IN GERMANY, FAR-RIGHT EXTREMISTS can now buy branded clothing on professionally designed websites. The market for neo-Nazi sportswear is booming.
Thor Steinar, a Berlin-based firm, sells sweatshirts emblazoned with the word “NORDIC” in gothic script. Erik and Sons, a prominent competitor, offers t-shirts printed with images of the Luger, the needle-nosed handgun made infamous by the Nazis, and the slogan “Mi Casa is Not Your Fucking Casa.” Stitched across a track jacket from Ansgar Aryan, in large red print, is the word “SVASTIKA.”
Some symbols are subtler. For neo-Nazis, the number 88 on the back of a jersey can refer to the repetition of the alphabet’s eighth letter in Heil Hitler, a phrase banned in its explicit expression. The “N” logo on New Balance shoes can stand in for “National Socialist.” And the four middle letters of the British sporting brand Lonsdale, NSDA, recall the acronym used for Hitler’s outlawed party, the NSDAP. It only takes a half-zipped jacket to display the altered logo.
The German Strafgesetzbuch, or criminal code, prohibits the sale of objects displaying the symbols of the Nazi party. Yet oblique references and coded gestures cannot be criminalized. An actual swastika might break the law, but Ansgar Aryan’s printed misspelling of the word—with a “v” instead of a “w”—does not. The problem is made murkier still by the appropriation of apolitical brands, like New Balance and Lonsdale. When symbols are coded or stylized, they can be indiscernible.
This commercialized extremism is more insidious than combat boots and camo pants. This is the blending of the far right into the crowd at the shopping mall, or at the stadium.
AT A DECEMBER MATCH of Cologne’s Bundesliga soccer squad, members of a hardcore fan club chanted an anti-Semitic slogan at an opposing team. According to the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, a German public broadcasting group, the fans wore Thor Steinar.
Gerd Dembowksi, who researches German fan culture at the University of Hanover’s Institute for Sport Science, told me that displays of far-right imagery, including clothing by Thor Steinar, can be found around German stadiums and amateur soccer grounds “every weekend.”
And though Dembowski estimates that the number of organized neo-Nazis per match is relatively small—no more than a few dozen people, on average—he said that the far right has had a deep impact on German football culture. Competition between teams is heated, and Dembowksi said that fans “who might not call themselves neo-Nazis” occasionally turn to racist and far-right symbols to escalate their jeers. Add in the anonymity of a massive crowd—an anonymity heightened by the chameleon styling of far-right clothing brands—and spectators feel that hateful actions will go unpunished. The result is repeated displays of intolerance disproportionately greater than the small number of organized neo-Nazis actually present in stadiums.
Tolerant soccer fans have taken a blow. The Aachen Ultras, one of several soccer fan clubs to openly denounce racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, disbanded this January after continual intimidation by a far-right fan group known as the Karlsbande, or “Gang of Charlemagne.” Dembowski told the Independent that stadiums throughout Germany have seen similar processes of intimidation at smaller magnitudes.
The German Soccer Association recently established an anti-discrimination work group that will attempt to curb these displays of intolerance. Dembowski says a provision requiring referees to record instances of bigotry on their match reports is in the works. And some of the Bundesliga’s most prominent clubs have already taken measures of their own. Dortmund, Bremen, and Hertha, for example, have banned Thor Steinar products from their stadiums.
But perhaps bans on clothing can’t limit hateful actions in the first place. At a Dortmund match on September 1 where Thor Steinar had been banned, fans waved an imperial war flag forbidden by German law. Legal compliance in one respect did not prevent transgression in another.
LIKE THE DESIGN OF ITS CLOTHING, much of the German far right’s activity is initially illegible. Violent crime, rallies, and stadium altercations remain underreported in the German press and unattended to by local governments. Leaving rightist problems unacknowledged avoids both shame and administrative difficulties. And the challenge of proving that crimes are hatefully or politically motivated only adds to the problem.
Felix Hansen, of Berlin’s Anti-Fascist Press Archive and Education Center (APABIZ), told me that the German federal government registers sixty deaths in right-wing violence since 1990—but that independent watchdogs estimate a figure nearly three times higher. The result is that the German public considers the problem of far-right extremism less statistically significant than it actually is—and, as Gerd Dembowski explained, that many Germans falsely perceive a “re-articulated German nationalism as non-aggressive and non-exclusive.” That the National Democratic Party (NPD), Germany’s largest right-wing party, has failed to earn a single seat in the Bundestag only contributes to this sense of security.
Yet groups like the Karlsbande remain locally successful. The NPD is represented in several state-level assemblies. And Thor Steinar has over 90,000 fans on Facebook. There is a problem of political extremism in Germany, but it exists at the obscure grassroots.
APABIZ’s current project attempts to reveal those roots. Rechtes Land (“Just Nation”) is an online map of current and historic far-right activity, to be launched in March. Every beating, every murder, every bombing—Rechtes Land will map it all, in a consolidated and searchable interface, accessible for free use by municipal authorities, academics, and journalists. APABIZ follows a logic of exposure: local groups like the Karlsbande need to be recognized as nationally relevant problems if municipal authorities are to treat them as such.
Rechtes Land will not limit itself to illegal activity. It also will map the stores and offices of far-right clothing brands. “Whether or not [right-wing] groups have broken the law plays no role for us,” explained Hansen. Clothing, like marches and rallies, is an important aspect of far-right culture, even though it is usually legal. “We will attempt to show,” Hansen said, “how easily these products can obtained, and how even stores can affect the culture of a place.”
THERE'S A NEW SHOP IN AU, a Bavarian town about sixty kilometers north of Munich. It’s called Revolution Store, and it sells clothing by Thor Steinar, among other brands. The shop is decorated with images of Viking ships and revolvers.
Revolution Store opened in October. But it wasn’t until a January 22 report on Bavaria’s Bayern Eins radio that it earned any media attention. During the report, an expert on right-wing extremism presented the shop as a commercial hotspot for neo-Nazis. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Au’s town hall has not had a quiet moment since. Mayor Karl Ecker did not respond to my request for comment, and recently removed his contact information from Au’s municipal website. Ecker has gone so far as to contact Germany’s Interior Ministry for support.
According to the Zeitung, Ecker never suspected that the shop was connected to the far-right scene, nor that its founder has apparent ties to Blood and Honor, a neo-Nazi group that has been banned in Germany since 2000. After all, the products sold at Revolution Store seemed innocuous. “Not much can start with clothing brands,” one member of Au’s town council remarked.
Rechtes Land won’t list the address of Revolution Store—nor will it reveal the exact location of any other shop selling clothing favored by the far right. APABIZ does not want to provide directions to would-be shoppers.
Here is a confluence of obscurity and exposure, of normalization and outrage. This is the German far right remaining on the fringe, even as its products melt into the mainstream. Even as it shouts from the middle of the crowd.
Comments from Felix Hansen and text from the Süddeutsche Zeitung were translated from German by the author.
SIMON ENGLER B’14