‘There was no defining moment that made me become a neo-Nazi – but there was one defining moment that made me stop,’ writes Tom Olsen who now helps police in Norway de-radicalise extremists.

Preview Above: Tom Olsen discusses the moment his neo-Nazi beliefs were challenged. Watch the full episode on On Demand.

by Tom Olsen

When news broke last week that a gunman had stormed a mosque in New Zealand, unlike most, I didn’t ask myself ‘How could someone do that?’ I have a very good understanding of what motivates a white supremacist – I used to be one.

At 15, my hometown in Norway received a lot of refugees from the civil war in former Yugoslavia. My friends and I did not like outsiders so we would get in fights with them.

Then the anarchists came to town. They took drugs, squatted in a house and sprayed anti-establishment slogans all over it. The neo-Nazis who lived nearby hated these anarchists – so your enemy’s enemy becomes your friend, so to speak.

By the time I was 17 I was a fully-fledged, Holocaust-denying neo-Nazi.

I spent the next six years entrenched in KKK propaganda and rose up to become the leader of one of Norway’s most violent hate groups. We called ourselves the Einzats Gruppen and KKK Norway and we believed Jewish people wanted to mix the world’s races and exterminate the white race, our race.

‘This moment – it completely shattered my worldview.’

I may have continued down this path if it weren’t for a few twists of fate that made me question my beliefs.

I was invited to go to South Africa to join the neo-Nazi movement there called the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB). Mandela was president and the AWB expected an all-out war.

I thought I was meeting up with like-minded people, but this wasn’t the case.

At a meeting, I played the group some of my European Nazi music. Everyone loved the anti-Mandela song but when I played an anti-Jewish song a colonel in the AWB pointed his revolver to my face and told me that I should not insult the chosen people of God. So I left and travelled on my own to Johannesburg.

On my travels in Johannesburg I got robbed at gunpoint by a black man. I thought I was about to die. I looked directly into his eyes and said, “I hope you don’t shoot me, I would love to see the rest of your beautiful country.”

Miraculously, he just walked away. There was no mistaking who I was – I was wearing an AWB t-shirt – so I couldn’t understand why he spared my life. I thought black people were animals. I thought black people had no compassion. I hated them. But he didn’t shoot me.

After this incident, I ended up broke and alone in South Africa. One evening, I was drinking my sorrows in a bar when the man sitting next to me bought me a beer. He was the friendliest, most disarming person you could possibly imagine – and he was black.

Despite my initial apprehension, I relaxed and we got drunk together. The next evening the man came to the hostel I was staying at with a bag of groceries and together we made dinner.

This man owed me nothing. And yet, here he was offering me nothing but kindness. I cannot overstate the significance of this moment – it completely shattered my worldview.

‘Do not be afraid to confront racism. But a word of warning…’

The fight against extremism has characterised my life for almost 20 years. I have no doubt that this will remain my purpose for the rest of my days. Instead of spreading hate, I now work with Norway’s police to de-radicalise extremists and engage young men who may be on the path to extremism.

Over the years, I have met over a hundred former neo-Nazis and every single one has found their own way to change. But one thing is the same every time: it all starts with an appeal to their humanity, with an honest attempt to understand where they’re coming from.  

The rash of xenophobia is spreading around the world and hatred cannot be defeated by governments or the intelligence services alone. As my personal story shows, the most powerful interventions can happen between civilians. So, do not be afraid to confront racism. But a word of warning: when you engage with someone who has racist opinions, come to the table with compassion – no one will listen if they think you don’t understand them. Extremists have developed defense strategies against most who confront them – but they do not have a defense against extreme kindness.