Four former members of right wing extremist groups share their stories of how they overcame their hate-filled pasts and are now helping turn others’ lives around
Robert Örell: radicalised when barely a teenager, now a bridge from neo-Nazism back to Swedish society
Robert Örell (pictured) is director at Exit Sweden, an organisation helping people disengage from radical groups. After becoming involved in neo-Nazi groups when he was very young, Örell became disillusioned with the movement. He co-chairs the Exit working group of the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network
“I had a lot of trouble at school and was searching for something to explain why I had all these problems. The white power movement had a simple and easily digestible answer: it was due to our multicultural society. I had my first contact when I was 12 or 13 and I started engaging when I was 14. I directed all my rage there.
“Initially it was a lot about being a tough macho man: drinking and fighting a lot. But then I started to read more about the ideology, too. I began exercising lots, trying to become this elite kind of person we were always talking about. But the movement was full of broken souls who drank a lot and got into trouble.
Do we really want to exclude people because they’ve done wrong? Is it because they’re evil, or because of circumstances?
“I started to rethink who I wanted around me. Is this really the ‘Aryan elite’ that’s going to rule the country after the revolution? I think this comes to a lot of the extremist groups: they have utopian ideas but they are never called to reality-test their vision for society. What type of people will you have around? How will you organise society without all of the people you want to exclude?
“We started Exit Sweden in 1998. Because of my own experiences, I can identify with a lot of the stories I hear. I also know it’s possible to change. We call formers credible messengers – we are able to bridge the gap between neo-Nazi groups and society.
“Why should society help these people? It’s a relevant question. But who are we to decide that somebody is unchangeable or that they deserve to be completely excluded? I know just how powerful the process of radicalisation is. It’s a moral value to me: do we really want to exclude people from society because they’ve done wrong? Is it because they’re evil, or because of circumstances?
“Now, I want to put my experiences to good use. I get such satisfaction from seeing people leave these movements and build totally new, healthy lives.”
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Tony McAleer: the former white supremacist who realised the power of compassion
Tony McAleer used to be a skinhead recruiter and an organiser for the White Aryan Resistance. As well as committing acts of violence, he was found to have contravened the Canadian Human Rights Act by spreading messages of hate. But becoming a father in his 20s changed everything. He is executive director of US-based non-profit Life After Hate and also works as an inspirational speaker.
“When I was 10, I walked in on my dad with another woman. It was very confusing and made me incredibly angry. I went from being a straight-A student to getting Cs. My parents and teachers decided they would try to beat the grades into me.
“The bullying strategy I’d devised was ‘befriend the bully: become the bully’. And so I became friends with two guys I met at a punk concert and we started to build up the skinhead scene. Being able to walk down the street and generate fear was intoxicating.
“Someone asked me once: ‘Tony, how did you lose your humanity?’ But I didn’t lose it: I traded it for acceptance and approval until there was nothing left. Part of my great shame is not only the violence I did, but that I should have known better, having experienced powerlessness myself. Now I believe that the level to which we’re willing to dehumanise others is a mirror to how disconnected from our humanity we are inside.
The level to which we’re willing to dehumanise others is a mirror to how disconnected from our humanity we are inside
“At 23, I found myself in a delivery room, being handed a baby girl. She hadn’t yet opened her eyes and I knew that my face was the first picture her brain would ever take. Suddenly, I had to make decisions for someone else. Kids don’t see self-loathing; they see us for the magnificent human beings that we all are. I was able to open up my heart and allow it to thaw over time. Now, I carry healthy shame. I loathe the things that I did but I don’t loathe me.
“There was nothing available for me when I left: I stumbled through the wilderness and luckily found a way out. Now, I can help somebody who is a few steps back to be less lost. It’s about compassion and forgiveness but it’s important to have both with boundaries.
“The pain and the loneliness when you’re in the void, having left but not yet re-entered mainstream society, is huge. As Martin Luther King said: ‘Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.'”
Angela King: from violent skinhead to rehabilitating other Americans
Struggling for a sense of identity as a teenager growing up in Florida, a group of skinheads made Angela King feel welcome for the first time. After receiving a six-year prison sentence for her part in the armed robbery of a Jewish-owned shop, she went on to leave the movement and achieve a master’s degree. King is co-founder and deputy director of Life After Hate.
As a young person, I faced bullying, had low self-esteem and was socially awkward. A girl three times my size started a fight with me, ripping my shirt open in front of the entire class. From that point on, I felt that if I was the one doing the bullying, I could never be humiliated like that again. Neo-Nazi skinheads seemed the perfect fit because they were often angry and often violent, just like me. I’d been taught racism and homophobia as a child and felt that I had finally found the place where I belonged.
I felt that if I was the one doing the bullying, I could never be humiliated again
Sometimes women follow a romantic partner or relative into the movement. And then they are placed in conflicting roles: they’re expected to take on traditional women’s roles but also to be strong activists and willing to carry out violence. I’ve seen and, experienced, abuse and violence within these movements: domestic violence, sexual violence and emotional abuse.
When the Oklahoma City bombing happened, I realised it was done by someone with the same beliefs as me. I couldn’t see myself committing that level of violence, especially against children, so I made a decision at that time to leave the group and the lifestyle.
Stefan: after being part of violent clashes with far left, homosexual and immigrant groups, Stefan (not his real name) decided the neo-Nazi movement was ultimately devoid of meaning and left it behind
Grappling with complex social questions, Stefan found understanding and belonging in the Swedish far right movement. But it wasn’t to last. The non-judgmental ethos of Exit Sweden helped him to renounce his views, and turn his attention to contributing to society instead.
“I was active for nine years, from 2006 and 2015. At first, I was active in the movement but I wasn’t a member of an organisation. Later, I joined the group which was the largest of its kind in Sweden at the time: the National Socialist Front. I was quickly given more responsibility, and more of a role.
“I’ve always been someone who has thought a lot about societal issues. When I was at school, aged 16-18, there was a lot of interest in political alternatives. But I didn’t find anything in the mainstream parties that explained how we could build society in a new way: on a new foundation. So I searched outside of the mainstream.
“My ideas didn’t feel like they were ‘against’ other people – it wasn’t built primarily on hate – but more on preserving the idea of a Swedish social foundation. I wanted a strong society, and I think it’s a deep human response to be fearful about things – or people – that are ‘new’ or different.
“Violence was not the primary drive for me, but it was always present. We ‘legitimised’ it by the idea that we must be prepared in self defence. I was involved in about 25 confrontations within two years: stabbings and assaults. These were usually with extreme left wing groups but immigrant groups too and homosexuals: anyone that we considered a threat to ‘core family values’.
“I was busted for having a knife on me which is illegal in Sweden. But violence is what strengthens the group: it makes you feel tighter together, and then this sense of strength escalates into new fights.
I want people to be able to be part of society together: to find a sense of community, togetherness and belonging
“At first, my ideological commitment to the group was very strong. But in about 2013, I started to feel a shift. I realised that the race issue simply wasn’t as important as I had previously thought. I also started studying and while at university, came into contact with two elderly men. One was a political activist from Uruguay, and the other was from Somalia.
“As we got to know each other, I realised there were lots of similarities in what we identified in society as problems. I started to accept that if people are facing these similar problems in three very different parts of the world, this is probably more of a global challenge, not related to the previous explanation I had formed.
“By the time I got in touch with Exit Sweden, I had already left the movement. But I wanted to make a definite shift in order to disengage and reflect on what I’d done and been part of.
“There were no demands: it didn’t feel like attending Exit was a punishment. It felt open and non-judging. I was able to adjust at my own pace. I felt listened to, and that helped me to change. Talking openly about my experiences has helped me to make the shift.
“My personality had been very linked to the political ideological environment of the Nazi group. I learned that ‘this was good’ and ‘this was bad’. But now I’m open to thinking about things in new ways. I talked to my former history teacher about perhaps coming into the school to talk to his class about my experiences. I want to help people understand. I want people to be able to be part of society together: to find a sense of community, togetherness and belonging.”
Image: Exit Sweden
This article is featured in issue 89 of Positive News magazine. Subscribe to receive Positive News magazine delivered to your door, plus you’ll get access to exclusive member benefits.