About two years ago the co-founder and leader of the Finnish Resistance Movement (FRM), Esa Holappa, quietly left Finland’s most militant neo-Nazi group. Explaining the reasons behind his departure for the very first time, he tells Yle’s Spotlight programme that he simply could not reconcile raising children while continuing to work for the hate group.
"I thought about my time in the Nazi movement," the 31-year old Holappa says now. "And I suddenly realised that what I was doing was crazy."
While he seems confident that it was the right decision to leave the racist group he helped establish, his departure has not been trouble-free.
"Of course I cannot erase my past days as a neo-Nazi—even if I wanted to," Holappa says. "I can’t deny my past and say it never happened. On the other hand I can be proud that I grew up and left behind all the anger and distrust. I left once I took a long look at myself in the mirror; I was able to see how wrong racism and white power truly are."
He says that he’d been exposed to those divisive ideals at a young age and that he freely allowed them to become part of his life. Until a couple of years ago he says he did not permit himself to consider questioning his overt nationalism and racist ideas.
Murderers and violent criminals
For years, he says, he believed what he was doing was right.
During that time Holappa invested a lot of effort building a comprehensive international network in order to form the FRM, which was formally established in 2008. His list of international contacts included people from notorious neo-Nazi groups and scores of other racist and nationalist organisations.
In his four years at the helm of the hate group Holappa says he kept company with murderers and violent criminals from around the world and that he even helped a wanted German neo-Nazi hide from authorities in his own home.
Officially, Holappa was listed as the leader of the FRM but he now says that his position was mostly as a figurehead - the real leaders worked secretly behind the scenes.
While the group still has only a few dozen active members and supporters, the group is an arm of the umbrella organisation the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM).
Based in Sweden, the NRM says its goal is to create a national socialist republic across the Nordic and Baltic countries. The group also has factions in Norway and Denmark but they are significantly less active than their Swedish and Finnish counterparts.
The FRM is Finland’s most militant neo-Nazi group.
Like their Nordic brothers, violence is a central part of FRM’s ideology. Finnish law enforcement is well aware of the FRM and keeps a close watch on the group.
The number of FRM members has nearly doubled in the past few years. The group expanded from about 30 to 40 members only a few years ago to an estimated 60 to 70 activists, members and supporting members being involved today.
Members of the Nordic Resistance keep in touch with each other, travel to meetings and participate in each other’s actions and activities.
"Patriots", not Nazis
But, unlike non-extremist groups, the NRM says that in order to achieve its goals, bloodshed and violence would likely be key ingredients. The group praises the likes of Adolf Hitler and the forefather of antisemitism Corneliu Codreanu.
At this point, the number of neo-Nazi groups in Finland do not appear to be growing at an uncontrollable pace. But since the European refugee crisis began to unfold last summer, there has been a notable uptick in interest in racist and xenophobic notions and organisations across Europe and in Finland, too.
The FRM promptly took note of this potential wave of new members and began softening its harsher image as a neo-Nazi group. Instead of neo-Nazis, members of the group now characterise themselves as "nationalists" or "patriots".
Some members say they aren’t necessarily against the presence of foreigners in the country; instead they claim to be "defending Finns".
Members of the FRM created a "Finns first" group called Finnish Aid Suomalaisapu. According to its own press releases and photos, members distributed food to needy Finns and carried out other apparently-benign services like cleaning up graffiti from a statue of national hero Carl Gustaf Mannerheim.
Not an imminent threat--but strengthening all the time
With only a few dozen members, law enforcement authorities say that FRM does not pose an imminent threat to Finnish society or democracy. But not for lack of trying. Through demonstrations, riots and spreading of propaganda and anti-immigrant stickers, the organisation continues to unite and strengthen the development right-wing nationalist and racist groups throughout the country.
Not long after the first of more than 30 thousand asylum seekers began to arrive to Finland last year, an FRM member in the city of Kemi decided to start a citizen vigilante street patrol.
After asking permission to start the patrol group, FRM member Mika Ranta founded the Soldiers of Odin. Their patrols of cities and towns across the country are carried out by black-jacketed volunteers, purportedly to keep the streets of Finland "safe".
During interviews with the media, Ranta has insisted the SOO is not a neo-Nazi group, but a nationalist one. However the two organisations appear to be at least casually intermingled.
Each group refers to one another positively on their respective websites. The FRM called the street patrol group a "patriotic organisation."Additionally the SOO’s online videos often feature the FRM’s unmistakable logo of a green diamond and upwards-pointing black arrow.
Odd bedfellows - Russian allies
In recent years the Nordic Resistance Movement has grown friendlier towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
In an internet radio interview Swedish Resistance Movement member Emil Hagberg said that he would rather see Sweden occupied by Russia rather than be under its current government. Klas Lund, the Swedish group’s leader at the time, agreed, dismissing the threat of Russia as nonsense, saying the real threat existed to the south and the west - rather than to the east.
Holappa explains that members who criticised Putin and Russia - or those who defended the Ukraine - were branded as "Jews" or "Zionists," with the effect of silencing any dissent about the movement’s leadership.
Last year, members of the NRM attended the far right-wing International Russian Conservative Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The annual meeting was organised by the Russian political party Rodina, also known as the Motherland-National Patriotic Union, and during the conference participants adopted a resolution to coordinate what they characterised as "conservative forces" across Russia and Europe.
Given Finland’s troubled history with its giant Russian neighbour, far-right groups in Finland have traditionally been hostile towards Russia, a situation that has caused the FRM to be more cautious in supporting Russian issues than their Swedish counterparts.
Holappa quietly leaves FRM in 2014
After about four years of being the co-founder, figurehead and ostensible leader of the Finnish Resistance Movement, Holappa quietly left the group in the year 2014.
"I began to ask myself whether I really want to raise my children to become part of this movement," he says. "Did I want them to live a life as closed off as mine was; I saw enemies everywhere I looked. I thought about my time in the Nazi movement. And I suddenly realised that what I was doing was crazy."
These days when he hears about new things his former colleagues have carried out, he says that he still feels somehow responsible.
He says that he thinks about his past every single day, and that he is unable to just forget about it.
"I was 13 or 14 years old when I became interested in national socialism. The more I read, the more ‘truths’ I found. My reading confirmed what I believed."
"I became a Nazi wholeheartedly. Now I have to redefine my life and get to know myself again. Who and what am I?" Holappa says.