Jun 25, 2014

Tom Olsen describes life as a Neo-Nazi thug and how he was ‘de-radicalised’

April 08, 2014
TOM Olsen was just 16 years old when he joined an ultra-right Neo-Nazi group.The young Norwegian teenager had a fascination with world war history and began to sympathise with the Nazi cause.He immersed himself in Neo-Nazi literature, further fuelling his extreme views before eventually becoming the leader of a white supremacist group in the 1990s.But it didn’t stop there: He was soon involved in acts of violence, twice spent time in jail and he even plotted to kill non-sympathisers.His hatred spiralled out of control and he joined the KKK in the US and went to South Africa in 1998 to join the AWB, another white supremacy movement.

“We enjoyed the respect and fear we got from people, it became quite violent,” he told news.com.au from Norway.  “It went from fun and exciting to quite stressful and challenging. But we had ourselves, we were brothers and did not see other friends and extended family slip away.”

He was so convinced his views were right, that he never questioned them or those of the white supremacists around him.

 “I felt like a born-again Christian,” he said.  “I saw the truth that most people did not. I felt like I had been living a life in a tiny box and now I could see the world for what it really was. I did not question things at all.”

But it took a lot of pain, suffering, jail time and ultimately learning about what it meant to be human to finally change his ways.

Mr Olsen’s story tonight features on Changing A Mindset on SBS Insight program. The documentary explores de-radicalisation and changing extreme beliefs.  He said it was while in South Africa that he began to see his extreme views for what they were, even if he wasn’t ready to leave them just yet.

Becoming disillusioned with the back-stabbing and in-fighting taking place back in his group in Norway, he slowly began to question the ideology.  But it wasn’t until he had his life spared by a black man who robbed him in South Africa that things really began to change. Even though Mr Olsen was wearing a swastika t-shirt, the armed black man chose not to shoot him ... instead, he spared his life.

Mr Olsen went back to Norway and was jailed for another assault and it was while in jail for the second time that he decided he needed to de-radicalise his life.

“I got time to think and found out I could not stand for this anymore,” he said.  “So I decided to leave. I called my parents and said it was over. I’ve never looked back.”

Now 39 and married with a young son, the crime prevention co-ordinator works alongside Tore Bjorgo, a man he once wanted dead, helping to change people who hold radical views he once held himself.  He said people could always change their views no matter how extreme.  If he could talk to his younger self, he would say this: “Rethink your life, I know you don’t feel hate in your heart, life is too short to spend it hating.”

Mr Olsen is not alone in learning how to change extreme views.  Insight will also hear from other guests whose thinking and views were so radically different from today it’s hard to believe they are even the same people.

Yeonmi Park was just a teenager when she escaped North Korea with her parents.  Ms Park grew up believing North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il was a god who could read her mind and anyone harbouring bad thoughts about him would surely die.  She was convinced her leader wasn’t even human — something she blames on the country’s propaganda system.

 “I had seen movies from the outside world and had learned some unapproved things, but still, I couldn’t think of them as being human,” she said.  “In school, we learned that they had almighty powers and could make miracles. So basically I couldn’t think about them being normal people, they were like Gods.”

Having a middle class upbringing, she enjoyed a comfortable existence in North Korea until her father got arrested and sent to 17 years in jail for apparently trading metals with China.

“There is guilt by association in North Korea, so my blood was also considered to be tainted,” she said.

Her family escaped and she was sent to the government-run ‘Hanawon’ resettlement centre, which aims to help defectors discard their old beliefs and integrate into South Korean society.  But it wasn’t easy changing such a radical mindset.

 “The propaganda is there 24/7, the statues praising them are everywhere, the education system is built on brainwashing people from birth,” the now 20-year-old said.  “I suppose some people will start to question it after they have the kind of bad experience that my family had, some others it will take time.”

Matthew Klein and daughter Tessa will also appear on the program revealing how radicalised they were during their time within what he describes as a cult-like commune. The father and daughter were part of the Twelve Tribes commune on a farm at Picton, outside Sydney. Mr Klein reveals how he was attracted by the group’s reputation as a religious community based on Bible teachings.  He joined the group with his wife and kids after selling all his family’s possessions.  But he now believes the group is a cult, and draws on his experience to help others who want to get out.  Matthew’s daughter Tessa also left the group but her mother — Matthew’s wife — has refused to leave.


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