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Monday, July 25, 2011

Behind the Norwegian Terrorist: The Grande Dame of Conspiracy Theory

I really don’t believe in “synchronicity”, but I made a find that startled me yesterday. I turned on my laptop and saw headlines about the Norwegian domestic terrorist Anders Breivik. Then, sighing and shaking my head, I turned to EBSCOhost to continue the work I had been doing, which involved reading articles about some unconventional belief systems.

The first thing I saw was a small number of articles discussing the life and work of one Nesta Helen Webster (1876-1960), an Englishwoman whose writings were a powerful influence on the John Birch Society, the Patriot movement, Pat Robertson-- and now, believe it or not, even radical Islamist groups. Her 1924 book “Secret Societies and Subversive Movements” told of organizations “gathering strength for an onslaught not only on Christianity, but on all social and moral orders”. It’s very likely that Nesta Webster’s views helped form the framework for Breivik’s fears and actions.

Mrs. Webster believed that subversive groups, initially in the form of the Illuminati, had conspired to bring about the French Revolution in an effort to destroy the aristocracy and break down class barriers so they could rule the world. In her own time, she thought, this work was being done by Communists, Freemasons(!), and “international finance” (read: secular Jews). She had a general admiration for the Nazis, but felt that they were not Christian enough and was concerned about their treaties with Russia.

According to some commentators (Ruotsila, M. [2004]. Mrs. Webster’s religion: Conspiricist extremism on the Christian far right. Patterns of Prejudice, 38, 109-126), Mrs. Webster’s beliefs about international and multicultural conspiracies were based on her own upbringing as a member of the Plymouth Brethren, a dissenting group whose “existential gloom” was matched only by a few members of the Church of England. Like some fundamentalist Christian groups in the modern United States, the Plymouth Brethren were premillenialists, believing that the “end times” would soon arrive and would involve a battle for souls between the forces of good (basically, themselves) and those of evil (everybody else). Premillenialism usually includes a concept of an Antichrist as the incarnation of evil, although the specific identity of the Antichrist is left unclear, enabling groups to fill in the blank with the name of their most concerning enemy. Of course, non-Christian groups can readily adapt the story to their own needs by using some term other than Antichrist but keeping the rest of the narrative.

Mrs. Webster’s conspiracy theory seems to have done little but insert the names of her particular feared people into the Antichrist blank. The rest of her concerns (and those of modern complex conspiracy theorists) mirror the premillenialist narrative. The basic story is as follows: there is a battle that has been going on for a long time; many enemies conspire against us; they want to destroy our cherished ways and replace them with an immoral and disgusting society; they operate secretly and unfairly; the end of the battle is near, and we must counterattack if we are to survive; no compromise is possible; they hate us, and we are right to hate them.

It was just as simple for Anders Breivik and many others to make use of this narrative as it was for Mrs. Webster. Breivik easily inserted Islam and multiculturalism into the Antichrist blank-- just as radical Islamists can insert the names of European and North American people and institutions into the same opening. It’s a terrific story, very exciting and engaging, and even contains some partial truths. How difficult, then, for many people to question or resist it!

Whether Anders Breivik is “crazy” is already being debated, as happens every time there is violence committed by one of these true believers in conspiracy. Even Mrs. Webster had some personal beliefs and assumptions that are likely to raise some eyebrows-- she thought she might be the reincarnation of an aristocrat who died in the French Revolution, she believed in ESP , “ancestral memory”, and the influence of “spirit presences” (see Lee, M.F. [2005]. Nesta Webster: The voice of conspiracy.Journal of Women's History, 17, 81-104). Yet having unusual beliefs is not clear evidence of “craziness”, and neither is killing a lot of people, an action for which we reward soldiers with high praise.

In fact, it may not be particularly relevant whether Breivik is “crazy” or not. Focusing on this issue may be important for the making of legal decisions about him, but it can also have the effect of distracting us from the much larger problem shown by Internet sites like “Gates of Vienna”. In fact, to declare Breivik “crazy” may have the unfortunate effect of hiding the power of the basic Antichrist story which motivates modern conspiracy theories of the kind Breivik acted out. Christians, Muslims, and other religionists, can you recognize this dangerous narrative, this self-fulfilling prophesy, and speak out against it before it creates more mini-Armageddons?

[Incidentally, I fully expect a number of attachment therapists to declare that Breivik was suffering from Reactive Attachment Disorder. Let me point out that there is no reason whatever to think that this was the case, or that if it had been, that this would have offered an explanation for his actions.]


  1. That is really interesting and disturbing. Mrs. Webster sounds like a horrible woman and the root of many conspiracy theories. Fundamentalist fanaticism of any religion or ideology eventually leads to killing.

    By the way, about RAD....he isn't adopted, is he?

  2. Nothing I've read suggested he was adopted, but you know people can find a reason there should be RAD anywhere they want. His father did leave the family fairly soon-- and who knows what else-- maybe he had colic or even had some NICU time-- or something. Somehow, though, I think he's going to get added to the list of people your adopted baby will grow up to be like if you don't get attachment therapy (unquote).

  3. Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard were also influenced by conspiracy theories which play rather heavily into some of their tactics including their anti-psychiatry campaigns. This is mentioned in Janet Reitman's excellent and well-documented recently published history of Scientology. Hubbard believed that a small number of people (similar to the concept of the Illuminati) control the world and he weaves in psychiatry and past lives into that conspiracy. Scientologists, most of whom are not psychotic, believe this. Influence, rather than pathology, can play a large role in the adoption of such belief systems.

    Regarding "attachment disorders" some of the anti-cult community have also, unfortunately, bought into these myths. Steve Hassan in a recent interview, declared that Bin Laden and other mass murderers have "a lack of healthy attachment". He may have been influenced by certain people in the international adoption community. I agree with you that it's only a matter of time before people begin media diagnosis of Breivic as having an attachment disorder.

  4. Thanks for the reminder about the Reitman book-- I was trying to remember the author's name--