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Rejecting the Hate : Ingo Hasselbach was a virtual poster boy for German neo-Nazis. Now he preaches racial harmony as he promotes his life story.

February 19, 1996|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The awful thing about the shy, sweet smile of Ingo Hasselbach is that he probably smiled it while bashing in faces with his storm trooper boots.

And maybe he smiled it while smearing bloody swastikas on East German walls; or tossing Molotov cocktails into homes; or playing what used to be his favorite board game, a revisionist kind of Monopoly in which the player who gets the most Jews into the gas chamber wins.

But Ingo is a nice guy now.

Honest.

At 28, he's your basic "Baywatch" hunk: 6 foot 5, lean and muscular, exquisitely Aryan. The blue eyes that used to squint with hatred are now open and misty with remorse.

He has spent two years in hiding, avoiding death threats from the same neo-Nazi troops he taught to build bombs, to beat up "foreigners" and to salute him as their Fuhrer. They now call him "Fuhrer-ex," which happens to be the title of his book, out from Random House last month.

Hasselbach signed into the Bel-Age the other day under a false name so his extremist former friends wouldn't hunt him down and bomb the hotel, as they recently tried to incinerate the German apartment house in which his mother lives.

The book is a straightforward and unemotional account of his life. His writing is not analytical, nor does he draw conclusions, he says, because although he knows what happened he does not exactly know why. Readers may find answers he has not yet had the time or the insight to uncover.

Reviewers have been kind, but with reservations, as if uncomfortable dealing with the cold-blooded account of such a villain, even one who claims to have reformed.

By the way, Hasselbach says candidly, he has never personally murdered anyone, to his knowledge. And certainly never any Jews, since there were hardly any left in his part of the world after the Holocaust, which he was taught to believe never happened. His early mentors were former Third Reich dignitaries who told him that the Jews left Germany voluntarily. He believed them.

In fact, he admits, he never actually spoke to a Jewish person until he left the movement.

Nowadays, some of his best friends are Jewish.

One of those is his co-author, Tom Reiss, 31, an American of German-Jewish descent whose family was decimated by the Nazis. The New York-based journalist had followed Hasselbach's rise through news reports, then sought him out after Hasselbach resigned.

"I wanted to meet my enemy," Reiss says, admitting that he grew up "automatically hating" anything German and expected to hate Hasselbach most of all. This was the man who had planned to lead the Fourth Reich to glory.

Instead, the two instinctively liked each other and discovered more similarities than differences.

*

It would be comforting to think that Hasselbach's bizarre life story is irrelevant to America in the '90s. But it would be untrue.

Read reports of hate crimes committed in the last few months in Southern California, and you realize that Hasselbach has his equals from Antelope Valley to Huntington Beach, where this month a Latino man was shot, a Jewish woman was assaulted and a Native American man was stabbed 27 times, all for being "undesirables" in an "Aryan nation."

Even gang members with no neo-Nazi affiliations, who murder to protect their "turf," seem little different in method and motive than the band of marauders Hasselbach led in East Berlin.

He says the purpose of his book, and of his life these past three years, has been to tell the world that he was wrong, that his bigotry and violence were ways to rebel against the unhappy circumstances of his own life. It was all a "stupid" self-destructive waste of time.

Hasselbach was born in 1967 in Communist East Germany, the son of well-educated people who soon went separate ways. His mother began leaving Ingo with his grandparents, where he says he received the only love and comfort he can remember as a little boy.

By age 10, he was hanging out with hippies who lived in his grandparents' apartment building. Their main enjoyments were alcohol and sex, he recalls, and soon he considered them too mellow. By 12 he had joined the burgeoning punk scene--kids into gang brawls, brutal attacks on "outsiders" and spraying swastikas on walls.

"We didn't know what swastikas meant; we did it because it was the most forbidden of all symbols."

East Germany was grim, drab and economically depressed; residents were political prisoners, living in the shadow of the Berlin Wall and of secret agents searching for enemies of the state. Citizens were urged to inform on each other; children were indoctrinated to become "good anti-fascists."

So, with the true rebellion of youth, Ingo decided to do the opposite: become a good fascist.

At 16 he left school and spent most of his time "dead drunk, [listening to] the Sex Pistols and Plasmatics. We provoked . . . the police. We didn't think about consequences--we didn't care at all."

At 17, he and his friends shaved their punk Mohawks and joined the local skinheads. "It was simply another way to rebel."

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