Transcendental Terror: Zen self-transformation and white supremacist atrocity, from Nazi Germany to Utøya and Christchurch

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“His body was fighting against it; his muscles were twitching. He felt he would never be able to go through with it. A hundred voices in his head were screaming: Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it! . . . He forced his right hand down to his thigh, unfastened the holster, took hold of the pistol . . . Screams filled the air. The killer was breathing rapidly. His eyes, his body, his brain, his hand, they were all coordinated . . . From now on, he thought, everything would be easy.”

– Excerpt From “One of Us” (2016), a narrative non-fiction account of the 2011 Oslo & Utøya terrorist attack.

Extended Abstract: In September 1941, Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (or SS) Heinrich Himmler faced a macabre dilemma. As Nazi forces swept the Ukraine as part of Operation Barbarossa, the former chicken farmer had received troubling field reports. Although the mass killings of civilians by Himmler’s Einsatzgruppen (SS death squads) were well underway, many soldiers were going mad. Indeed, at the peak of Nazi atrocities in the Ukrainian Ostfront, over 30,000 civilians, mostly Jews, were murdered by gunshot in just two days.

The logistics of this mass extermination were relatively simple. After being rounded up, the civilians were shepherded to open fields and onto the precipice of enormous mass graves. They were then shot, point blank, by a small number of Einsatzgruppen commandos – their bodies tumbling into the pits like clockwork. And despite the extraordinary number of daily exterminations in the Ukraine, Himmler was nonetheless troubled by the apparent mental strain of the work. In pursuit of a solution, Himmler turned to a small, leather-bound book, which was apocryphally said to always be in his jacket pocket.

This book was the Bhagavad-Gita – and in it, Himmler hoped to find an esoteric and spiritual template to inoculate his soldiers to the psychological strains of mass murder. Could it be possible to use so-called ‘Eastern wisdom’ to transform ordinary men into enlightened, relentless, transcendental killing machines? This question was not new. Nazi intellectual fascination with esoteric spiritualism was not limited to Hinduism or Himmler’s imagination. By 1941, the translated writings of D. T. Suzuki – the Japanese Buddhist philosopher and Nazi sympathiser – had already influenced the Nazi quest for moral transcendence amongst their soldiers.

This weaponised spiritualism emanated from similar efforts in Imperial Japan, where Buddhist monks had been consulted on how to imbibe the emperor’s soldiers with Zen transcendentalism. For the Imperial Army, Zen was one of many spiritual tools which had been weaponised and taught to Japanese soldiers, ostensibly to instil the infantrymen with an enlightened state of physical and moral transcendence. This new, militarised phenomenological horizon framed individual human life as meaningless in the cosmology of Buddhist universality – a perfect mindset for soldiers trained to kill without mercy. Thus, by integrating Zen Buddhist principles into frontline combat, the Imperial Army hoped to perfect their soldier’s capacity for extreme violence, which included the indiscriminate mass slaughter of civilians.

In the wake of contemporary mass shootings, public discourse invariably returns to the rhetorical question: “How does one commit such an act?” In 2011 and 2019, two men – one in Norway, the other in New Zealand – declared themselves saviours of the white race, and separately murdered dozens of civilians in their respective nation’s worst terrorist attacks. In preparation for these acts, both terrorists underwent a radical personal transformation and, in their manifestos, both alluded to moral transcendence via spiritual enlightenment as a critical step in their ability to carry out their plans. This was further evidenced in the months leading up to their attacks, in which both men withdrew from society almost completely. They became ghostlike, monastic in aesthetic, inhabiting a Zen-like state of ‘living death’, a mindset which framed their victims as meaningless relative to their imagined, epic history. And while these two men did not know each other, they were both driven to violence by the same Nazi-inspired ideology: white nationalism and the so-called Great Replacement conspiracy theory.

This paper will seek to understand the personal, moral, and spiritual transformation of the perpetrators of the 2011 Utøya and 2019 Christchurch terrorist attacks, by situating them in the wider historical context of Nazi fascination with so-called ‘Eastern wisdom’ as a spiritual weapon to enable mass murder. Drawing from both terrorists’ manifestos and their biographies, what emerges is a phenomenological transformation that is evocative of both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan’s own aspirations for creating ‘perfect’ transcendental killers.

While this paper will not suggest that the Utøya and Christchurch terrorists were consciously inspired by Nazi spiritual aspirations, it will nevertheless analyse the ‘living death’ of Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant as Himmler’s dream inadvertently realised: a Zen-like, transcendental transformation that enabled both men to commit horrific acts of mass murder.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusIn preparation - 2022
EventModes of Self-Alteration Anthropology Workshop 2021 - L-Università ta' Malta, Msida, Malta
Duration: 8 Dec 202110 Dec 2021


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