Pirates, Punks and Politics

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(394)

Many Socialist Review readers will have already read or heard of St Pauli football club and its cult-like left-wing following, and of the fans’ staunch opposition to fascism, sexism, racism and homophobia. Whether you’re a football fan or avidly anti-football, it’s a story worth knowing, and one which Nick Davidson tells well.

His book is more than just a story of a love affair with a football team — to describe it as Fever Pitch with politics would be a huge insult. The book charts the history of St Pauli as both a district and a club (with the two often being indistinguishable from each other), the history of football in Hamburg and Germany as a whole.

This wide scope makes for an engaging read. A vast amount is covered in under 250 pages. Some may find the whistlestop tour of early 20th century Germany lacking, but it does just enough to set the scene (Davidson points readers to Chris Harman’s The Lost Revolution to fill in the gaps). Details during the Nazi years are vague, not least because the club records were lost in a bombing raid during the Second World War, but Davidson concludes that while complying with the Nazis, St Pauli didn’t become Hitler’s cheerleaders.

Certain key members of the club were more ardent supporters of the Nazis, and the book charts how fans have stripped back references to the darker parts of the club’s past by voting to rename the stadium and to posthumously strip Otto Wolff, an SS member, of an award given in recognition of work for the club. These examples of democracy feel like a breath of fresh air in the era of modern commercial football.

Just how the “outsiders” — the squatters, anarchists and punks of Hamburg’s Hafenstrasse — came to be so inextricably linked with the club helps explain the left-wing ethos of the majority of its fans.

There are great examples of the club, and more specifically the Fanlanden — St Pauli’s fan-based organisation — working with the wider community and steadfastly standing up to right-wing elements in football.

The autonomy of the Fanlanden is crucial, as despite St Pauli remaining a more progressive club, there are tensions relating to the pressures of commercialisation. Football fans will relate to the growing disillusionment with the modern game. Some of the biggest battles in recent years have been over stadium redevelopment and corporate sponsorship as the German Bundesliga football league pushes to become more like the sanitised English Premiership.

Most will know that the Totenkopf (skull and crossbones) is the symbol of St Pauli, but not how fans have used the symbol on a red background, as opposed to the trademarked black background, as a mark of protest when they’re at odds with the club. Davidson describes discovering St Pauli, the atmosphere on his visits to their stadium, and trips to away games in loving detail.

In this context St Pauli stands out against the bland, moneymaking world of sport. Under capitalism they won’t change the world, but they’re giving it a damn good try. I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a example of how sport can be an avenue of resistance, as well as a glimpse of how things could be.