On the field, the Brandenburg-based club has risen and fallen up and down Germany’s footballing pyramid over the past three decades. They spent 21 seasons in the former East German DDR-Liga and reached the Bundesliga in 2000 after climbing the ranks in the 1990s; but after shuttling between Germany’s top two divisions in the 2000s, they now have fallen back down to the fourth tier.
Off the field, Energie Cottbus has had bouts of right-wing extremism in their fan scene, which they began seriously addressing only in recent years.
Right-wing fan scenes are common in eastern Germany, where the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany political party (AfD) is very popular. Energie Cottbus has one of the more well-known right-wing fan cultures. It made headlines in Germany in 2017 after fans stormed the pitch twice during the Brandenburg derby in Babelsberg.
Since then, the club has taken measures to prevent right-wing extremism. However, as Robert Claus — an expert on the German fan scene, hooliganism and extremism — told Bavarian Football Works, stopping it is not something that happens overnight.
“When you talk about preventative and pedagogical measures, you cannot measure success in two or three weeks,” Claus said. “It takes years to see what kind of impact this has.”
The 2017 Brandenburg derby
When Energie Cottbus traveled to Babelsberg in April 2017, it was just the fourth Brandenburg derby since the DDR-Liga dissolved.
Potsdam-based Babelsberg, a very political club with a left-wing fan scene, played predominantly in the third, fourth, and fifth divisions of German football when Cottbus was jumping between the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga.
Before the match, the Cottbus fans in the away end made the first of several Hitler salutes. Throughout the contest, they also chanted “Arbeit macht frei, Babelsberg null Drei,” combining the infamous motto “Work sets you free” that was emblazoned upon the entrances to several Nazi concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, in connection with Babelsberg 03’s club name. They also fired rockets and flares at the home supporters, and masked Cottbus hooligans twice climbed over the barrier in the away section.
Both clubs were fined over the unrest — Babelsberg supporters chanted “Nazischweine raus!” (“Nazi pigs out!”). The incidents garnered a lot of attention in Germany, which, Claus says, “forced Energie Cottbus to act.”
“The year 2017 was very important,” Claus said. “The media debate forced Energie Cottbus to increase their efforts to prevent right-wing extremism in their fan scene.”
Influence of Inferno Cottbus
That effort has focused particularly on fighting the influence of a powerful right-wing ultra group: Inferno Cottbus. Established in 1999, Inferno Cottbus, which German authorities have designated a right-extremist group, has dominated the Energie Cottbus fan scene for nearly two decades.
The group sparked outrage at a game against Dynamo Dresden in 2005 in which it shouted anti-Semitic chants and taunted their rivals as “Jews.” Their banner, which pictured a grim reaper bearing a flag, was also banned by Energie Cottbus in the 2000s.
After the 2017 Brandenburg derby, the ultra group announced on their social media channels that they had officially dissolved. However, Claus says this was just a diversionary tactic so they could avoid attention from German authorities.
“All they did was claim they had voluntarily dissolved to get out of the focus of the German authorities. But they never really dissolved,” Claus said. “They are still the same group. They almost never had their banner in the stadium because it had been forbidden in the stadium for many years in Cottbus, so nothing really changed.”
In January of this year, a report from Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB) confirmed this to be the case. The German broadcaster reported that the group was still working behind the scenes to reestablish themselves and threatened Energie fans who dared to oppose them. Claus likewise insisted many times during our interview that Inferno Cottbus still exists and its influence has never waned.
In October 2018, various Cottbus fans ditched several ultra banners and instead adopted one that reads “Betriebssportgemeinschaft Energie Cottbus seit 1966” (loosely: “Business Sports Community Energie Cottbus since 1966”). This was seen as an attempt by Inferno Cottbus to hide in plain sight, though Claus said there was a bit more to it than that.
“Parts of the fan scene just wanted the big banner because it looks good,” Claus said. “On the other hand, after Inferno Cottbus officially dissolved, it has been their main strategy to gather the whole ultra scene under a new label so that they can hide themselves in a bigger group which they dominate.”
What is Energie Cottbus doing to prevent right-wing extremism?
For many years, according to Claus, Energie Cottbus did nothing to address right-wing extremists in fan scene. However, the club should not necessarily be singled out for its inaction.
“There is a long history in German football of clubs focusing only on sports and not really caring about their social responsibility,” Claus said. “Most football clubs have been pushed to recognize their social responsibility by such scandals. You can see that in other clubs as well.”
Claus also points out that the Brandenburg club’s financial difficulties in recent years hampered their ability to respond. “It doesn’t make it easier to work on these issues if you can’t really afford to employ people,” he said.
But after the Babelsberg Derby in 2017, Energie Cottbus at last unveiled a plan to fight right-wing extremism. The club pledged to work with local authorities and other partners, such as the Brandenburg state football association (FLB) and the organizations “Tolerantes Brandenburg” and “Cottbus ist bunt” (h/t Lausitzer Rundschau).
Despite those promises, however, Claus said that Energie Cottbus has moved slowly to address its fan scene. In 2017, the club announced that it would appoint a “representative for diversity and tolerance,” but two years later they have yet to find someone to fill the role.
According to Claus, there is also division within the club itself. “On the one hand, there are people who want to take the whole issue very seriously and are willing to work on the issue of right-wing extremism very carefully. On the other hand, there are people who are still ignoring the issue. If you have such a conflict in the club itself, then the club is not really able to take decisive action.”
Will there be an incident in the German Cup?
Though Bayern Munich has a left-leaning fan scene, Claus thinks that that does not make it any more or less likely that an incident in Cottbus might occur.
“We have to take account the fact that there is going to be a lot of media attention when Bayern Munich goes to Cottbus,” Claus said. “There obviously will be far more media attention than there would be for a normal fourth-division game.”
However, the odds of a right-wing demonstration are “not more likely than at any other game,” Claus added.