Far-right combat sports: A dangerous training ground for violence

Far-right combat sports: A dangerous training ground for violence

Europe’s largest far-right combat sports event will be held online this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Kampf der Nibelungen” or “Battle of the Nibelungs,” a reference to old Germanic and Norse legends, is beloved by white supremacists from across Europe and beyond – who are both fans and fighters.

With German authorities keeping a close eye on them after banning their previous event in 2019, organisers are planning to stream their far-right fight-night of boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) online this Saturday.

Observers warn Al Jazeera that Europe’s far-right groups are using combat sports to recruit young men and train them for literal battle in the streets.

“They are violent neo-Nazis training for physical violence,” said Robert Claus, a German journalist and author of a new book on combat sports and the European far right.

The individuals behind Kampf der Nibelungen are violent and “dangerous”, he added.

There is “a very long list of racist attacks which comes out of the network of Kampf der Nibelungen”.

Moreover, Claus is concerned about the longer-term consequences if Kampf der Nibelungen goes ahead as planned.

“They’re showing a middle finger to German authorities,” he said. “If they manage to go ahead and broadcast this event in defiance of German authorities, it undermines the state’s monopoly on violence and the authority of the state.”

A representative for Kampf der Nibelungen told Al Jazeera that all of the fights, including those with a number of international participants, have already taken place and that they will be streamed on October 10.

Some of those who had announced several months ago that they would fight at this year’s Kampf der Nibelungen include members of the American Rise Above Movement (RAM), a group who currently has three members serving prison terms for violent assaults at the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – a now-famous event because of the killing of anti-racist counter-protester Heather Heyer.

Rundo and other members of RAM participated in one of Kampf der Nibelungen’s 2018 events.

RAM’s leader, Robert Rundo, refused to answer Al Jazeera’s emailed questions about whether RAM members would still take part in Kampf der Nibelungen, instead accusing this reporter of “collaborating with law enforcement” to “silence dissidents”.

However, there is a possibility the event will not go ahead as planned at all.

German authorities have begun casting an ever-closer eye on the activities of far-right sympathisers. In late September, police raided a motorcycle club about 160 kilometres (99 miles) southwest of Berlin. Inside they found a martial arts ring and about 90 participants and others, filming fights ahead of time which were to be broadcast on October 10.

Kampf der Nibelungen organisers told Al Jazeera that their show would go on.

Formerly organised in secret from its inception in 2013, by 2018 the event became much more open, taking place twice that year. According to German authorities, the last Kampf der Nibelungen event in October 2018 attracted 850 fighters and spectators from across Europe.

The 2019 event was banned by a local German court, aided by the backing of the country’s domestic intelligence agency, which considered the event to be a threat to public safety.

Despite this, Kampf der Nibelungen organisers told Al Jazeera that there is nothing “extreme” or illegal about their event, and said that they are appealing the 2019 ban to Germany’s highest court.

“We paid every tax, fulfilled every legal aspect and just demand the same rights [as] every German citizen,” a representative for Kampf der Nibelungen told Al Jazeera.

In July 2020, German interior minister Horst Seehofer identified right-wing hardline ideology as the biggest security threat in the country.

There has been a spate of extreme right-wing attacks recently in Germany, from the murder of pro-refugee politician Walter Luebcke in June 2019 to attacks in the cities of Halle in October 2019 and Hanau in February 2020 that killed a total of 11 people.

Far-right combat sports scenes eschew any links to far-right violence – Ukraine-based Russian neo-Nazi Denis Kapustin, a longtime organiser of far-right combat sports events, derided the Halle attack in a September 2020 interview as a “dead-end … the silliest thing to do.”

But the links of the scenes to violence is clear, according to Pavel Klymenko, head of policy at the FARE network, a global monitoring and human rights organisation.

“The far right is training and professionalising their violence,” said Klymenko, who monitors and researches discrimination and violence in football and related fan scenes. “They’re open about it and that they want to exercise it against minorities and their ideological opponents.”

It’s no surprise that the far right has involved itself in combat sports, says an expert in far-right ideology, Cynthia Miller-Idriss.

“It’s an environment to groom, to inculcate young men in far-right extremist ideology,” said Miller-Idriss, a professor at the American University and author of a 2017 book on far-right fashion and youth scenes in Germany.

“It’s an intersection of hyper-masculinity and ideas about being a warrior, being a fighter and defending the nation,” Miller-Idriss said. “It’s an intersection that’s ripe for recruitment.”

But tackling the problem of the far right and combat sports requires a much more coordinated, international approach, Claus told Al Jazeera.

“We need a pan-European strategy on discrimination and far-right violence,” Claus said.

He warned that without this, far-right combat sports events can avoid a ban in one country by just moving their events to another.

For Klymenko, mainstream combat sports venues need to be involved in efforts to stamp out the far right, including raising awareness and introducing regulations that would prevent them from being exploited for far-right recruitment.

Klymenko also argues that openly far-right venues and gyms that cater to those audiences need to be closed.

“Those need to be treated basically as criminal organisations,” said Klymenko.

Still, Kampf der Nibelungen organisers continue to strike a defiant tone. With social media posts in the past week with hashtags translating to “KdN remains stable” and “The press is lying” – and with organisers reminding their fans time to buy their tickets is running out – the show may yet go on.