World cup seen as chance to recognise Nazi past

This summer’s soccer world cup is proving to be another test of how Germany deals with its Nazi past.

Events in recent weeks, including warnings of extremist protests during the tournament and police raids on the country’s leading far-right political party, have temporarily shifted the world cup spotlight away from football and on to neo-Nazis and racism in modern German sport and society.

In anticipation of the influx of hundreds of thousands of foreign fans, several city authorities are finalising new exhibitions at historically sensitive sites near football stadiums to avoid accusations that Germany is trying to hide its grim past.

As Ulrich Maly, mayor of Nuremberg, puts it: “We can’t hide our history, or pretend it didn’t happen.”

The southern German city was used by Hitler in the 1930s to rally his supporters, and Mr Maly believes it is right to give visiting fans the opportunity to understand the city’s past. “Many [fans] will just be interested in soccer, of course, but I’m sure some will also want to understand our history – and how we are dealing with it.”

Wolfgang Schäuble, interior minister, has warned that “some people in the far-right scene” are planning demonstrations during the month-long championship. His comments followed reports that the far-right National Democratic party (NPD) had plans to hold rallies and distribute CDs and other propaganda materials during the world cup, due to start on June 9.

Since then NPD officials have confirmed to the FT that protests are planned in several regions, including the eastern state of Saxony, the NPD’s heartland.

A particular focus is the match between Iran and Angola on June 21 in Leipzig. The NPD plans to “send a clear message of solidarity” to the Iranian regime led by President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, following his denial of the Holocaust and call for Israel’s abolition, and what the NPD calls his “defiant stance against the western powers” on the country’s nuclear programme.

In addition, thousands of copies of an NDP world cup guidebook were confiscated by the police earlier this month in raids on the party’s headquarters in Berlin.

The raids followed a court ruling supporting the DFB football association, which argued the guidebook was racist. It features the white national team shirt of Patrick Owomoyela, a black member of the German team, with the slogan “White – it’s more than just a jersey; we want a genuine national team”. The NPD opposes black players in the German squad.

German intelligence officials confirmed to the FT details of the NPD’s plans, but also cautioned that, while the far-right and neo-Nazi scene “may be planning to use the world cup to raise their profile”, the protests could be small or fail to materialise.

“We are nevertheless taking the intelligence seriously,” one official said, noting the rise in political strength of far-right parties in eastern Germany in recent years. There are around 41,000 hardcore far-right activists in Germany, including 10,000 ready to use violence, plus hundreds of thousands of sympathisers, according to officials.

More positively, Mr Maly’s efforts in Nuremberg to educate visiting fans involve a €417,000 project to install 23 information boards around the stadium where world cup matches will be held. The venue is only a short distance from Hitler’s former open-air rallying ground. There is a permanent exhibition on the site, “but we can’t expect fans to make a special effort to visit this”, he says.

Buildings near Berlin’s Olympic stadium, venue for the world cup final on July 9, are also being renovated ahead of the tournament. The stadium was used by Hitler for the 1936 Olympic Games, and a nearby hall is undergoing renovations costing €6m to show visitors the history of the site.

Germany’s main football authority has also been examining its past. The DFB refused for decades to reflect on its role in the Nazi era from 1933 to 1945, but this month held a conference on “soccer under the swastika”. Based on a study published last year, historians argued that the DFB had failed to protect Jewish players and had stabilised Hitler’s regime.

Theo Zwanziger, DFB co-president, said: “In a few weeks we’ll be welcoming the world to Germany and we want to face up to our history.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.