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My Berlin meeting with an ex Nazi | Nazism

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I sent Ewald Althans a message suggesting we meet in a coffee shop, not far from my East Berlin hotel. I thought it might be a more relaxed place in which to talk. He declined. “I do not feel too comfy any more sitting in a cosy place having an intense talk about National Socialism, Hitler, Auschwitz, etc,” he texted back. “I suggest we have a nice long walk.” I felt terribly naïve. After all, he had a point. Sitting in a Berlin coffee shop, chatting openly about the Nazis, really might not be the best way to go. I agreed to wait for him at the hotel. It required patience; he sent me repeated messages apologising for being late. “No worries,” I replied. “It’s been 29 years since we last met. I can wait another hour.”

Despite both the three decades that had passed and the Covid mask, I recognised him immediately. He wore drainpipe jeans ripped at the knee instead of an expensive sculpted suit, and his once straw-blond hair was now grey. Nevertheless, it was still recognisably him: the man once tipped to lead Germany to a new fascist glory. We turned out of the hotel and began to stroll down one of Berlin’s sun-dappled, tree-lined avenues. “So,” I said, “You’re no longer a neo-Nazi then?” He laughed, but did not answer. Perhaps he didn’t consider it a question deserving of a response.

I first met Althans in May 1992. I had been sent to Munich by Cosmopolitan magazine to write a feature about the rise of the far right in western Europe. The revisionist historian David Irving was being tried in Munich for having denied the Holocaust during a speech at a bierkeller in the city. Althans who, at 26, was almost exactly my age, was assisting Irving as his PR man. When it came to promoting far right ideologies the man had form. Althans had already been pursued by judicial authorities for promoting Nazi ideology, though he was the opposite of a jack-booted thug. He was tall and thin and blond, and dressed in immaculately cut black suits that called to mind Armani. He spoke four languages fluently. Many on the far right really did see him as the future, and he embraced their ambitions. He had once told the Daily Telegraph that he was “proof the Führer can happen again”.

During the court adjournment, Althans and I went to eat together at the same gloomy, wood-panelled bierkeller where Irving had made the speech for which he was being tried. And so, a Jew and a Nazi sat down to lunch; a hefty one of pork knuckle and boiled potatoes and pickled red cabbage. He claimed to hate no one, but said the LA riots, which had occurred just a few days before, were proof multi-racial societies are problematic. “Human beings should be racist,” he said. “It is the acceptance of difference.” And then: “I belong to the white race. Our culture is very important to the world. I don’t remember the blacks inventing a car or a rocket. The cultures are different. I’m going to do all I can to support their removal from society.”

I asked him what he thought of Jews. “Are you Jewish?” he asked. I nodded. “I thought so,” he said. “You have the looks. I can always talk to Jews. You like to argue, to discuss. Too often people close their ears when they talk to me.” He told me Jews are coloured people and, like all coloured people, brought problems to society and would have to go, too. “They have to decide whether they want to be Germans or Jews. They cannot be both.”

A photo montage of Nazi history and Jay Rayner in the 1990s.
‘My wife told me writing about fascists was doing me no good’: (clockwise from left) Jay Rayner in the 90s; Ewald Althans; David Irving; and Otto Remer. Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare/The Observer

So where should the Jews go? They could go wherever they liked, he said sharply, momentarily losing his cool. Most of the time he spoke softly, as if what he was saying was a banal statement of the obvious. Like Irving, he said he believed the Holocaust was a lie. It had been invented by a conspiracy of Jewish filmmakers in Hollywood. How then, I asked, could Althans account for the 18 members of my family who died in the camps? Who had killed them, if not the Nazis? They could have died of disease, he said. “That was a terrible thing,” Althans said coolly, “but it is not a Holocaust.” We finished our lunch quickly after that. David Irving was found guilty that afternoon and fined about £3,500.

Like so many young Jews born long after the events of the Holocaust, I still felt the stain of its bleak shadow. I had an uncle with the number he was given at Auschwitz as a child tattooed on his forearm. My parents were British. Therefore, they survived and I was born. Other wings of my family had died in the gas chambers. I had attempted, not altogether successfully, to process it merely as a story from the past; as one affecting distant family members. But now here was a man exactly my age both denying the events I knew to be true, but also reinforcing the prejudice which underlay them. I felt emotionally besieged and fragile.

I wrote a newspaper piece entitled “My Munich Lunch with a Nazi”, in which I described the encounter and the enduring distress it had caused me. The day after it was published, I was interviewed by a Japanese TV journalist. She told me that, being Jewish, I was too close to the story to write about Nazis in general and Althans in particular. I swore at her and slammed down the phone. My wife told me that writing about racists and fascists was doing me no good. She said I was becoming obsessed. I ignored her for many years, continued to investigate the British far right and race crime, before accepting that it was eating away at me. I had done my job. It was time for others to tackle these subjects. It was time for me to eat lunch and write about that instead.

But all journalists have stories which stay with them, even if they become just a quiet itch that occasionally needs to be scratched. Sometime around 2016, as I turned 50, I began to wonder what had become of Althans. In retrospect I can see now that the interest hadn’t come from nowhere. It coincided with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, and a massive rise in overt antisemitism both from certain parts of the hard left and elsewhere, slabs of which washed on to my electronic doorstep. (“Put the cunt on a train for a shower,” read one comment about me. “A gas shower is what he needs,” read another.) I might be a head-banging atheist. I might have ordered the pork knuckle for lunch with Althans. But I was plenty Jewish enough to be hated.

After 25 years I went looking to see what had become of the man who hated me because I was a Jew. He now had his own Wikipedia entry and, while the site is notoriously unreliable, the story it told was extraordinary. In 1994, Althans had been convicted for his own crimes of denying the holocaust, as a result of comments made at the site of Auschwitz in a documentary entitled Beruf NeoNazi (literally Profession: NeoNazi). During the trial he had announced he was no longer a Nazi. Indeed, he revealed he was actually a deep cover agent inside the far right on behalf of the German intelligence services, a claim the service denied. He had also announced he was gay. Althans served his 20-month sentence in Landsberg, the same prison where Hitler wrote Mein Kampf. On release he had assumed a new identity and disappeared into the Belgian gay community.

It was a great story in the pure journalistic sense, but for me there was also something deeply personal. I wanted to find him after all these years. I wanted to know how a life could turn around so sharply. I wanted to know how he felt about what he’d said to me. Damn it, I wanted an apology.

My attempts to trace him through the Belgian gay community were fruitless. No one seemed to know him. For a while I gave up. Then in the depths of the second lockdown, I returned to the Wikipedia entry. I spotted something I hadn’t seen before. In 2000, a massive store of Althans’s papers had been donated to the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. The donation had been negotiated by a veteran Dutch journalist and expert on the far right named Frans Dekkers. I contacted Dekkers, who sent me a Dutch language interview he had conducted with Althans for a magazine, not long after he left prison. It told the extraordinary story of a man groomed for greatness by the last surviving remnants of the Third Reich.

Ewald Althans was born and grew up in Hanover. “My father had lost his father in WW2,” Althans told Dekkers, “and had grown up in East Germany. He turned against anything that was totalitarian.” As a teenager Althans developed a fascination with the country’s 20th-century history. He read Anne Frank’s diaries, discussed the Holocaust with a Jewish uncle by marriage and joined a youth organisation called Aktion Sühnezeichen, whose members tended the sites of concentration camps.

But he’d also become interested in Third Reich memorabilia, picked up in Hanover’s rackety flea market. Through people he met around those stalls he was slowly drawn into far right circles where he eventually met a former low-ranking official in the Third Reich. The man claimed the narrative of Nazi Germany as the great evil nation, was false, and introduced him to the revisionist organisation Deutsches Kulturwerk.

“It was a community of intellectuals with a Nazi past,” Althans explained in the Dekkers interview. “Teachers, doctors, government officials and artists. They were excited to have a young man in their grey midst. And I thought it fascinating that I could talk to former Nazis about the Third Reich. That was first-hand history.” They, too, insisted Nazi Germany had been unfairly traduced. “It gave me a superior feeling,” Althans explained. “I knew more than my teacher. But when I confronted him with it in class, he told me I was a liar. It made me rebellious and I started acting provocatively. If we could have talked about these things normally at school, I wouldn’t have become a neo-Nazi or a revisionist.”

When he was 17 he was thrown out of school and the family home. He moved to Munich where he met Otto Remer, a former high-ranking Nazi who had been promoted to General Major in the SS by Hitler as thanks for crushing the 1944 plot against him. Remer treated him both as son and protégé. Over the next few years, Althans encountered rising stars of the far right, like Jörg Haider of the Austrian Freedom Party and the German rabble-rouser Michael Kühnen of the Action Front of National Socialists. He went to Moscow to hang out with Russian ultra nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, with whom he had a playful boxing match. He was given lessons in rhetoric by Willy Krämer, former chief of staff to Rudolf Hess. In Syria and Argentina, he met exiled war criminals who had been associates of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist.

A photo montage of Nazi history, with a Jay Rayner photo in the bottom left corner
‘I had an uncle with the number he was given at Auschwitz as a child tattooed on his forearm’: Jay Rayner today. Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare/The Observer

In 1988, Althans moved to Toronto to work with the German revisionist historian Ernst Zundel. Zundel eventually dispatched him back to Germany on a hefty salary to set up a far right bookshop to advance the cause. But by this point, Althans told Dekkers, he had been visiting the gay clubs of Toronto and had started to acknowledge his sexuality. He knew his comrades would not respond well to the fact he was gay. Althans also told Dekkers that he had started to travel away from the far right. If the timeline was right, Althans was saying he was already breaking away from his Nazi past by the time he had sat down with me in the Munich bierkeller and told me the Jews had to go.

Dekkers gave me an email address that led me to Althans’s visual arts PR and promotions company in Berlin, with its focus on ribald work by gay artists. He seemed to be hugely active on the Berlin gay scene. Then I stumbled across what felt like the shining climax to this redemption story. A couple of years ago Ewald Althans, a man once accused of whipping up hatred against foreigners, had married his Taiwanese boyfriend.

Finally, I found my way to his rarely updated blog. It included a proposal for a book under the headline “Bestseller Possible”. Clearly, no publisher had been interested enough or comfortable with him telling his own story. But I did think Althans was on to something. There really was a book in this. The cast list of leading Nazis was terrific. There were twists and turns. There was a beautiful payoff at the end. And I was surely the man to write it? The truth was I had become obsessed with Althans all over again. I was struck by our joined overarching narrative: two men, both born in 1966, both with lives impacted by the long shadow of the Holocaust, but in very different ways. And yet, three decades on, it appeared we might have an awful lot in common. I emailed him. I told him who I was. I told him I bore him no ill will. I asked whether he might be interested in cooperating on a book. In late July, after much correspondence, he finally agreed to meet me. A couple of days later I was on a plane to Berlin.

We fall into step along Metzer Strasse. Althans tells me he has no recollection of meeting me in 1992. But he must remember something of that day given the Irving trial? “Oh yes,” he says, and he laughs. “Irving was due to make a speech back at the same bierkeller that evening and the court wanted to serve him with the papers for his sentence, which would have stopped him speaking, so we had to hide him in a cupboard. It was so funny.” I’m taken aback. His memories of being a far right activist appear to be rather fond.

I ask him about his journey away from the far right. “It was never one day on, one day off,” he says. “It wasn’t some sudden change. It was over time. The red line is that I have always been true to myself. I am a provocateur, always have been.” I point out that, if the timeline in the interview he gave to Frans Dekkers is correct, when we went for that lunch, he was already leaving the far right behind. And yet the things he said to me were avowedly antisemitic. He looks a little sheepish. “Ernst Zundel was paying me 16,000 Deutsch Marks a month, about the equivalent of €8,000,” he says. “I was suddenly rich. Before that I had nothing. Now I had everything. It was a great job for a provocateur.”

Plus, he says, he was good at it. He says: “Didn’t I once tell the Telegraph that I was proof the Führer could happen again?” and he laughs again. Then, more seriously, he says, “The media version of Althans had got out of control.” I tell him the things he said to me over that lunch were shocking. He looks dismayed. “I didn’t mean to shock you.” I look at him. “Is that an apology?” He opens his eyes wide as if accepting the suggestion. I extend my hand and we shake. Silently I note that he has apologised only for shocking me, not for what he has said.

What about the claims he was an agent for the German intelligence services? He rolls his eyes. “It was a rumour placed in [a weekly news magazine] by a friend. It was meant to help me. But it wasn’t true and the judge was too clever for that. He saw through it.”

It leads us to discuss the conviction that landed him in prison. It was unfair, he says. He only agreed to cooperate with the film director Winfried Bohnengel on the documentary Beruf NeoNazi because it was meant to focus on him leaving the movement behind. “My father was interviewed for it. He wouldn’t have been involved if I was still a Nazi.” He says the statement at the site of Auschwitz for which he was convicted – “No people have been gassed here. They have all survived and are making a living in Germany” – was taken out of context. But surely, I say, there must have been hours of other footage which proved his case? Why didn’t his defence lawyers call for that to be presented to the court? He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

For a while the courts ruled that the film could only be shown in Germany if it was preceded by the footage of the dead and dying discovered during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. “I am sorry about the 18 members of your family who died in the war,” he barks. “But what the fuck is that shit?” The conviction is over 25 years old, but he is clearly still furious with the court’s decision that the documentary could only be screened after the infamous footage of Bergen-Belsen.

We discuss the possibility of a book. I tell him that, for it to work, he could have absolutely no control of the contents. He dismisses this. “I accept I need someone else to tell my story, but it has to be my story,” he says. He points to the Beruf NeoNazi experience. He won’t let that happen again. It is late. We have been talking for more than three hours. He is intense and kinetic. His life now may be very different to that in 1992, his views very different, but it is clear the story of those days has come to define a lot that followed.

By now Althans has warmed to the notion of the book. He tells me we must sit down together to watch a 1993 film called Another Journey by Train, in which he and other neo-Nazis talk about their love of Hitler while travelling to the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. I am tired and tell him sharply that I really don’t want to do that. Sitting with Althans while he narrates fondly his experiences inside the far right, does not sound like a good night out to me. “You must be open to these things if we are going to write our book together,” he says. It is now our book. We go our separate ways shortly after that.

The next day I email him my thanks and again explain that, while there is a great book to be written, he really could not control its contents. He does not reply. He does not reply to any subsequent messages either. I realise I had been idealising our encounter. I had wanted to meet a man who had lived a life starkly in black and white; a man who had been one person and then another. At a time when the tide of antisemitism is rising, I had focused on the idea of there being one fewer Nazi in the world. But real lives are murkier than that. For Althans it had just been a continuum. He was now deep into middle-age, but he was still dealing with the fallout from events that had occurred when he was a very young man.

The day after our walk around East Berlin, I awoke to a WhatsApp message. There was no text, just a shot of a dual language poster for a Polish campaign against homophobia. Althans was the poster boy, his hair tightly cropped, his biceps bulging in a short-sleeved shirt. He appeared relaxed and smiling into the camera. The legend across the poster read simply: “Everybody Can Change.” It was the last I ever heard from him. It was time to leave both Ewald Althans, and myself, in peace.

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The Groucho

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