Thu, May 09, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The Swedish city that
said no to neo-Nazis

After a 14-year-old was murdered by neo-Nazis in 1995, Kungalv launched a pioneering project that has changed how people think about tackling racism

By David Crouch  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

On an August afternoon in 1995, John Hron, a defiant anti-racist, was tortured and beaten to death by neo-Nazi skinheads beside a picturesque lake near his home town of Kode in Kungalv, Sweden. He was 14.

Neo-Nazis were gaining a foothold in Kungalv, an industrial borough of 20,000 people on the west coast, for the first time since World War II. Sweden’s economy had stuttered in the early 1990s after a financial crisis and its politics were in flux.

Twenty-four years later, Sweden’s neo-Nazis are again targeting Muslims and Jews, buoyed by anti-immigrant sentiment in the country that has seen the radical nationalist Sweden Democrats make electoral gains.

After terrorists attacked two mosques in New Zealand in March, killing 50, the massacre was hailed by members of the Nordic Resistance Movement, an openly Nazi group.

On Wednesday last week, the group marched in uniforms through Kungalv city, which it is targeting because of its historical links to Sweden’s war-time Nazis.

Yet Kungalv has changed over the past two decades. Galvanised by Hron’s murder, the municipality has developed a quietly successful initiative to prevent recruitment of young people by racists.

After the tragedy, Kungalv hired Christer Mattsson, a local teacher and researcher, to plan its response.

He said that the problem was not Kungalv as a whole, but small parts of it: “Hate is always local.”

So he and his coresearchers created the Tolerance Project, starting with Ytterby, a large school where the neo-Nazis were very active.

“Back then we had a big problem at the school, a lot of trouble with neo-Nazis in the neighborhood,” said Therese Kraffke, the school’s head teacher.

In 2001, Kraffke, Mattsson and other teachers started to hold workshops with a mixed group of girls aged 14 to 16, including those who hung out with the skinheads.

“The skinhead core was mainly boys,” Kraffke said. “We reasoned that if the girls stopped supporting them, they wouldn’t have people around them.”

The culmination of the project was a week-long trip to significant Holocaust sites in Poland for which students had to hand over their phones, ensuring their attention was concentrated on their experience and the group around them.

The visit encouraged each student to think about who they were, what shaped their attitudes and how to deal with emotions such as anger.

Madeleine, who asked that her surname not be used, was one of the first girls to participate.

Aged 14, Madeleine had started to shave her head, and wear boots and a bomber jacket just like the neo-Nazis. She scrawled SS symbols around Kungalv and hung out with white supremacists, drinking and smoking.

“It was just a cool thing, but it was starting to mean something: I started yelling at people with dark skin, being really aggressive,” she said.

“In my group, to be angry and hateful was seen as good thing — my identity was the hard girl who is angry all the time,” Madeleine said.

“The climate was so bad at the school against black people, Muslims and Jews. The white people were the ‘right’ people,” she said.

As part of the Tolerance Project, Madeleine started to mix with girls from other backgrounds. They talked about why people hate each other and learned about the Holocaust.

During her six months on the project, she found herself for the first time among people who listened to her and respected her.

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