AUGUST 10, 2012 8:13AM

Where is the limit? The lost honor of Nadja Drygalla

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 Nadja Drygalla

Scapegoat of history? Former Olympic rower Nadja Drygalla

THE CONTROVERSY OVER THE German women’s eight contestant at the London Olympics had every opportunity of turning into a bittersweet tale of guilt, love, and redemption. As I reported in my piece last week, rower Nadja Drygalla abruptly left the Olympic village on August 3 after word spread that her boyfriend of five years, Michael Fischer, was a notorious neo-Nazi and a political candidate for the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD). Upon her return home to Rostock, however, she stated to the press that she had always rejected the movement and that she herself had helped persuade her wayward boyfriend to abandon the racist cause last May. (I wrote all about it HERE.)

It’s too bad that’s not the end of the story. Instead, it’s only the beginning of what looks to be an enduring scandal that threatens to consume the young athlete no matter what she says or does. Here’s how the story is unfolding.


An endless blame game

1) We can see the start of an endless political blame game. Who knew about her relationship when, and why didn’t they pass the word on to the Olympic Committee?

The background of this is that the Olympic Games are regulated by the Olympic Charter, which states among other principles that:

Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

This means that, in theory at least, no person belonging to a racist organization or openly espousing racist doctrine should be allowed to participate. (So far this year, two athletes have been disqualified for sending racist tweets from the Games.) The same rules apply to Germany’s own sports organizations. At the very least, it means that Ms. Drygalla’s at least indirect involvement with the local “National Socialist Party of Rostock” (check out their website HERE) and the state NPD organization should have been discussed in advance of her appointment to the team, and not after she competed (which she did on July 31, coming in fifth place with her team). And this connection was no secret. In fact, the interior ministry of the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania forced her out of her career with the Rostock police force after it learned of the connection in September of 2011 and considered it to be sufficient grounds for dismissal from state service. Why this information was not passed on to the Federal interior ministry (which is partly responsible for Germany’s Olympic participation) is a mystery that will undoubtedly be investigated.

ns rostock

The National Socialists of Rostock 

Still, the Olympic issue is largely theoretical. The real issue here is the infiltration of sports clubs by right-wing organizations, which is apparently widespread in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania and several other states, particularly – but by no means exclusively – in the former East Germany. The sports clubs allow neo-Nazis to gather and thrive in a protected and ostensibly respectable environment, from which they can terrorize and attack their enemies. (Fischer himself had once been a champion-level rower and a member of a local sports club.)

The state and Federal governments have consistently failed to investigate this infiltration, as demonstrated by the ongoing scandal surrounding the National Socialist Underground terror group, which managed to murder foreigners at will for a decade without the police or investigatory agencies having a clue they even existed. Hence the (over)reaction in the Drygalla/Fischer case.

2) Michael Fischer is in deep trouble. Last February he was sighted along with members of his “comradeship” (i.e. his armed neo-Nazi terror squad), a.k.a. the “National Socialist Party of Rostock,” attacking a memorial event organized by local anti-fascist groups to commemorate the murder of Mehmet Turgut, one of the victims of the National Socialist Underground who had been shot outside a kebab shop right there in Rostock in 2004. Fischer’s “comradeship” went after the lefties with “wooden pickets, clubs and iron bars,” says state prosecutor Maureen Wiechmann.

Brown Army Faction

Der Spiegel compared the NSU with the terrorist Red Army Faction, a.k.a. Baader-Meinhof Gang, of the 1970s. The NSU murdered Turkish national Mehmet Turgut in Rostock in 2004.

The police kept them at bay, but one officer was injured in the leg by a thrown crowbar. Fischer is now being investigated for “heavy breach of public peace.” If convicted, he could face between six months and ten years in prison. Since the state prosecutor’s office is now finally investigating all neo-Nazi activities in the Rostock area, it is likely that this is only the beginning of Fischer’s troubles, regardless of how his prosecution goes.

3) Fischer has since confirmed to the German press that he left the movement for good in May. In a telephone interview with the DPA agency earlier this week, he said that he had “taken the step to end the thing, being a neo-Nazi. I resigned from the party and had no particular contact any more with the people who were involved with it. … I wouldn’t say I regret {having been a Nazi}. But I wasn’t doing Nadja a favor, and thus it would have been better if I hadn’t {joined} in the first place.”


Something is rotten in the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania

However, observers of the scene doubt his sincerity, since he continued to associate with his party comrades, posted on neo-Nazi websites, and went on making rude and vaguely racist remarks on the Internet. For example, when he travelled with Nadja to cheer her on in London, he posted this comment on his Facebook page: “I am enjoying the international understanding. Am sitting next to blacks and Pakis on the train and am helping Swiss people in the hotel.” He also described himself as a “neo-Nazi monster” at large in London and wrote that his camera was his “most dangerous weapon.”

Perhaps these are all just awkward jokes as Fischer gradually distances himself from the movement that has been his ideological home for the past several years. But the apparent ease with which Fischer has left the neo-Nazi movement is also an indicator for some skeptics that something is rotten in the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. Old comrades tend to take such things pretty hard. It’s not unusual to murder traitors, or at least beat them senseless. Did Fischer just leave the movement temporarily so as to allow his girlfriend to compete in the Olympics in peace? If so, the gambit didn’t pay off – for either of them.

As for Ms. Drygalla herself, her fate is still up in the air. The state parliament will meet to discuss the case. But the damage has been done. As of this writing, her dream of joining the German army and taking part in a Bundeswehr sport team is on ice – the army, which already has a chronic neo-Nazi problem of its own, won’t touch her. Since she had been hoping to make a career for herself there with an eye to her post-competitive life, this is a devastating blow.

Nikolaus Schneider

"She must repent!" Nikolaus Schneider, chair of the Protestant Council 


Where is the limit?

She is now a cause célèbre for campaigners on all sides. Some politicians are demanding “democracy oaths” by athletes, plus much closer scrutiny of their personal affairs. But defense minister Thomas de Maizière is having nothing of it. He asked the press on August 6:

Are we, the public, really entitled to screen the friends of athletes, to look at what’s going on there? Do we have to demand that athletes reveal to us who they are friends with {and} what {these people} think? Where is the limit? I ask these questions in order to make it clear once and for all that there are limits for such examination, also when it comes to the role of athletes.

Interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has plainly rejected the introduction of loyalty oaths, stating through a ministry spokesman that “we’ll have no snooping around in our athletes’ political convictions.” But other public figures have no such reservations. Last Sunday, Praeses Nikolaus Schneider, Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church of Germany, and thus the country’s chief Protestant clergyman, publicly accused Ms. Drygalla of neo-Nazi activities and actually quoted the Prophet Ezekiel – just imagine: the Prophet Ezekiel! – against her:

Therefore, son of man, say to your people, “If someone who is righteous disobeys, that person’s former righteousness will count for nothing. And if someone who is wicked repents, that person’s former wickedness will not bring condemnation.”

In case anyone was in doubt as to his drift, the clergyman spelled it out: “There can be a changing of ways, and one must also grant this to Ms. Drygalla.” So far I am unaware if she herself is a Lutheran. If she isn’t – and few people in her section of the country are any more – let me suggest that she’s lucky.

Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum 


Worse than blows and pistols

The discussion is raging on talk shows, radio interviews, letters to the editor, and blogs. While some people, like Praeses Schneider, are convinced that Ms. Drygalla is indeed involved in some way, others are speaking of a “witch hunt” against her. Ironically, many on the far rights are drawing comparisons between her treatment and Sippenhaft (“kin liability”), i.e. the Gestapo practice of imprisoning and torturing a suspect’s family and friends. 

On a radio discussion, Social Democratic politician Sebastian Edathy recalled Heinrich Böll’s 1974 novel The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which is about a young woman whose reputation gets dragged through the mud because of a brief relationship she has with a terrorist on the run. In a 1974 interview, Böll, who had personal experience with this sort of situation, said that “the violence of words can sometimes be worse than that of blows and pistols.”

It’s very hard not to feel sorry for Ms. Drygalla, who almost certainly had no direct involvement in her boyfriend’s activities. I believe, though, that she is not so much a victim of immediate circumstance, but rather a victim – and sacrificial lamb – of modern history itself. While she was only born in the summer of 1989, in the waning months of the old German Democratic Republic, she has been forced to carry a lot of historical deadweight on her shoulders.

The fact is that the German sports associations were one of the key entry points for the original Nazi party into German society and, gradually, into politics back in the 1920s and 1930s, quite likely before even her grandparents’ birth. No wonder so many people want to prevent a repeat of this insidious process at all costs, including the cost of Ms. Drygalla’s reputation and future. But the methods some here wish to use are all too reminiscent of the Stasi terror regime into which she was born but has no memory of. Spying on friends and neighbors, humiliating questioning, fear of arrests and reprisals – I’ll bet her parents can tell her a lot about what that was like.

Now, in 2012, the people of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, who never had much of a choice about either dictatorship, are having to face both experiences head on as the cost of moving forward. Society needs a scapegoat, and it has found one.

In his book Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But don’t take his word for it. Just ask Nadja Drygalla.



Picture credits:
Der Spiegel, SZ, Evangelische Kirche Aachen,, Wiki Commons.


troll alert 

In praise of trolls: Announcing Lost in Berlin’s first “dustup”

After three and a half years of writing on Open Salon, I’ve finally got my very own, personal dustup on this site. An anonymous OS member calling herself “*altim*r* *re*” (name bleeped in the interests of discretion) took exception to my last article on the Drygalla affair, distorting the content and aiming insulting and utterly gratuitous ad hominem and even ad familiam language against me. I always welcome comments, even the nasty kind, since I can learn from them and they advance the discussion. This comment was utterly unconstructive, however, so while I could have ignored her, I nevertheless took personal offense at the way she included my own family in her smear and called her out on it. There ensued the inevitable series of ad hominem counter-insults, and the battle was joined. You can see it all HERE.

While I doubt anyone here will care about this ugly spat, it does raise an important issue for me: The risk those of us here who write under our own names take every time we post or comment. While “*altim*r* *re*” is evidently a harmless troll, gleefully hurling monkey poo from behind her cloak of anonymity, what happens if a dangerous person takes exception to what we write? I’ve always considered the stuff I present here to be pretty harmless, but I’ll wager a member of the “National Socialist Underground,” or any of the other unsavory groups I’ve been going after in this space since 2009, might see things differently and decide it’s time to put me – and/or persons close to me – out of business. The same goes for the rest of us here who decline the cheap protection of anonymity and tell it like we see it.

So let me send a round of thanks to “*altim*r* *re*” for highlighting this vital issue. She can throw poo at my blog any time she likes.



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My reply to your lengthy and disturbing attack on this unknown olympic competitor is inspired by your admission that there wasn't a scintilla of evidence to besmirch her own character.

You - and other self appointed moralists - are simply indicting and convicting her because you don't approve of the poltics of her boyfriend.

The last time I checked, having your date vetted by random busybodies was not an actual olympic criteria.

And if political views WERE part of the vetting process, then we'd no doubt see the wholesale exclusion of nations such as North Korea, Iran, Karjackistsan, and a dozen other countries.

People who delight in taking down dedicated olympians over a disapproval of the political views of their dates are small minded bullies who exult in their own freedom of expression but hypocritically seek to censor and punish views they disagree with.

this would be funny, except that its tragic and small minded and evidence of close minded intolerance and bigotry - the exact values you claim your are reviling when you attack continue to attack Dygalla - someone who is not a public figure, not a political figure, and whom you have never met.

(full disclosure - baltimore aureole is secular, but has abandoned the faith of her parents, judiasm. i give ground to no one in my distate for nazi-ism, iranian threats to "incinerate" israel, or the attacks by american neo-nazis on minorities. neither do i give ground to bullies who seek to oppress and defame the blameless)

A "disturbing attack" ??? The writer of this piece explicitly refers to her as a "victim" of modern history, and a "scapegoat". There is much more nuance here than you seem to recognize.
i am a great believer in total freedom of speech.

i am inclined to think sleeping with a thug for five years would suggest a defective character, but: she hasn't been accused of acts of violence, hasn't been rude to anyone at the olympics, and was therefore sent home to keep from upsetting sensative souls who confuse silence with peace.

or, simply to placate sponsors.

it's an imperfect world, but the way to deal with political thugs is to treat them like other people: talk all you want, but lift your hand in violence and go to jail. letting them talk is the cost-effective way of knowing who to keep an eye on.
GERMans... :( Nobody here but us chickens. I can say that because I have a German last name. Or as it's called the same old same old.