Anders Breivik arriving in the courtroom in May. Photograph: Getty Images
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The grotesque manipulations of Anders Breivik

Åsne Seierstad questions a system that gives Anders Breivik publicity.

On 24 August, the verdict against Anders Behring Breivik will be pronounced at Oslo District Court. He has acknowledged having murdered 77 people and destroyed government buildings in Oslo last July but does not accept that he is guilty of any crime. This past week, others got the blame for not stopping his acts, including the man Breivik wanted to crush.

The perpetrator of the bombing and massacre was relegated to a minor role this month in Oslo. The words “blame” and “guilt” were frequently employed but this time not aimed at Breivik. The 22 July commission, an independent inquiry, has delivered its report to Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and, with it, devastating conclusions. The attack on Stoltenberg’s offices in the government area could have been prevented, its report claims, if measures already approved had been implemented. The authorities failed to protect the people who were massacred at a Labour Party youth camp on Utøya. Quicker police action was feasible and Breivik could have been stopped much earlier.

The report describes an almost total collapse in the planning and execution of the police action. Co-ordination failed totally and fatally: no nationwide alert, no roadblocks or observation posts set up, no attempt made to mobilise helicopters. The police work was worthy of a “failed state”, not the smoothly organised country we thought we lived in, the commentator Anders Giæver wrote.

The commission’s presentation included almost unbearably sad details, such as the witness who had seen Breivik leaving the bomb area with a gun in his hand. The witness called in the correct number of Breivik’s licence plates only ten minutes after the bombing. The operator wrote the message on a yellow Post-it note and it was given to the co-ordinator, but then left on a desk while Breivik drove out of town. For a long stretch of road he had a police car driving right behind him, suspecting nothing, as the message hadn’t been relayed further. Had he been stopped then, the whole massacre on Utøya could have been prevented.

The failures are numerous: the first policemen to arrive at the lakeside, 600 metres from Utøya island, never attempted to get a boat across to try to stop the killer, even though instructions said they should. The special police sent from Oslo passed them and drove three kilometres further due to a misunderstanding about the agreed meeting place, where they overloaded their dinghy so heavily that it almost sank and civilian boats had to come to their rescue. That was a good thing, as the police, for a while, had been heading to the wrong island.

Breivik killed on average one person every minute. So many lives could have been spared if the police work had been more efficient. Who is to blame? Whose head should roll? Who is to carry the burden of guilt?

Breivik must be rejoicing in his cell, where he has access to all the major Norwegian papers. The main headline in the tabloid newspaper VG after the inquiry made its presentation sent a not-so-subtle message to the prime minister: “Stoltenberg should go”. Breivik’s stated goal is to “crush the Labour Party”. Now the prime minister, who previously was hailed for his leadership after the attacks, is under sharp criticism for the lack of national security measures. Stoltenberg was praised when he spoke, soon after the massacre, of meeting the horror with more “openness, more humanity, but never naivety”. That last word has returned to haunt him. Because we weren’t prepared.

Notice me

So, how do we handle the man who is truly guilty? Are we prepared to punish the culprit in keeping with the standards of his crime?

Up till now, the killer has got everything he could wish for. The former high-school dropout – the nobody – became a somebody. The one who “was always there” but whom most people never remembered, has at last been noticed. Breivik has achieved worldwide notoriety. For the first time in his life he is undoubtedly uppermost in his father’s mind; the father who cut contact with him when he was 15.

To take the psychoanalytic approach: Anders grew up with an emotionally abusive mother who could oscillate between sweet talk and screaming her hatred for her son in a split second. But Anders quickly learned how to manipulate her and as the years passed the motherson power balance shifted in his favour. He later played these tricks skilfully on his captors, on the police and on the judges in court.

When finally the police captured him – three minutes after they arrived on the island, but having spent about an hour to get there – the first thing he said to the policeman sitting on top of him was: The quicker we can start the questioning, the sooner we can start negotiating. If you want to save 300 lives, you should listen to me carefully.

This negotiating tactic produced, among other things, access to a personal computer and a printer. During the trial his negotiations with the judge, Wenche Elisabeth Arntzen, showed similarities to those of a little boy with his mother. When Arntzen tried to cut the reading of his opening speech, which was filled with anti-Islamic rhetoric, he said: If you don’t let me read my full manuscript, I won’t talk at all. She gave in on the first day of the trial, and let him continue until he was through.

Now, in prison, waiting for his judgment, nothing prevents him from continuing to spread his message, freshly written every week on his cherished computer, then printed out and mailed to his followers. According to his lawyer, Breivik spends between eight and ten hours a day working. When the trial was over, at the end of June, he finally found time to sit down to read the 600 letters he had received from around the world, most of them from right-wing extremists in Germany, Sweden, Britain and Russia. VG got hold of two letters that Breivik recently sent; they were exact copies of each other; only the names differed.

In the letters, Breivik explained how he plans to keep fighting against the values of Norwegian society. Those same values that gave him a fair trial, lax treatment in prison and even the right to keep spreading his message. He writes in the letters that he plans three books: the first about the attack, the second about his ideology and the third about the future.

He is also forming a think tank named “Conservative Revolutionary Movement” and in a letter to a Russian follower he writes: “My goal is to develop a pan-European prison network consisting of European, patriotic martyrs and other politically motivated prisoners.” As he explained in his manifesto before the terror act, a trial is the best way to spread his message and so, up to now, everything has been going to plan.

As long as he or she doesn’t promote anything criminal, a prisoner in Norway has freedom of speech and the right to communicate with the outside world. All prisoners in Norway remain eligible to vote in elections. Breivik is careful in his letters not to advocate violence. But his very signature on a letter concerning a “conservative revolutionary movement” could be seen as an instigation to violence. He has often repeated that his mission is not over and, when asked in court whether he regrets his actions, has answered bluntly, “The only thing I regret is that I didn’t kill more people.”

His ten-week trial became a seminar of psychiatrists. In court, out of court, in the media, at conferences, the psychiatrists were quarrelling about differing diagnoses of mental illness that could be made on the mass murderer. All his apparent symptoms were analysed carefully by the forensic psychiatrists and the two teams appointed by the court came to opposite conclusions. The first team was convinced Breivik had been suffering from psychosis during his killing spree and thus can’t be punished according to Norwegian law. The second team concluded that he had been sane and can be punished for his crime. In Norway, putting a sick person in prison is considered a worse crime than treating a sane person on a psychiatric ward. This is one reason court psychiatrists wield greater power than their colleagues do in courtrooms in other countries.

Our system also dictates that, once a mentally ill person has been treated and declared sane, he must be allowed to go free. In most other countries he would then have to face the punishment for his crime. Curiously, in this case, neither health professionals at the prison nor any of the members of the observation team put together by the second couple of court psychiatrists has found any sign of psychotic behaviour. Synne Sørheim, from the first team of court psychiatrists, said during the trial that she is a “treatment optimist” and would treat Breivik with medication and conversation. It is hard to see what she will treat. His right-wing extremist ideas? His violent behaviour? His sense of being at war with social democracy and multiculturalism, evoking the “principle of necessity”?

One thing is clear, however – whatever the judgment is, Breivik will stay in the same topsecurity prison outside Oslo, in the three cells furnished for him. Should he be found insane, the health professionals will treat him inside the prison, a departure from the normal procedure of moving the patient to a hospital.

Breivik’s joint cells were recently classified by his lawyers as one sleeping cell; one “working cell”, with a writing desk, computer and printer; and one “fitness cell” with a treadmill. Breivik has said that he wants to study political science in prison and he has asked his followers to send him books and articles criticising the multicultural society and to enclose stamps. He has also asked for help from local rightwing bloggers willing to work with him. His computer is – unfortunately for him – offline but he doesn’t need his own blog: he can write letters, and others can post them on the web.
This past week, an anonymous letter from one of Breivik’s followers was sent to Norwegian newsrooms, signed by the “second cell of Breivik” acting under his influence.

Breivik has planned this well, his rise to fame from an early bleak life. He corrected “unemployed” to “writer” when asked for his status the first day in court. And this writer is certainly in a unique situation. What other terrorist in the world can sit in his cell and freely spread his propaganda, facilitated by the prison’s own equipment?

There is one thing that Breivik fears: that he will be judged insane. This would take away his aura of being an ideologue, a political prisoner. He would then just be a nobody again. Most of the surviving victims see the harshest punishment for him as isolation. They hope that someone will take away his computer, restrict his letter-writing and leave him alone in his cell with his thoughts and his guilt.

Åsne Seierstad is writing a book about the events of 22 July 2011 in Norway, to be published next autumn.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle