An exile investigates the Bundesliga and beyond
It is entirely possible that even if you know nothing about German football, you have heard of the Hamburg club St Pauli.
'Heard' might not be the right word – you've almost certainly seen their fan T-shirts.
A white skull and crossbones on a black background, with the club’s name starkly spelled out in capital letters beneath it.
It’s an iconic piece of merchandise and one that screams the club’s ‘Kult’ (credentials).
Punk, pirates, and politics – it’s all part of the St Pauli identity.
“St Pauli is deemed to be the only club with a political identity in German football," says football writer Tobias Fuchs.
"If you talk to someone who is left-wing, you can be sure that he supports St Pauli.”
Maybe I’m simply from the wrong generation, but I have never heard an English club or its fans described as left- or right-wing before.
Class designations I have heard, yes. Religious identities, certainly, but not political affiliation.
In fact, in the Premier League, there seems to be much like there is in mainstream British politics, a centrist consensus – a political spectrum of little or no breadth.
But here in Germany, mainstream politics isn’t quite like that.
A proportional voting system means there is a genuine array of political parties in parliament, from Die Linke, Germany’s far-left party and some might say unreconstructed communists, all the way to the FDP – the country’s most free-wheeling capitalists and part of Angela Merkel’s current coalition.
Is such a wide political spectrum not represented in German football?
“German football isn't political,” says Fuchs. “Among ordinary fans, that’s an unwritten law.”
Meanwhile, says fellow journalist Ulrich Hesse, the extremities of the political spectrum in evidence in German football can lead observers to draw conclusions about the whole game here, like outliers in a statistical sample.
“The impression of German fans as being politicised may be exaggerated due to the inordinate coverage given to a) the zany St Pauli fans and b) the thugs in what used to be East Germany,” he says.
“The former are certainly very much left-of-centre, the latter are certainly bordering on having fascist leanings. But these are small groups.”
Is there a level of denial among fans who proclaim not to be politicised?
As I stood on the terrace at a game between Union Berlin and Kaiserslautern in the Zweite Bundesliga (Second Division), I asked my colleague Fabian “Are German clubs quite political?”
His reply baffled me slightly: “No not at all – I’ve seen left and right-wing fans from the same club fighting.”
Everyone might not agree on the politics of their club, people may claim they themselves are not making a political choice when it comes to supporting a football team, but when looking at other teams, political descriptions of fans seem to pop up.
At its worst, denial can be poisonous.
Fuchs, a fan of Borussia Neunkirchen, a club in the regional division Oberliga Südwest, recounts a story about some of the fans at his ground.
“A few years back Borussia fans held up a banner that read ‘What jews were for Hitler, what Bin Laden is for the US, that’s what [rivals] Homburg are for us’."
After this had happened the club kept silent. The officials weren’t interested in talking about politics.
"On internet fan sites, meanwhile, the accused fans claimed to be non-political, saying ‘We’re just fans’.
"But in fact these non-political fans look up to the old hooligans with strong arms and connections to the Nazi scene.”
Hooliganism in Germany, and fans' reaction to it, seem to me to be at the heart of football politics.
I take the perhaps very naïve view that in England the problem is, if not solved, then at least largely marginalised.
Part of the reason for that is because of the tragic events of Hillsborough in 1989.
Now, I'm not for a second saying that hooliganism had anything to do with Hillsborough, simply that that black day in English marked a rupture in the culture around football: nothing could be allowed to be the same afterwards.
With the Taylor Report, the arrival of satellite television and then the Premier League in 1992, English football underwent a rapid catharthis that left little room from hooligans.
Meanwhile, there was no sudden break here.
In his brilliant (and English-language) history of the German game Tor!, Hesse writes about his experience on the Borussia Dortmund terraces:
“The thing I remember most vividly about the early to mid-1980s is feeling completely lost, standing on a half-empty terrace, a group of about 50 neo-Nazi thugs goose-stepping around and waiting for the police to arrive to get the action going.”
But the reaction to hooliganism had to be coordinated by fans who felt appalled at what they were seeing on the terraces, a level of violence that almost sunk the sport.
A terrace counterculture emerged to wrest football from the thugs, which included a left-wing fanzine scene (from which 11 Freunde, where I'm working, sprung up), as well as organisations such as the Büdnis aktiver Fussballfans (BAFF).
“The BAFF was founded in 1992 as an alliance against racism,” says Fuchs.
“For a short time it seemed to be a counterbalance to the right-wing extremist hooligans who came up during the 80s, especially at Dortmund.”
But as the hooligans here have been rolled back – in the top flight at least – say Fuchs, “the agenda has changed.”
So what's left of the right-versus-left culture? For that, you have to look east.
“That’s where the discussion about politics in German football is concentrated today,” says Fuchs.
“BFC Dynamo Berlin is infamous for its right-wing extremist hooligans. They have even advanced to the management of the club. At Leipzig right-wing supporters of Lok Leipzig prey on left-wing supporters of Chemie Leipzig.
"There are many more examples: Racism and right-wing political influence is an increasing problem there, especially in the lower leagues.”
It's a phenomenon corroborated recently by German tabloid Bild, who compiled a map of lower-league football violence in the country (click here to see map - it's in English).
Denial about the politics of this violence won’t solve the problem, one in part exacerbated by the realities of German reunification 20 years ago.
For much of the rest of the football-supporting public though, divisions along ideological lines have been replaced by a far healthier style of politicisation.
“If you put aside party politics, then German fans are definitely much more politicised than those in England or for that matter anywhere else," says Hesse.
"By which I mean they have their own politics.
"The fact we still have terraces, cheap tickets, football on free TV, no private owners of clubs and, yes, beer at the Bundesliga grounds is not a gift from above: the fans fought for that.”
Apathy can do the game we love a great disservice.
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Shanks and L'pool were very obviously socialists/lefties if I am informed correctly!
I also learnt that Blades are working-class lefties. You can generalize, but the picture says something.
Great article. I am also very interested in this topic.
I think political leanings run deep in the EPL as well (traditionally speaking anyway). Perhaps not as much any more as it so much more mainstream, and there are now millions of middle class fans etc..
any way, I am a gigantic Dortmund fan. You mentioned in your article that your friend said that they had many Right wing supporters throughout the 80's. I was not aware of this, and will seek to find out more about the politics of my club
I trust that you are planning on going to the Westfalen Stadium in Dortmund? It will blow your mind
Thanks everyone for reading.
Glad you're interested in the topic - and it's actually a relief to hear that as a modern fan of Borussia Dortmund, the club's extreme right-wing fans are a mystery to you - hopefully they've been left firmly in the past. Sadly my time in Germany has flown by, and I won't make it to Dortmund myself - but the Westfalen looks mind blowing and I can't wait to check it out on a future trip!
I have sadly had to leave Berlin behind, but before I returned to dear old Blighty, I dug in in front
Well, I believe you just made an excellent point. You certainly fully understand what you are speaking about, and I can truly get behind that. Thanks for staying so upfront and so sincere.
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