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Preserving our open society after Oslo

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Photo: DPA
17:47 CEST+02:00
Norway’s mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik wanted the opposite of freedom. That's why open societies including Germany must resist xenophobia and isolationism in the face of terror. A commentary by Der Tagesspiegel’s Gerd Appenzeller.

The man is young, blond and has blue eyes. He loves classical music and literature. He describes himself as a Christian. And he wants to save Europe from Marxism, Islamization, multiculturalism and foreign influences.

This is a description that would presumably fit tens of thousands of young Europeans, mainly men, who either belong to far-right groups or sympathize with them. But Anders Behring Breivik went further. He detonated a car bomb with 500 kilos of explosives in the centre of Oslo and went on a shooting rampage on a nearby holiday island, murdering almost 80 people.

Those Breivik shot were almost all youths, and were victims only because they accepted an invitation to a summer camp hosted by the centre-left Labour Party. Breivik chose to target them because he thought the party embodied policies delivering Norway to Marxists and Islamists.

Groups that hold such extremist views don't just exist in Norway – there are similar ones in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. And there are comparable political movements in Germany too. Xenophobia is on the rise in Europe, a continent which has always been marked by cultural diversity in spite of long centuries of being unified by Christianity, and whose influence has affected the world from the Americas all the way to Africa and Asia.

And now that globalization is returning to the continent that transformed the world, many people just can't cope, and feel their identities are being betrayed. They blame politicians who they believe are failing to protect them from foreign influence, and failing to preserve old traditions.

They want their countries to insulate themselves from change, they want them to shut everything out that they consider bad, and if that isn't possible, they want to destroy multiculturalism, Marxism and Islamism – everything they consider foreign.

But they overlook the fact that Europe always suffered when it reacted like that – Hitler's Germany, Franco's Spain, Mussolini's Italy and Stalin's Russia shut themselves into a madness of race or class supremacy and exterminated people who thought differently or were just different.

And they also forget that Europe prospered and achieved international importance when it overcame boundaries and embraced open societies. Whenever Europe divided itself into groups to be preserved and groups to be destroyed, then it became the continent of inhumanity. But whenever it celebrated freedom and democracy, it became a model and a yardstick for others to measure themselves by.

That is why the response to terrorism should never be separation and isolation, but a cosmopolitan outlook and the "compassion" former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt once spoke of – a man, incidentally, whose values were influenced by his years in exile in Norway during the Nazi era.

What the Anders Behring Breiviks of this world want is just the opposite – they want to retreat into a fantasy that never existed, and which never can exist in a borderless 21st century. This is an age in which catastrophes and crises constantly remind us that the actions taken by national governments can quickly affect the entire planet.

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Jens Stoltenberg, prime minister of the Scandinavian country so sorely tested by these terrorist attacks, says the response to such murder will be even more democracy, even more openness, but never naiveté. That last point is a warning that rings out beyond Norway's borders to all those who want to abuse the hospitality of our open societies.

But it was perhaps naive to assume that everyone would respect the rules of democracy and openness. The threat to both doesn't always come from outside. Sometimes the enemy of freedom is blonde, blue-eyed, loves classical music and literature, and calls himself a Christian.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

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