The Breivik Killings – remembering the victims, depoliticizing the crime

The Breivik Killings – remembering the victims, depoliticizing the crime

Sara Edenheim (Umeå University)

The first commemoration of the terrorist attacks on Utøya and in Oslo where 77 people lost their lives – most of them young social democratic and left activists shot down by the conservative nationalist Anders Behring Breivik – took place in Oslo a year after the event. It took place in the presence of not only government representatives, but also church representatives as well as royalty and celebrities. It was a united nation that gathered, still led by the Social Democrats, but with a growing right wing opposition that would win the election the following year. The trope of a ‘united nation’ started to circulate directly after the event, not only through the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, but also other Nordic Prime Ministers such as the Swedish conservative leader, Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose official statement right after the shootings well represents the predominant discourse: “The terrorist attack in Norway is an expression of blind hatred. It cannot be described in any other terms. […] It was a crime directed towards all of us. A crime directed towards what we all stand for.” (Reinfeldt, Svenska Dagbladet 2011-07-28).

In the same spirit, the Nordic Prime Ministers all decided to meet a couple of days after the attack at an international scout camp in Sweden, to encourage “the border-transgressing enthusiasm among the youth and to show the importance of Nordic solidarity after the terrorist attack” (TT, Dagens Nyheter, 2011-07-30) A scout camp was deemed an appropriate equivalent to the youth camp on Utøya, hence depoliticizing the Utøya camp by making it primarily about youth rather than politics. Concerns were even raised whether the scout camp was “a safe place” now, when “anyone” could be killed by “anyone”.

However, it was not “anyone” who had been killed by Breivik: he killed socialist young people – “the future of the left”, as indeed one editor actually did write (Dagens Nyheter, 2011-07-24). Indeed, in his so called ‘manifesto’, Breivik himself names his prime enemies as “cultural Marxists and feminists”. Hence “everyone” did not have reason to be afraid – Breivik would not kill a right-wing politician (or a scout for that matter). There was no national “we”, there was no “democracy vs violence”, there was only – despite the liberal and conservative efforts to prove the opposite – a matter of right vs left, and, as later pointed out by some commentators, also a matter of male chauvinism vs women’s rights.

Even though the initial assumption that the shooter was an Islamist terrorist forced most leading news media to deal with their own obvious islamophobia after the discovery that the terrorist was a white, Christian, Norwegian, this only half-heartedly and temporarily prevented them from identifying Breivik as “a lone lunatic”. This was a general tendency in Nordic media and it was obvious that neither liberal nor conservative politicians and journalists knew how to handle this kind of political terrorism. The only references they could come up with were 9/11 or Left wing terrorism of the 1970s, creating a very strange, almost perverted, “guilt by association” between Breivik, Islam and the Left (Edenheim and Rönnblom, 2012).

As an effect of the depoliticization of Breivik, his victims were equally and increasingly depoliticized. Repeatedly, liberal and conservative leaders and journalists urged the Left to not use the event for political purposes because that would be immoral in relation to the individual tragedy of the families and relatives to the victims. This “moral gag” on the Left was so obvious in Swedish liberal media that some representatives of the Swedish Social Democratic Party actually felt the need to respond with quite some force: “Right wing debaters in Sweden apparently do not care that the gun barrel is pointed towards the Left movement, towards Muslims and towards feminists. We are the targets of this violence. Whatever harm [this violence] may do in the future, that harm will not hit them personally.” (Ardin, Irving, Al Naher in Aftonbladet, 2012-02-15).

And two years after the attack, leading Swedish Left wing politician, Ali Esbati, himself a survivor from Utøya, felt the same urgent need to react towards the continuing individualization of both Breivik and his victims, writing in one of the leading Swedish newspapers that “Norway had not learned anything from the terrorist attack” (Esbati in Aftonbladet 2013-07-23). Despite these efforts from the Left to remind us that the victims were killed because of their political convictions, there were no other public discussions on how the targeted groups (left activists and feminists, whom Breivik called ‘cultural Marxists’) reacted to the attack – rather the call for national unity created a universal ‘we’ (both in Norway and Sweden) that, paradoxically, excluded these groups. In some cases, right wing journalists even went on and identified ‘left extremists’ and ‘queer feminists’ as the upcoming threat against democracy (see for example Lundberg in Expressen 2011-07-27 and 2011-08-10 or Hakelius in Aftonbladet, 2012-04-19).

British-Norwegian linguistic Stephen J. Walton points out in his analysis of Breivik and his ‘manifesto’ that for Breivik “[…] feminism, the Nordic model of gender equality, and the weakening of the patriarchal male rôle form the very basis of the cultural Marxist project.” (Walton, 2012:5). Liberal media and politicians seemed to be unable to grasp this side of Brevik’s conservative nationalism and completely focused on islamophobia as the key to understanding his motivation. The problem with that perspective, although of course not incorrect as such, is that it did not explain why Breivik killed predominantly white, non-Muslim teenagers.

As Walton writes: “In Breivik’s future scheme, Muslims will be permitted to convert to Christianity and remain in Europe (3.10). This does not, however, apply to the cultural Marxists. ‘Patriotic militias must create and update execution lists containing the names of every single parliamentarian, journalist, NGO leader/board member and university lecturer/professor etc. who has supported and propagated multiculturalist doctrines’ (3.124). These people, organized into a hierarchy of class A, B, and C traitors, must be killed before they can flee in the face of the forthcoming civil war.” (Walton, 2012:5) And Walton goes on to quote Breivik: “’you must [ . . . ] embrace and familiarize yourself with the concept of killing women, even very attractive women’, since they not only comprise the majority of cultural Marxists, but also 20% of the police force, and will in any case ‘not hesitate to kill you’ (3.46, a section entitled “Killing women on the field of battle—directly or indirectly”). (Breivik quoted in Walton, 2012: 7) Muslims were not categorized as traitors – only if they engage in ‘cultural Marxist’ activities would they be classified as such.

As a contrast to Walton’s analysis, the words of Norwegian Prime Minister Stoltenberg on the commemoration day sound strangely vague; they could almost be mistaken for a commemoration speech for the victims of a natural disaster: “This is a day for those who lost their lives last year, a day to show our empathy for those who were harmed and thousands of their relatives. July 22 is foremost about remembering all of those who were affected.” (Stoltenberg quoted in Svenska Dagbladet, 2012-07-22).

The problem is that Breivik was not a natural disaster, and his victims were not randomly chosen. They died for a reason – for their political beliefs. Is it not worse to take that away from them than to use their deaths for political purposes? Is it not worse that their deaths are now used in the name of Norwegian nationalism, Christianity and royalism? At a time when nationalist conservatives, along with fascists and neo-Nazis, are marching our streets and entering our parliaments, Breivik’s victims need to be properly remembered.


Hakelius, Johan (2012) Breivik är lärjunge till kulturmarxister [Breivik is the disciple of cultural Marxists], Aftonbladet 2012-04-19.
Ardin, A, Irving, M, Al Naher, S (2012) Samtalet förgiftas av högerextrem retorik [The discussion is poisoned by right wing extremist rhetoric], Aftonbladet 2012-02-15.
Esbati, Ali (2012) Norge har inget lärt av Utöya [Norway has not learned anything from Utöya], Aftonbladet 2013-07-22.
Editorial (2011) Var inte rädda [Don’t be afraid], Dagens Nyheter 2011-07-24.
TT (2011) Statsministrar besöker scoutläger [Prime ministers visit scout camp], Dagens Nyheter 2011-07-30
Edenheim, Sara and Rönnblom, Malin (2012) Rädslans politik [The Politics of Fear], in Glänta 2-3, 17-30.
Lundberg, Johan (2011) Vad får egentligen sägas? [What is really allowed to be said?], Expressen 2011-07-27.
Lundberg, Johan (2011) Vänsterns väpnade vänner [The armed friends of the Left], Expressen 2011-08-10.
Walton, Stephen J (2012) Anti-feminism and Misogyny in Breivik’s ’Manifesto’, Nora – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, 20:1, 4-11.
Reinfeldt, Fredrik (2011) Ett brott riktat mot oss alla [A crime directed towards all of us], Svenska Dagbladet 2011-07-28.
TT (2012) Norge minns offren för terrorn [Norway commemorates the victims of terror], Svenska Dagbladet 2012-07-22,


Sara Edenheim is associate professor in history in the Umeå Centre for Gender Studies (UCGS) at Umeå University.