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“I felt like such a little boy,” he said. “Before I joined,” says Robert, “I felt like a nobody, I felt like a loser, I felt, like, worthless. Their world offered me a world where I was better—just because I was white.”
In Michael Kimmel’s new book, Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into—and Out of—Violent Extremism, Kimmel shares stories from members of EXIT, a Swedish non-profit organization committed to helping those wanting to leave nationalistic, neo-Nazi, or racist-oriented groups. EXIT members are“formers”—those who were once part of these groups. Kimmel writes:
Many of the Swedish guys I interviewed told me similar stories of drifting into the movement. They’d been primed for it by early childhood problems—being bullied in school, neglected at home, or even physically abused by their fathers. Loners by temperament or isolated and lonely, they’d drift to the margins and start hanging out with other disaffected youth. Neo-Nazi recruiters would often find them and bring them to parties where there would be loud music, lots of beer, and girls.
The cultural aspects of White Power helped many of these young Swedish boys to feel like men, asserting what is accepted to be masculine-type traits:
For Pelle, it was a “pure power trip.” “I really wanted to fight,” he told me, “and the best way to start a fight is to say ‘Sieg Heil.’ I wanted to fight, to release all that anger and hatred. I think it was a good way for me to rebel against my father; he is a legitimate politician, and the worst thing a legitimate politician’s son could be is a Nazi.” In the end, Pelle said, “I held the opinions to get the more personal feelings I wanted.”
The cultural practices of White Power culture were also masculinizing. White Power music was both “visceral and emotional,” says Robert. Drinking also made participants feel like real men. Each of the guys I interviewed described drinking between twenty and thirty beers in an evening, listening to White Power music, or watching certain videos (Romper Stomper or A Clockwork Orange) to get themselves ready to go out and look for fights. “By the time we’d downed twenty beers and watched the movies, we’d be banging into each other, butting our heads together, and screaming,” recalls Pelle. Magnus recounts what a typical evening would be like: “Mostly we hanged at our leaders’ apartment. Then drink, and drink some more, and we’d go out on the town and did whatever we felt like that evening. . . . The first years it never was about any politics. Mostly acting like we were dangerous, smashing windows on pizza parlors, nice cars, or shops owned by immigrants.” But gradually, older members eased them into increasingly political activities: “When we became part of the Riksfronten,” Magnus continues, referring to the National Front, “it became more political, and we were able to go to con-certs and happenings and meetings with other NS activists from all over the country. At the same time, we became more and more criminal and finally we got busted and some of us were sentenced as minors.”
But hatred and anger leads to burn out:
The most common reason for leaving is, as formers described it, getting “burned out.” The life is demanding—drinking and fighting, constant arrests, constant violence—and requires such a steady supply of rage that eventually it begins to dissipate. “Am I going to be doing this when I’m forty?” Robert asked himself one day. Casper said it all became “too much.” He had found a girlfriend and she wasn’t in the scene. When a photograph of him appeared in a local paper as a “key member” of the neo-Nazi group, his girlfriend called EXIT. Pelle described a sort of economy of emotions. “I used anger to express every emotion. If you’re disappointed, get angry. If you’re sad, get angry. If you’re frustrated, get angry. Eventually, I got tired of only expressing anger. I didn’t run out of anger, exactly. I just got interested in other feelings . . . It’s a lot easier to shout at someone than it is to cry,” he concluded.
Hear Michael Kimmel on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday with Korva Coleman on what drives men to violent extremism. And see what others are saying about the book.