The Punk Rockers of Football: A Story of Pirate Flags and the Anti-Nazi St Pauli

The story of FC Sankt Pauli, the football club from Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, that has managed to retain its distinct identity in a football era of excess.

February, 1976. Bang in the middle of a glorious era of Pink Floyd’s Echoes and Dark Side of the Moon, and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti, a band from Queens, New York, released an album that took the world by storm. Abstract, endless layers of instrumentation and lengthy tracks – stretching the limits of the vinyl – had become commonplace on rock ‘n roll records. When The Ramones came to the party, listeners across the world had never heard something like this before. Their songs were short, played at a high-tempo with minimal orchestration, and carried very strong personal, social or political messages through their lyrics. The band and the album, also called The Ramones, are credited with the birth of punk rock.

If you dig deep enough, every form of music will give you a backstory and legacy. Jazz and blues originated from African-American slaving away at cotton plantations in the 19th century, and funk came from bars where people wanted to dance to live music. But in definition, most genres of music are largely characterised by a distinct phonetic structure, rarely depending on the musicians, venue or any socio-political context setup by the lyrics. Punk is probably the only genre of music in the world that comes with an ideology of its own, almost bordering on a cult. Although it most definitely has a characteristic sonic graph, just the music doesn’t make a punk artist. The lyrics have to project a certain message and the artists should commit themselves to the core ethos of what embodies Punk.

Like most of popular Rock ‘n Roll produced in the 1960s and 70s, modern football is currently in an era of excesses. It is now a full-blown industry where the giants of European football are like kingpins rivalled only by each other. In a race to spread their brand image farthest, clubs leave no stone unturned and no territory uncharted. Manchester United have ex-players flying out to Soweto, FC Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain have opened soccer schools and coaching centres in Tokyo, while Jamie Carragher inaugurated a Liverpool academy, gave a press conference and packed home a kilo of Shrewsbury biscuits all in one afternoon in Pune.

German football’s answer to Pink Floyd would be Bayern Munich. Like the legendary band, this football team from Bavaria has stood the test of time and evolution to emerge as the most timeless of them all. They are successful, they are popular and for a lot of people, the buck stops at them. In the money-spinning business that is football, there are very few who dare to differ from the popular formula and almost reject the lure of commercial success. The charm of artists like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols lies in the rarity of their ilk, much like the football club from a small district of Hamburg, Germany called St. Pauli.

Mind the gap: Hamburg and HSV

Hamburg is one of the top ten cities in Europe with respect to GDP per capita, housing approximately 1.8 million people. One of its 105 districts, St. Pauli, has a population of 28000. Cross-town neighbours and Hamburg’s home club Hamburger Sport-Verein are the only club to have played the Bundesliga every single season since its inception. With three league and DFB Pokal titles each to go with a European Cup, HSV will be aggrieved to be even put on the same pantheon as FC St Pauli, who have managed all of 5 seasons in the Bundesliga.

St Pauli

“If HSV has the pedigree, and the blue blood of Bundesliga aristocracy running through its veins, then St. Pauli is the down-at-heel sibling cast out in the world and left to fend for itself, making awkward appearances at family gatherings just to show they exist”

– Nick Davidson (Pirates, Punks & Politics)

Initially christened “The English disease”, football took a bizarrely long time to gain popular acceptance among the German masses. Post Prussia’s loss to the Napoleon-led French in 1806, the German culture had turned all its attention to gymnastics and physical education. Schools, colleges and clubs sprang up encouraging students and members to participate in sports which needed extensive physical strength and ability, such as swimming and hiking. Germans looked at these sports as avenues to build community, as opposed to the “English” ones where there was always a sense of fierce competition. It begins to explain why it took till 1963 for Germany to establish a national football league.

“Gymnastics were for the good of the people. It created unity, not separation. It existed for the good of the whole, not for the self-esteem of a select few”

– Uli Hesse, Tor! The Story of German Football

Even late into the 19th century, there were barely any dedicated football clubs around. Almost all of the football history recorded from that era points to gymnastics clubs, among many others, experimenting with the game. St. Pauli Turnverein (St. Pauli Gymnastics Club) joined the District III (Hamburg/Altona) of the Northern Germany Football Division in January 1910; fourteen years later, the sports and games section of St. Pauli Tv separated itself, thus giving birth to FC St. Pauli.

FC St. Pauli in Nazi Germany: The Birth of the Politically Aware Football Club

Beginning 1930, Germany’s political situation would enter a phase that changed world history. The National Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (NSDAP) rose to prominence at a blistering pace and by March 1933, they were in power. By June that year, Jewish people were expelled from all sports clubs. Led by the DFB (German Football Association) and a dominant right-wing presence in their administrations, most clubs in the country followed suit.

On the face of it, so did FC St. Pauli. However, club president Wilhem Koch, St. Pauli’s very own Jonny Ramone, refused to join the NSDAP, only to be forced in 1937 by the desperation of the club’s survival. Although he would be axed from the board after the war ended, he returned as club president in 1947 and served for 22 more years, until his death.

“In summary, we can say that FC St. Pauli adapted to the regime after some hesitation, but more for the club rather than ideological reasons”

– Gregor Backes (Historian), Pirates, Punks & Politics

By the early 1950s, the German Democratic Republic had erected the Inner German Border to protect East Germany from the right-wing West Germans, who they still considered as fascists. The decades after led to another phase of political unrest in West Germany, with the ruling party determined to assume control of the country from the Eastern Bloc, which included the Soviets as allies. Like it had done throughout the history of the country, the political volatility spilled over to football.

By the 1980s, another phase of political unrest and economic instability began gripping Germany, and the right-wing groups used football as a platform to lend voice to their ideas. The district of St. Pauli was known to be specially insular to any right-wing political ideologies, largely due its small population and distance from the city of Hamburg. In December 1984, neo-Nazi fans of Hamburger SV and Borussia Dortmund attacked the houses of Hafenstrasse, the road which leads to St. Pauli’s Millerntor stadium, with Molotov cocktails. Elsewhere, a Hertha Berlin fan group, curiously named after a gas used in Nazi concentration camps, set fire to a train. Nazi sympathisers began to flood the terraces of Germany’s football stadiums, including Hamburg SV’s home ground, the Volksparkstadion, in an attempt to spread their propaganda.

The late 1970s and early 80s were the most gold-laden era for HSV, and even that didn’t stop a large section of their fans from heading south towards the Millerntor instead. At St. Pauli, there was no room for fascist slogans or hooliganism. The team was local, the stadium was meant for football, and it was fun to watch games there, mostly because it was filled with a young generation who had stopped caring about the relics and their nationalism. While the old German left had seen football as a disease, the new generation saw it as an expression of newer ideas: a cure.

Although slow and gradual, the change in the atmosphere at the Millerntor was visible. Football stadiums are fantastic vantage-points to air your views, and the junta, antagonised by brutal fascist tactics elsewhere, united in letting the world know that FC St. Pauli was as socialist as it could get. Not that they were conscious of it then, but a very punk ideology was spreading through the district: of non-conformance and neo-liberalism, and freedom and independence of expression. Along with leftist politics, music and beer, humour was a huge part of the atmosphere too. As reports go, someone from the Sudkurve once raised his fist, picked up the megaphone and chanted “Never again fascism. Never again war.” To which someone else replied “Never again third division.”

Punk and the Totenkopf: Building the cult

The Reeperbahn district on the Hafenstrasse is one of Europe’s most famous entertainment blocks. Abuzz with bars, clubs, used-record stores and sex-shops, the district was host to five young men from Merseyside, England for two complete years between 1960 and 1962. They would play 48 shows at the Idra club, famous for violent crowds. A return ticket to England and a couple of albums later, they changed the history of world music forever. Those five guys called themselves The Beatles. Popular belief goes that the Hamburg era turned them “from boys to men”. Music forms a massive part of St. Pauli’s culture, and although it’s dominated by the black garages of punk rock today, the district played its part in the era of strawberry fields.

Among the names you’d come across inside a FC St. Pauli museum, Nikolaus Stoertebeker isn’t one. Our man Klaus, born 1360 in Hamburg, just happens to be Germany’s most famous pirate. His surname doubles up as a nickname; Stoertebeker means “empty a mug”, and he exhibited an ability to empty a four-litre mug of beer without dropping sweat. Being a port city, Hamburg was always among the destinations pirate ships heading into Europe would dock most at. Cultures were exchanged and among other things, the pirates introduced Hamburg to the Jolly Rouge: a famous symbol on the flag whenever one of their ships was about to plant an attack onto another.

So when Doc Mabuse, a squatter in the houses of Hafenstrasse in the early 1980s, saw one of those flags lying around at a shop in the Reeperbahn, he promptly wrapped it around a broomstick and carried it to the Millerntor. The all-embracing terraces of FC St. Pauli called it the Totenkopf, and it would go on to symbolise everything the district and the club stands for today: defiance.

South of the Reeperbahn, on the Hafenstrasse, scores of houses and tenement blocks were set up on unclaimed land. Germany’s young, broke and unemployed junta couldn’t find a better combination of financially viable and fun place to move to. Over a period of 12-24 months, the houses of Hafenstrasse turned from abandoned blocks into the home for a conglomerate of a unique set of people: young, without a fear in the world, and ready to take on the establishment.

The ruling party were right-inclined and weren’t all too pleased with the euphoria of left-liberalism growing in that part of Hamburg. They would frequently open fire and attack the houses and its inhabitants. The Molotov cocktail attack by HSV fans was just one of many incidents which would aggravate the already existing tension in that region and add the unruly flavour of violence. Political activists flew in from around the country and joined the squatters in their fight for civil rights, and Hafenstrasse slowly began to resemble a hotbed of the leftist movement in West Germany.

During this phase, the music scene at the Reeperbahn was changing swiftly too. By the time the year 1985 rolled in, The Sex Pistols were five albums down. American punk and hardcore had arrived in the mainstream consciousness and pop-culture. The ideology and ethos of punk was their biggest appeal-factor. Everything from their usual attire to melodic structures of songs suggested a push for change and a fight against the existing order and when a David stands up to a Goliath, the former will inevitably have the crowd’s sentiment and attention. The squatting movement in the district of St. Pauli was as “underground” as it could get, and musicians and artists flew in to amplify what was already building up as unique culture. These days, the Totenkopf (or Jolly Roger) can be commonly found on album covers of punk bands, thanks in no small part to how this tiny Hamburg district helped it become the symbol of anarchy and non-conformance.

In an ideal world, a football club should be a reflection of the culture, community and ideologies a region stands for. Between St. Pauli and the Reeperbahn, they’re almost an embodiment of that definition. It’s fitting that just a ten-minute walk from Reeperbahn would land you at the gates of the Millerntor, home of FC St. Pauli.

The Millerntor: Arena Extraordinaire

The Millerntor is not your average football stadium. One of the first things you’ll spot when you’re walking towards the stadium is a massive structure behind the north stand which engulfs the stadium. The Hamburger Flakturme was made during World War II as a fortress, which doubled up as shelter from the Royal Air Force bomber aircrafts. The bunker can give shelter to about 30,000 people, as many as the Millerntor can hold. True to its purpose, it was built in a way that prevents destruction by any natural means. The stadium of the most socialist club in the world stands in the shadow of the one of the most powerful monuments of fascist Germany.

Football matches, at least in the big leagues, can take the shape of major social events. There is a lot of money fed into most of the first division leagues, and hordes of people, on the ground or at home, tune in to watch their favorite teams play every single weekend. Stadium atmospheres and the value they add to the spectacle can be massively underrated. As revenue streams get fatter, clubs are chasing state-of-the-art technology to improve their stadiums; little do they realise that what a motivated, vocal bunch of people can do, retractable turfs and central heating never can. The Germans currently boast of arguably the best stadium atmospheres in Europe, thanks in no small part to the generous littering of standing terraces all through the country. The Sudtribune, a 25000 capacity standing terrace at Dortmund’s Westfalonstadion, is now vastly known in the football pop-culture as among of the best places to watch a football match.

Most clubs love to tell stories about their stadium and its unique atmosphere. The flares of Istanbul, the pyrotechnics of Belgrade, the ultras of Rome and the cauldron in Catalunya; they all light up on derby-days and big European nights, yet I suspect few of them can consistently give you a concert with a 30,000 strong mix of non-conformists with beer, skull-and-crossbones hoodies and punk hairstyles, singing along with the PA system to AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells as the players walk out on the pitch.

For the fans: The Fanladen

Fans are indeed the largest contributors to the identity of St. Pauli. From the kind of gentry inside the stadium to those working behind the scenes to ensure foreign fans have a smooth experience, this is a club running on the fuel of goodwill.

The Fanladen came to be because of the birth of a fan-project across the town at HSV in 1983. Set up with the primary role of educating young fans against hooliganism and general violence, today the Fanladen organises transport, ticketing, accommodation, stadium tours among other social and communal initiatives.

“So we infiltrated normal football supporters with this service thing – come to us, you’ll get the tickets for the train very cheap. We had contacts with racist football groups, and we set the agenda clear: we won’t accept the chants, the violence, the flags and this Nazi shit”

– Sven Brux (FC St. Pauli’s Head of Organization & Security)

Like with most things St. Pauli post-1980s, the Fanladen quickly became a focal point for the fans. This is where the Millerntor Roar! magazine is produced and the now famous St. Pauli Fans Gegen Rechts (St. Pauli Fans Against Nazis) symbol was ideated.

In 1990, the Fanladen moved out of Millerntor’s premises and set up shop a few blocks away, thus establishing its independence from the club. Brux, who was charged with setting up the organisation itself, thoroughly believed in the importance of independence if something has to work for the benefit of the fans.

Today, the Fanladen is deeply ingrained in the local community and fan-experience for FC St. Pauli. Along with organising social events and tournaments for youngsters, it also manages all the official fan clubs and match experience for both home and away games.

“Our daily work is dominated by dealing with tickets, though. We get some tickets for the home matches from the club for all fan clubs and supporters from abroad. And also for away matches, since we organise the trips for the supporters, be it by bus or train.”

– Stefan Schatz from the Fanalden (Pirates, Punks and Politics)

Watching FC St. Pauli: It’s All About Having a Good Time

A football match is usually an emotionally draining experience for fans and supporters. From Tiziano Crudelli’s euphoric screams for Italy and Milan to Troopz’ “Wenga get the fuck out, blud”, an average weekend will bring out the full palette. Six months into his tenure as the manager of Manchester United, David Moyes looked up to the sky and saw a plane flying with the banner “Moyes Out”. The psychology rule-book clearly terms this as normal behaviour. When someone is so vested in you, extreme reactions are only at a stone’s throw.

And that is exactly where St. Pauli’s story is most fascinating. The football is peripheral. For the most part, it doesn’t matter who the club are playing and what can be the repercussions of a good or bad result. Like the mind of a punk musician, life at the Millerntor is never dull; it’s a party on most days and a centre for social change on others.

Like every club today, the demands of modern football made FC St. Pauli tread along the path of commercialisation. Things peaked when corporate boxes were made, a big-screen showing messages to the club was installed and a contract for entertainment at the business suites was given to Susi’s Show Bar, famous for escort services. The club ultras protested endlessly until action was taken on all of them. The entertainment contract was cancelled in a two years and the screen was removed. It didn’t matter if the club or the stadium failed to live up to Bundesliga standards, it was important that the club virtues were upheld and the Millerntor continue to be a place where people of all ages can come and have a good time, and the fans ensured this got done.

Once a source of financial influx is acquired, it doesn’t take a lot for a club to be commercially successful and state-of-the-art. Cushioned seats and swanky executive boxes go a long way in getting more bums on seats and hence, larger revenue streams. Yet, very few clubs seem to have the fabric to transcend the financials and reclaim what was an old-fashioned reason to watch and play football. For long, watching football was like attending a gig; just a fun thing to do with your mates on a Sunday; stadiums, like arenas, were places where communities came together. In the terraces of one Millerntor stadium in Hamburg, it’s a gig every weekend.

Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.