Germany has three federal football leagues, with 56 professional teams. The elite 18 teams compete in the Bundesliga, the rest in the second and third divisions. Three decades ago, Germany was reunified. Yet until today, the vast majority of the clubs competing in the Bundesliga come from the western part of the country. The two exceptions are RB Leipzig and Union Berlin, which comes from the eastern part of Germany’s capital, unlike Hertha BSC, which comes from former West Berlin.
Like elsewhere in Europe, football in Germany tends to provoke strong emotions, particularly among the fan community, and here particularly among the most dedicated and fanatical supporters, the so-called Ultras. Anyone who has ever had the opportunity to experience the “yellow wall” in Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park, with its more than 20,000 spectators cheering their team on, gets a sense of the passion football can evoke in Germany. It sends chills running down the spine.
A Turn of Passion
Problems start when passions turn into aggressive behavior. As elsewhere in Europe, football hooliganism in its various forms, including open expressions of racism, continues to be a major concern in and around German stadiums. Not these days, of course, when stadiums are empty and fans are told to stay home.
To be sure, football hooliganism is a problem throughout Germany. But it is particularly pronounced in the eastern part of the country. Dynamo Dresden, for instance, has a particularly negative image because some of its fans are notorious for their aggressive behavior and their refusal to follow security rules, particularly with respect to pyrotechnics. In Chemnitz, knows as Karl-Marx-Stadt under the communist regime, a significant part of the local football club’s fan community is closely affiliated with the city’s right-wing extremist underground. At the same time, right-wing extremist fan groups have a significant influence within the club.
Following a series of scandals over the past several years, club officials openly admitted that Dynamo has a serious problem with racism and anti-Semitism. This was also the case in the past in Zwickau, some of whose fans repeatedly attracted attention in connection with racist and homophobic chants during matches.
All of these clubs belong to Germany’s 3. Liga, the lowest professional division. This is also the only league with a sizeable eastern German presence. Currently, there are five clubs from the east in a field of 20; in the past, the number of eastern clubs was even higher. In the 2015-16 season, for instance, there were eight. Understandably, in the eastern part of Germany, fans consider the third division something like “their” league. It is here that formerly great teams, such as the FC Magdeburg, three-times GDR football champion and winner of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1974, play against each other.
These matches evoke a strong sense of nostalgia — what in German is known as Ostalgie — for the bygone days when ordinary East German citizens were still somebody, unlike today, when there is a widely-shared sense that East Germans are second-class citizens in unified Germany.
A Sense of Resentment
It is also important to note that over the past two decades, a sense of resentment has increasingly suffused German football. This has a lot to do with the dramatically grown gap between top teams in the Bundesliga and the rest of the field. Also significant is the arrival of newcomers who have successfully managed to outcompete “traditional” clubs, such as Nuremberg and Kaiserslautern, that have ended up in the lower leagues, without much hope to climb back into the limelight of German football.
The case par excellence for the former is, of course, Bayern Munich, whose quasi-permanent grip on the championship has done little to endear them to fans outside of Munich. In fact, in a representative survey among fans from 2018, the club ended up dead last among first and second-league clubs.
Remarkably enough, Bayern did even worse than RB Leipzig, until recently the absolute bête noire of German football, ever since it was promoted to the Bundesliga in 2016. Fans have dismissed RB as a “plastic club” or a “soda pop” club, given its strong affiliation with Red Bull, the club’s owner. Backed by the energy-drink manufacturer, RB not only advanced in record time through the lower ranks but, once in the Bundesliga, established itself on the top of the league. Last season, it even reached the semifinals of the prestigious Champions League.
The other object of fan hatred is Hoffenheim, a club from a small village in southwest Germany. Hoffenheim made it into the Bundesliga more than a decade ago. Its success was largely owned to the fact that it received significant financial backing from the founder of SAP, a German IT company. Its founder has been the target of fan insults and even veiled death threats ever since.
It is against this background that the logic behind the most recent eruption of fan hatred mixed with right-wing extremist racism attains its significance. The current object is Türkgücü, a football club from Munich. Since the new season, Türkgücü plays in the third league. Türkgürcü, as the name implies, is a Turkish-German club. For ages, it played in the lowlands of Bavarian amateur football, and nobody cared. With its ascent into professional football, however, this has dramatically changed.
Germany’s far right is livid. For them, Türkgücü represents an “un-German” club that should not be allowed to play in a German league, but in Turkey. To be sure, the club’s name has only added oil to the fire. Türkgücü means Turkish power, and Turkish power is the last thing the German right wants to see in Germany.
The club was founded in 1972 by Turkish immigrants in Germany. For the next decades, it played in Bavaria’s minor leagues, largely ignored beyond the narrow confines of local football. Everything changed with the arrival of a Turkish businessman’s massive investment in the club. With this money, Türkgücü quickly moved from the world of amateur football into the professional league.
Strike two, as they say in American baseball: Another club following in the footsteps of RB Leipzig, displacing not only traditional clubs, but German traditional clubs. This is particularly galling in the eastern part of the country, where Türkgücü replaced one of the two local clubs in the division. At the end of the 2019-20 season, two eastern German clubs were relegated to the minor leagues. One of them was Carl Zeiss Jena, three-time GDR football champion and European Cup Winners’ Cup finalist in 1981. The other club, by the way, was Chemnitz FC.
The Third Way
Equally important, Türkgücü’s foray into Germany’s professional football elite has mobilized Germany’s Turkish-German community. There is pride that a Turkish club, a “club of migrants,” has managed to break into Germany’s closed football society, a club with which the community can identify and which is seen as reflecting their values. In an atmosphere of growing German nationalism, reflected in the rise of the radical right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, it is easy for Germany’s far right to stoke anxieties and xenophobic resentment and exploit them for political gain, particularly in the eastern part of the country.
A prime example is the extreme-right miniature party Der III. Weg (The Third Way), a groupuscule of neo-Nazi activists who see themselves as a national-revolutionary vanguard fighting for a new Germany. In its 10-point program, the party calls, among other things, for a “German socialism,” a localized economy, pro-natalist policies to prevent the Germans from dying out and, last but not least, the “peaceful reconstitution” of Germany within the borders of 1937 (which includes the western parts of current-day Poland).
The party has its origins in Bavaria. Initially, it was not a party but an “internet information platform” designed to coordinate the various neo-Nazi networks in southern Germany. Outlawed in 2014 by the Bavarian interior ministry, it reconstituted itself as a political party, which guaranteed it a certain degree of protection from proscription. This is exemplified by the futile attempts to ban the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) despite its open promotion of a program largely informed by “Strasserism,” the revolutionary wing of Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP).
After its expulsion from the NSDAP in 1930, the Strasserites founded the Combat League of Revolutionary National Socialists, better known as the Black Front. It existed until 1934, when it fell victim to the Röhm Purge. The fact that The Third Way has modeled one of its symbols after the Black Front’s party symbol — a cross made of a hammer and sword within a black circle — is a clear indication that the party considers itself as the legitimate heir to the Black Front.
In recent years, The Third Way has focused its attention increasingly on the eastern part or the country. And for good reasons. The temporary mobilization success of the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (Pegida) movement in Dresden, followed by the dramatic gains of the AfD in the eastern German states, are a clear indication that there is fertile ground for far-right ideas. Some have even suggested that Saxony is a hotspot of right-wing extremism. In addition, a number of studies have shown that a significant part of the population in the east still see themselves as second-class citizens, a sentiment aggravated by the impression, often voiced during the refugee crisis of 2015-16, that refugees received preferential treatment compared to eastern Germans.
This mixture of a sense of victimization and diffuse resentments offers a favorable opportunity structure for radical right-wing populist mobilization among the fringes of eastern German society and explains the sporadic electoral successes of far-right parties, such as the NPD and even The Third Way. The latter managed to elect one of its most prominent members, a notorious neo-Nazi originally from Franconia, to the municipal council in Plauen, a town in southwestern Saxony.
Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that The Third Way has targeted the club. By mobilizing against the club, the party seeks to exploit widespread animosities against Türkgücü and to bank on the expectation that its presence in professional football is seen as a provocation for every “nationally-minded” German, particularly in the east. Recently, the party has stepped up its campaign against Türkgücü. A few days before the club’s match against Magdeburg in mid-October, party activists positioned themselves in front of the Magdeburg stadium with a banner that said “Türkgücü not welcome!”
The Third Way made it quite clear that this was not a singular action. In fact, as the party put it on its website, “Whether in Zwickau, Magdeburg or elsewhere: A Turkish team has no business in German football. Whether in Magdeburg or elsewhere, the message is clear: Türkgücü is not welcome!” At the same time, the party launched an anti-Türkgücü poster, “Our stadiums, our rules! Türkgücü is not welcome!” available for purchase on the internet and designed to raise awareness of the party and, as the poster explicitly suggests, gain new supporters.
It is one of these ironies of history that these days, most football matches in Germany are what in German is called “Geisterspiele” — ghost matches that take place in front of empty ranks. In this sense, COVID-19 has saved Türkgücü from potentially having to face hostile crowds hurling racist epithets at its players. This has already happened earlier on in this season when one of Türkgücü’s players — ironically enough, a South Korean — was subjected to racist insults by fans of Waldhof Mannheim, a western club that occasionally has played in the Bundesliga. In the days that followed, 3. Liga clubs expressed their solidarity with the Türkgücü player.
For the moment, the brouhaha over Türkgücü’s presence in German professional football has quieted down. Its relative success in the league, however, is likely to spark new resentment, particularly in the east. Add to this the fact that its main sponsor is ambitious, seeking to establish Türkgücü in German professional football and then move up to higher leagues in the footsteps of RB Leipzig. As a result, conflicts are inevitable, as are resentment and racism, all of them grist to the mill for the far right. This is quite ironic, given in German we call football “die schönste Nebensache der Welt” — the most beautiful pastime in the world. Of course, this only applies if it is restricted to “real” German clubs.
Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See his profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).