German sports clubs like to advertise with the idea that "sport is best in a club." Increasingly, neo-Nazis are using sports clubs to propagate their ideology - and many are hard to spot.
Winfriede Schreiber, head of the intelligence agency in the Eastern German state of Brandenburg, on Wednesday (2.1.2013) called on Germany's sports clubs not to ignore the problem of far-right extremism in their midst. "Sports officials have long been reluctant, because they consider sports to be apolitical." She warned that neo-Nazis were actively trynig to influence life in the clubs, using a seemingly apolitical space "to advertise for their movement. They attract young people and alienate them from democracy."
There are many initiatives and projects in Eastern Germany that attempt to counter far-right influence. Among them are the so-called "mobile advice teams" (MBTs). They operate in several Eastern German towns - including Cottbus, where social worker Anett Müller has been working for five years. She said that neo-Nazis are not as easily recognized as they used to be. "They appear different to how they did in the nineties," she said. "It's becoming more and more difficult to spot them by their appearance."
Attraction through role models
Schreiber agrees that the far-right extremists have transformed their outward appearance. They are no longer the "losers of German reunification" inhabiting the lower end of the social scale.
On the contrary, "many neo-Nazis are professionally successful nowadays," she said. Indeed, they are often business owners who sponsor clubs and events. Schreiber added that she found it particularly alarming that many neo-Nazis maintain close ties to security firms. "This connection is dangerous, because it's intimidating."
The tactics of the far-right are also much more subtle that previously. "They don't just join sports clubs and start to recruit people," said Müller. "They become athletes first and foremost."
Schreiber, who heads Brandenburg's intelligence agency, also views this development with concern. "A lot of neo-Nazis are successful in their clubs and are admired." That puts them in a better position to transmit their views. Admirers - particularly if they are children or young people - are much more likely to accept the racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic positions of their role model, she added.
'A nice guy who is motivated'
Anett Müller has noticed that many clubs are completely shocked to find that they have a neo-Nazi in their ranks. She said that officials often mistakenly take them for "just a nice guy who is very actively involved in the club."
Representatives of the club come to Müller's office and describe their experiences with an athlete whose political views they mistrusted. "They often ask, 'Is that someone from the far-right, or are we mistaken?'" Many, Müller said, didn't know how to deal with Neo-Nazis members.
But Müller and the MBTs cannot offer a 'one size fits all' solution. She always recommends that club representatives first define where their club stands politically. The club must "develop a position" for itself and its members, she said.
Unconditional mission statement
Once a club has done that, it can better confront dissenting opinions. If the mission statement states that the club will campaign for democracy and against racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, then it can oblige its members to share those views. And if a political extremist violates that rule, either within the club or in its name, he or she can be excluded without too much fuss.
When the German media reports the dangers of far-right extremism, anti-semitism and racism, the bad news often comes from the east of the country. But Müller is not convinced that all the neo-Nazis live in the East, while everyone in the West holds democratic beliefs.
She said that the social behavior in both sides of Germany has simply developed differently over the past decades, arguing that those in the West are more used to raising objections when something does not suit them. This "spirit for dissent" is not as well developed in the East, and "the population does not react as actively to certain things as it does in the West."
But Schreiber thinks that sports officials should take more responsibility for countering the infiltration from the right. But attitudes are changing, "because more and more clubs are recognizing that they have to commit to democracy."
Schreiber praises the work of the MBTs who support the clubs, but Müller - who works within an MBT, also wants something else: more publicity. "Here in Brandenburg the issue is publicly debated, by politicians too," she told Deutsche Welle. "I'd like to see that happen in other states."