hendrik Schmidt/via Getty Images)

Stefan suggests that makes lots of people feel “disconnected”, but among moderates like him, there remains a belief that key civic institutions, such as the city’s football club, have not done enough to combat nationalism.

When Chemnitzer FC was asked by a local newspaper for comment about the transphobic banners, it did not respond directly to any of the questions, instead choosing to refer to the values it spreads on the scoreboard before and during home games. This anti-discriminatory message also appeared on social networks, without explicitly addressing the discriminatory banners.

Stefan stresses that not everyone who supports Chemnitzer FC is a right-wing extremist or even right-wing at all. Yet the extremists, (fewer than 50 people, Stefan estimates) are so dangerous and influential that a culture of fear exists among the fans and board members who might oppose them but do not want to get attacked.

The threats against Stefan came after the death of Thomas Haller, a self-professed neo-Nazi hooligan. His passing was marked by a funeral service inside Chemnitzer FC’s ground that involved fans dressing in black and holding flares aloft, behind a banner in Gothic script with the words “Rest in peace, Tommy”.

This was followed by the stadium announcer paying tribute to Haller’s support for the club. “He lived for Chemnitzer FC,” was the eulogy.

Mourners gather for Thomas Haller’s funeral in Chemnitz in 2019 (Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images)

Haller had founded the HooNaRa (Hooligans-Nazis-Racists) fan group in the early 1990s and his company, Haller Security, worked with the club until 2006.

In 2007, Chemnitzer FC banned HooNaRa and the NS-Boys group, which used a Hitler Youth as its logo, but Stefan questions whether it has been proactive enough. “We have space for 15,000 spectators, but the attendance is usually around 3,000. People don’t want to be a part of this s***,” he says.

Stefan believes the club he loves has found itself in a vicious circle which means it has now become reliant on the presence of extremists because of fears around the financial impact if they get banned. “Will anyone feel safe coming to the stadium? If this is your image then it is impossible to find sponsors that can help you grow as a club.”

Chemnitzer FC employs an anti-racism officer, who tried to help Stefan when he was threatened. Yet when German magazine Der Spiegel took up the story, the official line from the club via an anonymous spokesman cast doubt on Stefan’s version of events, putting the confrontation down to “a few individuals who did not share this view politically, or who drank one beer too many”.

Though the club softly condemned what happened, it injected a layer of uncertainty about exactly what was said. When Der Spiegel asked the city’s police about this claim, however, it was told that the authorities were not aware of any inconsistencies in the case, though no charges were ever brought.

“I know exactly what was said,” Stefan stresses nearly five years later. “I have lost a lot of trust in the club because of this.”

Following Haller’s death from cancer in 2019, there was recognition for him on the field as well. After scoring a goal, Chemnitzer FC forward Daniel Frahn held up a black T-shirt bearing the motto, “Support your local Hools.”

Frahn reasoned that he thought the T-shirt was being used to help raise money for Haller’s medical treatment and he did not know it was associated with the neo-Nazi scene.

Four months after a fine, Frahn was sacked by the club for “openly displaying” sympathy for neo-Nazi groups by sitting with well-known right-wing extremists during a game he was ruled out of by injury.

Daniel Frahn was sacked by Chemnitz (Robert Michael/via Getty Images)

Chemnitzer FC claimed it was “duty-bound to be a bulwark against right-wing extremism”, with Frahn subsequently denying any links to the far right and insisting he was merely trying to foster “a close relationship” with fans. 

This incident was a few weeks before the threats made to Stefan and while he still feels as though he did not experience the same level of support, he admits some sympathy for the player.

“He wanted to be close to the fans. In Chemnitz, it’s difficult because some of the most influential ones are the most dangerous right-wing extremists in the city and they are always there, they find a way to get to you.”

Frahn had grown up in Potsdam, just outside Berlin. What made his position unusual was his association with nearby SV Babelsberg, which openly operates around left-wing values and has been one of the leading clubs in the fight against fascism. The club’s stadium is identified by the street it is located on and Karl-Liebknecht Strasse was named after the politician who was murdered after founding the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and has since been viewed as a martyr for left-wing causes across Europe.

At the height of the 2015 migrant crisis, Babelsberg formed a team of refugee players. Before that, they invited the openly gay retired footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger to launch an anti-homophobia campaign. More recently, the club has created a football team for players with autism. It provides a daycare centre for young children, allowing their parents to attend matches, where they can purchase a programme made out of excess grass from the pitch.

Frahn had played for the club between 2007 and 2010. He was remembered as being approachable with the fans but he was not an activist, nor was he especially conscious politically such was his focus on his football career, which led him to RB Leipzig when they were progressing through the divisions after huge investment from the energy drink company Red Bull.

Five months after his Chemnitzer FC contract was ripped up, he returned to Babelsberg, where he has remained, emerging as the team’s captain. Though his signing divided opinion among supporters, when club president Archibald Horlitz approached life members, asking whether any of them thought Frahn was a Nazi or even in possession of right-wing views, none of them, according to Horlitz, believed he was.

While fans of other clubs tease Babelsberg for allegedly ignoring their instincts in pursuit of Frahn’s goals, Barbara Paech, who sits on the club’s advisory board, suggests the player’s story and subsequent rise towards a leadership position at Babelsberg is a powerful example of reconciliation.

SV Babelsberg fans are traditionally left-leaning (Christian Ender/Getty Images)

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Paech was attracted to Potsdam partly because of its increasing squatter community. She came from Thuringia and some of the reasons the old Eastern states like the one she was born in have swung from the left of politics to the right can be found in the period when Paech arrived in Potsdam. 

After West German politicians began rewiring the economy of the East, which had been controlled by the state, mass layoffs began as many of the industries struggled to compete in an international market they did not understand.

For the first time in 40 years, people with secure jobs found themselves unemployed. Many East Germans have never overcome the crushing sense of frustration and suspicion of the federal state’s motivations.

Thirty-five years later, eastern Germany lags behind the west economically and this gap is reflected in football. Only two Oberliga clubs were invited to join the Bundesliga when the competitions merged in 1991. Of the 14 Oberliga teams, two are now in the second tier, 2 Bundesliga, while 10 are in the third tier or below and the rest no longer exist.

There is an argument, however, that East German clubs have not been serviced well by the state since 1978 when Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi, walked into a Dynamo Dresden dressing room, telling players their era of dominance was over. What followed was 10 successive Oberliga titles for Dynamo Berlin, a club whose members mainly came from one of the biggest secret police services in the world.

It was during this period that the terraces of East German football grounds became havens for right-wing extremists, including at Dynamo Berlin, whose superiority, thanks in part to favourable decisions by referees, would eventually lead to attendance collapsing as fans stopped believing in what they were watching. 

On a Tuesday night in February, the presence of Zwickau in Babelsberg, a town sandwiched between Potsdam and Berlin, acted as a reminder of the past and the present. 

Zwickau had been the Oberliga’s first champions in 1949 but were relegated to the fourth tier last season for the first time since 2016.

In that campaign, Zwickau’s ultras stole a banner from Babelsberg, an act which led to a heightened police presence outside the Karl-Liebknecht Stadion last month. 

The authorities, however, seemed to forget that the match was taking place inside the ground and after a small group of Babelsberg fans tried to access the Zwickau terrace via the pitch after pushing through a gate, kick-off had to be delayed.

Amid the bright light from the flares and the smoke bombs, it became difficult to gauge where the politics and hooliganism diverged. 

A younger generation of Zwickau fans are supposedly left-leaning, yet another section, which most definitely takes an opposite political view, arrived accompanied by right-wing ultras from Dynamo Dresden, easily made identifiable because of the way they hid their faces using yellow ski masks.

Fans gather in Babelsberg (Simon Hughes/The Athletic)

Not every club’s fanbase is as easily defined as Babelsberg. Yet as Paech would later stress, Babelsberg is not linked to any political party and the club instead prefers to take a “position”.

“We are democratic, we are against discrimination and we are anti-fascist — our country has a history that we have to remember,” she said.

On the outskirts of Potsdam, such history felt particularly close. 

Just a few miles to the east, the extermination of the Jews, or the Final Solution, was designed at a conference centre overlooking a lake in Wannsee; just to the north, the Glienicke Bridge later acted as an exchange point for spies during the Cold War; while to the west, the Landhaus Aldon guesthouse recently hosted a delegation from the AfD and established members of Germany and Austria’s far-right to discuss a “remigration” scheme that would involve the mass deportation of migrants, asylum seekers and German citizens of foreign origin deemed to have failed to integrate.

Paech admits members of Babelsberg were affected by the latest development and many went on marches protesting against the AfD. “None of us were surprised, though,” she added.

She believes it is important for clubs like Babelsberg to “be louder at this moment” because of the looming federal as well as European elections. “Sport integrates people, showing how to support each other,” she says. 

The stadium at Babelsberg (Simon Hughes/The Athletic)

Standing beside her on the terrace as Babelsberg secured a 3-1 victory over Zwickau was Martin Endemann from Fans Supporters Europe. He supports nearby Tennis Borussia Berlin, a club that promotes inclusivity and anti-discrimination.

The fact Endemann was happy with Babelsberg’s victory reflected the sort of allegiances that exist in Germany when you know you are in a space of like-minded people. 

He seems to know everyone and everyone seems to like him, even though he is not a Babelsberg supporter.

When he is asked to explain whether fanbases in Germany were more politicised than in other European countries, his answer was a clear one, relating to the 50-plus-one rule, which ensures members of each club hold the majority of voting rights.

“Here, we have more freedom to express ourselves because of the membership model,” he says. “It means football clubs in Germany connect to the surrounding area and community. We have a role in what we want our clubs to stand for and that can have good and bad consequences.”

An unofficial bond exists between SV Babelsberg and Tennis Borussia and relationships like this extend into other parts of Berlin.

Both Paech and Endemann know all about, for example, what clubs such as Turkiyemspor are trying to do in Kreuzberg, a district which once had an eastern boundary with the Berlin Wall.

An organisation called “Gesellschaftsspiele” (translated roughly as board games) has helped bring the interests of anti-fascist clubs and fanbases closer together.

Turkiyemspor, now in the Berlin amateur leagues, reached the third tier of German football in the mid-1980s, boasting attendances of more than 3,000.

Yet their story since the fall of the wall shows the impact that significant political and social upheaval and subsequent racism can have on a club’s fortunes. 

Turkiyemspor was founded in 1978 and its current chairman, Murat Dogan, grew up through the glory years when Kreuzberg’s Turkish community had a much closer link to the club.

According to Dogan, it was easier to attract fans because televisions were so scarce and very few Turkish Berliners were able to engage with big clubs back home such as Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas. “Turkiyemspor acted as the connection to the country,” Dogan suggests.

A photo of Turkiyemspor in their heyday, hanging at their stadium (Simon Hughes/The Athletic)

Kreuzberg runs alongside the banks of the Spree River and Friedrichshain and East Germany was on the other side of the water. When reunification came, Turkiyemspor suddenly started facing teams they had never faced before.

Dogan played for the club as a midfielder and he recalls a violent atmosphere whenever Turkiyemspor travelled east, where the land was cut off from Western Europe and anti-immigrant sentiment was much stronger. On one occasion, he remembers having the head of a pig thrown at him. He and his team-mates were regularly pelted with stones.

These experiences, he says, contributed enormously to fan impulses. “They stopped coming after a couple of years,” he decries. “If it was bad for us on the pitch, you can only imagine how bad it was for them on the terraces.”

Today, Dogan describes Turkiyemspor as a “multicultural” club rather than a Turkish one. He says it is crucial that any club reflects the area it is associated most with and to remain relevant to its environment. 

Over the past 20 years, Kreuzberg and bordering Neukolln have evolved from being strongly Turkish neighbourhoods, which they still are, to including residents from all over the world. “Turkiyemspor is now a club of Berlin,” he suggests.

Other clubs in Berlin with Turkish connections have changed their name in pursuit of integration, but Dogan thinks Turkiyemspor must remain because it represents Kreuzberg’s current position as well as its history.

The club now has more than 800 members and dozens of teams across all age groups. It has appointed a woman as the club’s chief executive. Saskia Wichert was born in the east of Berlin and she now fully understands the social and economic challenges that face clubs like Turkiyemspor.

“Finding sponsors is difficult as not every business wants to be associated with the Turkish community,” she concedes. 

Turkiyemspor are visited by German FA president Fritz Keller and minister of state for migration, refugees and integration Annette Widmann-Mauz in 2019 (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Wichert’s work involves the women’s teams and she has experienced both overt and subtle racism of rivals, such as when Turkiyemspor played an away game elsewhere in Berlin and the host club refused to announce the visiting team on the public address system.

Currently, Turkiyemspor only has access to one training pitch across its adult and youth sections and the club is trying to find better facilities. 

Yet the cost of land in Berlin is increasing and there are not many options. Wichert hopes the decision-makers at the council look favourably upon the Turkish community and its needs rather than award the space to another property developer. 

“The argument to help immigrant communities in Germany is becoming harder,” she laments. 

Football can help play its part, but — as recent weeks have shown — it is not an easy process.

(Top photos: Getty Images, Ronny Hartmann/AFP; design: Eamonn Dalton)