Some writers spend a lifetime looking for the perfect story, but Elinor Langer’s subject matter practically kicked her in the face. In 1988, Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian man who lived in her Portland, Oregon, neighborhood, was killed during a fight nearby with some local skinheads. Although the scandal started out local, it took on national significance when a case was mounted to prosecute white supremacist supremo Tom Metzger for inciting this murder, though he’d never met either the victim or the skinheads in question.
A Hundred Little Hitlers originally began as an investigative article on the trial for The Nation, but Langer quickly grasped its political dimensions. She came to believe that an unplanned fight between skinheads and Ethiopians was intentionally misconstrued as a racially motivated crime in order to nail Metzger, and set off on an arduous trek through legal and historical documents, racist tracts, and personal interviews, trying to trace both the emergence of the far-right skinhead movement in America and the specific triggers for the Portland murder. “Told from the bottom up, through characters and incidents rather than from the top down, through the issues they collectively represent,” the book’s fervent tone, sprawling structure, and 398-page length suggest that Langer was utterly consumed by her story—an earnest Alice who tumbled through the looking glass into a topsy-turvy world of swastika regalia and Skrewdriver albums.
The book opens with Langer visualizing the night of Seraw’s murder. A feckless, small-time skinhead gang called East Side Pride prowls around Portland on a Saturday night handing out racist propaganda, intoxicated by a fleeting sense of themselves “as advance soldiers in a racial war that is just getting under way.” The narrative tries to crawl inside the posse’s skin but can’t resist a snarky comment about the puerile and inept material they are distributing, “a four-page single-space historical-futurist fantasy of white rebellion that not one single person I talk to later remembers having read, which is easily explainable by its unreadability alone.” After a few hours of concerted activism, East Side Pride dissipates in the random misbehavior of a typical teenage Saturday night: cruising, boozing, groping, puking. Yet somehow all this unfocused delinquency coalesces again into something momentous and appalling: The pals reunite, only to find their car wedged in by another car full of Ethiopians: “Suddenly no one is tired anymore, they are all exhilarated, because if you are a skinhead this is what you have been slouching toward all week, violence, and if you are an Ethiopian exile you have been humiliated once too often already and you need a release.” The fight might have concluded with a few bloodied noses if one of the Ethiopians, Mulugeta Seraw, hadn’t stepped in to break it up and one of the skinheads, Ken Mieske, hadn’t grabbed a bat and bludgeoned him to death with it.
Mieske is Langer’s central figure in this early part of the book. Known around Portland as Ken Death for his love of ultraviolent thrash metal, musician and scenester Mieske drifted between the town’s gay, artsy milieu (he was the subject of an early Gus Van Sant short film, Ken Death Gets Out of Jail) and the burgeoning skinhead underground. Mieske’s unstable childhood resembles Kurt Cobain’s: Shifted between relatives and family friends, neglected and abused, Mieske later wrote a song called “Homesick Abortion” about “an aborted fetus who wants to crawl back into its mother”—a scenario that could’ve come off Nirvana’s In Utero. But unlike Cobain, Mieske ultimately chose to identify with victors rather than victims. Hitler interested him, he told Langer, because young Adolf started out “a nobody, a transient, ‘like a bum on the streets of Portland,’ and had risen.”
This intimate, up-close look at the pasty face of evil is the most compelling section of A Hundred Little Hitlers. The book then moves from this tiny cell of semi-organized race-hate to examine the entire history of American white supremacism. In sharp sketches of David Duke, U.S. Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell, and Gregory Withrow of the Aryan Youth Movement, Langer consistently finds the zone where human interest and political issues intersect. But the most extensive portrait is of White Aryan Resistance leader Tom Metzger, here dubbed an “Aryan Walter Winchell” because of his notorious radio and public-access shows. There’s something extremely discomfiting about the sympathetic way Langer burrows into Metzger’s life, from his provincial childhood through his complicated ideological education to his ascent to celebrity in the murky white-power subculture. She seems weirdly besotted by him, or at least extremely impressed by his marital fidelity (he once turned down a hooker at a Klan meeting) and integrity. Through all his racist proselytizing, Metzger scrupulously kept his hands clean, leaving the dirty work of hate crimes and persecution to the movement’s rank and file—which is why Langer believes his prosecution for civil liability in the death of Seraw was unjust. According to our judicial system, she might be technically correct, but discourse has consequences, and from any sane perspective it’s hard to pity this would-be Goebbels as a First Amendment martyr.
Moments of brilliance struggle for air in A Hundred Little Hitlers as Langer’s numerous agendas yank her in different directions. The result is a polemical book whose key attractions reside in its least polemical moments: the depiction of a small skinhead scene, an organic sense of its evolution, and a glimpse of how its members—a motley bunch of misfits and screwups—each came to embrace evil in his own way.