The Hunter: Investigative journalist and author Martin Lee’s new book, The Beast Reawakens, spotlights the resurgence of fascist groups. Lee interviewed everyone from youthful skinheads to expatriate Nazis to paint a sobering portrait of the right-wing’s reign of terror.
Fascism reawakens: Sonoma County author Martin Lee illuminates the Nazi renaissance
By Patrick Sullivan
FLAMES EXPLODE and leap to devour the tall building. Hurled gasoline bombs have found their target, and an ugly cheer rises from the huge crowd of men who rule this street in the German town of Rostock. They are young, they are angry, and they are Nazis.
Their fists, boots, and clubs ensure that none of the people trapped in the burning building will escape through the ground-floor exits. As the flames rise higher, a sense of triumph fills the crowd. They have reason for their joy: No one is going to prevent this murderous act of terror. The local police stand idly by–they have made an arrangement not to intervene.
Cries of “Lynch them!” are heard, and the crowd suddenly breaks into a rendition of “Deutschland über Alles.” Behind the crowd, flames rapidly climb the building. Faces peer out of windows as people scramble from floor to floor, desperate for rescue. But no help is forthcoming.
Horrified readers will be forgiven for hoping that this is a scene from the Deutschland of the 1930s. But there is no refuge in the past. This savage attack occurred only five years ago as part of a long series of outrages against racial minorities in the newly reunified Germany.
A well-organized campaign of riots, burnings, and physical attacks–coordinated with cell phones and fax machines–resulted in the deaths of nearly a hundred people. That grim figure includes a Turkish grandmother and two young children burned to death by assailants who shouted “Heil Hitler.”
The beast is back. Fascism has re-emerged on the world scene, igniting new hatred and reviving old horrors. And America is not immune: We have seen a rising toll of terror from ultra-right-wing violence, including the 169 people who died in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. The explosion that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building also blew to bits our hopes that right-wing terrorism was a tragedy of another era.
Now we fear it may be the wave of the future.
Standing in the forefront of the attempt to understand this terrifying phenomenon is Sonoma County author Martin Lee. Lee has spent years exploring the renaissance of Nazi power across Europe and America. Now, in a chilling new book, The Beast Reawakens (Little, Brown & Co.; $24.95), he shines a spotlight on the conspiracies and accommodations that allowed fascism to survive World War II and re-emerge in force at the dawn of the new century.
Through the Looking Glass
MARTIN LEE is a slim, soft-spoken man with a polite smile. There is an air of matter-of-factness about him that stands in uncanny contrast to the subject of his book. As he sits in a sunny, small-town Sonoma County coffeehouse, he speaks in an understated fashion about some of the most terrifying personalities in the neo-fascist underground.
Some might think Lee an unlikely infiltrator. Many of the Nazis who spoke at length with him would be surprised to learn that Lee’s mother fled Czechoslovakia just ahead of Hitler’s death-camp snatch-squads. Nevertheless, Lee was superbly successful at ferreting out a treasure trove of information about neo-fascism.
The Beast Reawakens took over four years to research and write. Lee traveled to more than a dozen countries, interviewing the old leaders and the new blood of the extreme right wing. For those who marvel at his commitment to spending long hours with racist fanatics, Lee has a wry answer.
“I don’t know, maybe I should be on a psychiatrist’s couch,” he says with a laugh. “There were certainly times when things got very weird, when the whole world seemed upside down.”
Lee, 43, has been a working journalist for decades. He is a co-founder of the media watchdog group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) and has written two previous books. One of these, Acid Dreams (Grove Press, 1986), has acquired something of a cult following in Northern California, exploring as it does the strange role played by the Central Intelligence Agency in the distribution of LSD.
As part of his research for The Beast Reawakens, the author raced around Europe to reach the elderly Nazi survivors of the Third Reich before they died. These encounters often turned out to be as bizarre as they were disturbing. Even Lee’s remarkable equilibrium was shaken by his experiences.
Spain under the fascist dictator Francisco Franco was a common refuge for Nazis fleeing the Allied victory. So Lee was not surprised to discover notorious SS Gen. Lon Degrelle living openly in an apartment in Malaga. But after he secured an interview with this close confidante of Adolf Hitler, the author was flabbergasted by the reception he received.
“He greets me with a bear hug and ushers me into his really posh apartment with a beautiful view of the Mediterranean,” Lee says. “There were original Roman statues, Flemish wall paintings. I thought I was in an art museum.”
Degrelle was well accustomed to starstruck neo-Nazis from around the world making pilgrimages to his home. Many young fascists looked upon the old general as a father figure, and he assumed that Lee had come to worship at the shrine.
“He took me around and showed me all his war mementos,” Lee says with a grim smile. “Then he picks up his Iron Cross, this German military medal that Hitler had personally given him. He takes the medal, puts it around my neck, and clasps an arm around me as a photographer comes out and snaps our picture.”
It was the clear links between old Nazis like Degrelle and the new crop of fascists springing up in Europe and America that caught Lee’s attention. He soon discovered that high-level survivors of the Third Reich played a disturbing role in inspiring and grooming their ideological offspring.
How did fascism survive defeat? Lee says patience and tenacity played an important role.
“These are people who don’t think in terms of the week or the next month,” he says. “They think in terms of the next generation. They have this mad dream of a National Socialist world, and they’re willing to bide their time.”
THE BOOK PROVIDES damning evidence that our own government played a significant, and appalling, part in the survival of fascism. World War II had barely ended before the United States began to employ notorious Nazis to spy against the new threat–the Soviet Union. Foremost among these recruits was Gen. Reinhard Gehlen, whose vast Nazi spy ring was absorbed almost wholesale into the newly born CIA.
Lee believes that the Nuremberg trials–which sentenced some German war criminals to death–barely scratched the surface of Nazi war guilt. Many important supporters of the Hitler regime escaped without punishment; many others actually went to work for the American government. It was all part of a strategy to build Europe into a fortress against the Red Menace, and punishment for war crimes of the Third Reich took a back seat.
Indeed, the Soviet Union was also busy recruiting Hitler’s followers, employing them as spies and soldiers. But whether the defeated fascists worked for the Reds or for the red, white, and blue, their ultimate allegiance seems to have been to the survival of their Nazi ideals.
“Fascists and Nazis were extremely opportunistic, very pragmatic in their political strategies,” Lee says. “In some ways, they’re much less ideological than people think. They’re willing to make alliances with almost anyone if it advances their cause.”
In the shadowy world of Cold War Europe, Nazis coolly played the two superpowers off each other. Meanwhile, they accumulated fortunes, built their power, and groomed a new generation of shock troops.
There is something in Lee’s book to anger or unnerve almost everyone, regardless of their ideology. As the Nazis set themselves up as spy masters and arms merchants, their influence reached into some surprising places. Lee indicts everyone from Arab nationalists to U.S. senators to the Israeli government to Latin American dictatorships for cooperation with the Nazi network.
Through interviews, observation, and research into recently declassified documents, Lee was able to assemble a shocking picture of growing fascist influence and organization.
After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, fascism emerged from the shadows and dove into the political mainstream. Neo-Nazis played an important role in the establishment of new German rules on citizenship and immigration. In countries like France and Italy, fascist political parties like the National Front became major forces at the ballot box, and hate crimes have become a daily occurrence on the continent.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, things were also heating up.
Made in America?
THE VIPER MILITIA, the Republic of Texas, the Freemen of Montana: A brief glance at recent headlines makes paramilitary groups seem a dime a dozen in ’90s America. Still, for all the press such groups receive, we seem farther than ever from understanding what makes them tick.
Armed groups of anti-government zealots are frightening enough to most people. But for all we think we know about militias, it is what we don’t see that should really scare us, says Lee.
The Beast Reawakens documents disturbing links between German neo-Nazis, American white supremacists, and our country’s armed militia movement. The racist right, according to Lee, sees the growth of anti-government sentiment as a huge opportunity, and they are ready to take full advantage.
“They have realized that swastikas and hoods turn people off,” Lee says. “But if you talk about gun control and big government, people will listen.”
Of course, Lee admits that not all militia members are racists. He believes only about a quarter of the 225 known militias have ties to white supremacist hate groups. But many think that’s frightening enough.
Among the book’s more startling revelations is the role white supremacists may have played in the Oklahoma City bombing. Lee establishes numerous links between convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh and German army veteran Andreas Strassmeir, who trains self-styled soldiers at a bizarre white supremacist compound on the Oklahoma border.
Here in California, there are nearly 20 active racist groups, according to Klanwatch, an organization devoted to monitoring racist activity. These include skinheads, Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan.
Lee avers that there are also militia groups operating in some of the more rural counties here in Northern California. Many are motivated by anger about environmental regulations. We don’t hear a lot from these organizations, but don’t take that as a reassurance.
“Just because they’re low-key doesn’t mean they’re not active,” he says. “It just means they’re not grabbing headlines.”
Crypto-fascist politicians may be even more dangerous than terrorists in an era of increasingly successful electoral forays by the likes of Pat Buchanan and David Duke. Concealing bigotry beneath the mask of mainstream conservative views is an increasingly popular tactic in the neo-Nazi movement.
In The Beast Reawakens, one former associate says of Pete Peters, a prominent white supremacist, “He doesn’t espouse Hitler. He doesn’t use the swastika or Klan robes. Instead, he uses the Bible and the American flag. Peters talks in a language we’re used to hearing. His hatred is masked in God.”
All this begs a simple question: What is the attraction? Why do apparently ordinary people become involved in such a widely discredited social movement? Lee says the answer is complex.
On an individual level, young fascists are often motivated by an understandable need for identity and community. To an impressionable new recruit, right-wing organizations provide an attractive feeling of purpose and camaraderie in an increasingly uncertain world. Hard-core racist propaganda often comes only later.
Regardless of whether they choose terrorist violence or deceptive political stealth campaigns, American right-wingers are well served by a growing subculture that nurtures their views in a thousand ways.
Lee recounts with equal parts humor and unease an incident that occurred after a talk he recently gave at a Dallas college. Militia members were in the audience, and one came up afterwards to give him a copy of a right-wing magazine. Lee looked it over on the plane home, and he says it gave him considerable food for thought.
“The articles weren’t that interesting,” he explains. “It was the advertising that caught my eye. The right-wing social scene is very active. . . . There was even a Christian Patriot dating service. These people never have to leave their subculture, even to date.”
A Fertile Field
NAILING DOWN a social explanation for the rise of neo-fascism is tougher than you might think. Coming up with solutions is harder still. Even getting experts to agree on a firm definition of this slippery ideology is no easy matter.
“Fascism is a very difficult thing to pin down,” Lee says. “Academics are always fighting over the definition. Historically, it mutates and goes through different phases.”
Among the factors fueling the growing strength of the extreme right are economic upheaval and a widening cultural-identity crisis. Lee says globalization plays a key role. As the world gets smaller, people are increasingly fearful about their employment prospects and more uncertain about who they are in a cultural sense.
“The impact of globalization is not just economic, it is profoundly cultural,” Lee says. “People are concerned about losing their language and traditions. Is every street corner in the world going to have a McDonald’s?
“We have an evolving global monoculture, and fascists have been able to speak to legitimate anxieties about it in a very manipulative way.”
In response to deepening unease about the complicated dynamic of globalization, neo-fascists have crafted a very simple message. They speak of defending cultural identity and of taking pride in national heritage. But their solutions to new problems reek of something very old.
Scapegoating is the tool of choice. Fascists argue that complex economic and cultural problems can be simply blamed on immigrants, minorities, and the international bogeymen at the United Nations.
If we just kick out the guest workers and the U.N. black helicopters, everything will be fine, they say.
Of course, history has amply demonstrated that simple solutions have a way of turning into Final Solutions. Unfortunately, opponents of fascism cannot count on people to remember that terrifying historical fact.
Easy remedies are hard to find. For those who hope that neo-fascists, white supremacists, and militias will just fade away, Lee holds out little hope. He believes it’s crucial to understand and evaluate the phenomenon. But he doesn’t think the force that managed to survive the crushing defeat and disgrace of World War II is ready to die yet.
“The factors fueling the growth of neo-fascism aren’t going away anytime soon,” Lee cautions. “I think we can expect violent eruptions of this sort to continue for the foreseeable future.”
From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.