Soccer fans slowly wind their way through a leafy Leipzig neighborhood toward BSG Chemie Leipzig’s stadium on a September Sunday afternoon. Alfred-Kunze-Sportpark begins filling up with fans decked out in Chemie’s traditional green. It could be any quiet lower-division match in Germany, until the crowd overflowing the home-supporters section unfurls a massive banner and begins chanting furiously. Cries of “All Cops Are Bastards, ACAB!” reverberate around the stadium, shifting attention away from the field.
Meanwhile, the “away” end, where FC Lokomotive Leipzig (Lok) fans should have been, is empty. They’ve elected to boycott the match after police, apparently overwhelmed by the task of handling a public event with 5,000 people, severely restricted the ticket allotment for supporters of the visiting team. These unusual circumstances reflect the uneasy normality of one of Germany’s most infamous soccer rivalries, the Leipzig derby.
Politics and soccer are already inseparable in Germany, where it’s common for clubs to have political identities and for activists to use the sport as a means of reaching a broad social base, and Lok and Chemie are perfect examples of how extreme the linkage can be.
Lok and Chemie have a decades-long rivalry, which, beginning in the early 2000s, has been eclipsed in the eyes of many fans and the media. The derby now is seen as a stage for a clash between fervent fan bases with radically different political cultures that illuminate growing regional tensions and the deep, persistent footprint of the divisions entrenched in Germany’s history that have lasted long past the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago.
On October 3, just three days before the derby, Germany celebrated Reunification Day, the national holiday marking the end of 40 years of division between the Communist, authoritarian East and the democratic West. Reunification didn’t just dissolve the autocratic German Democratic Republic (GDR); it also meant mass divestment in Eastern industry, which the newly reunited state sold off for a pittance to rich Western companies, stymieing East Germany’s chances for economic development. Thirty years later, employment and wages in the former East still lag behind those in the West.
German soccer has followed a similar path. After the Berlin Wall fell and the previously divided Eastern and Western leagues were combined, most East German clubs, including Lok and Chemie, struggled: Eastern teams didn’t have the same resources as those in the West, couldn’t compete in the new market, and began a rapid slide down in the leagues.
“Everything that possibly could have gone wrong for football in Leipzig after reunification, did. If it was remotely possible, it happened,” says Matthias Löffler, a lifelong Lok fan and the author of multiple books on the club’s history.
During this period, German soccer saw higher levels of hooliganism at matches, and, particularly in the East, prominent fan bases skewed to the far right. In response, clubs, fans, and police began making a concerted effort to address violence in the stadiums, and the political cultures of team supporters began to diverge.
Both teams—Lok and Chemie—faced bankruptcies in the 2000s, but were immediately refounded. Lok’s far-right fan culture remained largely intact, while Chemie was restructured with the explicit goal of forming a club committed to fighting racism and anti-Semitism in the stadiums and more broadly.
The club’s charter defends the right to religious tolerance and states that Chemie is against “racist, discriminatory, sexist, and homophobic attitudes and intentions.” According to Yuval, a Jewish Israeli Chemie season-ticket holder who’s lived in Leipzig since 2012, Chemie’s stances on racism and anti-Semitism are “one of the strengths of the club and why I personally feel very comfortable here.”
Although Western clubs like St. Pauli and Eintracht Frankfurt are well-known for their progressive politics, Chemie’s left-leaning stance remains a rarity in the former GDR. Lok, on the other hand, is still known for having a significant right-wing element among its fans, and the club’s reputation frustrates supporters who have to deal with what they see as an unfair association with small but vocal parts of the fan base. Löffler called viewing the derby along purely political lines “nonsense.” For him and other Lok fans, the occasional headline-grabbing actions from a minority of supporters shouldn’t define a club or its fan base.
For Löffler, the 2002 derby was a tipping point, after which politics began overshadowing soccer for many observers. Lok fans, in what he called a “crude joke,” unfurled banners during their clash with Chemie that read “Rudolf Hess, on the right wing for Lok” and “We are Lok fans, murderers and fascists.” At one of their club’s youth matches in 2006, about 30 Lok fans formed a human swastika in the stands.
Many of Lok’s own supporters have mounted an internal battle against this behavior in recent years, and the club has taken increased responsibility for dealing with these cases, but the far-right contingent persists. In the lead-up to the 2017 derby, some Lok fans put up stickers with an image of Anne Frank in a Chemie jersey and the words “JDN CHM” (short for Chemie Jews) on them. You don’t have to be an expert on anti-Semitism to know that using “Jew” as an insult is an indication of a virulent culture of hatred, particularly in Germany.
Lok’s ongoing struggle with far-right supporters is a sadly familiar story. Though the problem is more common in teams from the former East Germany, big Western clubs are not immune. Soccer’s incredible popularity in Europe, and especially Germany, means that teams draw fans from all facets of life and tend to reflect trends and currents in society. Chemie’s leftist stance is not only unique in the regional soccer scene but also puts them in vivid contrast to a rising tide of nationalism in the country and the increasing normalization of right-wing values globally. The far-right political party Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), founded in 2013, won 12.6 percent of the vote in the 2017 federal elections, a historic high for a far-right party in postwar Germany.
In Leipzig’s state of Saxony, the AfD won 27.5 percent of the vote in September’s regional elections, the party’s best result ever. Though the AfD has yet to taste power, the results of its rapid ascent and Germany’s rightward shift are tangible. “You see that the atmosphere has changed and that people have more and more confidence in saying things they might not have said 10 years ago,” says longtime Chemie fan M (he requested that only his initial be used because he’s active on the Chemie fan scene and worried that fascist Lok fans will target him).
For decades, German soccer has had deeply ingrained—if not widespread—far-right fan bases. And for as long, far-right political organizations have been lurking just below the surface; Lok’s far-right reputation is just one example. Supporters of the new AfD party didn’t materialize out of thin air.
On the day of the September 2019 derby, which was held at Chemie’s stadium, a palpable buzz rumbled through the home section. Heading into the match, Lok was the heavy favorite: It was tied with two other teams for first in the regional fourth division; Chemic had just been promoted to the league only this season.
Neither fan base was happy about the police decision to cap the number of away-team supporters; it was a rare moment of agreement between Lok and Chemic fans. Lok fans boycotted in response to more active policing and a ban on pyrotechnics and, instead, about 1,000 watched the match at a public viewing in their stadium on the other side of town.
Chemie fans were on their own, taking some of the usual crackle of electricity and tension out of the air, and the match felt more like a party than a classic derby clash. The only violence was committed on the field whenever Lok brutally hacked down a Chemie player. But that didn’t keep the long-short Chemie from pulling off an unlikely 2 to 0 win.
The police decision to aggressively monitor the derby and the club’s commitment to clearing far-right elements from its fan base provide hope that the derby could once again be a match that’s about soccer and claiming local bragging rights. But there’s a lot of work ahead.