Rise of the far right a permanent cloud on Germany’s Euro 2024 horizon

“The team is no longer German,” explains an older gentleman in a baseball cap, calmly loading shopping into the boot of his car. “If you look at how many Germans still play, it’s a joke.”

“How do you define who a German is?” asks the presenter, a documentary-maker named Philipp Awounou.

“For me,” the man replies, “a real German is – and I don’t want to offend you – light-skinned.”

“Why can’t I be a real German?”

“Because your parents can’t be German.”

“My mother is German,” Awounou protests.

“OK, yes, good,” says the man with a shrug. “That’s possible, of course. But … where are the light- skinned Germans who can also play football?”

Welcome to Germany, 2024. Or at least a small but significant part of it: a regular guy, in a regular supermarket car park in Thuringia, perfectly happy to unburden his racism on camera, to the national broadcaster ARD. And perhaps the most chilling element of Awounou’s controversial documentary Unity and Justice and Diversity – the title a play on the first line of the national anthem – is the sheer brazenness of some of the opinions proffered, the idea that for many Germans racism is not a badge of shame but something to be blazoned, proudly and without apologies.

The documentary, which aired on television last Wednesday, has been roundly criticised for its inclusion of a poll in which 1,304 respondents were asked whether they agreed with the statement: “I would prefer it if more white players played in the German national team again.” (To which 21% agreed, 65% disagreed.)

It was, according to Germany’s coach, Julian Nagelsmann, a “shitty survey”. The vice-captain, Joshua Kimmich, described it as racist. And of course there is a large portion of polite German society that would rather these issues were discussed with a little more delicacy, perhaps not at all, and certainly not just before a home European Championship in which an overarching theme is uniting a fractured nation. Yet while the poll itself feels a little tawdry and clickbaity, the documentary is less an incantation of racism and more a reflection of worrying social trends.

For most of the past year, the far‑right Alternative für Deutschland party has been polling at near 20%, and it finished second in this week’s European elections. All of a sudden, a nation that thought it had buried fascism forever is beginning to see its spectre rise once again.

Last month, a video taken on the island of Sylt showed young, wealthy holidaymakers singing a Nazi song and doing the Hitler salute. The same month, a group of far-right insurrectionists went on trial in Frankfurt accused of plotting a violent overthrow of the government. In November, far-right groups secretly met in Potsdam to discuss the forced “remigration” of millions of German citizens with foreign heritage, should the AfD ever go into government.

Whether or not the AfD gets close to power, it has resoundingly succeeded in shifting the conversation on to its territory. The chancellor, Olaf Scholz, from the centre-left SPD, has severely dialled up his rhetoric on immigration in recent months, promising to “deport” migrants and foreign-born criminals on a large scale. So here we are, a few days before Germany’s big kick-off, feverishly debating culture-war hot buttons on national television.

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And of course football has its own special role to play in the far-right narrative: a narrative built on declinism, given fuel by the failures of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup campaigns, tied up not just in race and identity but more intangible suspicions. The retreat of traditional, normative masculinity. An overriding sense that today’s young people lack the toughness of their elders. A surfeit of creative midfielders and impish wingers. Young men being taught about their feelings, encouraged to pursue trendy social causes such as “equality”, and as a result forgetting how to clear a corner. Can’t even unearth a big No 9 these days because of woke.

Not to equate these various currents, but there is of course a spectrum, and often it begins with an old male pundit on the telly moaning about the decline of traditional German values and ends with the winning Under‑17 World Cup team being peppered with a torrent of racist abuse after posting a victory photo featuring four Black players. “Racism exists, and it’s a problem, but it’s not our most important problem,” an AfD politician argues in the ARD documentary. “Nothing very important.”

Ilkay Gündogan will captain Germany this summer. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

In a way, Germany’s current existential angst resembles a kind of Brexit without Brexit, a wholesale reimagination of what it is to be German, a vacuum of confidence and self into which all kinds of malign actors have poured. The erosion of German supremacy, economic and political, the Ukraine war and the energy crisis, have led to a sense that things have stopped working, the ties that once bound a proud society are slowly loosening.

And if football has been an arena of conflict, it has also been a focus of resistance. Bundesliga coaches such as Christian Streich and Xabi Alonso have been far more vocal in their condemnation of the far right than most of their Premier League counterparts would dare to be. Fan groups, far more powerful in Germany than England, have organised anti-AfD protests. The broad consensus, however, is that football’s most effective response to the racist right will be on the pitch itself.

Not in terms of banners or gestures. But simply the sight of a confident, successful multiracial team, captained by Ilkay Gündogan, with Antonio Rüdiger in defence and Jamal Musiala in attack, drawing strength from its diversity. There is a certain symbolism in the fact that the Deutsche Fussball Bund selected Thuringia, in the forgotten east of the country, as its Euros base.

Of course, football solves nothing on its own. If summer tournament happiness is always a poor facsimile of the real thing, perhaps the same could be said of summer tournament patriotism. Football can be a brilliant conduit for these often difficult conversations. But as ever, the genuine solutions will have to come from somewhere else.

The Guardian

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