BOOKS

‘Aryan poster boy’ no more

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 18 1996
BOOKS

‘Aryan poster boy’ no more

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 18 1996

‘Aryan poster boy’ no more

BOOKS

Autobiography can be many things: history, confession, exposé. FührerEx, the first inside account of the modern German neo-Nazi move-

ment, is all of those. Ingo Hasselbach, selfdescribed former “Aryan poster boy,” tells how he was sucked into the violent, paranoid world of latter-day Nazism—and then defected to tell the world about it. Growing up fatherless and alienated in the old East Berlin, he found refuge in the tiny skinhead

movement that resurrected the symbols and ideology of Nazism as a way of protesting the Communist system. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he became head of a far-right group called the National Alternative and a leading figure in the neo-Nazi movement that was the dark side of Germany’s reunification. In 1993, he quit—disgusted with himself and what he had come to stand for. Fiihrer-Ex (Random House, 388 pages,

$35.50) is the only first-person account from someone intimately involved in the modern German extreme right, and for that alone it would be well worthwhile.

But autobiography can also be therapy, and in many ways that is the level on which Hasselbach’s book is most compelling. He and his co-author, American journalist Tom Reiss, found themselves in an intense partnership that allowed both men to deal with some of their deepest

obsessions. For Hasselbach—a 28-year-old, six-foot, six-inch, stereotypically blond German—Reiss was one of the first Jews he had known well, despite his fixation with anti-Semitic thinking and rhetoric. For Reiss—a short, dark 31-year-old whose grandparents died in the Holocaust and who has had a lifelong fascination with Nazism—Hasselbach was his worst nightmare made flesh and blood. Reiss sought out Hasselbach, won his confidence, and eventually spent a month with him in a remote cabin in Sweden taking down his story. Collaborating on Fiihrer-Ex forced both men to confront their nightmares, and allowed them to help exorcise each other’s demons. “Here’s my enemy, but we’re both obsessed by the same thing,” Reiss reflected recently on his relationship with Hasselbach. “In a sense, we’re obsessed by each other.”

For a time after the East German system crumbled, Hasselbach was one of the leading symbols of everything that was going wrong in Germany. Between 1990 and about 1993, neo-Nazis recruited thousands of disaffected young people and channelled their frustrations against easy targets like foreigners and refugees. Many were beaten up; some died when young punks set refugee shelters on fire. Hasselbach, by his own account, was in the thick of the violence, and

the portrait he paints of himself is not pretty. Describing an encounter with an anarchist who ran afoul of him and another Nazi, he writes: “As he lay on the ground, Frank and I kicked him in the neck, in the stomach, in the face, in the skull... I was thinking, as I kicked, sure his bones are breaking beneath my feet, I want them to—he provoked us, he aches for this pain, he earned it.” But even while confessing that, Hasselbach insists that he was not the worst of the worst. Fighting, he writes, “never came naturally to me, which is probably why, unlike some of my Kamerads, I never killed anyone.” Hasselbach became something of a media star in the early ’90s, as the world tried to figure out why young Germans were turning again to the swastika. I met him in November, 1992, while preparing a report for Maclean’s on the rise of the radical right.

He showed off portraits of Hitler and Göbbels in his seedy apartment in East Berlin and trotted out his well-rehearsed line of white pride and xenophobia. Even then, though, he seemed more reflective—more human— than other leading neo-Nazis. He sat for hours in his neighborhood pub and spoke intelligently about his personal background (his father, who never married his mother, was a prominent broadcaster), and how the Communist system continued the authoritari-

an traditions that nourished the extreme right. His book makes it clear that at that time he was already having doubts about his cause—doubts that increased dramatically a few weeks later when three people were burned to death during an attack on a refugee hostel. He finally quit in January, 1993, and made it official two months later by publicly renouncing Nazism in a film made for German TV.

Since then, he has been targeted for assassination by his former comrades, who went so far as to send a bomb concealed in a book to his mother. It did not go off—but it did convince Hasselbach to put aside any lingering feelings of loyalty to his onetime friends and take his information to the German intelligence agency that monitors radical groups. Partly as a result of his testimony, several neo-Nazi leaders have been jailed, and other trials are pending. The threats continue: at a recent book fair

in Sweden, he told Maclean’s, security officials insisted that he stay instead on a police boat for his own safety. “I got more death threats than Salman Rushdie,” he joked.

As a result, he lives an underground life, splitting his time between the United States, France and Germany—where he must be particularly careful. His ambition, he says, is to become a film-maker; he is working with Winfried Bonengel, a German director who made a film about Hasselbach’s life as a neoNazi and then helped him to leave the movement. He has a new book coming out in German, titled The Threat, on the continuing menace of the radical right. After that, he insists, “I just want to close this chapter of my life.” His old friends, now his enemies, are not likely to let him do that without a fight.

ANDREW PHILLIPS