||Brief Reviews: Memoir/Politics
by Christopher Ondaatje
In a book strangely reminiscent of George Orwell's early non-fiction (The Road to Wigan, Homage to Catalonia) Nick Ryan's Homeland is the story of one man's journey into the heartlands of extremism undertaken during a gruelling six-year voyage.
Ryan met, interviewed, and in some cases lived with members of the extreme right in a dozen different countries. He examines this far right community, from the vilest new-nazi gangs to some prominent politicians. He travels across Europe and the USA to find out how these extremists share information, ideology, and contacts, and how they are linked occasionally by business interest. However, Homeland is not simply a story of undercover intrigue. It is a powerful personal odyssey and a social commentary, written as literary reportage. The twists and turns of the journey leave the reader no less exhausted than the man who came to write about it.
"I was motivated by one simple question: why?" says Ryan, talking of his desire to understand the men (and women) fuelling the rise of the extreme right. In the first few pages of Homeland, he admits to starting as a "classic wishy-washy liberal", yet by the end of his quest he is left a more bitter and cynical person, paying a price for his obsessive curiosity.
As with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the rise of the right is an increasingly well-documented phenomenon. As Ryan points out, across Europe the smiling faces of populist zealots have become a familiar sight on our TV screens. The bastions of the centre-left and social democracy have started to fall, one by one, to the messiahs of the right. In some cases-as in Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark-they have even entered coalition governments. The reasons for this are complex. Ryan believes there are concerns related to growing numbers of immigrants and refugees, and this is tied into a perceived inability to cope with the fast pace of change, an absence of family ties, confusion about identity, and the breakdown of communities. All these are the downside, some would argue, of economic globalisation. Young men seem to be affected the worst.
Whatever the reasons, many of us will have already read terrifying stories, or heard warnings about the resurgence of fascism. Yet very few of us know much about the people behind it. This book gives us some insight into this world of hate.
Ryan's journey begins in the pubs of London, as he follows members of a football hooligan gang who are openly neo-nazi. While visiting and befriending this gang, Combat 18 (the numbers 1 and 8 representing the first and eight letters of the alphabet, A and H, for Adolph Hitler), Ryan finds himself unwittingly caught between two warring factions. The leader murders one of his rivals. The acrimony that follows prompts Ryan to track down the new top dog, a psychopath nicknamed "The Beast". The Beast, it turns out, has a partner with a degree in sociology. He's also attempting to launch an international bombing campaign with help from Scandinavian compatriots. Their encounters eventually take Ryan into Continental Europe, in search of a vast neo-nazi network.
Back in England, Ryan's frequent meetings with the leader of the right-wing British National Party reveals just what a strange collection of individuals are drawn to political extremism. Barely minutes after meeting BNP campaigners, one of them tells Ryan of his problems with his family ("ya did fuck all for me, ya cunt" says one guy, taking of his father). The party's parliamentary candidate has no less than seventeen criminal convictions. Yet Ryan astutely points out that his own feelings mean little here. These men are not out to convince him, but those on the divided estates up in the north of the country.
In Washington DC, Ryan lives with the BNP's main American contact for several weeks, and is introduced to a wide array of white supremacists, racist Christians, Holocaust deniers and assorted neo-nazis. Most of these individuals turn out to have supported former senior Republican party member Pat Buchanan, who tried (and failed) to stand for President as leader of the Reform Party. Buchanan himself seems a shadow of his former self when Ryan visits his Virginia mansion. Ryan's host, the British racist (and former Loyalist and Conservative Party member), Mark Cotterill, even managed to infiltrate Buchanan's campaign. Perhaps some of the most disturbing and surreal scenes in the book occur here as Ryan uncovers the trail of "lone wolf" killers closely linked to extremist cults and fringe groups. He is also nearly unmasked several times.
When Ryan heads again to Europe, he attempts to travel to Beirut as part of an undercover plot to infiltrate a Holocaust denial conference. This is the first time anti-Zionist Arabs will have met members of the extreme right "revisionist" movement. It's a risky undertaking. His friendship with the civil rights activists from the "Searchlight" anti-fascist network allows him greater access to the neo-nazi gangs and killers of Denmark, Belgium, Austria and Germany. Then, in some of his most dangerous encounters, Ryan tracks these gangs in Germany and Scandinavia, discovering that they survive off the proceeds of a burgeoning white power music scene. This, he learns, is run like any other business, with marketing, use of the internet, merchandising, and international recording deals. There are even adoring fans. In Germany, too, he witnesses massive extreme right support, and the rise of the Kameradschaften ("Comradeships") movement, a loose network of gangs and organisations intent on reviving a Fourth Reich. In the East, where unemployment is high, the Kameradschaften are a worrisome development.
Ryan also recounts in Homeland the rise of political extremists like Jean-Marie le Pen and the Front National in France. Not long before, Le Pen had come second in a Presidential election. He meets leading members of Jorg Haidel's far right Freedom Party in Austria, witnesses the rise of the separatist Northern League in Italy, and the strange life and death of the gay anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn in Holland, who was assassinated by an animal rights extremist.
Homeland makes for uncomfortable, even frightening reading. I sometimes felt as if I were reading a novel or a piece of fiction, but the terse structure and spare sentences bespeak an all-too grim reality.
Homeland is a book for anyone curious enough to know the truth about the various types of emerging extremism. The book does not cover the entire spectrum but it will certainly give the reader a better understanding of a dangerous and alarming world-wide development.