Your browser is out of date. Some of the content on this site will not work properly as a result.
Upgrade your browser for a faster, better, and safer web experience.

The dark heart of Scandinavia

An emergency worker boat passes the island of Utoya, Saturday, July 23, 2011. The 32-year-old man suspected in bomb and shooting attacks that killed at least 91 people in Norway bought six tons of fertilizer before the massacres, the supplier said Saturday as police investigated witness accounts of a second shooter. Norway's prime minister and royal family visited grieving relatives of the scores of youth gunned down in a horrific killing spree on an idyllic island retreat. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

On the dark Norway pine,

On that dark heart of mine

Fell their soft splendour.

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,

‘The Skeleton in Armour’

They were images that shocked the world and would haunt Scandinavia: footage shot from a helicopter above Utøya showed an island strewn with bodies and one man calmly strolling amongst them. The 69 bodies were those of students and volunteers at a Labour Party Youth (AUF) camp. The man was Anders Behring Breivik and he had just committed a massacre.

Two months on from Breivik’s horrifying actions and we are back on Utøya in the company of AUF leader Eskil Pederson, a survivor of 22nd July. We shuffle around, exploring the island using a marked-up catalogue of places and events: recently affixed laminated signs correspond to our handheld maps, referencing sites of murder or escape. The island is a postcard-perfect image of a summer camp: the cluster of painted white and red-blue wooden farm buildings that greet you when you step off the boat, some with an “AUF” sign hanging lopsided over the door, impart such a strong college fraternity feel that one immediately senses what fun times would have been had in this place, before all hell broke loose. They make it all the more frightful to imagine how Breivik set about his task safe in the knowledge that the bomb he had earlier set off in the government quarter of downtown Oslo would give him an hour or so without interruption for his killing spree.

“Pederson recounts the confusion and panic as people scrabbled to make sense of the day. At the time he feared a coup”

Pederson tells me how he was in the farm buildings when the shooting began – which by my reckoning can’t have been more than 30 yards away from him at that point – and later escaped by boat. He recounts the confusion and panic as people scrabbled to make sense of the day. At the time he feared a coup, targeted against the government and its representatives; he felt he couldn’t trust even those police officers who were guarding them later that evening. “It was impossible to know what was happening,” he says. “It was difficult to understand how it was going
to end.”

But were those killed on 22nd July victims of a crazed “lone wolf”, as Janne Kristiansen, head of Norway’s PST security services, labelled Breivik, going on to claim that “not even the Stasi could have stopped him”? Or were they lost to something larger? Something darker that beats in Scandinavia, the heartland of social democracy.

The rise of the far right

It is a question whose answers cannot be found on Utøya alone. Right-wing extremism of the sort that Breivik unleashed is on the rise across Europe. But it is most usually associated with other parts of the continent, where history recalls the extremisms of an earlier time: neo-Nazism has grown more vocal once again in Austria and Germany, while in Hungary, black-booted vigilantes of the Jobbik party terrify the Roma with threats of lynching and summary violence. Yet the truth is that Scandinavia has not been free from the taint of Europe’s resurgent extremism either, and its appearance here is all the more shocking for the fact that these nations have been, for the last half century, a model of tolerance that the rest of Europe has sought to emulate.

“If the real-life Scandinavian noir has been a virtual phenomenon to date, we now know it is capable of
erupting into the real world”

In Sweden there have been murders of immigrants and homosexuals by neo-Nazis going back to the 1980s and a recent series of suspected neo-Nazi-related sniper shootings have terrorised the residents of Malmö. In Norway too there have been right-wing extremist murders, including in 2001 the murder of a young black boy named Benjamin Hermansen by a racist gang. On a freezing cold night in January, Hermansen and his friend saw a car approaching with three men inside, all with shaved heads. Both turned to flee but Benjamin tripped and fell at a fence. The gang surrounded him, and a knife was plunged into his heart.

Victims receive emergency treatment outside government buildings in the center of Oslo, 22nd July

Since then the threat of right-wing extremist violence in Norway, at least, was seen by many to have died away. According to Norwegian journalist Øyvind Strømmen, however, it is still simmering – mostly online. Strømmen has covered the right-wing extremist beat since he began digging around the darker recesses of the internet in the mid 2000s. And he soon became appalled at the sorts of conversations he saw taking place there. Speak to Strømmen for a while and the dark fiction of ‘The Killing’ and Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ trilogy spring to mind. But if the real-life Scandinavian noir has been a virtual phenomenon, we now know it is capable of erupting into the real world.

In his forthcoming book, ‘Det Mørke Nettet’ [‘The Dark Network’], he describes in great detail the rise of what he calls a ‘third wave’ of right-wing extremism in Norway, of which Breivik was a “textbook” example. “The first wave started in ’68 and that was mainly neo-Nazi,” he says. The second wave [during the ’80s and ’90s] was more everyday racism taken to the extreme. Then comes the third wave,” he says, “which is new, because it has solid roots on the internet, and it started in the wake of 9/11.” This third wave gained its framework from a number of influential, so-called anti-jihadist bloggers in the US, who emerged in the wake of 9/11, although it has links to neo-fascist currents in Europe too.

It was this online milieu and the dystopic digital rendering of a Europe overtaken by Muslims, Strømmen says, that fuelled Breivik’s ideological beliefs and led to his actions. It is a xenophobic and distinctly racist paranoia – anti-jihadists talk of the coming of ‘Eurabia’ and of  Europe’s leaders having sold Europe to Islam for oil – and is often extreme in its utterances. Yet at heart, it shares a number of core beliefs with the anti-immigrant tenets so central to the right-wing populist parties that have swept into power in Scandinavia in recent years. And it is this that has Strømmen especially worried.

Over the last decade or so, these parties have made immigration the centre of their politics. Post 9/11 Carl I Hagen, a leading figure of the Norwegian Progress Party, for example, declared that not all Muslims were terrorists, but all terrorists were Muslims. And Pia Kjærsgaard, the leader of the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party that for a decade now has enjoyed a pivotal position in that country’s coalition politics, once suggested that Muslims should not be welcome in a Christian land. Yet far from being marginalised for such outbursts, these parties have done increasingly well in the polls. The Danish People’s Party is now the third largest in Denmark, the Norwegian Progress Party (FrP) is the second largest party in Norway and the True Finns took 19 per cent of the national vote in Finland this year.

The rise of the far right in politics has been especially pronounced in Sweden, where the Sweden Democrats claimed 20 seats in the Rikstag last year to become the accepted face of the xenophobic far right. The party has been around since the end of the 1980s, but became increasingly prominent in the 2000s under new leader Jimmie Åkesson, who tried to present a more moderate front, shorn of the white-power fascism of the party’s roots and its reputation as a shop window for neo-Nazism. But what many see as a mask still occasionally slips: and Åkesson himself was recently caught singing white-power songs on a beer-fuelled party cruise to Tallinn, including a song about the assassinated former Swedish Social Democratic Prime Minister Olof Palme. “The shot burned, the blood ran, Olof Palme – he was gone,” runs one line in the song.

An aerial view of Utøya Island, the day before the shootings

Fighting back

It was the threat of the rise of neo-Nazi and white-power groups in Sweden in the 1990s that led Stieg Larsson to set up the anti-fascist magazine Expo in 1995 – the real-life counterpart of the fictional Millennium at the heart of his trilogy of books. Seven people were killed in Nazi-related attacks that year, and Larsson and his colleagues felt that something needed to be done to draw attention to this rising threat of white-power groups. They were soon receiving threats themselves.

Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004, but the buzzer on Expo’s door in the central Tjuvholmen district of Stockholm still has his name on it and upstairs, where the magazine’s offices are crammed into the eaves of an attic, his chaotic yet intense approach to work clearly lives on. As we wait for a coffee that never appears, current editor Anders Dalsbro explains how he doesn’t fear a wave of ‘copycat’ attacks after Utøya, but what he sees as a bigger problem – the normalisation of more extremist views within the mainstream political sphere that groups like the Sweden Democrats represent. In Sweden, he says, mainstream politicians have too willingly bought into the extremists’ agenda: “We need to reject the terms of debate that many of these groups work with – such as starting from the point of view that immigration is a problem. We need to act, not react.”

“Parties have used terms such as sneak-Islamification, which in Norwegian takes the serpent-like compound form snikislamisering”

Strømmen agrees. He is less concerned that the anti-immigrant rhetoric of more mainstream far right and popular right-wing groups might encourage extremists like Breivik, than he is about the flow of ideas the other way. “I think actually the influence is from the extreme right onto people in the [mainstream] Norwegian Progress Party,” he says.

Both Strømmen and Dalsbro ought to have been cheered somewhat, then, by the recent results of the Danish election. More even than Sweden and Norway, Denmark has seen increasingly aggressive anti-Muslim policies introduced in recent years – with the closing of borders and limiting of welfare benefits for immigrants demanded by the right wing populist party of Pia Kjærsgaard as the price for its support of the long-standing centre-right coalition. On the day I visited Utøya the new Danish progressive Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt was announcing her new centre-left cabinet. She was greeted by the sight of crowds cheering the new parliament as she emerged from her government-forming meeting with the Queen.

But while political tides ebb and flow, they don’t wash the extremists away. Just the month before progressives celebrated Denmark’s election results, a controversial, campaigning left-wing Danish news organisation, Redox, revealed – through illegal hacking, primarily – the existence of a secretive, underground right-wing network, named ORG, that had existed in Denmark for the last two decades and which purportedly aimed to ‘cleanse’ Denmark of immigrants. The report included details on ORG’s roughly 100 members, some of whom were former members of the Danish People’s Party: others were high-ranking businessmen.

Flowers and tributes laid outside Oslo Cathedral

So just what is it, then, that sustains such groups and their xenophobic fears in what are supposed to be the most tolerant and egalitarian of all lands? In Hammarby, on the other side of Stockholm to Expo, is an organisation called Exit that offers a surprisingly simple answer to this question. Exit’s aim is to help former extremists to rejoin society, but what makes it unusual is that it frames the problem of right-wing extremism the other way around. It works on the assumption that there may actually be many reasons people get involved with extremist political organisations but that they are not usually political or ideological in the first instance: “Fourteen year-olds aren’t reading ‘Mein Kampf’ and getting into this stuff,” Robert Reel, Exit’s director, tells me.

Reel’s experience counselling former extremists and providing practical support to rehabilitate them – including at times relocating them to new addresses – tells him that a somewhat regular list of risk-factors seems to draw people into the extremist trap. “Extremism offers them a sense of family, a struggle to adhere to and, perhaps above all, an identity.” If you read Breivik’s poisonous manifesto, and recall his failed businesses and dropout education, you soon see that this is precisely how Norway’s killer justified his actions to himself. And in giving himself a cause to fight for he further legitimised his resort to violence. It all becomes, as Reel tells me, “a rational choice in an irrational world”.

Organisations like Exit could not have stopped a Breivik, however; he is a man who also grew up on the better side of town, was never attached to a specific social milieu that he might have needed to “escape” from, and who would likely have carried out his acts regardless. Politics can do nothing about pathology. But it can try to counteract things that should be seen as irrational becoming, for some, a rational concern requiring “political” intervention: murderously minded or otherwise.

The rhetoric of nationalism

Harald Stanghelle, editor of Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper, draws a clear distinction between Breivik and the policies of Norway’s most popular right-wing, anti-immigrant party, the Norwegian Progress Party (FrP). He points out that Breivik left them several years ago for being too moderate.

However, it is hard to imagine that the ratcheting up of anti-immigrant discourse to explain social and economic problems has nothing to do with growing anti-immigrant sentiment. The way that parties such as the FrP have sought to redefine Norwegian nationalism along racial lines, including using such terms as “sneak-Islamification”, a word that in Norwegian takes the serpent-like compound form snikislamisering, is dangerous rhetoric, however indirectly it may, or may not, have folded its way into Breivik’s mind.

“That’s an example of an expression that we would not like to use again,” Morten Høglund, FrP Member of Parliament and foreign policy spokesperson tells me when I speak to him over the phone about this. But I note that the FrP’s policies remain focused on what asylum seekers in particular may not do, rather than what might more proactively be done to assist their integration, and that their website still refers to current immigration policy as snillistisk: naïve and misunderstood kindness. “We want to be more like Denmark,” Høglund says, and I don’t doubt that there are many who agree.

As I drive back to Oslo from Utøya, tracing the same route back that Breivik took to drive from the scene of the bomb to his intended massacre, it strikes me that these more deeply seated views about race are what Norway, and indeed the rest of Scandinavia will find hardest to learn from these events. The radio is broadcasting the annual speech by the King opening the Norwegian Stortinget, and much of it is dedicated to recognition of the impact of this summer’s events around the world. But it is what his speech does not say that takes my mind back to that last killing to create such an outcry here in Norway, the killing of young Benjamin Hermansen.

In stark contrast to Breivik’s attacks, which the media and politicians alike have presented as an attack on Norwegian society’s values, the murder of Benny Hermansen (as even Michael Jackson, who dedicated his album ‘Invincible’ “to Benny” recognised) was seen to be more simply about race. It says a lot about how Scandinavian norms have changed in recent years: as one Norwegian survey confirmed this summer, four of every ten Norwegians now see Muslim immigration as a threat to the country’s individuality.

Ultimately, and through however many indirect twists and turns, it is this “racial supremacism”, as the respected Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen labels it, that stands behind both the knife in Benny Hermansen’s heart and Breivik’s attack on the AUF – an attack on an organisation that was tolerant of immigration.

For all the different forms racial supremacism can take, it often revolves around a ‘we’ who possess something – a common identity, or history, or even just welfare benefits – and a ‘they’ who threaten it in some way. Yet such claims overlook the historical reasons, or even sheer luck, by which the ‘we’ came to have such things in the first place. Social democracy cannot thrive on such an exclusionary basis.

In the Swedish port-town of Malmö, serious interethnic violence has flared between Muslim and white working class ghettos because immigration is accepted as a blanket excuse for much more complex issues. And in Denmark, the pervasiveness of political xenophobia meant that ORG was unmasked not by the mainstream media but by hackers from a group  that has been suspended by the police for its links to the extremist left. This is hardly social democracy at its best.

“The ‘ocean of flowers’, which covered central locations in Oslo for weeks after the attacks, were an impressive manifestation of the government’s appeal to answer hate with love,” Mareile Kaufman, a security researcher at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo had told me before I headed to Utøya, before adding that the public was nonetheless still unclear about how to move on.

On my return from Utøya it strikes me that Norwegians will not find the way forward in greater security measures. It also won’t be found in affirmations of solidarity that avoid questioning the terms of public debate on immigration and the forms of white privilege that sustain it. They will find it only by looking themselves in the mirror. As in Sweden and Denmark, it is there that the dark heart of Scandinavia may be glimpsed – though just as the American poet Longfellow said, it takes soft eyes to see it.

Simon Reid-Henry is a lecturer at the University of London and a visiting fellow at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
Creative Review

Jam-packed with information... a counterpoint to the speedy news feeds we've grown accustomed to”
Creative Review

A leisurely (and contrary) look backwards over the previous three months”
The Telegraph

Quality, intelligence and inspiration: the trilogy that drives the makers of Delayed Gratification”
El Mundo

Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
The Telegraph

A very cool magazine... It's like if Greenland Sharks made a newspaper”
Qi podcast

The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
Editor, Private Eye
Private Eye Magazine

Perhaps we could all get used to this Delayed idea...”
BBC Radio 4 - Today Programme