Babelsberg's battle against far-right in Germany's fourth-tier gaining momentum
BABELSBERG, Germany -- There might not have been a more fitting setting for the start of German football's grassroots rebellion against the rise of the New Right.
In April 2017 at fourth-tier SV Babelsberg's Karl-Liebknecht-Stadion in Potsdam, just a short walk away from where Prussian kings once presided and Quentin Tarantino shot "Inglorious Basterds" (his alternative take on German history), some Babelsberg supporters responded to Nazi chanting and Adolf Hitler salutes from mostly-masked Cottbus fans with their own chant: "Nazischweine raus!" ("Nazi pigs out!")
During the match the chanting continued, fireworks were launched onto the pitch and Cottbus supporters attempt to storm it. The game ended 2-1 to Babelsberg but the result was far from the main talking point. Afterwards German police opened 19 investigations -- mostly against Cottbus supporters -- and there was significant media interest. (And there will be more in the coming days as the two teams meet again this Sunday, with Cottbus fans, and even Cottbus colours banned, from the home end.)
However, incredibly, the local FA, the Northeast German Soccer Federation (NOFV), ignored the racist chanting in their postmatch report and instead chose to fine Babelsberg €7,000 for "a single fan with a red punk haircut shouting 'Nazi Pigs Out.'"
Babelsberg were incensed and refused to pay the fine. They missed payment deadlines, prompting the NOFV to look into suspending the club from the league, something that would have ultimately led to bankruptcy, with Babelsberg having only just escaped it under president Archibald Horlitz four years earlier.
Ultimately, pressure from the media and also from the German FA was enough for the NOFV to relent. With the help of Potsdam mayor Jann Jakobs, the two parties agreed Babelsberg would still pay the fine but half of it would go towards the club's measures against racism and right-wing extremism, while the other half would be used by the FA for similar measures.
"If we can work against violence and racism in football, we'd have made a great step forward," Jakobs said after the agreement had been made.
But Babelsberg have been stirred into action. The club are now looking to redefine themselves as a role-model for minor league clubs eager to confront problems within German society.
The club want to turn a wave of solidarity -- which left them with over 200 new members and several thousand solidarity shirts sold with "Nazis Raus Aus Den Stadien" ("Nazis out of the stadiums") written on it -- into a new movement. With the help of a dedicated social media campaign, it has already made an impact in grounds across Europe. "We've got better bots," Babelsberg president Archibald Horlitz, a former hacker who made his money as a re-seller of Apple products, told ESPN FC with a smile.
Throughout their struggles with the local FA, Babelsberg remained transparent, publishing all documents and linking out to them on their social networks. The club made all information on the case available. When an AP feature on their struggles reached the United States, they amplified it in Germany by pushing it in their local communication. On their website, pictures from all over the world signalled that their message has reached far away shores.
The Babelsberg campaign hit a nerve with parts of the public unable to vent their frustration with the surge of right-wing populism in Germany -- in 2017 alone 1,906 attacks on refugees and 313 attacks on refugee homes were recorded -- and has led to a number of high-profile backers for the club's case in the football world.
In February, Werder Bremen and Borussia Dortmund were the first to announce their support. Both Bundesliga clubs have had their own watershed moments with the Far Right and Dortmund have put a five-figure sum towards Babelsberg's work, while the club have offered assistance in helping to implement more structures too.
BVB and Bremen have had their share of trouble with the rise of the far-right and found ways to fight it in their stadiums. In Dortmund, far-right extremists proclaimed "Dortmund is in our city" from 2004 on and for almost a decade, the first wave of what now is called the "alt-right" caused a climate of fear, with multiple deaths attributed to the movement.
Borussia Dortmund's fan-scene reacted by organising trips to Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. The idea was picked up by the club's fan liaison officers but the Nazi groups gained more of a foothold. Ultimately, it needed an attack on the club itself to turn the spotlight onto the problems.
In February 2013, then-BVB fan liaison officer Jens Volke and Dortmund fan project leader Thilo Danielsmeyer were attacked by three neo-Nazis chanting far-right slogans at a Champions League match in Donetsk. They first struck Volke in the face and then followed Danielsmeyer to the toilet, where they severely assaulted him.
The club sought help from elsewhere, turning to the KoFaS group from the University of Hannover and confronted their problems. For now, the Nazi groups of Dortmund are lying low although they still make the occasional appearance at away games or matches of the club's reserves. Dortmund have learned their lesson and since established a guideline they are now happy to pass on to Babelsberg and other clubs.
Babelsberg's famous solidarity shirts were sold at the annual Czerkus run -- a fundraising effort in remembrance of Heinrich Czerkus, a BVB groundsman and resistance fighter murdered by the Nazi regime during the final days of World War II, which has former Dortmund stars such as 1997 Champions League hero Lars Ricken actively involved. The club now employs 10 fan liaison officers. Meanwhile, Werder Bremen sold out of their green and white version of shirts when they were put on sale at a matchday in mid-March.
FC Cologne, VfB Stuttgart, SC Freiburg, FC St.Pauli, Mainz 05 and Fortuna Dusseldorf have also joined the campaign. In March, Dusseldorf players warmed up in the shirts, and a friendly against FC St. Pauli's All-Star team is planned for September. In fact, nine of the 36 clubs in German football's two upper tiers are already on board with Babelsberg's grassroots campaign and the wave of support is still mounting.
Horlitz says he is happy with what has been achieved so far but he continues to dream big, and hopes that focus won't shift away from the ever-present fight against right-wing extremism on the terraces, and in society.
"It would be great to institute the support we have now, so it won't be paying lip service once," said Horlitz. "It must stay alive. If we'd have an annual amount of say €100,000. That would allow us to help around 100 clubs. Help them build structures. The pressure on the FAs must remain."
In the future, Babelsberg hope to set up an annual tournament with a Bundesliga club to keep the story in the public eye and "make that final step to make the campaign sustainable." Horlitz would also love to see the solidarity shirts found in more club shops, with colours adjusted (as Bremen did) to every club's need.
"The real heroes are those clubs and people taking a stand in the lower leagues, especially in the East," said Horlitz. "They sport a 'Nazis Out' shirt at a game and might get beaten up in the local boozer in the evening."
The fight to take away the platform of football from those trying to infiltrate it with anti-Semitism and xenophobia will be a long one. Football will always be a mirror of society, but with the help of Babelsberg, German football seems to have found a much-needed voice in dire times, which will hopefully enable others to stand up and fight when it matters.
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.