Swedish neo-Nazis: Moves to de-radicalise amid far-right rise

By Stuart Hughes
BBC News, Stockholm

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image captionSwedish extremists attacked an anti-Nazi protest in Stockholm last December

Sweden's normally sedate political system was thrown into turmoil this month when the Sweden Democrats - a populist party with a stridently anti-immigration agenda - brought down the minority coalition after it had been in power for just two-and-a-half months, by refusing to support its budget plans.

Now the third largest party in Sweden's parliament, it has moved away from its roots in the extreme-right scene to become a more mainstream, though highly controversial, political force. New elections are due in March.

But Sweden is still home to an active and at times violent neo-Nazi movement, and there are fears that rising popularity of the Sweden Democrats will also benefit the extremists.

Nazi techniques

Johan - he asked not to use his real name - was drawn towards the far right as a teenager growing up in a middle-class Stockholm family.

His friends split into two groups. One faction began experimenting with drugs. The other became skinheads.

image captionJohan spent time in jail after he joined the neo-Nazi Swedish Resistance Movement as a teenager

It led him to become a member of one of Europe's most notorious and violent neo-Nazi organisations, the Swedish Resistance Movement.

"I was just angry. I was carrying a lot of anger around," Johan says.

"I couldn't get my head around school, so fighting seemed attractive to me. That's what got me into the movement. That's what I enjoyed."

Johan admits some of the group's beliefs made him uneasy, especially when members began practising techniques used in Nazi Germany.

"They started measuring skulls and I felt it was too much," he says. "They measured the heads of people to decide who was Aryan and who wasn't."

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The Swedish Resistance Movement regards its political enemies as fair game.

Johan says he was encouraged to carry a weapon on the streets.

After pulling a gun during a fight he was arrested and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

In the 1990s, Sweden established itself as Europe's centre for racist and anti-Semitic music and propaganda.

In response, a pioneering project, Exit Sweden, was established to support those looking for a way out of the movement. It took its inspiration from a de-radicalisation model developed in Norway.

"The far-right movement is very good at channelling difficult emotions - hatred, shame, being afraid - by making it into aggression," Exit Sweden's director Robert Orell, told me.

"What we try to do is to look at what is happening within you, why do these different situations or thoughts or events trigger aggression - and what could you do instead?"

In the suburb of Karrtorp, a few subway stops south of central Stockholm, I met Daniel Poohl, editor-in-chief of investigative magazine Expo.

Karrtorp was the scene of violent clashes in December 2013 between members of the Swedish Resistance Movement and protesters who were demonstrating against the appearance of racist graffiti and propaganda in the neighbourhood.

image captionEditor Daniel Poohl fears the imminent election campaign will lead to an increase in racist debate

Daniel Poohl fears the rise of the Sweden Democrats could make it easier for extremist ideologies to thrive.

"I'm worried because the far right has more self confidence than in all the years I've been trying to explain them," he says.

"We have a coming election which I fear will be the most nasty election ever when it comes to how people in this society are described, where racist ideas will pop up at workplaces, at parties, as something you suddenly can say and it's OK.

"That scares me."

Exit Sweden encourages its clients to engage in new interests such as sport and music to replace the adrenaline rush they once gained from street fighting.

But the Exit model has its critics.

image captionExit Sweden, based in Stockholm, took its inspiration from a Norwegian de-radicalisation model

Liz Fekete from the Institute of Race Relations in London believes its non-judgmental approach allows individuals to skirt around past actions without having to take full responsibility for them.

"The ethos is not to look at the neo-Nazis' ideology, it tends to look at their grievances," she says.

"They come saying they're frightened to leave the scene, there are all these problems that they've had in their social background. So there is a sense that they are the victims and in that context there's not a focus on what they have done."

Johan says he does not dwell on the years he spent as a member of the Swedish Resistance Movement now that he has broken away with Exit's help.

He says he no longer needs the black-and-white certainties that the White Power movement gave him. Like the swastika tattoo on his wrist that has almost disappeared after painful laser treatment, those too have faded.

But the direction that this country, which prides itself on tolerance, will take after the election next March is far less certain.

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