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Extremism: a global network


I HAPPENED to arrive in the United States from Germany for the first time two days before the bombing in Oklahoma City.

Watching the coverage on television, I was surprised to see the way the media handled possible ties between extremist groups such as the Michigan Militia and the man charged with the bombing, Timothy McVeigh.

The experts being interviewed and the commentators seem to present at face value the group's contention that, since it was not directly tied to the event, it does not bear any responsibility.

As the founder of such a group in Europe, the former East Germany's first neo-Nazi political party, I was the main contact with several American far-right organizations and one of the main distributors of their propaganda.

Before I got out of the movement two years ago I organized teach-ins, ran paramilitary camps and indoctrinated young people at marches and meetings.

In my opinion, the leaders of the Michigan Militia and other such groups cannot dodge a larger moral responsibility, whether or not they are legally to blame.

The fact remains that, whether or not Timothy McVeigh or the Michigan Militia turn out to have anything to do with this tragedy, extremist groups in America and in Europe create a climate, through printed propaganda and computer networks, that encourages young people who might be anti-social to go over the edge and commit violent acts.

I began developing right-wing extremist ideas in 1987, when I was 19 years old and sitting in an East German prison for shouting "the Wall must fall!" in a public place.

When I got out I began working secretly with a small militant group opposed to the Communist government.

After the government fell, other leaders and I immediately made contact with a flourishing international network of neo-Nazis and racist movements and began building up caches of weapons and starting paramilitary camps.

Like the extremists in Michigan, the common attitude we shared was a hatred for the government, especially federal government agents, a belief that our freedoms and traditions as white men -- or, as we said, Aryans -- were being infringed by a multicultural society, and a general anti-Semitism that held that the Jews ran a conspiracy that emanated from New York and Washington.

While most of these ideas could have come from European anti-Semitic tracts from before World War II, they didn't.

Virtually all of our propaganda and training manuals came from right-wing extremist groups in Nebraska and California. Such materials are legal to print in the United States under the First Amendment. In Germany they are not, under the constitution passed after the Third Reich fell.

We also received illegal materials from our friends in Nebraska -- the world headquarters of the NSDAP-AO, the successor of the original National Socialist German Workers Party, or Nazi Party -- such as a U.S. Army training manual called "Explosives and Demolitions," which has since been copied and circulated (still with the top-secret stamp across the title page) to thousands of right-wing extremists all over Europe.

A computer program we received from Nebraska, "A Movement in Arms," described how to build bombs and wage a war of right-wing terrorism against a democratic government.

I don't know if whoever blew up the office building in Oklahoma read the Army manual. If they didn't, I'm sure we had some other reading material in common.

The right-wing extremist movement is a loose network of people with a great deal of hatred and potential for violence, and all over the world they are constantly exchanging information.

Of course lots of people in the movement may have been horrified by the sight of burned children in the Oklahoma bombing, but my experience as a neo-Nazi taught me that enough militant ideology and conspiracy thinking can destroy even the most basic human sympathy.

I began the slow and difficult process of getting out of the movement after the fatal firebombing in 1992 of a Turkish family in the city of Molln by two young men in the middle of the night. It killed two young girls and one of the girls' grandmother.

My group had had nothing to do with the attack, but for the first time the deadly potential of our rhetoric was driven home to me.

The police investigation showed that the perpetrators had connections with and had received propaganda from a group such as mine in Hamburg, as well as an American neo-Nazi group. Yet in prosecuting the case the authorities viewed these connections as secondary and treated the bombing as a case of isolated, if deadly, juvenile delinquency.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl officially condemned the extremist right after the incident, but he kept his statements perfunctory. Much as seems to be the case in this country, the far right, for all their anti-social behavior, also support some issues which appeal to mainstream right-of-center politicians and a broad segment of the population.

Just as American extremist groups are doing today after the Oklahoma bombing, German far-right leaders distanced themselves from the attack, without exactly condemning it, saying things such as, "If the government lets in so many foreigners, things like this are bound to happen, unfortunate as that may be."

I detected an echo of this kind of thinking over the weekend, when Tom Metzger of the White Aryan Resistance told the New York Times "it's regrettable" that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms "would have a day-care center in the same building."

In 1980 a young man named Gundolf Kohler walked into an Oktoberfest beer garden in Munich with a bomb that killed a dozen people and injured more than 200. He was a member of the Hoffmann Militia, a German version of the survivalist militias in the United States, whose main obsessions were weapons, military prepared ness for the defense of "rights" and an anti-Semitic conspiratorial world view.

Like many groups in the United States, the Hoffmann Militia offered its members an intense paranoid ideology and lots of weapons practice.

The target of the 1980 bombing was simply random Germans visiting the Oktoberfest. The Hoffmann Militia claimed that the bomber, killed in the blast, had been emotionally disturbed and had been kicked out of the group long before the incident occurred.

I never personally built a bomb or set fire to anyone's house. I justified my role in the movement much as the leaders of the Michigan Militia or any of these other militant groups do.

I was trying to "defend" my society against rampant crime, too many foreigners coming into the country, racial and cultural "alienation" and control by a world conspiracy.

I only organized paramilitary camps and taught guerrilla warfare to prepare Germans to defend themselves and the cultural traditions of northern Europeans. I know the arguments well.

I also know now that during all that time I was deceiving myself. Morally, I was a bomb-thrower and just as responsible as anyone who planted a fuse or drove a truck with explosives in it -- because my messages of hatred against society influenced who knows how many potentially violent young men.

The first step for me in rejoining the civilized world was in realizing that.

Ingo Hasselbach, a frequent lecturer on right-wing extremism in Germany, wrote this for the New York Times.

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