In November, Martin Karlsson sent an email to Swedish broadcaster and writer Alexandra Pascalidou. During his 13 years as a neo-Nazi in the Nordic Resistance Movement, he had hated her and threatened her. Now he wanted to tell her he was sorry.
From: Martin Karlsson
Subject: Want to apologize
The reason I am writing to you today is because I want to ask forgiveness. Forgiveness for all the hate I directed at you among others over many years. The fact is, I used to be a member of the Nordic Resistance Movement but took my last step away from that organization at the beginning of 2016.
I did this because I no longer support the views and values being spread by the NMR. Today I am incredibly happy at last to be away from all the hate, but at the same time feel incredibly deep guilt for all that has been said and done over the years in the anti-Semitic world.
I phoned Martin immediately. I think that in these polarized times bridges are needed. That those who have started on a journey back to a more nuanced and empathetic attitude need support and encouragement. They need to understand that they are welcome back.
It turns out that he lives in Varnamo, nearly four hours south of Stockholm by car. I suggest we meet for a coffee. A friend of mine who knows that I have been living with threats for decades without protection warns me: "You're so gullible. It could be a trap. You don't just suddenly start loving everyone you hated overnight."
But I'm not afraid of people. I'm afraid of hatred. And what it does to people.
Rendezvous with a former neo-Nazi
A few phone calls later and I'm sitting in a car with photographer Eva Tedesjo on our way to Varnamo. Hours later, in a deserted hotel lobby, I meet one of the people who has sown fear in my life and that of my family.
Martin had been an active neo-Nazi since he was 16. He dropped out in 2016. Now he is 30.
We start with what we have in common: Now he, too, is threatened by Nazis.
"The last time I was threatened was yesterday; one of the leaders of NMR wrote on Facebook that I should die. Another has said that I should have my throat cut," he said. "I save everything. One day I may go to the police and then I'll have it in black and white. My neighbors keep an eye out. The other day they saw a skinhead outside the house who was taking photos of the cars, probably to check if any of them were registered to me."
'Adults just tut-tutted'
How did you start your journey into National Socialism?
I grew up in a family of Jehovah's Witnesses. It was a very closed existence and my father was very controlling. When I told him at the age of 16 that I wanted to leave the Jehovah's Witnesses, he took out a suitcase and ordered me to pack my things and get out. So I ended up in a foster home.
It was a great contrast — from total control to no control at all. I started to hang out with friends who were neo-Nazis. I met them at school.
What did the teachers do?
There was a lot of racist talk in the hallways. The teachers would look and shake their heads. No adults reacted to me reading odd books, wearing combat boots or having a swastika on my breast pocket. No one — no teacher, social worker, guidance officer — said a word. We drove hot rods and shouted "bloody n****r" and "go home, you bloody garbage" at immigrants. We shouted "Zionist c***s" and "Jewish pigs" at people, and the adults just sighed and walked away.
Did racism already exist in your family?
No, that was so taboo that racist views were a rebellion against my family — even if there was an element of "us against everyone else" in the Jehovah's Witnesses.
What was the attraction of neo-Nazism?
To start with, I was just a racist. Then the radicalization started, which went on for six, seven years. I hung around at the NSF [National Socialist Front]. They used us youngsters without police records as errand boys. We did the dirty work they didn't want to do: putting up posters; throwing stones through windows; sending threatening letters; filling envelopes with laundry soap and sending them to people.
The new words came with radicalization, such as "Zionism." Then I became more hostile to Jews and other races. Everything was the fault of the Jews. If a storm were to blow in here now, I would have said it was the Jews' fault. Cancer was the creation of Zionists. Drug abuse had been brought by the Jews. Communists and Jews went hand in hand.
What sort of activities did you engage in as part of the "movement?"
We had lectures about the "true history" of the Second World War. We rented farms under false names and practiced fighting out in the woods. We learned to kill with knives and fists, going for the throat, for the kidneys. I carried a knife constantly for two and a half years and was never stopped by the police.
We ate only Swedish food, never foreign food. Once I happened to eat a pizza and had such a bad conscience that I was afraid they would find out and kill me. The first thing I did after I dropped out was to have a pizza and Coca-Cola.
We destroyed other people's property. We threatened people who disagreed with us through their children. You get to them on a deeper level like that. We destroyed the children's bicycles. We showed that we knew which nursery schools their children went to. We followed them to the nursery school and took pictures of the children to send home [to the parents].
I remember one beating when I was 17. It was a 16-year-old boy who behaved like he was gay. We knew he found a particular guy attractive. So that guy pretended to ask him out. We lured him out to the woods and beat him up. There were six or seven of us. I'm astonished that he's still alive today.
And of course we threatened immigrants.
What kind of things did you read?
I read "Mein Kampf" from cover to cover several times. I read the early, forbidden version that a relative whose father had been a Nazi in Sweden in the 1930s gave me.
We romanticized Hitler. He was the scapegoat who was blamed for the war crimes. We said that it was Russian communists who had had concentration camps, that there were no six million Jews at that time [a trope employed by Holocaust deniers — Editor's note]. Hitler was my idol – and Joseph Goebbels, Rudolf Hess, Josef Mengele.
We were only allowed to read news from the National Socialist press. Other news was just Jewish propaganda.
Martin went on to tell me that Jews are at the top of the neo-Nazis' list of enemies. He said they believe that "the Jews created the Muslims" and that "the Jews are behind the terrorist attacks." They called the police "Zionist slaves."
What do you think when you look back on these conspiracy theories?
I can't understand how I could have been so stupid.
Neo-Nazis have murdered numerous people in Sweden. Was that something you talked about?
They were traitors. And traitors deserved to die. Now that I have left the organization, I will be considered a traitor. But I've done so much harm in my life that I feel this is my penance.
And me? Who was I in your eyes?
Year in and year out, you fought openly for the equal value of all people. You openly criticized neo-Nazism and racism. That made you into the face of Zionism in Sweden. You were the scum of the earth. Sorry. I am terribly sorry for that now.
What did you say about me?
"You should die."
What did you do [to harm me]?
In my active years I commented a lot on public forums, such as Facebook and Twitter, under several different pseudonyms. I also wrote comments on Nordfront [the NRM website] when they wrote about you. It could be things like "Die, you damned Zionist slave," "We'll get you when you least expect it," "Avoid dark alleys," "I'll visit you this evening and take my axe." I was exclusively occupied with internet hate, as by then my fingerprints were in the police register.
What did you want to achieve?
Silence. That you would be so frightened that you would disappear. But you never were.
I was afraid at times.
What made you ask me for forgiveness?
My neo-Nazism was like alcohol abuse. A former alcoholic gave me the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. One of the steps is to ask forgiveness of those you have hurt. You are not the only one I have emailed.
What did you think when I phoned you?
"Wow. I was astonished. I never thought you'd do that. I didn't think my apology would mean that much.
It means a lot to me. I sit here and can hardly breathe.
Lost without boundaries
What made you finally leave neo-Nazism?
I fell for a woman of foreign origin and started to see her in secret. I was completely confused and wondered what was wrong with me. We were very fond of each other. But I said later that it wouldn't work because I would be exposing her to risks.
Who was the first person you got in touch with when you decided to leave neo-Nazism?
Lennart, my old bowling teacher. I call him Dad. I had nowhere to go.
Have you received any other help?
I phoned the local authorities. They said they had no plan for drop-outs. They didn't care a bit. So I emailed AFA [Anti-Fascist Action] and said that there was no help to be had in this shitty place. They offered to let me speak to another dropout. Then I rang the mental health service and got to meet a psychologist.
They were the only ones who called me an idiot. Consistently. No one had ever set a boundary for me or tried to stop me. People are so damned afraid to say that it is wrong of you to be a neo-Nazi. If anyone had said "For God's sake, Martin," when I was 16, I don't think I would have been radicalized.
Why are you going public now with the story in your own name? You still have the chance to be anonymous in this interview.
I want to be open. If I don't do it, who will?
Are you not afraid of the neo-Nazis?
What more are they going to do? They've ruined my life. I've lost my partner and my daughter, to whom I have poor contact. They could kill me and then it will be over.
'Easier to hate than to love'
How has your life changed?
When I left neo-Nazism I found myself without sympathy for anyone at all. I was extremely distant and unfeeling. Today my friends describe me as considerate and loving. My mission has been to do things that I didn't do before, like talking to immigrants properly.
I still sometimes get into situations where I notice that the hate has not disappeared. It's so much easier to hate than to love. But I have more friends, a richer life, and for the first time I feel free. At the same time, I carry a great feeling of guilt in my stomach for all the shitty things I've done. The violence. Everyone I have harmed through the years. I can't understand how anyone can like a person like me.
You are so brave to dare to speak out, to email me, to ask for forgiveness.
But it is far more impressive that you are actually giving me the opportunity. That requires more. It is more difficult to forgive than to ask for forgiveness.
I forgave you the moment I received your email. To forgive is to free yourself.
Alexandra Pascalidou is a Swedish writer, journalist and broadcaster. She was born to Greek parents in Bucharest, Romania, and brought up in Rinkeby, a Stockholm suburb known for its high concentration of immigrants and Swedes of foreign descent. She has received numerous awards for her work toward creating a society that rejects racism and hate.
The neo-Nazi group Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR) was founded in 1997 under the name Swedish Resistance Movement (SMR). The group collaborates closely with neo-Nazis in neighboring Nordic countries as well as in Russia. NMR is the most violent neo-Nazi organization in Sweden, according to the Expo Foundation, which studies right-wing extremism and racism. NMR has an autocratic leader. Members must follow strict codes of conduct on everyday matters, such as driving or weight training. NMR's ideology is based on the myth of a Jewish world conspiracy as well as "scientific" racism.
This article — in longer form — was first published in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.