CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

Atman Foundation: No Evidence of Attempted Mass Suicide

Massimo Introvigne

The post-Solar Temple media and legal hysteria about possible “cult mass suicides” was never more evident than in the case of the Atman Foundation. 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 told the German and Spanish police. Many international newspapers reported on January 9 that Dr. Fittkau-Garthe was the leader of "a branch of the Solar Temple", an information which was certainly inaccurate. She never had anything do with the Solar Temple. A leader of the German branch of the Brahma Kumaris, she 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 Atman Foundation. 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 and Eastern occult lore.

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 “provisional suspension” of the proceedings against Dr. Fittkau-Garthe and her followers for absolute lack of evidence. The Court, although admitting that not the slightest proof of the preparation of mass suicide had emerged, was still heavily influenced by the “expert” it had appointed, and suggested that the German witnesses did not wanted 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 believe in their “expert”’s allegation that the Foundation is a destructive cult, the complete lack of evidence does not allow the Spanish justice to keep the case open (although it can be re-opened in the future, should new elements emerge), nor has the German judiciary expressed any interest in it.

After more than one year, the situation remains the same. Although some of Dr. Fittkau-Garthe’s ideas are, admittedly, quite original, and she has ran into further financial and other troubles unrelated to “cultic” activities and alleged mass suicides, the Tenerife case is a further confirmation of how ready the media and, occasionally, the courts are to believe the worst when “cults” are involved, even when the “victims’” allegations are not supported by any evidence.

The full text of the order of July 23, 2004 is available from the CESNUR library.