“When I saw how my racism and hatred was causing so much pain, that really was the final straw,” Jeff Schoep, a former neo-Nazi, told JNS.
(JNS) When Jeff Schoep, former head of the violently antisemitic National Socialist Movement, speaks at a private Highland Park, Ill., residence on March 14, he intends to cite his life as a cautionary tale for those seeking meaning by joining white supremacist groups.
“A common misconception is that someone joins neo-Nazi organizations in order to be evil,” Schoep told JNS. “This may be true for a small minority of people who are sociopaths who join. But for most people, it is like joining a cult, where you do evil things and not realize that what you are doing is evil.”
Once known as America’s most notorious neo-Nazi, Schoep—whose talk is sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center—shared with JNS the radicalization process that brought him to embrace a life of extremism and antisemitism.
“I started at a young age,” he said. “My grandfather and great-uncle fought in the German army during the Second World War, and my initial fascination with that side of my family history put me on the path.”
Schoep borrowed World War II history books from his elementary-school library; at the age of 21, he joined the National Socialist Movement in 1992. He took on a leadership role two years later.
Several factors led him to renounce neo-Nazism. He noted that it took allowing himself to empathize with minority groups and the pain that his actions were causing to see the error in his ways.
“I thought I was helping my people,” he said of white Americans. “But when you join with one of these neo-Nazi organizations, you are forfeiting your humanity. When I saw how my racism and hatred was causing so much pain, that really was the final straw.”
With academics, professionals and other ex-extremist leaders, Schoep founded the nonprofit Beyond Barriers to deradicalize those who adopt extremist or violent ideologies. A proven method for deradicalizing neo-Nazis is showing them how much they harmed victims.
“The primary objective of our organization is to raise awareness of how radicalization takes place in order to stop it,” he said. “We also coordinate with law enforcement so that police officers are aware of what is going on and will be able to stay safe.”
After founding Beyond Barriers, Schoep heard from African-American musician and activist Daryl Davis and Norwegian film director Deeyah Khan, who wanted to interview him for separate films each was producing. In his discussions with the two, he came to understand the extent of the harm he had caused.
‘The underground world of hate and antisemitism’
Liram Koblentz-Stenzler, a senior researcher and head of the global far-right extremism desk at Israel’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, told JNS that radicalization occurs in stages. She said that a model that the New York City Police Department uses—pre-radicalization, self-identification, indoctrination and then violence—uses with respect to jihadists is the “most effective explanation.”
“It is very tough to talk to someone who is already fully radicalized,” said Koblentz-Stenzler. “That’s why it is very important to identify someone before they reach the third step because by then it’s very hard for them to quit.”
Koblentz-Stenzler thinks it is noteworthy that Schoep was able to deradicalize himself after two decades of being a full-fledged neo-Nazi. That is very rare, she said.
Chicago police officers Roger Heath and Michael Specht—both of the city’s 24th district and both of whom work with Chicago’s Orthodox Jewish communities—described the work that Schoep and Beyond Barriers does to monitor neo-Nazi elements on the dark web as “instrumental.”
Alison Pure-Slovin, Midwest director at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, introduced the officers to Schoep. “During the Day of Hate, Beyond Barriers helped us understand what it was all about and the underground world of neo-Nazi hate and antisemitism,” Heath told JNS.
Heath and Specht speculate that notices the Chicago Police Department released that day may have put neo-Nazi groups on notice that law enforcement was watching them and served a preventative role.
Heath thinks Schoep’s journey from neo-Nazi to anti-racist activist can inspire others. “To me, it was an amazing story,” he said. “It serves as proof that people can change.”