The World From Berlin: Can You Represent Germany If Your Lover's a Nazi?

Some are calling it a witch hunt. Others are calling it a Nazi scandal. German rower Nadja Drygalla, 23, left the London Olympics last Friday after it emerged that she is in a relationship with a central figure in the far-right scene in Rostock. Media commentators are divided over a case that has sparked a national debate.

Rower Nadja Drygalla is pictured during an interview with German news agency DPA. Zoom
DPA

Rower Nadja Drygalla is pictured during an interview with German news agency DPA.

Rower Nadja Drygalla left the German Olympic team on Friday after it became known that her boyfriend was a leading neo-Nazi in the northeastern city of Rostock. She denied having far-right views herself but decided to travel home to avoid distracting her squad, the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) said.

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has called for an investigation into when sports authorities and ministry officials became aware of Drygalla's liaison with Michael Fischer, widely reported to have been a leading member of the Nationale Sozialisten Rostock (National Socialist Rostock) group and who campaigned for the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD). Fischer used to row for Germany himself.

The DOSB has denied accusations from politicians in Germany that it knew about Drygalla's relationship long before the Olympics.

The case has sparked a debate in Germany about whether Drygalla has been unfairly ostracized or whether she wasn't fit to represent Germany given her personal relationship.

Who Knew What, When?

According to information obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE, the Interior Ministry of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania had known since early 2011 that Drygalla and Fischer were in a relationship. The state's interior minister, Lorenz Caffier, said regional rowing and sports federations had been informed last year.

Drygalla, 23, was pressured into resigning from the police force last October because of the relationship.

Michael Vesper, the head of the DOSB, and German Rowing Federation President Siegfried Kaidel had insisted on Friday that they had only learned of the matter on Thursday.

Dagmar Freitag, the chairwoman of the sports committee in the German parliament, said the committee would discuss the case next month to find out "who knew what when." She said the matter should have been dealt with the before the Olympics.

In an interview given to the German news agency DPA on Sunday, Drygalla reiterated that she did not share her friend's far-right views, that their relationship had been "very heavily burdened" by his political activities and that she had considered leaving him. They have been together for around five years.

She said her boyfriend had left the NPD in May and had "personally broken with the whole scene and said goodbye to it."

She denied having gone to any far-right rallies herself. But according to the German dapd news agency, several team-mates in London said it had been an open secret that she had far-right views.

Should someone be vilified for the company they keep? Has Drygalla been treated unfairly and subjected to prejudgments? Or does her relationship with a neo-Nazi disqualify her from representing her country because even if she doesn't share his views, she evidently tolerates them enough to share her life with him?

And has Germany blown this matter out of proportion with calls for enquiries into who knew what when? Or should the country that perpetrated the Holocaust and has seen acts of neo-Nazi terrorism and everyday violence against immigrants since unification, especially in its former communist east, hold itself to the highest standards in this regard and take rigorous action whenever there's a whiff of neo-Nazism?

German media commentators are divided -- or on the fence.

Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Sports officials and politicians have spent days in outraged discussions about who knew what when exactly and who should have informed whom. But hardly anyone has been asking what Nadja Drygalla is supposed to be guilty of -- and whether an athlete should be ostracized simply because of her choice of partner."

"A girl falls in love with a boy. What unites them is the subject of speculation. Maybe the love of rowing which her partner also used to engage in. And what else? A shared attitude? There is no evidence of that so far. Questions arise: To what extent can love in a relationship be divorced from the political views of the partner? Is it possible to share one's life with someone for years without at least developing a degree of sympathy for their views -- especially if the partner has espoused those convictions in public? What does an evening with common friends look like in Rostock? All that is unclear. This lack of clarity causes unease, outrage -- and provokes knee-jerk reactions."

"There is speculation about Drygalla's political convictions, but no more than that. The rower has clearly distanced herself from the far-right scene and said she wants to continue with the sport. In London, officials stressed that Drygalla was 'committed to the constitution' and to 'the values of the Olympic charter.' As long as the opposite hasn't been proven, society will have to live with the sportswoman's choice of partner."

Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"What is wrong with parliamentary representatives calling for an explanation of how an athlete with a personal background close to the far-right scene could get onto the Olympic team?"

"The issue isn't the political convictions of an athlete but how German sports bodies and interior ministries handled the case. Drygalla even ended her police career in 2011 because of her circumstances. But she went to the Olympics and was about to get sponsorship from the German army. And now (Thomas) Bach, the political head of the German Olympic delegation, is complaining about uncomfortable questions being asked? They were bound to arise. Since 2004, accreditations for the Olympics for every athlete and for journalists as well is scrutinized by ministries and intelligence services. So how can a case like this slip through the net? Or is there no net here?"

Left-wing Berliner Zeitung sits squarely on the fence:

"The debate is mired in a murky broth of prejudgments on the one hand and trivialization on the other. And if it's true what Drygalla said on Sunday -- that she has got nothing to do with Nazi ideology and that her boyfriend has quit the scene -- then the know-it-alls would be embarrassed."

"Of course people who divide up humanity into good and evil based on their origin, skin color or religion have no place in organized sport. Those who justifiably lament that the 'Olympic movement' is being undermined by commercialization and weighed down by political interests should insist on the principles of a fair competition free of discrimination and racism. But in the Drygalla case there's a problem: Those who want the principle of fairness to apply to the sportswoman as well should refrain from making a snap judgment. Otherwise they may themselves hurt the spirit of tolerance and democracy they claim to be defending."

"The private relationship is irrelevant to the sport. Even if we may find it hard to believe in a tragic love for a man whose convictions she despises -- we don't know, and only those who know it would have a moral right to pass judgment now. On the other hand, sports officials are giving every cause for doubt. If the rowing association in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has been looking at Drygalla's relationship for a long time -- why can't it announce that it is convinced of the sportswoman's belief in democracy? The case is in Rostock, where asylum seekers' homes were torched 20 years ago to the applause of some local people -- so there's a justified question whether authorities simply turned a blind eye. The problem is that this suspicion doesn't suffice for a verdict in this case."

Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel wrote in a commentary on Friday:

"The fact that Drygalla got involved with a neo-Nazi is hard to understand, but it's her private business. But the fact is that Nadja Drygalla rowed for Germany at the Olympic Games, a public event that involves more than one person. The Federal Republic can expect to be represented in a dignified manner. A sportswoman who ended her career in the police force after she was accused of contacts with the far-right scene doesn't seem suitable to represent Germany."

"Drygalla voluntarily hitched up to a scene that glorifies Germany's darkest years as its brightest. The rower is either unbelievably naïve or stupid or infected by Nazi demons herself. None of those variants lends itself to letting Drygalla appear as a model sportswoman for Germany, but the German Olympic Federation and the German Rowing Federation could have known that sooner. The Interior Ministry of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania says both were involved in 2011 in talks with Drygalla before her departure from the police."

David Crossland

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