GARRET WAS BORN IN 1975 as Achim Schmid in Mosbach, Germany, to a marriage that was already breaking apart. When he was 8, his father died of lung cancer. His mother, who never remarried, would grab a bottle of alcohol after work and lock herself in her room all night. Given his family’s reputation, other children’s parents didn’t allow them to play with Garret. Kids bullied him in school. Then one day, he heard schoolmates laughing over anti-Semitic jokes, and he began dropping those jokes too, hoping to score laughs.
In post-war Germany, the mere mention of Hitler or national pride drew giggles and gasps. Garret liked that attention. By age 13, people were calling him “the Nazi kid,” but anything was better than being the bullied kid: “Suddenly, I had an identity. I was not a nobody anymore.”
As a young teenager, Garret fell in love with far-right skinhead bands that sang about nationalism and feeling misunderstood and that raged against authority, Jews, blacks, and immigrants. At 19, he began performing in a skinhead band that traveled across Europe.
In 1998, Garret joined a Klan group in Germany and later opened his own chapter. The age of the internet was also booming. Garret met American Klansmen online who identified as Christians, and he peppered them with questions: How can you be anti-Semitic yet pray to Jesus, a Jew? They said Jesus was not Jewish, but white. They claimed that black people are “beasts of the field,” that Jesus was blond, that enslaving or exterminating nonwhites would hasten Christ’s second coming.
That sounded ridiculous to Garret, so he pored through the Bible and found the opposite: The Bible teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God. It talks about welcoming foreigners and treating them with empathy and justice. Jesus was kind and compassionate to the Samaritan woman, who was part of an ethnic group the Jews abhorred.
Garret began wondering: What if nothing made sense because his beliefs were wrong? What most people don’t realize is that “everyone in hate groups have doubts,” Garret said. But whenever he expressed doubts, other Klansmen shushed him: The Jew-controlled media’s tricking you. Satan’s deceiving you. “It’s like standing on quicksand,” Garret recalled. “The more you try to get out, the deeper you sink in.”
By then, police were raiding his house, digging for evidence of domestic terrorism and hate crimes. That spooked him. In 2002, he resigned as grand dragon of his Klan group and moved with his family 100 miles away to another town, where he rented the only affordable house available. Problem was, his landlord was a Muslim immigrant from Turkey. That man turned out to be Garret’s “someone.”
One night, the landlord invited him to dinner with his wife and two children. As a penny-strapped stranger in a new town, Garret felt forced to accept. His inner conflict exacerbated into a full-out internal warfare when the landlord’s wife placed a steaming bowl of Turkish fish soup before him. He had heard that rejecting these people’s food is a grave insult. But if he ate this soup—he was quite convinced that he might vomit before his hosts.
Finally, Garret blurted out, “I’m sorry. I don’t like fish soup.” And then he held his breath, but the landlord’s wife simply smiled and took the soup away. For the rest of the night, they were just as nice and gracious. Garret walked away that night in tears: “Everything I had expected did not happen. I felt so small and wrong.”
Garret had always thought his ideology was based on love: love for his race, his family, country, heritage, and culture. But the more he met people of other races and ethnicities, the more he realized how much he had lived in ignorant hate: “We went to bed with hate, we woke up with hate.”
That hate is all-consuming: It seeps into every part of that person’s life and identity. That’s why it’s so hard for some to separate themselves from their ideology—without it, who are they?