IT’S NOT HARD to imagine this is how it went.
Last July, in a boardroom in Germany, a group of executives are brainstorming ideas to lift sales of their youth-oriented clothing line, Thor Steinar. As they thrash concepts around, a TV airs its usual schlocky fare in the background, broadcasting to no-one in particular.
But the ideas are lame, and nothing’s gelling with the execs. The stuff being batted around the table just isn’t hitting home. Marketers know there’s always something else, something superior out there to keep your brand relevant to fickle fashionistas. And Thor Steinar has an edgy reputation to maintain.
And then, a news flash from Oslo on that box. A car bomb has exploded in the government quarter of the Norwegian capital, killing eight. The news is shocking, all the more because the fashions these executives peddle references Nordic themes, Norway seen as the acme of desirous purity in many German minds, including Adolf Hitler’s.
But it’s the next series of bulletins that truly arrests the German executives, and the rest of Europe, too.
A 32-year-old has laid waste to another 69 of his countrymen, mostly teens at summer camp on an island called Utøya. His image is flashed across the screen, and his name too: Anders Behring Breivik. He’s a white Norwegian, not Al-Qaeda as the world so often assumes at such moments. The media unearths his ‘manifesto’ — some 1,516 pages Breivik wrote titled 2083: A European Declaration of Independence. Breivik declares he’s a culture warrior, a crusading knight who must kill Norwegians to save them and Europe from themselves, lest they be polluted by multiculturalism and Europe’s inevitable Islamisation.
And in the mind of these German executives at Thor Steinar, an idea is conceived.
THE IMAGINING OVER, fast-forward to reality, to March this year, when a Thor Steinar outlet opens in an eastern German region, Saxony, notorious for its neo-Nazi extremism. It debuts in a grim city, Chemnitz, once known as Karl-Marx-Stadt, when this part of Germany was ruled by Stalinists.
Now voters in a democracy, the people of Saxony deliver eight deputies of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) to their parliament, one of only two of Germany’s 16 Länder to vote the extremist NPD into its parliament.
Germany is now moving to ban the NPD. A few months before Thor Steinar opened in Chemnitz, German police in neighbouring Zwickau busted an NPD-linked neo-Nazi cell responsible for the murders of nine immigrants, eight of them Turkish Muslims.
Thor Steinar names its stores after Norwegian towns, subliminally referencing that ethnic spotlessness notion Germans have for all things Scandinavian. But it’s a practice that has riled the Norwegian embassy in Berlin, whose diplomats have — unsuccessfully — asked Thor Steinar to stop using Norwegian themes in its marketing.
So, nine months after Anders Behring Breivik’s Utøya massacre, what did Thor Steinar’s executives decide to call the store they opened in the heart of the German neo-Nazi belt?
They called it Brevik.
We can only imagine the corporate discussions and events that preceded Thor Steinar’s naming its new shop Brevik because when The Global Mail contacted the company to ask why it named the shop after a mass murderer, its chief executive, Uwe Meusel, emailed to say, “Sorry, but we don’t give statements.”
But how else to explain it? When outraged Germans descended on the Chemnitz store last month demanding it change its name, the company claimed, in one of its rare utterances to the German press, that it was just a coincidence, a misunderstanding.
It said it names all its 13 stores in Germany after places in Norway; places like Larvik, Trondheim, Narvik and Oseberg. Brevik is just another Norwegian name, the company claimed. And besides, it’s spelt differently to the spree killer Breivik’s surname.
It’s true that Brevik, a town of 2,700 people 173 kilometres south of Utøya, is a place in Norway. And it’s also true that Brevik the village is an ‘i’ shy of the mass murderer’s family name, Breivik.
But Thor Steinar executives need only consult an atlas for the literally thousands of potential Norwegian locales that might have supplied a name to their new store. For a brand that evokes physical vitality and the body perfect in its advertising, Thor Steinar could’ve chosen the sporty Lillehammer, site of the 1994 Winter Olympics. Some of its bunting has an outdoorsy flavour, so why not the famous Sognefjord?
Instead, they decided to use Brevik; this as Norwegian investigators transparently built their case about what Anders Behring Breivik himself proudly boasted this week in an Oslo courtroom was “the most sophisticated and spectacular political attack in Europe since World War II,” one which he lamented didn’t kill more, including his planned beheading of former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.
What’s also revealing about Thor Steinar’s inclination to name its outlets after Norwegian towns are the other names it chooses — places that in history tend to have been locations of Nazi Germany triumphs during its World War II occupation of Norway.
Thor Steinar has said it no longer calls its Chemnitz store Brevik, in what the company says is an acknowledgment that the term might offend. But if that is so, nobody has told the designers of the company’s website, where Thor Steinar sources international sales from its online catalogues.
With its fashion photo spreads featuring sculpted, white, often blonde models and product lines that subliminally reference Aryan themes, Thor Steinar has long been provocative in a Germany always alert to neo-Nazism.
With logos on hoodies, T-shirts, polos and bling in fonts that mimic the SchutzStaffel, Hitler’s notorious paramilitary, the SS, it’s prohibited to wear the Thor Steinar brand in Germany’s Parliament, the Bundestag. Various Bundesliga football clubs have banned patrons wearing it to their stadiums. Some Thor Steinar stores have been trashed and picketed by protestors.
The company’s internal mailing list has been hacked and leaked by protesters agitating to shut down the chain. The mailing list revealed thousands of customers, mostly German but a good many in the new Eastern European democracies, where far-right groups and neo-Nazis are gathering political ground.
The company’s website also reveals other clues, with its links to French, Dutch, Russian and English translations, all countries that are home to increasingly virulent anti-immigration movements led by politicians such as The Netherlands’s Geert Wilders, whom Anders Behring Breivik hailed as a fellow traveller and inspiration in his manifesto.
But maybe Thor Steinar’s got nothing to do with neo-Nazism, Anders Behring Breivik and white European supremacy after all. Maybe it’s simply a business catering to a captive and well-heeled market, giving them what they want.
In 2009, seven years after it was founded and about when Anders Behring Breivik began planning his attack, the German company that owns Thor Steinar, Mediatex GmbH, was sold to a company in Dubai called International Brands General Trading. It seems to be part of a wider United Arab Emirates-based conglomerate called the Faysal Al-Zarooni Group, whose principals could reasonably be assumed to be Muslims, given their name and domicile in the heart of the Gulf. According to German commercial papers, Mediatex’s new director is a man called Mohammed Aweidah.
The Global Mail called the Faysal Al-Zarooni Group in Dubai. An executive there called Ahmad Madbouly said Mr Aweidah had left the company “about a year ago”. He said Thor Steinar “sounded familiar” and asked us to forward questions “for my boss” by email. The company did not respond.
But this apparent Arab ownership seems to have gotten Thor Steinar’s devotees in a tizz. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, in May 2009 an Essen-based neo-Nazi group called Action Group Essen put out a statement condemning the sale of Thor Steinar to the Dubaian company, and calling for a boycott of its clothes.
“We, as national socialists, clearly reject Mediatex GmbH and their label Thor Steinar,” Action Group Essen said. “We are of the opinion that our complex worldview cannot be printed on a T-shirt which costs €32.95 and which is produced by an Arab.”
The Arab sale also had the American white supremacist group Stormfront all aflutter too. Stormfront dedicates pages of admiring commentary to Thor Steinar, its posters hoping the clothes will be available to Americans as well as Europeans.
But there are others who’ve not been so sure. On a Stormfront thread entitled “Thor Steinar: Aryan or Not?”, ‘Germani’ asks whether the 2009 sale to the Dubaians “would mean that, since many patriots support the company, it is a huge fraud.” No matter, chimes in another, there’s always other “OK brands” like Fred Perry and Lonsdale.
So what sort of European does actually buy Thor Steinar? Apparently a lot of them.
At 119.90 euro for a camouflage jacket, Thor Steinar is priced directly at a European middle-class, with an 18 to 35-year-old demographic. Police reports describe Breivik as having donned camo when skulking around the Norwegian countryside building his bomb, writing his manifesto and planning his attack.
Clothes maketh the man, as the aphorism famously goes, and a click through some of the Facebook pages of the 48,000-plus ‘likes’ linking from Thor Steinar’s Facebook presence reveals several recurring themes, while quickly accessing some of the murkier, more nihilistic corners of the internet.
Take the interests of one Slovenian whom we’ll call JR. His open Facebook profile, linking from Thor Steinar, reveals a taste for the 1990s Australian cult skinhead film Romper Stomper, for the Nazi architect Albert Speer, and for south London’s Millwall Football Club, notorious in English football for its deeply-rooted terrace violence and alleged links to Britain’s whites-only fascist party, the National Front. JR’s pages are littered with Nazi iconography, with pictures of Hitler and Mussolini.
JR cites his activities as football hooliganism and the WW2-era German-led anti-Communist militia, the Slovene Home Guard. He likes the Norwegian death metal exponent Varg Vikernes, a convicted murderer and self-described neo-Nazi who has cited Norway’s notorious wartime puppet Vidkun Quisling as an inspiration. JR also likes two organisations called Europe Ultra and Ultras World, both of which advance nationalistic football violence. JR also likes pitbull terriers.
But does any of this make a JR, clad in Thor Steinar, a threat to society?
JR also likes South Park and Beavis and Butthead, and The Da Vinci Code.
You may not want to sit next to JR at a dinner party but none of this is illegal.
But as an unrepentant Anders Behring Breivik plays Norway’s famous transparency and openness against itself on his Oslo bully pulpit, his every utterance and clenched-fist defiance distributed by the second by a repelled yet fascinated foreign media, JR and his ilk across Europe haven’t, it seems, decided that they “like” Norway’s biggest mass murderer (at least not on Facebook) as much as they do Thor Steinar.