What Breivik's trial says about extremism in Europe

Breivik weeps in court — over a propaganda film he made.

Far-right extremism in Europe is an insidious kind of evil.

After the horror of the Holocaust, voicing support for Nazi ideology – anti-Semitism, racism and the like — is publicly taboo in Europe. It's against the law to deny the Holocaust happened in some countries. In Germany, displaying swastikas, the symbol of the Nazi party, is illegal. The French fine people for using anti-Semitic slurs — something John Galliano apparently forgot.

But that hasn’t stomped out the hate.

GlobalPost’s recent series on far-right extremism in Europe found that driving it underground has allowed such ideas to fester unchecked. In Eastern Europe in particular, political parties are rising with anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic platforms, according to recent data, compiled here.

These ideas are rising now in part because the economy is struggling. People are hurting, and they're looking for a scapegoat, someone to blame who ideally doesn't look like them. Cue charismatic leaders who know just where to direct their frustration.

These parties are less of a problem in the Nordic countries and much of Western Europe, though these ideas clearly continue to percolate there, too. 

The attack in Norway by avowed white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik raises the question of how best to deal with this kind of hate: whether to outlaw it in a frenetic game of whack-a-mole, as the European Union has tried to do, or allow it to exist in the open, and confront its flawed reasoning head-on. 

Read more: The twisted battle over Breivik's sanity

Breivik's long-awaited trial began on Monday

He has admitted to killing 77 people, most of them at a summer youth camp, in a bombing and shooting spree in Norway last year. But Breivik pled not guilty: he says he was acting in self-defense.

Breivik says he is a white supremacist who was attempting to defend Norway from takeover by Islamic terrorists.

GlobalPost covered his bizarre views in a recent story by correspondent Richard Orange. Breivik has declared himself not guilty — not by reason of insanity, but self-defense — which to his lawyers seemed, well, insane.

Apparently, the defense tried to persuade Breivik to say that he was temporarily insane in the hopes of winning a lighter sentence. Breivik refused.

For our story, Richard Orange spoke to Breivik’s lawyer, who tried to explain the killer's thinking:

“Most people in his situation want to be declared insane, because they want to escape,” Breivik’s lawyer, Odd Groen, admits. “The only thing that means anything to him now is that he’s declared sane.” According to Groen, Breivik believes his killing spree was “necessary” to bring attention to his manifesto, an ideological text designed to alert Norwegians to what he believes is an imminent takeover by radical Islamists. If people believe his manifesto is nothing but the ravings of a paranoid schizophrenic, his reasoning goes, then he will have killed his victims for nothing. Breivik sees himself as a hero.

Breivik got his wish today, his first day in court. He clenched his fist in a raised salute, according to the Associated Press, and said

"I do not recognize the Norwegian courts. You have received your mandate from political parties which support multiculturalism. I do not acknowledge the authority of the court."

Initially, Breivik said that he was part of a violent right-wing group known as the Knights Templar, and that more attacks would come. But after investigating, prosecutors say that the group doesn’t exist, and that Breivik acted alone. At any rate, there have been no similar attacks in the country since Breivik was captured.

In one GlobalPost piece on hate by Michael Goldfarb, the EU conceded that it has some leverage in pressing countries to kill what they see as discriminatory legislation, for example. But it can't change the minds of people like Breivik with any number of laws — and that's a tragedy that compounds the losses in Norway.

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