22 July marks the 12th anniversary of the massacre carried out by the neo-Nazi far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik against young socialists on Utøya Island in Norway. It is a day of both mourning and reflection for all who are dedicated to combatting hate in our communities, reminding us that when racism takes root and is allowed to prevail extremists can become emboldened to take violent action.
More than 70 people died in 2011 as a result of Breivik’s hate-filled killing spree which began when he set off a bomb outside a government building in Oslo resulting in eight deaths in the capital. Breivik, dressed as a policeman, then drove 25 miles north-west and took the ferry boat to the small island of Utøya in Tyrifjorden lake where he wreaked havoc, terrorising and murdering participants, staff and volunteers at the annual summer camp organised by the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth organisation (AUF).
The island was playing host to hundreds of young people, some as young as 11, who had gathered for a mixture of socialising, camping and political debate. Some were already politically engaged but many were simply tagging along with friends. On 21July, the Norwegian culture minister, Anniken Huitfeldt, had sent a text message to the head of the AUF on Utøya saying, “I wish I were you”. Indeed, Utøya had played an important role in the political education of many Norwegian centre left politicians who are now back in power, counting Utøya survivors amongst some of the country’s MPs and ministers. Other survivors have become elected mayors. Jens Stoltenberg, a Utøya alumni, who was Norway’s serving Prime Minister at the time of the atrocity, is now famously Secretary General of NATO.
News of the Oslo attack soon reached Utøya and upon his arrival at the camp Breivik presented himself as a policeman who had come to the island to check that everything was OK. His appearance and words sowed confusion amongst the bewildered youth many of whom were gathered in the dining hall and were easy prey for the gunman. He then rampaged around the island for two hours killing people who were hiding in tents, or were trying to escape along cliff-top pathways or who had entered the lake in an effort to swim to safety. He was methodical in his premeditated actions, checking for signs of life amongst the many bodies lying on the ground and shooting those who were injured or pretending to be dead.
In July 2012 Breivik was found guilty of mass murder, causing a fatal explosion and terrorism, and given the maximum sentence of 21 years with the possibility of extension. He was not deemed to be mentally ill. On the day of the attacks he had emailed a compendium of texts entitled ‘2083: A European Declaration of Independence’ describing his militant ideology and stating his opposition to Islam. He blamed feminism for a European “cultural suicide.” He called for the deportation of all Muslims from Europe and wrote that his main motive for the attacks was to publicise his manifesto. Breivik had for a while been a member of Norway’s right wing anti-immigration Progress Party which later became a partner in the coalition government led by the Conservative Party from 2013-2020.
Twelve years on from the massacre on Utøya and we have seen similar anti-immigration, extremist hate-filled ideologies behind other attacks including the murder of the pro-European Labour MP Jo Cox in the run up to the UK’s referendum on continued membership of the EU, and the attacks on the Christchurch mosques in New Zealand in 2019 by Brenton Tarrant who was inspired by Breivik and who killed more than 50 people. It is clear that liberal and progressive values of equality, tolerance and mutual respect are not as widespread as we would hope and that much work still needs to be done to pave the way for more peaceful and inclusive societies.
A place of memorial and dialogue
In the immediate aftermath of Breivik’s attack the custodians of Utøya (AUF) could not decide what to do with the island. Some thought the AUF should close down the summer camps or even abandon the island completely, whilst others felt it was important to use the tragic event as a fillip for education and learning. Ultimately the latter idea gained support as people came to the conclusion that giving up would, in effect, be a victory for far-right violent extremism. The AUF have subsequently navigated a delicate path between the need to memorialise the victims and the creation of a centre for intercultural dialogue. I was privileged and humbled to see the implementation of these twin aims first-hand in May earlier this year as a WEXFO (World Expression Forum) delegate, arriving on the Thorbjørn ferry, just as Breivik had done.
We were given a tour of the island taking in all the places where Breivik had carried out his attacks, including the cliff-top path in the area known as the ‘Love Park’ and the cafeteria which has been left intact, integrated into a new architectural structure known as the ‘Hegnhuset’ or safe house. Inspired by traditional Norwegian buildings the roof of this multi-purpose space is supported by 69 columns (in recognition of the victims) with 495 ‘safeguarding’ planks representing the survivors. The Hegnhuset also provides spaces for learning and exhibitions alongside the bullet holes and extant material which was hanging on the walls on the day of the massacre. An old chart bears the words, “you must know the past, to understand the present and peer into the future”. Family shrines catch one unawares with their simplicity.
At the end of our tour we were invited to place red roses on the memorial to the 69 victims in the Lysninga (“the clearing”) before joining youth leaders from many different continents in a powerful discussion about how to build understanding and solidarity between diverse people and nation states. In the following days we continued our discussions at the main WEXFO in Lillehammer, talking with human rights defenders, journalists, editors, publishers, artists, academics, politicians, policy makers and most importantly, local young people who have demanded a seat at the WEXFO table and plan to open up the conversation to other young people from around the world.
Breivik destroyed the lives of many young people and their families on 22 July 2011 but he did not destroy hope and the determination of decent human beings to work together for the benefit of humanity.
For more information about the Utøya learning programmes and how to visit the centre visit the website.