Neo-Nazis Make Inroads with 'Ultra' Soccer Fans

German football team Borussia Dortmund has inspired legions of hardcore fans known as 'ultras.' But as the team's fortunes rise, right-wing extremists have gained a foothold in its fan base, wreaking havoc during matches

Spiegel, Germany/November 22, 2012

As if by command, the men put on black balaclavas and start marching. They are young, some are wearing shorts and they are carrying plastic clubs.

Borussia Dortmund is playing against Schalke 04. It's the half-time break. A police detail is positioned behind the south stands to protect the Schalke fans. The officers see the men, fanatical Borussia fans known as "ultras," coming toward them. Then the attackers lunge at the police and start hitting them with their clubs. Bottles fly, and innocent fans waiting at concession stands flee in panic.

More ultras join in from the south stands, and before long the officers are facing a mob of some 200 thugs. The police fall back, striking at the out-of-control fans with their batons.

As the air becomes filled with the pepper spray being used by the police, one of the ultras shouts: "Just breathe through your mouth, not your nose." A beer keg comes flying through the air.

Within a few minutes, the commotion is over. The match resumes. The police withdraw, and all that's left is a large puddle of blood.

Something Gone Wrong

Three days after the match, Thilo Danielsmeyer of the Dortmund Fan Project rides his bike to the Strobels stadium pub. The newspapers are full of reports about the riots at the Schalke match on Oct. 20, which led to 180 arrests and 11 injuries. It was the worst rioting Dortmund had seen in years. Danielsmeyer has also heard about the attack on the police beneath the south stands, and he's incredulous. "Those were our boys!" he exclaims.

The Fan Project is located in downtown Dortmund, a city in western Germany. It has a staff of four full-time social workers and an annual budget of €180,000 ($231,000). Funding comes from the city, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the German Football League. "Our job is to support young fans, and to bring those who have fallen by the wayside back to the center of society," says Danielsmeyer.

In 1999, an ultra group called the Desperados was formed under the auspices of the Fan Project. The members, ordinary young men, many of them teenagers, designed a logo and painted signs. The Fan Project was their base. But over the years the Desperados showed up with decreasing frequency, and eventually there was almost no contact at all with many in the group.

The Desperados have about 150 members today. At police headquarters in Dortmund, two phrases come to Chief Detective Walter Kemper's mind when he thinks about the Desperados: "receptive to right-wing ideology" and "prepared to use violence."

There was a trial in September after neo-Nazis had hunted down a group of left-wing, alternative youth. A member of the Desperados was one of the defendants. As they ran toward the police officers beneath the south stands during the Schalke match, one of the Desperados shouted: "We'll kill you, you goddamned pigs!"

Something has gone wrong, says Danielsmeyer.

Foothold in the South Stands

Borussia Dortmund has been a success story in recent years and has had plenty of reasons to celebrate. It won the German national league championship twice in a row, and last year it also won the primary cup competition. But during the course of its dizzying ascent, the club, almost bankrupt eight years ago, lost sight of its fans.

The Desperados always stand in the same spot in the south stands, dressed in their typical ultra outfits: dark hooded sweatshirts, baseball caps and sunglasses. A sign with a homophobic slur turned up in their section a few months ago.

The club was very upset about the incident, but it didn't make much of a fuss about it. In August, during a match against Werder Bremen, a banner appeared in the south stands that read: "Solidarity with the NWDO." NWDO is the abbreviation for National Resistance Dortmund, a neo-Nazi organization that Ralf Jäger, the state interior minister, had banned a short time earlier.

Borussia management has been on edge ever since.

Right-wing propagandists have gained a foothold on the "Süd," or south stands, the home of the champion team's fans. They have latched onto the ultras, or extreme fans, hoping to recruit new members within the group.

The club long ignored the problem, says Dierk Borstel, an expert on right-wing extremism at the Dortmund University of Applied Sciences, which is why the right-wing extremists were able to "expand without being noticed."

Only now has the club begun to show some resistance. "We have to cut the ground from under their feet," says Borussia Managing Director Hans-Joachim Watzke. He isn't quite sure how to go about it yet, though.

The Clever Ones

Dortmund is a football city, but it's also a stronghold for right-wing extremists. In 2000, neo-Nazi Michael Berger shot and killed three police officers in Dortmund and nearby Waltrop, before turning the gun on himself. Dortmund reported the largest number of crimes committed by right-wing extremists in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia: 131 in the first half of 2012. The aid organization Back Up currently attends to the needs of 30 victims of right-wing extremist violence in Dortmund.

There are neo-Nazi residential communities near the university. Oberdorstfeld, a former miners' district, is now home to entire skinhead neighborhoods, seemingly idyllic with their playgrounds and flowerbeds graced with garden gnomes.

The neo-Nazis who have spread through the fan community call themselves Autonomous Nationalists (AN), a group operating with almost no fixed organizational structure. They have a strong presence in Dortmund, and they also constitute the core of the NWDO.

Autonomous Nationalists are not drunken neo-Nazis in combat boots, and instead dress like ordinary ultras. The head of the group, a young father, doesn't drink or smoke, and he has his underlings refer to him as "Führer." The group includes students and an employee of an advertising agency. A few of the Autonomous Nationalists are currently going to night school to obtain their high-school diplomas.

Law enforcement officials refer to AN members as "the clever ones." Watzke says: "They seem to appeal to the occasional adolescent." Between 10 and 30 AN members typically converge on the "Süd" at a match. Some have season passes, while others get tickets from friends or scalpers.

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