Norway’s Utøya tragedy: Historian to discuss balance between memory and new life

The bombing of Norway’s Government Center and the murder of 69 young people at a Labor Youth League camp in July 2011 shook Norwegian society to its core. Then came a new challenge: How to memorialize the tragedy without letting memory overwhelm hope for the future.

Norwegian historian Tor Einar Fagerland has been at the center of the struggle, and he will discuss his experience Wednesday at Indiana University Bloomington. His talk, at 6:30 p.m. in the IMU Dogwood Room, is free and open to the public.

Tor Einar Fagerland

Tor Einar Fagerland

“Dealing well with this situation obviously will not bring back those 69 people,” Fagerland said. “But not dealing with it well would add more pain to an already bad situation.”

Fagerland, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, is in Bloomington at the invitation of IU historian Ed Linenthal, an authority on history and memory. Linenthal serves with Fagerland on an advisory board to study how to memorialize the massacre of Labor Youth League members on Norway’s Utøya Island.

On July 22, 2011, a right-wing extremist named Anders Behring Breivik set off a bomb at the Government Center in Oslo, killing eight people and severely wounding 30. In the chaos that followed, he drove to Utøya, site of a Labor Youth League campus. He entered the island dressed as a police officer, and for over an hour he tracked down and killed 69 campers, shooting them at close range.

The impact in Norway, a nation of 4.7 million that prides itself on tolerance and nonviolence, was profound. “It was such a fall from innocence, we believed,” Fagerland said.

He said the nation initially rallied behind Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s call for responding not with vengeance but with a reaffirmation of Norwegian values. But the social consensus began to fray during Breivik’s trial. A year later, a report by a national commission suggested the ruling Labor Party had not been serious enough about domestic terrorism and police were disorganized in their response.

“First this is the day we stood up to terrorism, and now it is the day that everything that could go wrong went wrong,” Fagerland said.

The question of how to formally remember what happened also proved to be difficult. So did the question of what should happen to Utøya. Should the Labor Youth League return and resume that activities it had carried out on the island since 1950? Or should the space be off limits, preserved to memory?

The league turned to Fagerland after its first attempt upset the victims’ families, who feared their children’s memories were being sacrificed by an eagerness to return to the site. Recognizing Norway had little experience with such dilemmas, Fagerland created an advisory board that includes Linenthal and other experts. They set out to regain the trust of the families, visited Utøya several times, and met with Youth Labor League members and survivors.

A central challenge was deciding what to do about the large Café Building that dominates the island, where many of the victims were hunted down and killed. The proposed solution – keeping the building in place as a memorial but enclosing it within a larger structure – presented itself when a young woman who survived the attack asked to show them the restroom where she had hid.

“Suddenly we realized this building is not only a place of death, it’s also a place of survival,” Fagerland said. “The balance was absolutely right there within the building.”

This summer, the Labor Youth League held its camp at a different location but visited Utøya and released 69 balloons in memory of those who were killed. Plans call for returning to the island in the future.

“Coming back is not about forgetting,” Fagerland said. “Coming back is about remembering the past but also allowing for new life.”

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