The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Berlin soccer club joined the ‘take a knee’ movement. Now, it’s facing harsh criticism in Germany.

Players of Berlin kneel down Saturday before the German Bundesliga soccer match between Hertha BSC Berlin and FC Schalke 04 in Berlin. (Annegret Hilse/DPA via AP)

BERLIN — It's rare for a German soccer club to make headlines in the United States, especially in politics sections, but Berlin's Hertha BSC provoked strong reactions over the weekend when it joined the American “take a knee” movement.

Before a Bundesliga soccer game, Hertha Berlin’s players and coaches knelt in support of “tolerance and responsibility.” It's believed to be the first time that European athletes joined the protests of some National Football League players, which have drawn criticism from President Trump and others.

After Hertha BSC's match Saturday, reactions came in from across the world. Civil rights activists and other players praised the support, both publicly and in private conversations with the club's owners. In Germany, however, the echo against the anti-Trump move was more mixed, even though public confidence in the U.S. president here is extremely low.

After Saturday's match, the editor in chief of Germany's most-read conservative tabloid newspaper, Bild, accused the club of a “stupid and inappropriate” protest and also voiced criticism of American NFL players participating in the movement.

The criticism expressed by other journalists and on social media was probably not supposed to play down the existence of racism or xenophobia in Germany, where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party gained nearly 13 percent of the votes in general elections last month.

But German critics of the club argue that the “take a knee” movement gained traction over issues that are specific to the United States and have few or no connections to German politics or sports. Echoing that argument, Southern Germany's center-left-leaning Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper commented that the club's initiative was “self-righteous, vain, narcissistic.”

“The Berlin soccer club has appropriated a symbolism it doesn't own,” Germany's leading center-left paper said. “Of course, American athletes have no copyright on kneeling but there is an imaginary cultural boundary.”

Hertha BSC representative Paul Keuter rejected those accusations Tuesday, saying no player was forced to join and that they had volunteered to participate.

“I don't think sports clubs should refrain from discussing politics. We have a responsibility to do so, even though not everyone in Germany appears to agree,” Keuter, a member of the club's executive board, told The Washington Post on Tuesday.

“The impact in the stadium was immense. There were people with tears in their eyes,” said Keuter, who vowed to remain committed to similar pro-tolerance initiatives in the future.

Keuter reacted strongly to criticism that the club had joined the U.S. movement for the publicity, and not to protest racism or intolerance.

“We've opposed intolerance in many ways in the past, for example by raising a rainbow flag or by releasing a video against racism. The criticism we're now facing is a farce,” he said.

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