Why you should care
Communicating well begins with communicating in a way that your audience can understand. But who doesn’t understand punching?
I met Hans* in September of 2012.
It happened on the Greek island of Crete — land of the Minotaur, birthplace of Zeus and home to some of the most aesthetically astounding beaches on Earth. Crete, and Greece in general, was also in those days the site of a concerning political shift: a rise in extremist, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, ethno-nationalist politics. A far-right party known as the Golden Dawn had been gaining strength, and by 2012 it had garnered a frightening amount of influence and power. Hans had a different name for the Golden Dawn’s constituents, though: neo-Nazis. And he had traveled to Crete to fight them.
Looks-wise, Hitler would’ve loved Hans. He was blond, light-eyed, pale-skinned, handsome and, you know, German. Medium height with a tattoo on one biceps and his hair parted to the side, he wore a T-shirt and jeans like some kind of uniform and operated with a quiet, confident demeanor that brought him attention even as he shied away from it. I’d met him the way one usually comes to meet Nazi hunters, and that was by befriending a group of Spaniards drinking wine in a plaza in Greece, getting invited to party with them, becoming a fixture at their apartment while staying in Rethymno and then meeting all the comers and goers at the flat, one of whom was Hans.
There was something else we felt, though, and that was a darkness behind the relative levity of the affairs. We did not have to be Greek to understand the severity of the country’s dire economic situation, nor to appreciate how the economic crisis had ushered in a period of unrest. The Golden Dawn’s rise in prominence may have been only one symptom of Greece’s woes, but it was a symptom that had led to disease in many other cultures: The crumbling economy, government instability and perceived loss of national glory had angry citizens seeking someone to blame.
… [V]ideos had surfaced of the group’s violent intimidation tactics toward immigrants — not to mention reports of synagogues suffering arson attacks.
Easy targets? Immigrants, elites, bankers, politicians and the systems that had failed them. Pockets of far-right rhetoric had surfaced in other countries by that point, but the Golden Dawn situation was different. Already, videos had surfaced of the group’s violent intimidation tactics toward immigrants — not to mention reports of synagogues suffering arson attacks.
Walking around Crete, you could see the all-you-can-eat buffet of political ideologies vying for attention. In one plaza by a university building, flags, signs and street art advocated on behalf of fascists, anti-fascists, communists, anti-communists, socialists, anti-capitalists and anarchists. Proponents of democracy and capitalism were noticeably absent. Unless you count the ads for McDonald’s, KFC and Starbucks.
It was under these circumstances that Hans and I started discussing the far-right’s slow but steady growth in Odysseus’ backyard. When, as a Jew whose Austrian ancestors had perished during the Holocaust, I told him of my concerns about the Golden Dawn, he expressed fears of his own. Hans, it turned out, was the grandson of an original, card-carrying Nazi. When he first discovered the truth about his grandfather’s past, Hans swore to himself that he would atone for the sin. He had come to Crete, he told me, to monitor fascist activity there — and resist it.
I was awed. I had visited concentration camps and Holocaust monuments during my travels, so meeting a German who cared as much as Hans did about preventing such evils from recurring meant worlds to me. He was part of a movement that tracked fascist activity and traveled wherever Nazis went in order to fight them.
Then I asked him how he fought them, and he looked at me like I was speaking to him in Greek, and he held up his hands. “With my fists,” he said.
My expression changed from awe to laughter. Then I realized he was serious.
Apparently, Hans was part of an anti-fascist movement — perhaps connected with the modern-day “antifa,” perhaps not — and they routinely engaged neo-Nazis in street fights. Like West Side Story but with leftists and rightists throwing lefts and rights instead of Jets and Sharks, there seemed to be an unwritten code for how the skirmishes were to transpire. It was violence, to be sure, but it was equal parts protest, theater and political demonstration as well.
Hans was neither tall nor muscular, and it was hard to picture him as the Conor McGregor of the Anti-National Socialist MMA Association. Still, the experiences he shared demonstrated how serious he was about his quest for vindication. At the cost of his time, energy and money — and at the risk of his own physical well-being — Hans had devoted himself to atoning for the sins of his grandfather. Though he had chosen questionable and possibly counterproductive methods, no one could allege that he’d stood idly by in silence and passivity.
Toward the end of my stay on Crete, a week or two after Hans and the rest of our ragtag group and I had all parted ways, I caught glimpses of what it was that had drawn Hans there in the first place. A night after visiting one of the synagogues that had been set ablaze by arsonists, I passed a plaza filled with dim light and angry voices. I asked someone on the street what was happening, and he said the Nazis were meeting.
Say what you want about Hans’ tactics, but he was right about this: The threat was real, and someone needed to do something about it.
Five years later, that hasn’t changed.
*A name chosen here to protect his identity. –Eds.