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German football fans battle anti-Semitism

Felix Tamsut
February 27, 2019

Football fans in Germany were previously used to hearing anti-Semitic chants on a weekly basis. But 30 years later, the battle is far from over, and a shifting political landscape has put people back on guard.

Tributes are made to victims of the Holocaust prior to the Bundesliga match between Sport-Club Freiburg and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim at Schwarzwald-Stadion
'Never again! Remembering is not enough.' German stadiums marked Holocaust Remembrance Day en masse in January.Image: Getty Images/Bongarts/C. Kaspar-Bartke

German football takes pride in its fight against discrimination. The German Football Association (DFB), as well as the clubs and large parts of the country's active fans, all seem to be on the same side.

But that wasn't always the case. Just 30 years ago, fan chants which mentioned taking a train from the city of a rival club to Auschwitz, as well as fan clubs whose names contained references to the Holocaust and the Nazis, were a fairly common practice.

Despite the progress, the use of anti-Jewish language by football supporters in Germany has hardly disappeared. A number of high-profile cases have made headlines in recent years, including stickers showing Anne Frank wearing a Schalke shirt.

Read more:  Opinion: German football supporters send vital message on Holocaust Memorial Day

A February conference called "You'll Never Walk Alone" held in Frankfurt discussed the burning issues in the fight against anti-Jewish sentiments in football. Active supporters from across Germany took part in panels, exchanging ideas and strategies in the fight against discrimination. In attendance were also representatives of "Football fans against anti-Semitism," a supporters' initiative originating from Werder Bremen's fan scene.

'Why do they have a Jewish Star?'

Ruben Gerczikow, 22, is a Jewish football fan and a groundhopper. In a conversation with DW, he shares some of his past experiences from different stadiums.

"One time when we were at an away game, someone waved the Israeli flag in the home end," he recalls. "I then heard some people around me saying: 'Why do they have a Jewish Star there? I want to go and grab it.'"

Gerczikow also tells of community members who wear a Jewish skullcap, a Kippa, who replace it with a cap when they go into stadiums.

Fußball 2. Bundesliga | 20. Spieltag | FC St. Pauli - SV Darmstadt 98
Cult club St. Pauli went for the personal touch in its Holocaust memorial, with supporters carrying flags for individual victimsImage: picture-alliance/S. Sudheimer

Progress made

Despite that, the use of anti-Semitic language seems to be decreasing at football stadiums in Germany. Robert Claus, an author and a fan culture researcher, explains: "In the 80s, there were barely any fan groups that fought against anti-Semitism and discrimination," he tells DW, adding that a "cleansing process" subsequently took place.

"Most fans did the clean up among themselves, also by discussing the way they chant at football games." Such songs can no longer be heard in German grounds. "If someone says something like Sieg Heil and they're caught on camera, they will most likely be punished," Claus stresses.

Read more:  Fear on the Yellow Wall: Borussia Dortmund ultras threatened by right-wing hooligans

One of the reasons for the decrease in anti-Semitic language is a rise in power of organized fan groups and social initiatives, with examples like the Association of Active Football Fans (BAFF) taking a central role in demanding changes in football clubs' approach to discrimination.

The role of fan projects

Among those who oversaw the process and took an active part in it were Germany's fan projects. These are not run by the fans, but are club-based offices set up across Germany, with the purpose of keeping constant contact with a club's active supporters. The fan projects are independent, and are considered a special form of youth social work.

Michael Gabriel is the head of the Coordination Center for Fan Projects (KOS). His office oversees the process done by social workers and fan representatives across the country.

"The work of fan projects played a big part in the developments," he told DW. "Our work promotes the representation of society's values, and promotes getting active for them." Gabriel adds that working with fans, especially those from the younger generation, can have a substantial pedagogical impact in helping form more educated opinions.

"Young people often still don't have a complete world view, and shared experiences can make a lot of difference," he says.

Fußball Bundesliga | 19. Spieltag | 1. FSV Mainz 05 v 1. FC Nürnberg
'Together for remembrance and diversity,' read the banner in MainzImage: Getty Images/Bongarts/A. Grimm

The fans in the front seat

While the fan projects are playing their part, there seems to be wide-scale agreement that the fans were the spark and driving force behind a change in approach to anti-Semitism at Germany's stadiums.

"The fans have demanded that their clubs take a stand in the fight against discrimination," says Gabriel of the KOS.

He also points out that the developments in Germany's stands were in many cases against the social tendency. The 17th Shell Youth Study in 2015 found that just 40% of the age group 12 to 25 years old would describe themselves as "politically interested". However, while the mainstream generation's hopes of making an impact on a macro scale are waning, their desire to affect social issues on a micro scale isn't.  

"Nowadays, young people are more individualized and political involvement is generally in remission. In Germany's fan culture, it's largely the other way around."

For Gerczikow, however, the problem still persists, it just moved to another location. "It's a bit naive to think that anti-Semitism has disappeared. It's maybe out of the stadiums, but the sentiment is still there."

Read more:     The persistent problem of racism in football

Football as society's mirror

Recent reports suggest that the number of anti-Semitic crimes in Germany rose by around 10 percent last year. According to a recent EU survey, victims of anti-Semitic attacks report the perpetrators came from both the far-right and Islamist scenes.

Football supporters groups worry that such developments, and the ever-changing political landscape, could help bring hate back into the stands.

"We have very problematic developments in society. Things can be said nowadays that were previously unthinkable, and that means the tendency to resort to discriminatory language becomes stronger," Gabriel explains.

Claus agrees. The conflict over the future voice of Germany's fan culture when it comes to issues like anti-Semitism is taking place in present day, he claims.

"Different groups fight over dominance in stadiums, and it remains to be seen how it plays out," he says, adding that football mirrors society in that regard.

Is it a question of political allegiances? Not if you ask Ruben Gerczikow: "Being against racism and anti-Semitism in particular, is not a question of politics for me. It's just the normal thing to do."

Felix Tamsut Kommentarbild
Felix Tamsut Sports reporter@ftamsut