- Associated Press - Monday, February 25, 2013

BERLIN (AP) - Facing a surge of right-wing extremism among fans, the soccer club Borussia Dortmund has long used social workers at games to defuse tense situations and help promote tolerance.

This month, however, the social workers were attacked by a group of neo-Nazi fans. One of them was beaten badly in a stadium bathroom.

It was one of many recent episodes underlining how Germany _ and Dortmund in particular _ is still dealing with grim reminders of its dark days of racism, intolerance and violence.

Far-right extremists in the west German city of 600,000 have infiltrated some of Borussia Dortmund’s rabid fan groups. They are recruiting sympathizers, leading to more thuggery and violence.

Dortmund, in the heartland of the industrial Ruhr area, is a magnet for immigrants from all over the world. It also serves as a focal point for neo-Nazis in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. In no other German state are more right-wing offenses recorded.

Media reports suggest about 100 neo-Nazis regularly attend games among 24,500 fans on the south terrace, Europe’s largest standing-only section, in Dortmund’s Westfalen Stadium.

“We believe there are a few right-wing extremists,” the club said in a statement. “The authorities say they have not noticed a significant increase in their numbers in recent years. However, there have been significant changes in the type of incidents.”

It may be a fringe group, but violence has increased dramatically.

Before Dortmund’s Champions League game at Shakhtar Donetsk on Feb. 13, fan representative Jens Volke was accosted and struck in the face when he approached three neo-Nazis who were chanting far-right slogans.

Two of the men then followed Dortmund Fan Project leader Thilo Danielsmeyer to the toilet. The door burst open, and as Danielsmeyer turned around, he was struck in the face. An accomplice kept watch while the beating continued. The assailant kept punching him, kicking him in the back, before trying repeatedly to bash his head against the wall.

The three hooligans have been identified by the club and banned from stadiums across Germany. Each faces charges of causing grievous bodily harm and verbal abuse.

“The actions were despicable and represent an absolute taboo,” Dortmund managing director Hans-Joachim Watzke said.

The club has pledged “zero tolerance” for right-wing extremism but faces an escalating struggle as neo-Nazis answer with displays of defiance and violent acts of reprisal.

Danielsmeyer was a logical target. The Dortmund Fan Project was founded in 1988 to combat xenophobia and racism, while promoting a message of tolerance and inclusion to troubled young men.

Lately, however, members have drifted from the group and become more receptive to far-right ideology _ and to violence.

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