Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre on Utøya: on Aage Borchgrevink’s "A Norwegian Tragedy"

By Rachel MonroeMay 12, 2014

Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre on Utøya: on Aage Borchgrevink’s "A Norwegian Tragedy"

2083: A European Declaration of Independence was an expensive text to produce. Its author, Anders Behring Breivik, claims in the introduction to have spent 130,000 Euros “creating” the 1,500-page PDF, which he calls “the compendium.” Factoring in Breivik’s opportunity cost — the earnings he passed up by devoting himself to writing and research full-time for three years — he finally estimates that the costs of the compendium approached 317,000 Euros. “All that, however, is barely noticeable,” Breivik writes with a wink in the book’s introduction, “compared to the sacrifices made in relation to the distribution of this book, the actual marketing operation ;).”

That “actual marketing operation” began at 3:25 p.m. on July 22, 2011, when Breivik’s bomb exploded in front of a downtown Oslo office building, where the initial “sacrifices made” included 8 deaths and 209 injuries. Two hours later, Breivik, dressed as a policeman, took a 15-minute ferry ride to Utøya, a forested island that was home to an annual summer camp for leftist youth. He told the ferryboat captain he was being sent to the island to provide security in the aftermath of the Oslo explosion. During the short ride to the island, Breivik sipped from the hydration pack strapped to his back and did not speak. When the boat docked on Utøya, Breivik was met by the ferry captain’s wife, the camp manager, who was known as “Mother Utøya.” As her husband looked on, Breivik shot her and the security guards who were with her. Then he calmly walked up the hill toward the camp’s cafeteria. For the next 70 minutes, Breivik stalked the small island, shooting scores of people, many of them teenagers. Others leapt off the island’s rocky cliffs into the freezing water to escape him. Afterward, survivors who had hid among the island’s trees recalled that they could tell when Breivik was heading their way — unlike everyone else on the island that afternoon, his footsteps were calm, measured, purposeful.

An hour into the attack, a helicopter circled the island. Some of the survivors thought it was the police coming to rescue them, but it was actually a news crew, circling in closer to capture Breivik’s final murders on film. It wasn’t until 10 minutes later that Breivik finally surrendered to police without a fight — “My brothers,” he called them, as they snapped the handcuffs on his wrists.

Breivik was a small, meticulous child, the product of a short-lived marriage between a nurse and a diplomat. He first came to the attention of Norwegian authorities at the age of two, when his mother, Wenche Behring — who by that point was the sole caretaker for Anders and his half-sister — appealed to Norway’s child welfare program for “weekend respite care,” complaining that her son was “capricious and full of unpredictable quirks.” In March 1983, when Anders was four, an increasingly overwhelmed Wenche had him evaluated by the State Centre for Child and Youth Psychiatry. “She felt provoked by his smile,” Norwegian journalist Aage Borchgrevink writes in A Norwegian Tragedy: Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre on Utøya, “which she saw as inappropriate, condescending and disdainful.” The state psychologist also took note of the boy’s “feigned, aversive smile” and warned that Anders’s unstable home life put him at risk of “developing more serious psychopathology.”

For the next several years, Wenche engaged in a dance with Norwegian social services, alternately requesting help for her son and then rejecting it. Her treatment of her son was similar: one minute she’d push him away, and the next shower him with affection.

As a boy, Breivik was fond of cats and Greek mythology; as an adolescent, his obsession was graffiti. Borchgrevink meticulously recreates Breivik’s teenage social world, from his friendship with a Pakistani boy to his attempts to ingratiate himself with groups of boys he saw as tougher than himself. Oslo was in the midst of a social upheaval; the number of violent incidents in the city rose 22 percent in a four-year period in the 1990s, which some people blamed on the influx of immigrants, many of whom were from Muslim countries. Breivik never quite fit in with either the cool Pakistani taggers, or the polo-shirted preps at his high school (where jocks were those who were skilled at “cross-country skiing, tennis or orienteering,” Borchgrevink writes — perhaps the book’s moment of peak Norwegian-ness). But he thrilled in the rituals of graffiti culture: sneaking around, leaving his mark on public places, and gloating over his secret fame. As Borchgrevink ominously points out, these nighttime graffiti excursions were the first time that Breivik bombed the city.

Always an indifferent student, Breivik dropped out of high school a few months short of graduating, and spent his early 20s on various money-making hustles, including a stint selling forged diplomas and exam certificates, and a misguided trip to Liberia in the midst of that country’s brutal civil war, hoping to buy conflict diamonds. The fake-diploma business turned out to be much more lucrative (or at least more accessible) than the blood-diamond trade: over three or four years in his mid-20s, Breivik amassed four million kroner (approximately $670,000). This is also the period when he became publicly involved in center-right politics, although his message board postings from this time show no hint of the extreme views and racial hatred he’d later espouse in the compendium. To the outside world, Breivik seemed like a regular middle-class conservative Norwegian, a young rich guy with plans to get richer.

By 2006, though, his shady business dealings caught the attention of the authorities — plus, he’d lost much of his fortune through risky stock market gambles. The best solution, Breivik decided reluctantly, was to move back in with his mother. Thus began a period of closed doors, isolation, and days spent on the computer. “Sure, some people will think you are a freak for living with your parents at the age of 31,” Breivik wrote in the compendium. “The only thing that matters is to ensure that you have enough funds and free time to complete the objectives necessary to execute your individual mission.” Friends describe this as the time when Breivik “went underground.”

I had it in my head that I would read the entirety of 2083: A European Declaration of Independence. When a person commits an atrocity, our immediate, stuttering questions are why and how; in providing us with 1,500 pages of explanation for his actions, perhaps Breivik had perversely given us something to be grateful for. At least we wouldn’t have to wonder. It would be relatively painless, I convinced myself: 50 pages a day for a month, with permission to skim.

But for the week or so I stuck with that plan, the Breivik of the compendium remained an enigma — partly because the bulk of the 1,500 pages were not written by him at all. Instead, the compendium turns out to be an often-uncredited hodgepodge of Wikipedia articles, charts, and blog posts cribbed from Breivik’s conservative heroes. “None of the other authors have been asked to participate in this project due to practical and security reasons but most of them have made their material available for distribution,” Breivik explains in the introduction. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. This is the reason why I have decided to allow the content of this compendium to be freely redistributed and translated. Consider it my personal gift and contribution to all Europeans.” (Breivik’s conservative heroes have since stumbled all over themselves in trying to distance themselves from him.)

This introduction functions as a perfect crystallization of Breivik’s own arrogance and exceptionalism; he takes casual possession of other people’s work, gives them credit only when it’s convenient, and acts as though the whole thing is an act of benevolent sacrifice on his part. At the same time, he’s happy to police everyone else’s behavior: “it is required that the author(s) are credited when the material is used,” he admonishes later. Unless he’s the one who’s using it, presumably.

All this makes the compendium an odd and frustrating read. As with most group-written documents, it is regularly redundant and frequently self-contradictory. Among the pieces Breivik saw fit to include are jeremiads against the scourge of cultural theory, lists of atrocities perpetuated by Muslims, and pages of derision of “female sluts,” but also Wikipedia articles about sugar beet farming and investment tips. Breivik’s preferred pronoun is “we,” not so much in the royal sense, but more as an instrument of coercion and authority: “We know that more than 60% of the police officers in Europe sympathise with our cause and that even more, around 90%, empathise with it.” The overall effect is as if your ultraconservative uncle printed out the entirety of his favorite blog and smugly delivered it to you in book form. I did not read the whole thing.

The most interesting parts of the compendium, however, are the chapters devoted to the immanent European civil war. This section, which makes up about a third of the compendium, includes tips for paramilitary recruitment, suggestions of US Congress members who might be sympathetic to the cause, and templates for loyalty oaths — in short, everything an enterprising young man would need to overthrow the existing world order.

Breivik’s marketing tips for paramilitary heroes include suggestions for how to have a successful photo shoot. “The police usually ‘leak’ ‘retarded looking’ photos to the press after raiding the cells apartment after an operation,” he writes. “By removing and deleting all ‘negative’ photos, and by making available the professional, photo shopped photos prior to the operation; we make their job significantly harder.” (The compendium sections actually written by Breivik are relatively easy to identify; he wrote in English knowing that would help his plans for mass distribution, but he is not entirely comfortable with the language.) He suggests visiting a tanning bed beforehand, and enlisting a professional to apply makeup: “Yes, this sounds gay, but looking ‘attractive’ will significantly benefit the impact of our message as it will act as a force multiplier.”

The final pages of the compendium include several such publicity photos of Breivik: with longish hair and a popped collar; in a hazmat suit emblazoned with an iron cross; wearing pseudo-military dress, laden with medals, a hint of that “feigned, aversive smile” on his face. This is Breivik in costume as Justiciar Knight Andrew Berwick: a fantastic, idealized version of himself, the hero of an imaginary army of Knights Templar, that Breivik developed in those years he spent “underground,” living with his mother and generally refusing to leave the apartment except to go to the gym.

During these years, Breivik was also spending an average of about seven hours a day (and sometimes as many as 16) playing computer games, primarily World of Warcraft and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In WoW, Breivik created three avatars with names that give you an idea of where his head was at in those days: Andersnordic (a muscled, male mage), Conservatism (a blonde female mage), and Conservative (a female druid).

The language of the first-person shooter permeates the compendium:

I know there is a 80%+ chance I am going to die during the operation as I have no intention to surrender to them until I have completed all three primary objectives AND the bonus mission. When I initiate (providing I haven’t been apprehended before then), there is a 70% chance that I will complete the first objective, 40% for the second, 20% for the third and less than 5% chance that I will be able to complete the bonus mission.

Some of Breivik’s computer time was devoted to trying to make a splash on ultraconservative blogs and message boards, some of them attached to the heroes he’d later crib from when creating the compendium. Once again, though, Breivik had a hard time gaining traction. No one wanted his brilliant ideas. Instead he watched al-Qaeda beheading videos, played first-person shooters, and lifted weights. He took steroids and got a nose job. He combed his hair, dressed in a pseudo-military uniform, and posed for pictures. At one point, he ran into a local celebrity, a man who appeared on a popular Norwegian TV program. “In one year’s time, I’ll be three times as famous as you,” Breivik told him.

I found parts of Borchgrevink’s book to be a slog, and at first I wasn’t quite sure why. In some places, A Norwegian Tragedy reads as though it was written somewhat hastily (it was published in Norway a little more than a year after the massacre), and it also shows signs of being translated just as quickly. (“A thousand years ago, the towering ash trees shielding Nedre Silkestrå were used to hang up sacrifices to the Norse gods, whether these were dead animals or perhaps people, but then the Norse religion was banished with sword and axe by an aggressive religion originating from the Mediterranean, namely Christianity.”) Borchgrevink was writing for a Norwegian audience, so he too often overexplains cultural touchstones like graffiti tags or Marvel comics while dropping names of Oslo neighborhoods and private schools without clarifying what they signify. Despite all that, it’s a well-researched account, and there are parts of it I zipped through. The problem, I realized eventually, was that I found Breivik boring.

I am not the only one. Borchgrevink’s research into Breivik’s past turns up plenty of teachers who can’t remember their former pupil and fellow graffiti taggers whose only recollection of Breivik was that he dated an unattractive girl once. Despite the petty crimes and money laundering and trips to Liberia, the Breivik in A Norwegian Tragedy is dull, minorly irritating, narcissistic in a completely banal way. Spending time with him feels like going on an extremely tiresome OkCupid date, one where you have to listen to someone list off his favorite clothing brand (Lacoste), eau de toilette (Chanel Platinum Égoïste), and cocktail (Red Bull and Absolut), and then monologue about how lucky you are to be on a date with someone as appealing as him. “I don’t blame [my promiscuous friends and family members] personally and [my condemnation of them] has absolutely nothing to do with envy,” he writes. “I could easily have chosen the same path if I wanted to, due to my looks, status, resourcefulness and charm.”

But Breivik was a political terrorist; surely, there must be something interesting there? (I say that as a person who sincerely appreciates the Unabomber’s manifesto in my own, dark way.) Not really, it turns out; the further I read in the compendium, the more I realized that Breivik wasn’t marketing a political philosophy, or even an ideology of hate at all; instead, the whole document, all 1,518 pages of it, was actually just an advertisement for Breivik as he would like to be seen: omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent, infinitely superior, in control, in uniform. That’s why a simple manifesto, or a 10-page screed detailing the decline of Western Civilization, would never have worked. The politics of the compendium are a mask; the point is the sheer bulk of the thing, its anxious pretensions of authority. Its intention is to intimidate, not to argue. It’s a vanity project in which Breivik plays the role of both victim and victor, the unequivocal star of the show.

Last month, Norway announced that artist Jonas Dahlberg would create the official memorial on Utøya. Dahlberg’s proposal calls for an 11-foot-wide slice to be carved out of the island, an interruption in the landscape that will make it impossible to cross from one end of Utøya to the other. It’s a beautiful idea, and a sad one, the monument-as-absence, as manifestation of loss. The gulf that cannot be crossed. It also seems like a fitting way to memorialize what Breivik brought to Utøya that afternoon in July: a vacancy, an emptiness, something vital that went missing.

Borchgrevink ends his book with a plea for better social services; he sees Breivik’s crimes as at least partly attributable to bad parenting and the failure of the social safety net. I understand his desire to graft an explanation onto a seemingly senseless act, and to turn it into an impetus for making the world a more humane place. Rather than the absence of the Utøya monument, we would have a substantive presence: a change.

But spending time with Breivik’s brain, reading his own words and the stories that other people tell about him, makes it hard to feel satisfied with such a conclusion. Even if social services could have prevented his crimes, it’s difficult to know how they could have prevented him from being him. Which brings me back to that nagging, frustrating why. It’s tempting to fall back on the old we’ll-never-know, except that explanations relying on the opacity of evil, its fundamental unknowability, always seem to me like a simultaneous cop-out and a glorification. Perhaps the real horror is that Breivik has provided us with an explanation for why he did what he did. And that’s what I dwell on, when I can’t sleep: how terrible to have died at the hands of this man, and for reasons that are so stupid, and selfish, and mundane.


 Rachel Monroe is a writer living in Marfa, Texas.

LARB Contributor

Rachel Monroe is a writer living in Marfa, Texas.


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