What It's Like to Grow Up with Elite Neo-Nazis
"I was about 19 when I realized the Holocaust was real."
Photo: imago | Reiner Zensen
This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
Heidi Benneckenstein is a 24-year-old teacher and mother. A little more than a year ago, however, she was a neo-Nazi called Heidrun Redeker. Benneckenstein was born into an extreme right-wing family, who lived close to Munich. She was brought up according to the "völkische" values of the Third Reich, which emphasize discipline, obedience, and fanatical patriotism.
When she was seven years old, Benneckenstein spent her first of many summers in a camp run by the Heimattreuen Deutschen Jugend (HDJ), a youth club that focuses on forming the new generation of Nazi elite. (The German Interior Ministry shut down the club in 2009). Benneckenstein also used to deny the Holocaust and celebrate Hitler's birthday.
Besides teaching, Benneckenstein enjoys writing. She recently published her first book, Ein Deutsches Mädchen (A German Girl), an autobiographical account of the inner workings of the German neo-Nazi scene. I met up with her to chat about all that.
VICE: What was your childhood like?
Heidi Benneckenstein: My father was very strict—we had to ask his permission to do anything. At dinner, my sister and I were only allowed to speak when spoken to.
That sounds strict, but not particularly Nazi.
No, but it's all based on Nazi values.
When did you realize that your family were Nazis rather than just different?
By the time I started school, I had a feeling that we weren't like other families. Once, I remember explaining to my best friend how to draw a swastika. At the time, I didn't know that it was a right-wing thing. I just thought that I was sharing something interesting with a friend.
Your father is a neo-Nazi and a Holocaust denier who celebrates Hitler's birthday. What's your mother like?
The more I think about it, the more I realize that she wasn't that much of an extremist—at least, compared to my father. Of course, she stood by and listened to all my father's racist jokes. But I had a very close, even loving, relationship with her. She tried to protect me from my father as much as she could.
Your first contact with the wider neo-Nazi scene was at age seven, when you attended a modern day Hitler Youth camp. What was that like?
The first evening was actually a lot of fun because it just felt like a normal scouts' camp—we just spent most of our time playing. But the mood changed in the following days as the rules and the camp leaders who were enforcing them got stricter.
For example, they would wake us up at 7 AM and make us exercise in very cold temperatures. During one early morning wake-up call, a boy was punished for not standing completely straight. He was forced to do push-ups while being shouted at. A few of the camp leaders would even beat up the kids who didn't do what they said.
Were there any other camp activities?
The girls mainly practiced sewing and embroidery, while the boys built things or boxed. There were regular lectures on great Nazis, such as Hitler's favorite pilot Hanna Reitsch, and before bed, we sang songs from the Third Reich. They were really raising us to become elite neo-Nazis.
In your book, you write that the police were watching the camp. Did they ever intervene?
The secret service always hung out in front of the camp, but they never came in. At camp, we were taught the police were our enemies. One night, we were told that the police had raided the camp, and we had to run into the woods. When we came to a clearing, there were no cops to be found at all. Instead, there was a pig's head on a stick. I think it was meant to be a test, but I have no idea what the exact purpose of that test was.
How did one become a member of the HDJ?
You only got an invitation if the leader of the organization deemed you worthy of it. Mostly it was kids from the families of academics and other upper-class families, and less often from the rest of the scene.
Are the shaved-head neo-Nazi in Doc Martens just a cliché?
In the 1990s, the far-right learned that they had to develop a new image to appeal to younger generations. Today, there are neo-Nazis with hipster beards. But they wear particular clothing brands and badges so they can identify each other.
How much do young Nazis actually know about politics?
If you try and have a conversation about complicated political issues, you will quickly realize that their knowledge is very limited. Mostly, they just repeat phrases they've picked off books and learned by heart. They don't actually understand what they're saying.
You grew up in a strict right-wing family, but how do other teenagers slip into the scene?
It's actually very rare that people get into it through their families. Most people are about 15 or 16 when they get into the scene, often as a form of rebellion. The ideology is very easy to understand and digest, so it's very easy to convert people to it. A lot of them are just temporary Nazis who go around bullying people for a few years before growing up.
In your book, you write that you fought more with punks than foreigners. Are all neo-Nazis racist?
That depends on where you were grew up. In East Germany, there are fewer migrants and thus less contact and likelihood of clashes. You'll find more racists in multicultural cities like Berlin or Munich. I never tried to make any foreign friends, but they weren't my greatest enemy.
Who were your enemies?
The police, the authorities, and the left. Also "do-gooders"—people who always want to look good and to do good things. My enemies were basically people who are always positive and go to demonstrations against the right.
Are you saying neo-Nazis are never positive or happy?
If you're in the scene, it's not cool to give off the impression that you're a good person. You deliberately reject people and have a negative view of the world. We despised people who had different views to us. I was not very happy at this time in my life. Personally, I was very frustrated.
Was your first boyfriend also a neo-Nazi?
Yes. I was 14 when we met. We were at a concert, and we were both drunk. As you can imagine, neo-Nazis aren't the most romantic people. Once, a guy walked up to me and asked if I wanted to see his swastika collection. Even for a Nazi, that was pretty bad.
The far right is dominated by men. What is it like to be a woman in the scene?
It can be really difficult because sexual assault is quite common. Sometimes it's just a hand on your leg, but I know girls who have been raped. Even when certain stories of abuse became public knowledge, nobody did anything to punish the men. The comradeship between men is far more important than the well-being of women. Most women just try to act like men by putting on a very tough and aggressive front.
In Nazi ideology, women are subordinate to men. Why is this gender order so persistent in the neo-Nazi scene?
Lots of women who are lost within the scene have problems with their self-confidence. It is easier to do what you are told than to make trouble for yourself.
You made trouble for yourself and got out. How did you do that?
It was a process that took years. I really started to pushback against the ideology when I met my husband, Felix. We began talking about things that nobody else talked about: the treatment of women, how Nazis live, and what they do. He lived in Dortmund at the time and had been rejected by the local scene because he hung out with left-inclined Nazis.
Aren't left-wing neo-Nazis still very right-wing? Is it that easy to turn yourself into an enemy of the community?
Of course they are still very right-wing. But as soon as you begin to question anything, or if you criticize Hitler, then you are considered a traitor.
Formally giving up your membership is one thing, but how did you turn off your conditioning?
I had to do everything in very little steps. As soon as I began having doubts about the ideology, I started to feel really ashamed of what I was a part of. Felix and I moved to Munich and lived in a very multicultural area, where our foreign neighbors were very friendly. But it took a lot more than just mixing with other people to really break away. For example, I had been a Holocaust denier for so long, the concept had become deeply ingrained into my brain. It took a long time before I could deal with it critically.
When did you find out that the Holocaust was real?
I was about 19. I had to completely reevaluate history and admit to myself that I had been wrong. It was the last piece of Nazi ideology left in me.
Why don't more people leave?
Escaping means questioning yourself and everything that you have done. You are so caught up in this ideology—it's a huge part of who you are. Many people don't believe that they can go back into mainstream society and be accepted or even receive help. You have to start a whole new life, which is obviously very hard.
Are you expecting revenge from the scene?
Yes, but it's just a natural consequence of leaving. Recently, someone sprayed a huge swastika with the words "we'll get you" on the wall of a train station near our house.
Do you feel that you are a part of mainstream society now?
My son was born a little more than six months ago, and I just passed a course that will allow me to become a teacher. Honestly, I have had doubts about whether I should follow that career path, given my background. But I also know that I am not my father, and I have a totally different understanding of child-rearing. All that feels a bit like a graduation into mainstream society.