The Skinhead phenomenon originated in England where gangs of menacing-looking, shaven-headed and tattooed youths in combat boots began to be seen in the streets in the early 1970’s. Their style was meant to symbolize tough, patriotic, working-class attitudes in contrast to the supposedly sissyish, pacifist, middle-class views of the hippies.
The racist and chauvinist attitudes that prevailed at the time among many Skinheads later evolved into a crude form of Nazism. From the start, Skins drew public notice for their bigotry and taste for violence, exemplified by their frequent assaults on Asian immigrants, attacks which came to be known as “Paki-bashing.”
In the years that followed, the Skinhead movement spread from England to the Continent and beyond. Racist Skinheads are found today in almost every industrialized country whose majority population is of European stock. Those attracted to the movement are almost uniformly white youths between the ages of 13 and 25, with males outnumbering females. While Skins retail the mythology of the movement’s working-class origins, in reality they come from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds.
The intimidating look favored by male Skinheads is instantly recognizable: a shaved head or closely cropped hair; jeans; thin suspenders or braces; combat boots; a bomber jacket, sometimes emblazoned with Nazi insignia; and tattoos of Nazi symbols and slogans. For security reasons, Skinheads sometimes adopt a less conspicuous look, by, for example, letting their hair grow out.
Most Skinhead gangs range in size from fewer than 10 to several dozen members. To those devoted to the movement, being a Skinhead is a full-time way of life and not simply adherence to a fashion. Skinhead activities dominate the social life – and the domestic life – of gang members: they often live in communal crash-pads and stick to themselves when out in public. The girls usually have Skinhead boyfriends.
Neo-Nazi ideology combined with the gang lifestyle provides Skinheads with a seductive sense of strength, group belonging and superiority over others. Invocation of Viking imagery offers the Skinhead a perception of himself as a racial warrior. The Skinheads glorify Hitler and aspire to create his vision of a world-wide, pan-Aryan Reich. These strands – a sense of power, of belonging, of destiny – combine to create the appeal the Skinhead movement holds for disaffected youngsters.
Skinhead violence differs little from one country to the next. When on the prowl, they seek out members of hated groups and attack them. While their means of attack varies, Skinheads take special pride in using their boots as weapons. Vandalism is another Skinhead specialty: they scrawl racist graffiti and desecrate Jewish synagogues, cemetaries and memorials to the Holocaust.
While some Skinheads have been known to use drugs, virtually all drink. Heavy beer consumption often precedes incidents of Skinhead violence.
Music and Magazines
A major aspect of Skinhead life is their devotion to bands that play white power “oi” music, a hard-driving brand of rock and roll whose lyrics pound home a message of bigotry and violence. No other means of communication – neither the spoken nor written word – compares with oi music’s influence on their outlook and behavior. Music is the Skinhead movement’s main propaganda weapon and its chief means of attracting young recruits into its ranks. Skins maintain universal ties through their music, distributing recordings internationally and organizing concert tours and music fests that feature both domestic and foreign bands.
Record labels devoted to white power music produce and market recordings, and informal networks of enthusiasts exchange bootleg cassette tapes. The artwork on the jackets of Skinhead recordings is characteristically devote to racist and violent images.
Concerts range from performances in local hangouts to international festivals that attract Skinheads from neighboring countries. At these festivals, swastika-emblazoned banners decorate the bandstands while Skinheads, arms outstretched, shout slogans like “Sieg Heil” and “White Power.” In whatever context the bands play, the event often degenerates into a free-for-all of slam-dancing and scattered fistfights.
Also central to the Skinhead scene are their magazines (commonly called skinzines or zines), usually crudely written newsletters that focus on Skinhead bands and their recordings. The zines promote Skinhead ideology and advertise services popular among Skins such as tattoo parlors, clothing stores that sell Skin fashions, and oi music distributors. In addition, they announce concerts and other events of interest to Skinheads everywhere. Zines are published sporadically, and it is not unusual for some to fold after a few issues and for new ones to crop up.
The zines serve as a vital link between Skinheads in different countries. The publications generally maintain friendly relations internationally, carrying usually favorable reviews of foreign bands and detailing – with some delight – the exploits of their counterparts abroad.
The most commonly used propaganda items among Skinheades around the world are printed and sold by an American neo-Nazi, Gary Lauck of Lincoln, Nebraska, who publishes in 12 languages. Lauck supplies huge quaintities of cheap colorful stickers bearing swastikas and incendiary slogans like “Deport Race-Mixers” and “Polska Na Zawsze Ziemia Aryjska!” (“Poland Will Forever Be Aryan!”). He also publishes a neo-Nazi tabloid (in many languages) which he markets to Skinheads and non-Skinheads alike.
Law enforcement authorities in Germany and elsewhere have long linked Lauck’s material to numerous criminal acts. German prosecutors succeeded in bringing about Lauck’s arrest when they sent out a warrant to 15 other European countries where Lauck was thought to have supporters. He was arrested in Denmark on March 20, 1995. Pending Lauck’s extradition to Germany, he has been charged with distributing illegal propaganda and Nazi symbols, incitement, encouraging racial hatred and belonging to a criminal group.
Other members of the Skinheads include Tom Metzger, leader of the California-based White Aryan Resistance, who circulates his inflammatory tabloid WAR among Skinheads around the world. In addition, pamphlets denying the reality of the Nazi murder of six million Jews are eagerly read by Skinheads. One Holocaust-denial tract, the “Leuchter Report,” is distributed in large quantities by German-born Canadian Ernst Zuendel. Copies have been supplied to readers in Germany through Bela Ewald Althans, a Munich-based neo-Nazi.
In whatever form it takes – zines, music, slogans, propaganda – the rhetoric of Skinheads and their supporters is designed to encourage violence. As this report shows, turning the rhetoric of violence into action is the hallmark of Skinhead activity wherever the young gangs have surfaced.
Anti-Defamation League. The Skinhead International: A Worldwide Survey of Neo-Nazi Skinheads. New York: Anti-Defamation League, 1995. Anti-Defamation League, 823 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017.
Disclaimer: not all skinheads are neo-nazis or white supremacists. There are many skinheads who are non- or anti-racist, and who come from a variety of different religious and cultural backgrounds. Nizkor recognizes their achievements in anti-racism: they are part of the traditional, non-racist skinhead subculture and are not the perpetrators of the hate crimes discussed here.
Unless otherwise specified, the word “skinhead” within these pages refers only to neo-Nazi and white supremacist skinheads, the perpetrators of hate crimes and participants in racist organizations. We cannot edit the body of the text above, because it was not written by Nizkor, and to change the wording would be fraudulent. Please keep in mind that not all skinheads are racist.