welcome to the Skinhead Nation  Hated by many, understood by few, the skinhead cult is a very different animal to that portrayed in newspaper headlines. Skinhead Nation takes you on a journey through the back streets of Britain, America and Europe to hear the skinheads' own story.

 skinheads rule okay!
No One Likes Us

Part One
The Big Apple Bites back

Part Two
Among The Mugs

Part Three
Bring Back The Skins

Part Four
No Mean City

Part Five
Here Comes Johnny Reggae

Part Six
Violence In Our Minds

Part Seven
Ghost Town

Part Eight
Neither Red Or Racist

Part Nine
One Law For Them

Part Ten
Tougher Than Tough

Part Eleven
No One Likes Us

Part Twelve
Us And Them

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At the start of December, 1991, 200 skinheads marched through the streets of Lübeck in Germany. The March Of The Skinheads was organised by the Lübeck Bootboys and Bootgirls to protest against the fact that the media was constantly blaming skinheads for the rise in neo-Nazi activity which sharply increased following the reunification of Germany in October, 1990. SKINHEADS - BUT NOT RACISTS was the message on the huge banner that was carried at the front of the demonstration.

It was an important day for the skinhead cult in Germany, even if it was to be totally swallowed up and lost in the events that preceeded the march and those that followed. The world’s spotlight turned on Germany in horror as pictures of gangs of neo-Nazis attacking hostels for refugees, often cheered on by older people, filled TV screens around the globe.

In November, 1992, a grandmother and two young girls were killed in a firebomb attack in Moelln, near Hamburg. Television news reports carried pictures of frightened and defenceless immigrants being besieged by what commentators regularly referred to as “skinheads” - even although the pictures on the screen told a different story. Some of the youths involved in the attacks were indeed skinheads, but the majority had longer hair and weren’t dressed in anything remotely close to skinhead fashion.

Again the focus was on the minority skinhead element who formed a small, vocal and easily identifiable part of a much larger movement. Again the implication was that all skinheads in Germany were Nazis.

In May, 1993, five more Turks - two women and three children - were burned alive in another hideous firebombing, this time in Solingen. Four skinheads were responsible, bringing further shame to the cult. There can be no justification for murdering women and children while they sleep in their beds at night. The people responsible for such attacks, skinheads or otherwise, are the scum of the Earth and a great advertisement for the return of capital punishment.

For skinheads in Germany, and particularly those with no racist affiliations, things could hardly have been worse. The majority of people had only really heard of skinheads in connection with the increase in racist violence, and in the eyes of both the media and the general public, every skinhead was a potential firebomber, a potential murderer.

Perhaps you have to walk down the street the morning after a bout of media hysteria about skinheads, with a cropped head and boots, to fully appreciate how much hatred can be directed at you for belonging to a youth cult. The vast majority of skinheads, irrespective of where they stand politically, were angry and ashamed that the greatest of all youth cults could be associated with anything so horrific, both by those skinheads involved and by sections of the media who had once again used the skinhead folk devil to spice up news reports.

Following the attacks, a number of skinheads who had supported the racist cause beforehand would have nothing more to do with it. A German skinhead band who had been associated with the right wing also threw in the towel after releasing a single expressing their own disgust at what had happened. Ingo Hasselbach, one of Berlin’s leading Nazi skinheads who featured widely in world press reports on the rise of neo-Nazism in Germany, was perhaps the most prominent figure to leave the movement following the deaths. He has since written the book, Führer-Ex - Memoirs Of A Former Neo-Nazi (Chatto & Windus), and now speaks out against the extreme right in Germany.

Führer-Ex is a good book in many ways. It perfectly illustrates the alternative world that extremists of every persuasion create for themselves, a world virtually detached from mainstream society where your beliefs are reinforced by those around you, and the siege mentally such detachment creates. It also shows the attractions and fascinations in what becomes literally a way of life.

Hasselbach’s involvement with the skinhead cult can be traced back to him growing up in the totalitarian East Germany. To speak out against the Communist regime earned you a prison sentence, and few forms of protest existed to young people beyond being either a hippy, a punk or a skinhead. At the time, those that the state media called “neo-Nazis” were really just people who totally resented living under such an oppressive regime, and that was especially true of the skinheads.

For those living in the West, it is hard to imagine what life is like under communist rule, but the fact that as a skinhead you would be jailed for simply chanting “Oi! Oi! Oi!” in a public place gives some idea of how restrictive life could be. One skinhead got two and a half years for just that offence.

Given the way the media has focused so heavily on the skinhead involvement in the rise of neo-Nazism in Germany, you would expect Ex-Führer to be full of references to the cult. It isn’t. Indeed, despite shaving his own head and wearing army boots, Hasselbach himself shows no real interest in the cult. In one of the few references he makes to skinheads, he dismisses them in a sentence as “the idiots who cleared the streets for us and intimidated our enemies”.

It’s also clear that the majority of neo-Nazis weren’t skinheads anyway, and more than once they had to rely on football hooligans for extra muscle - casuals who were attracted more by the violence and the potential for looting than they ever were by the politics.

Not only then did the media distort the coverage of events in Germany in the early 1990s, but Hasselbach also states that the media attention increased his National Alternative party’s bank account five-fold - as money from new members and the press came pouring in. The media paid for interviews and photo opportunities - Hitler salutes cost extra - and the extensive coverage given to groups like the National Alternative served as the most effective recruitment tool the extreme right had at its disposal.

On Thursday, 16th of January, 1996, ten people were killed when fire swept through a hostel housing foreigners in the German port city of Lübeck. Arson was thought to have been the cause and three youths from the area were arrested in connection with the fire. This horrific tragedy again made the headlines around the world, and here in Britain it was reported that the three youths were “connected to the local skinhead scene” - all the proof that was needed to pass a guilty verdict in a lot of people’s minds.

Anti-fascist demonstrations were held in Lübeck and Hamburg, and once again skinheads were Germany’s public enemy number one. Just days later, there was an important breakthrough in the case - only, chances are you missed it because it wasn’t front page news anymore. The three youths had been released without being charged. They had nothing to do with the fire. A Lebanese refugee who lived with his family in the hostel was charged with arson.

If he deliberately started the fire, rotting in hell would be too good for him. But there’ll be no more demonstrations. Ten dead in a fire, but unless there are political points to be scored very few people seem to care.

There’s no getting away from the fact that some of those involved in the increase in racially motivated crimes in Germany were and are skinheads. Among them, you’ll have committed skinheads, kids who don’t have a clue what skinhead is all about, and people who are right wing, want people to know they are right-wing and so adopt the look of the stereotypical racist. Add them together and you still don’t get the majority of those involved. And just because some of those involved in the arson attacks happened to be skinheads that doesn’t mean that all German skinheads want to see the establishment of a Fourth Reich. Not by a long chalk. And even those skinheads who do want to see a Germany free of Turks and other immigrants don’t necessarily agree with firebombing.

It is possible to hold racist views without supporting racial violence. The media though, in its quest for thirty second sound bites, nearly always portrays it as if it is only skinheads that are responsible for the attacks, and that all skinheads are therefore guilty by association. They may not always intend that to be the case, but that’s how it comes over.

“I know how the media portrays skinheads and I don’t like it,” said reggae star, Judge Dread, at the time of the hostel attacks. “I work a lot in Germany and I work mainly for the skinheads out there. Just because skinheads wear boots and braces doesn’t mean they are bad. Al Capone wore a suit and tie, the Mafia wear suits and ties, so you can’t judge people by their dress, but they always assume that skinheads are bad. The nasty, snarling skinhead. I go to Germany and I talk to the skinheads there and they’re into the music and they’re not racial - how can they be racial when they’re into black music? You hear all these stories about skinheads doing this and skinhead violence, and I think, hold on a minute, this doesn’t happen where I work. All the skinheads that I’ve met have been non-violent and non-racist, and they make a point of letting it be known that they are. They run rallies and all sorts of things there, and they even give money to charity.”

The first skinheads in Germany were British soldiers who took the style over during the days of Sham and 2 Tone. Skinheads have always been well represented in the armed forces and it’s only natural that they take their music, civvie street clothes and such like with them on their travels.

To begin with, German skinheads only appeared in towns and cities that had a British army base, but by the early Eighties, the cult had spread to towns with no British influences. Again, at the start the cult was very British in character - right down to German skins wearing Union Jacks and West Ham football tops - but as time went on the German skinheads found their own identity.

“The skinhead way of life came to Germany as an already distorted kind of movement because the National Front had already had some impact on the movement in England,” says Emma Steel. “So when it came to Germany, it was distorted, and there were a lot of people thinking, ‘I’m right-wing so I have to dress up like a skinhead’.”

Most countries on mainland Europe seem to be more politicised than the British Isles. People tend to be more politically active and motivated in countries like Germany, Spain and Italy than they ever are here, and this is reflected in youth culture too.

In the early Eighties, the German punk scene became closely associated with the country’s squatter movement and other left-wing causes, and so those punks who wanted to distance themselves from the left-wing turned to the skinhead cult. Within a few years, it was generally true that punks were left-wing in Germany and skinheads were right-wing, and this was true for both West Germany and East Germany. When Peter & The Test Tube Babies played there around this time they were confronted by 800 sieg heiling skinheads.

There were exceptions though and a number of German skinheads had no interest in right-wing politics, preferring to support the left-wing or take no interest in politics whatsoever. When Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice was imported to Europe from the States by The Oppressed’s Roddy Moreno in the late Eighties, its message found fertile ground in Germany, and SHARP quickly established a sizeable presence among German skinheads. By the late Eighties, it had been firmly established that not all skinheads were racist, and that you could become a skinhead without having to subscribe to anything remotely resembling national socialism.

further boost to the ranks of the non-racist skinheads came from a rapidly growing ska scene, based on the early success of bands like Skaos, The Braces, The Busters and Blechreiz. If you were a skinhead who enjoyed listening to what was black music it made little sense to also support the extreme right, and a number of ska bands took it upon themselves to openly oppose racism and encouraged their followers to do likewise.

In 1989, Pork Pie Records was launched by a Berlin skin called Matzge to act as a home for the burgeoning ska scene that to this day attracts hundreds of skinheads every year to major ska festivals held in towns like Potsdam and Aachen. In fact, together with the USA, Germany is a true focus for the underground ska scene as it is today, and regularly plays host to full tours by bands like Bad Manners and The Selecter as well as home grown talent too. What’s more, it is one of the few countries where old ska and reggae stars get to perform on a regular basis in front of large appreciative audiences - audiences full of skinheads.

The media makes great play out of the fact that hundreds of skins turn out to see neo-Nazi bands perform, but rarely mention the fact that similar numbers of skins can be found at ska gigs. “Their love of the early music amazes me,” says Judge Dread. “Last year at Potsdam, I was on stage at the same time as Derrick Morgan, Laurel Aitken, Justin Hinds and Rico. That probably wouldn’t happen here.”

The creation of a united Germany, and the upsurge in nationalist sentiment that accompanied it, did much to swell the ranks of the extreme right, especially when promises of a better life failed to materialise in the East and the West was left to pick up the massive cost of unification. This in turn led to an increase in political extremism and racism, with immigrants being blamed for the country’s economic problems.

Up until then, SHARP had managed to achieve some positive media coverage for the skinhead cult, but you can only do so much to shift public opinion. It soon became impossible to combat the images of burning hostels, and so SHARP became more or less ineffective. A recent opinion poll said that just 2% of the German population would want to share Christmas with a skinhead, such is the cult’s current standing in the public’s eyes.

Even so, the skinhead cult remains strong in Germany as a whole. People come and go, but there are certainly no signs of the cult’s strength of numbers diminishing. Even so, it is far from united. It’s ridiculous to have to continually define skinheads in political terms, but for the sake of outsiders reading this, German skinheads today represent all points on the political spectrum, and it is these political differences that leave the cult divided. That said, it is incredible enough that the cult has survived recent events without expecting it to have done so in one piece.

“Hard times need hard guys,” Uli of the Berlin-based Skin Up fanzine says as way of an explanation for the cult’s continued existence. “The economic situation is getting worse and if there’s no chance of getting a job, it’s a lot easier to take on a hard lifestyle.”

Berlin is as good a place as any to offer a snapshot of the German skinhead scene. It was until recently divided, with West Berlin and East Berlin not so much being a tale of two cities, but a tale of two worlds. West Berlin was an island of Western democracy in a sea of communism and was a vibrant, exciting, potentially dangerous place to be during the Cold War. Naturally, that feeling of living on the edge has faded since the Berlin Wall came down, but in many ways the city remains divided.

Those in former West Berlin have a tendency to still see East Berlin as backward, while East Berliners see their western counterparts as arrogant. For generations they led such different lives that it will be a good few years before the city is fully integrated again.

There are around 800 skinheads in the city, and they are fairly evenly divided between the east and the west. Although things are slowly changing, the chances are that those living in former West Berlin have little regular contact with those in former East Berlin, except at gigs and similar events. The physical barriers are gone, but the mental ones remain firmly in position.

The Berlin skinhead scene is also divided along political lines. There are large numbers of both Hammerskins and Blut Und Ehre Skins in the city, although they tend to be concentrated in the south and south west. Together they represent the neo-Nazi and racist elements and share little in common with other skinheads in the city beyond the name. There are also still a large number of SHARP skins in the city, mainly in the West, although their numbers have fallen for the same reason SHARP has declined in other areas - its ineffectiveness, left-wing infiltration and the fact that skinheads themselves know the score and have no desire to pander to the wishes of outsiders. There are also a small number of redskins and anarchist skins, but both are a very small minority. The remaining skinheads are non-political, those who choose to put their love of the skinhead way of life above all politics.

The largest gang of non-political skins in the city are the Prenzlauerberg Oi! Skins who come mainly from the Prenzlauerberg district of what was East Berlin. The Prenzlauerberg Oi! Skins number around 50 or 60 and came together in 1994 from the remnants of a number of other gangs. Before the fall of the Wall, most skinheads in East Germany were right-wing as a direct result of living under a communist regime, but not many had much idea of what the skinhead cult was really about. It was difficult to get authentic skinhead clothing too so they had to make do with what they could find.

The united Germany did see an upsurge in support for the extreme right-wing, but at the same time large numbers of former East German skins either offered their support to SHARP or saw that politics played no part in the cult and adopted a non-political stance. In a society where skinheads are either left-wing or right-wing or not entitled to an opinion, it leaves the likes of the Prenzlauerberg Oi! Skins to more or less stand alone. “We get attacked by both sides, by SHARP and right wing skins too, so we really stand on our own,” explains Jenny, a skingirl from the gang.

While the extreme right skinheads have their own music scene, SHARP skins and non-political skinheads tend to share a love for ska, reggae, Oi! and the like, and so tend to mix together. In effect, this creates the two skinhead factions that are repeated throughout the world. On one hand you have the racist, nationalist and Nazi skinheads who gravitate towards the white power scene, and on the other hand you have the non-political, SHARP and left-wing skinheads who have broadly similar musical tastes as mentioned earlier and who tend to be either non-racist or anti-racist.

Of course you can hold virtually any political stance or have no political stance and still see racism as wrong. “Most of the non-racist skins are not at all political, and that’s an important point because when you tell people that there are anti-racist skinheads they immediately think they are left-wing which is complete nonsense,” says Emma Steel.

There is a slight overlap between the two big factions, but that is becoming smaller as the issue of racism has polarised the cult’s two wings. In the mid-Eighties, it wasn’t too unusual for a skinhead to go to a Skrewdriver concert one week and a ska gig the following week. It wasn’t a regular occurrence, but it did happen more then than it does now.

“Everyone has their own political opinions within the Prenzlauerberg Oi! Skins,” explains Alex, who is Jenny’s older brother, “but it’s down to private individuals, just as it should be.”

Of course, there are those on the right-wing who assume that because the Prenzlauerberg crew does not support them, the term non-political really means left-wing. And there will be those on the left-wing who continually accuse non-political skins of being fascist appeasers or closet right-wing skinheads. It’s always difficult for the politically motivated to believe that you might genuinely believe that politics has nothing to do with being a skinhead and so are not interested in playing their petty games. That’s as true in Berlin as it is anywhere else in the world.

“By calling myself non-racist, not only am I against the Nazis and the Klan and shit like that,” says Pete from New York, “I’m also against shit like the Nation Of Islam and that Malcolm X bullshit. It’s the same thing, it’s just a different colour. Minority racism, blacks hate the whites, blacks hate the Jews, Jews hate the blacks, whatever, it’s the same thing. It’s all bullshit, white supremacy or black supremacy.”

The Prenzlauerberg crew are regularly accused of being Nazis, firstly because they are skinheads, secondly because they are from East Berlin and thirdly because they don’t support SHARP. They are proud of their country too and cannot understand why so many people confuse their patriotism with Nazism, but their pride in themselves and their country does not extend to prejudice. Within the gang, there are skinheads who originally come from France, Bulgaria, Hungary and Mongolia, and all are accepted without question.

Alex and Jenny themselves are Jews, something that isn’t a problem as far as being a skinhead goes, but does cause trouble at home. “Our parents don’t like us being skinheads very much because our religion is Jewish and they think the two don’t fit together. They tolerate it, but seeing us walking around in boots makes them wonder what others will think of us because of the way the media portrays skinheads as evil, the lowest of the low.”

“The media frees people from their own racism,” argues Alex, “because they can look at us and say you’re the racists.”

Some people might be surprised that Alex and Jenny don’t support SHARP, but they prefer to side with the non-political cause. Being anti-racist is a moral issue for them, and they have no need to prove it by the wearing of a badge. “The basic idea of SHARP is right and we agree with that,” says Alex of the Prenzlauerberg Oi! Skins in general, “but we just don’t see why we should enter this movement because we just can’t get along with some of the leading SHARP skins in West Berlin personally. SHARP has also been used and drawn too much towards the left-wing.”

Most SHARP skins will point out that SHARP’s only stance is on racism, and any skinheads who oppose racism are welcome to wear the SHARP colours irrespective of other political beliefs. That’s the theory, but in practise the left-wing has attempted to use SHARP as its own political foot soldiers with varying degrees of success.

Even so, in Berlin, those in the anarchist movement and on the extreme left still seem all too willing to believe that anything associated with the skinhead cult must be Nazi by definition. And that included French ska band, Skarface, who toured Germany, but were told their last gig in Berlin was cancelled because the band were suspected of being right-wing sympathisers.

They could have gone home, but instead travelled to Berlin to confront their accusers and to ask for the gig to go ahead. After explaining the reality of a band whose motto is “100% ska, 200% fun”, Skarface were told to return to the venue in an hour’s time for a final decision. When they came back, they were attacked with baseball bats and metal bars, and several of the band members needed hospital treatment. To their credit, it was the SHARP skins who were outraged by the events that had taken place, and publicised the facts in the pages of Skin Up in the hope that other bands would boycott the promoters and venue.

West Berlin holds few attractions for the Prenzlauerberg Oi! Skins, but they travel there en masse for gigs. Cock Sparrer’s visit to Berlin in March 1995 attracted skinheads from all over the city, despite the fact that the gig was held in an area with a high Turkish population. The reality was that there was no trouble between local youths and the skinheads attending the gig, but the perceived threat of trouble is just as important as the reality of a situation and some skins preferred to wait until Sparrer returned to play what was considered a safer part of town rather than venture into a Turkish part of the city. It may seem paranoid, but thanks to media hysteria and left-wing agitation, gigs in certain parts of the city have the potential of becoming Germany’s Southall.

Of course, local Turkish gangs aren’t interested in what music Sparrer or any other band play. They just see hundreds of skinheads coming to their part of town, and like most other people they believe what the media tells them about skinheads.

In fact, a classic case of media hysteria involved a Turkish journalist and the Berlin SHARP skins. The journalist stayed with one of the skinheads while he spent time talking to the SHARP crew and following them around the city. The very fact that a Turkish journalist was welcomed into the home of a skinhead, together with the blatant anti-racist stance of the skinheads he met, should have resulted in some positive coverage for those involved, but incredibly that was not the case. The journalist sold his story to a Turkish magazine, claiming he had gone undercover with Nazi skinheads, and he simply invented fairy tale comments to go along with the article that had swastikas on every page for added effect. It’s little wonder that there is trouble in Germany between skinheads and Turkish street gangs, and it’s equally no surprise that skinheads trust journalists as far as they can kick them.

“The media have their own prejudices and most of them don’t really want to know about the skinhead movement,” says Emma Steel who was involved in the above incident. “They just want their prejudices to come true. And if you give interviews and they are not coming true, they will find a way to put it into a context to make people believe that all skinheads really are Nazis.”

One of the Prenzlauerberg Oi! Skins summed up perfectly the German media’s use of scapegoats when he said, “For AIDS they blame gay people, for unemployment it’s the foreigners, and for racism it’s us.”

The Cock Sparrer gig was a shining example of why being a skinhead is worth all the grief you get. No other band can knock out three minute street classics that perfectly capture the reality of life on such a consistent basis. Songs like Argy Bargy, The Sun Says, Because You’re Young, Chip On Your Shoulder, Get A Rope, Bird Trouble, Where Are They Now, Sunday Stripper, Take ‘Em All, Riot Squad, Watch Your Back, and perhaps a dozen more are street anthems without match. It’s criminal that Cock Sparrer aren’t topping the charts every other month, but such is the stitched up world we live in.

When Sparrer launch into England Belongs To Me, four or five hundred German skinheads join in with the chorus. A number of German skins still wear Union Jack patches, either to show their allegiance to British street music or to show respect for the birthplace of their youth cult. Let’s see the sociologists explain that one away with their oh so clever theories. Not only do you have British Nazi skinheads who worship Adolf Hitler, but you have German skinheads with no interest in Nazism who proudly wear the Union Jack on their jackets.

Sparrer’s Riot Squad could have been dedicated to the reception party that was waiting for the skinheads as the gig came to an end. Across the street from the venue, a long row of police vans was waiting, its occupants decked out in full riot gear. The German skinheads call the police “the green shadow” because they constantly monitor skinhead activity, although like most outsiders they don’t differentiate between the different breeds of skinhead. Berlin also suffers from the fact that jobs had to be found for former border guards, the secret police and other potential misfits, and so the city boasts a large police force with time on its hands.

As the skinheads poured out onto the street, their only interest was in finding a bus home. The police though were obviously anticipating trouble, and when it wasn’t forthcoming they were quite happy to try and provoke it.

Around ten skinheads and skingirls from the Prenzlauerberg mob were standing on a street corner, waiting for the traffic lights to change so that they could cross the road and find their transport home. As they stood there, minding their own business, a police van drove past, slowed down and sprayed the skinheads with CS gas. A skingirl and her skinhead boyfriend caught the full force of it, leaving both in temporary agony as their eyes burned with the pain. The police van then turned around and parked on the opposite side of the street, waiting for a reaction. On this occasion, the skinheads didn’t rise to it, and the presence of a TV camera - which unintentionally captured the event on film - no doubt discouraged the police from raising the stakes further.

On another night though you would have had a riot on your hands and you don’t need two guesses to know who would have been blamed in the newspapers the next day. ACAB.

Being a skinhead in Germany is a far from easy path to walk, irrespective of your political views, but it remains a country that boasts arguably the largest skinhead scene of today. A large part of its survival against all odds is the virtual self-sufficiency of the scene - tours, gigs, record labels, even clothing suppliers are generally run and organised by skinheads, ex-skinheads, band members or other people with a genuine feel and love for what they are doing. That German knack for organisation is certainly paying dividends here anyway.

For a number of years now, Germany has also been home to a large selection of quality skinhead fanzines so there is little need to rely on the mainstream media for help. “The normal media doesn’t even give normal youths what they need,” argues Uli. “There are a lot of publications for young people, but most of them are bullshit. And this is especially true for skinheads because you’ll never read about bands we like and what’s important to us, so we have to do it on our own.”

Outsiders understandably see skinhead as a fashion. For some that’s no doubt the case, but few people appreciate the depth of feeling skinheads have for their cult. To many it comes close to being a religion and adversity just makes those beliefs all the more stronger. Nowhere is that truer than in Germany. They may not be able to trace their roots back to the late Sixties like British skins can, but they are fighting tooth and nail for the pride and dignity that has always been part of the skinhead cult. As Alex says, “skinhead is about being very low on the ladder of society, but still making something of your life.”
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