BERLIN — A recent soccer match in the German capital turned into an orgy of rioting and antisemitism, as a spate of anti-Jewish incidents is fueling fears that neo-Nazis are gaining a strong foothold in German politics and society.
Three hundred rioters attacked security guards at an October 27 match between the Berlin team Hertha BSC II and Dynamo Dresden. During the game, Dresden fans howled “Jews Berlin, Jews Berlin” — the word “Jew” serving for many German soccer diehards as a biting insult to describe players on the opposing team.
“I have not experienced [in] many years such brutality,” said Sebastian Dupke, a member of the security firm responsible for preventing hooliganism at the stadium. A contingent of 500 police officers was able, following an hour of clashes, to regain control of the situation. The soccer violence was not limited to Berlin. Rioting tainted the matches between the clubs FC Augsburg and TSV 1860 München, as well as between Oberliga-Partie Pforzheim and Waldhof Mannheim.
The recent violence follows the release of an October 16 report showing that between January and August, rightwing extremists committed about 8,000 offenses — a 20% jump from last year and 50% from 2004. The Federal Police Office report, which stated that injuries from assaults by neo-Nazis reached 325 this year compared with 302 in the same period last year, came as Germany and the Jewish community are still reeling from a series of events that followed the far-right National Democratic Party’s victories in regional elections last month.
“Anyone who still talks in terms of unfortunate one-off incidents is failing to grasp a danger facing the whole of society,” Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told the Deutsche Welle news station. Based on two acts of flagrant antisemitism especially, she said, “The aggression has become reminiscent of 1933.” Israel’s ambassador to Berlin, Shimon Stein, voiced alarm last weekend over the growing antisemitism in Germany.
“German Jews feel unsafe,” Stein said in an interview published by Germany’s Neue Osnabrücker newspaper. “I have the strong feeling that Jews in this country simply do not feel safe. They are not always able to practice their religion freely.” He cited the growing power and visibility of neo-Nazi groups in Germany, which has prompted the Jewish community to boost security measures.
Also over the weekend, on Sunday, October 22, German police arrested 16 neo-Nazis in Berlin. The arrests were made during a rally supporting Michael Regener, leader of the banned skinhead rock group Landser, or Foot Soldiers. The demonstration was organized by the far-right National Democratic Party, which recently won representation in a second regional parliament.
In elections last month in the former East German state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, the far-right part won 7.3% of the vote and captured as much as 30% in some villages. Support for far-right leadership scored in the high double digits in certain parts of Berlin, winning seats in four of the region’s 12 district parliaments. Now, according to party leader Udo Voigt, the “Browns,” as they call themselves, want to “energetically approach the West” and are eyeing Bavarian state elections in 2008 and national parliamentary elections in 2009. The party has increased its reach into corners of the country where it previously lacked support, experts say, because it has welcomed in a mishmash of neo-Nazi “comrade groups” like the German People’s Union, the National Germanic Brotherhood and the Aryan Warriors. Two recent antisemitic incidents in particular have fueled fears of a rising wave of antisemitic nationalism.
The first occurred at a September 26 amateur soccer match in Berlin, where neo-Nazi fans reportedly chanted slogans at Jewish players on the TuS Makkabi team, including, “Germany isn’t a Jewish republic” and “No Jewish state.” Fans also chanted “Auschwitz is once again here” and “Führer, Führer, Führer.”
“At first we just kept playing, but we got more and more nervous because every 10 minutes someone would shout ‘Jewish pig’ or ‘burning synagogues,’” said Vernen Liebermann, who in the 78th minute of play was ejected when he criticized the referee for failing to respond to the abuse.
Liebermann refused to step off the field; when threats came from the sidelines, the whole Makkabi team left together to avoid escalating the conflict. After investigations, the Berlin Soccer Association ruled last week that the game’s referee, Klaus Brüning, will be suspended permanently from the job for his failure both to stop the attacks and to ensure that the match was played under safe conditions. The association also barred the opposing team’s fans from attending the next two home matches; ordered the team’s players and coaches to attend anti-racism seminars, and forced the club, VSG Altglienicke, to hire monitors to clamp down on fan behavior through the end of the 2007-8 season.
For its part, the Makkabi team now has a television crew filming its practices and is escorted to its matches by plain-clothes police officers.
The incidents of racism and antisemitism within soccer stadiums no longer can be dismissed as marginal outbursts of post-adolescent intoxication or macho sport excesses, according to a new study issued last month by the German institute for sport science. The study documents that racism, violence and rightwing extremism among a section of German soccer fans is part and parcel of the soccer culture.
Since the World Cup ended in July, Germany has handed out some record punishments against racism. In early September, the German Soccer Federation hit the second-division Hansa Rostock club with a $25,000 fine for racist slurs that its fans made against a Ghana-born player. And in early October, the association fined first-division teams Aachen and Mönchengladbach $62,000 and $24,000, respectively, for their fans’ racist abuse.
The second antisemitic incident to capture national attention — and for many here, the more shocking — occurred October 13 in Parey, a small town in the former East German state of Saxony Anhalt, where a 16-year-old high school student was reportedly forced by classmates to walk with a sign around his neck that read, “Ich bin im Ort das grösste Schwein, ich lasse mich nur mit Juden ein” (“In this town, I’m the biggest swine because of the Jewish friends of mine”).
For Germany’s Jewish community, the event and its association to the 1935 Nuremberg racial purity laws, when women caught sleeping with Jewish men were forced to parade through the streets with similar slogans draped on their chests, brought back chilling memories.
“It’s very serious. We see a changing point in what we are witnessing,” said Michael May, executive director of Berlin’s Jewish community. “People are alarmed and don’t want to over-panic, but we should start to deal with this now in a systematic and methodical way — with more education and more demonstrations — something that wasn’t required to such degree before.”
In late September, Jürgen Kamm, owner of a mail-order company called Nix Gut, was fined $4,500 by a Stuttgart court for selling anti-Nazi symbols and paraphernalia, including crossed-out swastikas, to leftwing activists. The court claimed he violated the law that bans use of the swastika, even though German law states that the symbol is permitted when it stands in defined opposition to Nazism. District Attorney Bernhard Häussler told Deutsche Welle: “It is not always so easy to recognize that these symbols are being used against Nazis, especially for foreigners.”
With reporting from Ben Weinthal and JTA.