Monday, September 3, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“FUHRER-EX: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi” by Ingo Hasselbach (with Tom Reiss) (first published 1996)

            I have just read and considered one confessional book by a man who searched his conscience, left a violent extremist organization, and chose to publicly recant – Maajid Nawaz’s Radical – My Journey From Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening.

            It put me in mind of another recanting book I reviewed on first publication, although the extremist organization to which the young German Ingo Hasselbach belonged will strike most readers as even more repellent than radical Islamism. Hasselbach was a neo-Nazi skinhead, the German equivalent of the racist yobs who chased young Maajid Nawaz around Southend.

            In a way, it’s easy enough to see why Ingo Hasselbach became a neo-Nazi in the first place. He was born in 1967 and raised in the old Communist East Germany, aptly described as “a jail with 16 million inmates”. His parents were convinced Communists who neglected the boy and left him largely in the care of his grandparents. Daubing swastikas on public buildings at night was the ultimate form of rebellion for those disaffected working-class East German teenagers with whom Hasselbach mingled. A way of taunting one totalitarian regime with the symbols of another. East German authorities convicted teenaged Hasselbach a number of times for “rowdyism”.

            It’s even easy enough to see why Hasselbach remained a neo-Nazi after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when he was 22. Over in the West, among his fellow unemployed, there were plenty of street-brawling punks ready to boost his ego by hailing him as their natural Fuhrer. The best part of two metres tell and fair-haired, Hasselbach looked the perfect Aryan “blond beast”. After years of deprivation, “Ossis” (Germans from the economically-depressed Eastern part of what was now a united Germany) were angrier than other German youths and primed to take out their anger on somebody.

            What is less easy to understand is why Hasselbach stayed on the neo-Nazi skinhead scene for so long.

            Fuhrer-Ex is the English-language re-write of the original German-language version of Hasselbach’s autobiography, which was entitled Die Abrechnung: Ein Neonazi steigt aus and was written in 1993 with the help of the journalist Winfried Bonengel. Fuhrer-Ex was put together with the help of an American co-writer Tom Reiss. Through the incongruous American idioms which were presumably devised by Reiss, Hasselbach emerges as an intelligent and remorseful young man, properly repentant that he ever spread hate literature, fire-bombed hostels of Turkish Gastarbeiter, and indoctrinated gullible working-class youngsters into the skinhead movement.

            The mechanism of his conversion to sanity is rather murky, however, and comes fairly late in the book. Why did he suddenly lose his taste for kicking in heads with his paratrooper boots?

            It’s the suddenness of his change that is disconcerting in reading this book, although Hasselbach’s sincerity is not in doubt. At the age of 25 he turned himself in to police, voluntarily incriminated himself by giving details on his violent activities, and was handed a two-year suspended sentence. He also gave details that dobbed in other skinheads, so he became a marked man among his violent former Waffenbruder. He joined the EXIT organization designed to encourage others to leave off being skinheads, and went from one anti-racist speaking engagement to another, sometimes with police protection.

            Much of Fuhrer-Ex is necessarily grim and unpleasant reading, but with some interesting insights along the way. As in the original Stormtroopers there was a strong homo-erotic element in neo-Nazi skinhead outfits even if they professed to hate homosexuals. Clearly, too, the anarchist gangs they rumbled with were exactly the same sort of  kids as they were themselves – unemployed, hating authority and spoiling for a fight. Often enough, ideologies were mere veneers.

            They were few in number. When Hasselbach’s old gang summoned right-wing punks and skinheads on a highly publicised visit to Rudolf Hess’s grave, they could scrape together barely 2000 supporters from all of Germany and Austria.

            Do books like Fuhrer-Ex serve as timely exposes? Or do they magnify a small local problem? That’s a really hard call – especially as Hasselbach’s book sometimes conveys the visceral thrill of being a complete thug.

            There is something about violence that can’t be exorcised, even by a well-intentioned recanting.

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