In 1998, the accusation hit a movement led by German psychologist Heide Fittkau-Garthe. The authorities did not find any evidence it was true.
by Massimo Introvigne
Anti-cultists are incorrigible, and the Spanish-speaking ones are among the worst of the lot. Even after having been caught red-handed inventing an attempted mass suicide that never existed, they keep repeating the same lies. 25 years thereafter, they celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of their own hoax—as if it was a real event.
Through a Spanish anti-cult newsletter I discovered that, unbelievably, “cult experts” had sold to media in the Canary Island the same lie they peddled twenty-five years ago, in 1998. Videoreport Canarias, for a show called “1 Hora Menos,” realized a virtual reality reconstruction of what “might” have happened a quarter of a century ago. It shows thirty “cultists” marching and believing they are seeing a UFO ready to take them to another planet. In fact, the show claimed they were ready to jump out of a cliff. Happily, alerted by the anti-cultists, the Spanish police intervened and saved all of them.
There is only one problem with this story. It never happened. The year 1998 immediately followed the very real tragedies of the Order of the Solar Temple, whose members “did” believe they will be transported to another planet after having committed suicide and killed their children in three different incidents in 1994, 1995, and 1997. A series of nine articles in “Bitter Winter” recently reconstructed the events and discussed its possible interpretations.
The Solar Temple tragedies had an unfortunate consequence. Anti-cultists started seeing the “preparation for a mass suicide” behind any “cult” with more or less non-conventional ideas. They also knew that “mass suicide” was a formula that would immediately led to police intervention.
The post-Solar Temple media and legal hysteria about possible “cult mass suicides” was never more evident than in the case of the Training Center for the Release of the Atma-Energy. Dr. Heide Fittkau-Garthe, a German psychologist was arrested on January 8, 1998 in Tenerife, Canary Islands, where she lived in Barrio La Salud with a number of followers. She was accused of preparing a mass suicide based on what relatives of German followers had told the German and Spanish police.
In 1997, members of the American UFO movement Heaven’s Gate had committed suicide by taking poison mixed with apple sauce. Tipped by anti-cultists who knew about that case, the Spanish police seized “suspicious” fruit juice kept by Fittkau-Garthe’s movement in Tenerife. It was duly analyzed. It was just ordinary fruit juice.
Many Spanish and international newspapers reported on January 9 that Dr. Fittkau-Garthe was the leader of “a branch of the Solar Temple,” an information which was demonstrably false. She never had anything to do with the Solar Temple.
A leader of the German branch of the Brahma Kumaris, Fittkau-Garthe left the Indian movement (or was excluded from it) and eventually became one of the most prominent self-help motivational speakers in Germany, organizing her activities into the Trainingszentrum zur Freisetzung der Atma-Energie (Training Center for the Release of the Atma-Energy). She lectured on behalf of a number of German large corporations and was hailed as a “star psychologist.” The esoteric doctrines of her core group of followers involved references to both Western (including “A Course in Miracles”) and Eastern occult lore.
When the 1998 incident happened, I was contacted by Fittkau-Garthe’s followers and lawyers. I found they were typical New Agers and true believers in a number of conspiracy theories they shared with hundreds of other similar groups. Although I did not have warm feelings for their brand of “conspirituality” (conspirationist spirituality), I quickly concluded that suicide, either individual and collective, was as far away as possible from their esoteric theology and practice. Hostile relatives of members had simply taken advantages of the Solar Temple and Heaven’s Gate events to unleash the police against the group. Other scholars wrote similar accounts of the incident. To his credit, even Pepe Rodríguez, one of the most well-known Spanish anti-cult reporters, came to the conclusion that the police misinterpreted as literal what in the group was merely symbolic.
Although a report prepared by a psychologist specialized in sexual troubles repeated the usual theories on brainwashing and destructive cults, on July 23, 2004 an embarrassed Court of Tenerife had to declare the “suspension” of the proceedings against Fittkau-Garthe and her followers for absolute lack of evidence. The Court, although admitting that not the slightest proof of the preparation of a mass suicide had emerged, was still heavily influenced by the “expert” it had appointed. He had suggested that the German witnesses did not want to come to Spain to testify because they had, in fact, been “brainwashed “and at any rate did not want to return to the place of their suffering. The court also indicated that, although they believed in their “expert”’s allegation that the Foundation was a destructive cult, the complete lack of evidence did not allow the Spanish judges to keep the case open, nor had the German judiciary expressed any interest in it.
The case was never reopened. Some of Dr. Fittkau-Garthe’s ideas were, admittedly, quite original, and she ran into further financial and other troubles unrelated to “cultic” activities and alleged mass suicides. On the other hand, the Tenerife case was just a further confirmation of how ready the media and, occasionally, the police were to believe the worst when “cults” were involved, even when the “victims’” allegations were not supported by any evidence. That the hoax continues after 25 years simply proves that some anti-cultists are irreformable.