Today marks the 20th anniversary of the brutal murder of Benjamin Harmensen. He was stabbed to death, by a group of young neo-Nazis, simply for having a different skin color. His untimely death highlighted both the absolute best and worst of a society that is, even today, still struggling with the impacts of immigration, racism, xenophobia, and questions of national identity.
Norway is often touted as possessing one of the most peaceful and harmonious societies in the world. According to the Institute for Economics & Peace annual Global Peace Index, Norway ranks, last year, as the equal 17th most peaceful country in the world.
For more than half a century, Norway has seen immigration increase due to its recent oil-based prosperity. However, by the late 1990s, societal strains emerged. Oslo was a rapidly changing city and not everyone was happy with this.
In memory of Benjamin Hermansen, Norway Today looks at how and why his brutal murder occurred and what that says about one of the most tolerant and peaceful societies in the world.
One horrible night in Holmlia
About a 10-minute train ride from the center of Oslo is the neighborhood of Holmlia. It is the southernmost neighborhood of the southernmost borough of Oslo, some 12km from downtown Oslo.
Major development of public housing and apartments began in the 1980s to to cater an ethnically diverse community. Of the 12,000 residents that reside in Holmlia, almost 48% have a “minority” background.
It was in this rather ordinary neighborhood that a heinous crime shook Norway twenty years ago.
Benjamin Hermansen lived with his mother in Holmlia. The son of a Ghanaian father and a Norwegian mother, he was an active 15-year-old who loved football.
Late on January 26, 2001, Benjamin went to meet his best friend, Hadi, outside a local Spar store in Holmlia. They were there to swap phone covers.
At around 11:30 PM, a car rolls into the car park. Three people are in the car – Joe Erling Jahr (19), Ole Nicolai Kvisler (21), and his girlfriend Veronica Andreassen (17). The two men jump out of the car and start to chase Benjamin and Hadi.
Hadi manages to escape but Benjamin doesn’t. He is then stabbed three times, in the back, heart, and right arm. The two men get back into the car and speed off. Benjamin attempts to walk back to the house where he and his mother live but falls overs and dies alone in a car park.
That same night police manage to arrested Kvisler and Andreassen. In their apartment, they find a sordid collection of Nazi propaganda and a gun. Jahr manages to flee to Denmark but is arrested and extradited back to Norway within a week of the murder.
It soon becomes apparent that the killing of Benjamin was racially motivated. All three suspects were part of a neo-Nazi group called “The Boot Boys.”
The trail of the three suspects draws international attention to Norway due to the racial motive of the murder. It was seen as Norway’s first racial murder case in a country where racial tensions are supposed to be almost non-existent.
Jahr and Kvisler are found guilty of racially motivated murder and given 16 and 15 years respectively. Andreassen is found guilty of the lesser charge of complicity in bodily harm resulting in death and receives only 3 years. By 2013, all three were out of prison.
Immigration and neo-Nazis in the 90s
Benjamin’s murder in 2001 was seen as a heinous repercussion of the 1990s boom of immigration to Norway. Some two decades after his murder, Norway is still quite a homogenous population.
Though widespread immigration had begun in the 1970s, with many immigrants wanting to live in a society that had just found recent prosperity through oil, it was during the 1990s that immigration peaked.
Benjamin was a first-generation Norwegian with an immigrant background. Regardless of his skin color, he was born and grew up in Oslo. However, not everyone was happy with this changing face of Norwegian society.
Coinciding with an increase in immigration in Norway was the rise of far-right and neo-Nazi organizations. A small percentage of Norway was clearly not happy with this changing face of Norwegian society.
It was in 1998 that the Norwegian branch of the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) was also founded. The NRM is a neo-Nazi organization which wants to stop mass immigration of “non-Nordic” people to the Nordic countries.
It was also in 1998 that “The Boot Boys” were founded in Oslo. This was a neo-Nazi gang of which Jahr, Kvisler, and Andreassen were found to be a part of. It had some 40 members at its peak and was one of the most violent “skinhead” gangs in Oslo.
Often attracting disaffected youth, it gave them a sense of structure and belonging and they violently and sadistically preyed on immigrants and Norwegians with immigrant backgrounds.
Benjamin’s murder – the reaction
The most shocking part of Benjamin’s murder was the racial motive. Though his cowardly murder was heinous, stabbed and left to die in a car park alone, it was seen as the first racially motivated murder in Norway. This attracted worldwide media attention as Norway was often touted as a “successful” society in terms of immigration.
When Norway learned of Benjamin’s brutal murder there was an outpouring of support, grief, and anger nationwide. Many marches, throughout the country, were organized to protest Benjamin’s murder and against vile neo-Nazi groups and ideologies.
Almost 40,000 people took part in a march in Oslo which culminated in a speech by the then Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg at Youngstorget. There was a national sense of collective loss of innocence, a murder which should not have happened in any society, let alone harmonious Norway.
Benjamin’s murder led the police to severely crack down on far-right and neo-Nazi organizations. The rise of the internet, however, has seen these organizations flourish. Though many have been banned, their followers arrested, it is still hard for authorities to halt what is seen as a horrid reaction to Norway’s changing society. The ease at which the internet can help neo-Nazis spread and disseminate ideas is alarming.
Such neo-Nazi ideologies did not stop with the police crackdown. Since Benjamin’s murder, there has been a rise in anti-immigrant, nationalist politics throughout Norway and the world. Calls for the halting of immigration to Norway were found in Anders Brevik’s manifesto whilst such racist sentiments have also lately fueled the Christchurch Mosque attacks in 2019.
One of the main questions asked during this national period of mourning and grief was exactly who was a “Norwegian.” Benjamin was born and spent his whole life in Norway. Yet, in his killer’s eyes, he was just another “immigrant.”
With only a relatively recent widespread immigration, Norway does not have the history of generations and generations of welcoming immigrants. With every society in flux, there is always pushback. Unfortunately, Benjamin paid with his life due to the ignorance, racism, and hate of a small and pathetic minority in our society.
Remembering Benjamin and his legacy
However, painting such a depressing picture of the Norwegian societal and racial tensions would be doing an injustice to Benjamin’s memory.
Following his murder, his mother helped set up “Benjaminprisen” (The Benjamin Prize), awarded by the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training.
It consists of a NOK 250,000 monetary award given to the school which has best worked, through education and information, against racism and discrimination amongst students, the faculty, and the broader community both during that year and longer-term. The prize is awarded each year on January 27 in conjunction with the Holocaust Memorial Day.
A song which was written by his friends, and played at his funeral, was also later recorded by prominent Norwegian musicians like Nora Noor and Briskeby.
Perhaps the best way to remember Benjamin, however, is to remember how tragic and ridiculous his death was. That a boy, at the start of his adult life, was brutally and heinously slain due to the color of his skin should be abhorrent to all that Norwegian society stands for.
Norway is a successful modern society because of its diversity and difference. Large scale immigration has enriched Norway and Norwegian cultural life. Though every society has its challenges, problems, and tensions, one should never resort to violence, racism, or hate.
Today we honor Benjamin’s memory by simply making a promise for this generation and all that follow: “Never Shall We Let This Happen Again”
Vale Benjamin Hermansen
May 29, 1985 – January 26, 2001
Hvil i fred / Rest In Peace
The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Norway Today unless specifically stated.
Source: #Norway Today, #NorwayTodayNews