Knut Hamsun and Nazism


It is not difficult to understand why Knut Hamsum was one of the Norwegian courtsí biggest headaches in 1945. Beside Ibsen, Hamsun had made Norwayís greatest contribution to world literature; how could the cultural honour of the nation be rescued from the shame of a treason conviction? The authorities resorted to a judicial observation process that concluded that the old man had suffered from «permanently_impaired_mental_faculties»"permanently impaired mental faculties" during the occupation, and that for this reason he should not be made made legally responsible for his actions according to Section 86 of the Penal Code. On the basis of the Treason Edict of December 1944, however, a liability case was opened regarding Hamsunís membership of the "Nasjonal Samling"«Nasjonal_Samling» Party (NS). This confirmed a verdict of guilt, after an appeal to the Court of Appeal.

Ever since, the question of Knut Hamsunís Nazi leanings has traumatized Norwegian culture and society. Hamsun shook up the special Norwegian myth of the Great Poet, which had developed historically in parallel with the creation of the modern Norwegian nation. Wergeland and Bjørnson had also helped to build up an image of the poet as the herald of Norwegian independence and Norwayís national identity, and when Bjørnson died Knut Hamsun more or less enthusiastically adopted this role. The fact that he so clearly failed his country at the time of its greatest need may have helped to give the myth a blow that all "good Norwegians"«good_Norwegians» could only regard as an attack on the very cultural identity of the nation. This brought out a much more disturbing picture of the artist in conflict with society, a situation that has been much more difficult to take on board.

Of course, this does not mean that the great writerís genuflection to Nazism is of no importance, even 50 years after the Liberation. The challenge lies in agreeing how to express the problem. Was Hamsun a Nazi? Put in such simple terms, the question has both criminal and political-ideological aspects that can perhaps be cleared up to a certain extent. However, if we turn the question to Hamsunís writing, a number of problems emerge.

The question of criminality

Hamsun was neither informer, war profiteer nor front-line soldier. He made no active contribution to Nazi oppression during the occupation. But between April 1940 and May 1945 (with his obituary of Hitler) he published some 15 manifestoes and articles in Norwegian and German newpapers and magazines. He also allowed himself to be interviewed by the German-controlled Norwegian radio on one occasion, and permitted greetings to be presented to the international press congress in Vienna in June 1943, which he himself attended. There is no doubt that most of these articles supported the occupying powers and Quislingís party. Even if there were mitigating circumstances, there is every reason to suppose that a treason trial based on this material would have led to a verdict of guilty. In an article in "Lov og Rett"«Lov_og_Rett» in 1979, Professor Johs. Andenæs wrote: "If he had been 20 or 30 years younger, there would have been no doubt: tried for treason and several years in prison. Anything else would have been impossible if the principle of equality before the Law was to be upheld. The problem was his age".

For this reason, Hamsun was sentenced for his membership of the "Nasjonal Samling"«Nasjonal_Samling» Party rather than for treason. Many lawyers have been critical of the principle of solidarity in liability for members of NS, which was the basis of Section 25 of the Treason Edict. Another factor is that there was a certain amount of doubt attached to the verdict against Hamsun, who always claimed that he had never joined the party nor paid a subscription to it. The verdict in Grimstad local court was handed down with the dissenting vote of the professional magistrate, but was unanimously confirmed by the Court of Appeal a year and a half later.

This binding verdict is the answer to the question of whether or not Hamsun was a Nazi ó in the sense of "member of NS"«member_of_NS». However, both question and answer are purely formal, and are based on the technical conditions that must exist for a person to be regarded as a member of a political organization. We have no answer to the burning legal question of whether Hamsun should be regarded as a Nazi because of his activities during the occupation. The Norwegian courts made sure of that by withdrawing the charge of treason.

Hamsun the ideologist

For the future, however, there is a more important question: Was Hamsunís pro-German involvement based on ideological beliefs that we would now regard as "Nazi"«Nazi»?

The relationship between ideology and politics is a complicated one. Ideologists always prefer to appear in the best possible light, with a convincing image that proclaims the boundary that divides good from evil, friend from enemy. Perhaps Nazism allowed a clearer view of political reality than other ideologies. Its brutality, its stigmatization of certain races and populations, its culture of warfare, its demands for vengeange and national revival were ugly features of the ideological face of Nazism from the very days of "Mein Kampf"«Mein_Kampf». Just as important, however, were other, more positive features: its sense of fellowship, of nature and natural relationships in economics and morality, its criticism of the alienating aspects of capitalism, its struggle against political and cultural decadence.

Hamsunís first open support for Hitlerís politics appeared in 1934. Both on this occasion and in his famous attack on Carl von Ossietzky the following year, he was first and foremost concerned with defending Germany against the victors of the First World War. He developed a point of view which he had adopted around 1910, and which he held for the rest of his life. In Hamsunís political mythology, Germany was the young nation with the legitimate demands of youth for display and development: Great Britain represented the decrepitude of age, that employs every means to keep youth in check. This was not just a crazy idiosyncrasy. Many other people had a similar way of thinking at the time, without this meaning that they were Nazis.

On top of this, however, Knut Hamsum developed an ever more critical view of the way in which society was developing, and this led him into positions that can be defined as reactionary. Key words here are anticapitalism, anti-industrialism, antidemocracy, a longing for feudal relationships in politics and morals, idealization of nature, a rural economy and the "natural"«natural» bond between human beings and the rest of the world. We can recognise attitudes of this sort among the "positive"«positive» aspects of Nazi ideology. It is reasonable to assume that an experience of "shared values"«shared_values» helped to reinforce Hamsunís sympathy for the political experiment that Hitler launched in 1933.

On the other hand, it is difficult to find any traces of what we regard as the negative core of Nazi ideology: racism, antisemitism and the general brutality of its view of human nature. In a 1977 article, the American Hamsun researcher Allen Simpson examined closely both Hamsunís literary production and central articles from the occupation years, coming to the conclusion that Hamsun was antisemitic. However, it is difficult to disagree with Sten Sparre Nilsonís response that Simpson reads Hamsun without showing any particular sense of context: the gibes about Jews that Simpson found in Hamsunís writings were common in the early years of this century, while Simpson "ignores the fact the Frenchmen, Englishmen and Japanese are given a hard time [by Hamsun], while the Germans are given at least as rough treatment as the Jews".

With a single exception, Hamsunís articles and manifestos from the war years are free of anti-Jewish elements. The exception is a major article published in German in February 1942, in which President Roosevelt is described as a "Jew in the service of the Jews"«Jew_in_the_service_of_the_Jews». The original Norwegian manuscript of this article has been lost, so it is impossible to know whether the antisemitic formulations are by Hamsun himself or were cynically added in translation. What is certain is that such formulations are not representative of what we know of Hamsunís attitude to Jews and the Jewish question.

There is no doubt that Hamsunís reactionary attitudes made him blind to contemporary political realities. However, while they also help to explain the support he gave Hitler and Quisling they do not give us grounds to claim that Hamsun was a Nazi in the ideological sense.

Hamsunís writing and his Fascism

What about Hamsunís writing? Does this not express similar reactionary attitudes in important ways?

There is a strong and vital tradition of ideological criticism in Hamsun studies. This started with Leo Lowenthalís important "Knut Hamsun. Zur Vorgeschichte der autoritaren Ideologie"«Knut_Hamsun._Zur_Vorgeschichte_der_autoritaren_Ideologie» (1937), and was revived in the 70s. Its main thesis was that his work from "Hunger"«Hunger» to "Closing the Ring"«Closing_the_Ring» is organized around a "late liberal"«late_liberal» ideology, which is an expression of the conflict-filled experience of their environment by the petty bourgeoisie, and which can basically be described as an "ideology of subordination"«ideology_of_subordination». A central aspect is the myth of Nature as the petty bourgeoisí dream of a place of freedom far from the conflicts that exist in his social reality.

This interpretation has made an important contribution to a better integrated understanding of certain aspects of Hamsunís writing. It has demonstrated that there actually is an ideological pattern to his opus, a pattern that corresponds at important points to the «opinions»"opinions" preached by Hamsun as an article writer and polemicist, especially after 1910. But is the relationship between ideology and writing really so straightforward in Hamsun?

Let us glance briefly at two novels from the interwar years: «The_Women_at_the_Pump» "The Women at the Pump" (1920) and "Vagabonds"«Vagabonds» (1927); two books that have been interpreted by many people as works of social criticism with obviously reactionary aims. Such elements do exist in the books, but to a surprisingly limited extent in the form of straightforward preaching. For the most part, the reactionary message is put into the mouths of minor characters, of whom it can typically be said that in some way or another, they are victims of the novelsí irony. In "The Women at the Pump" «The_Women_at_the_Pump»the postmaster is such a minor character, who gives expression to many of the hobbyhorses of Hamsun the polemicist and moralist. But the postmaster is an isolated, remote fantasist. Starting out as the novelís conscience and a mouthpiece for social criticism, he gradually turns into an ironic symbol of a deeper dissonance in this work; i.e. the conflict between illusion and experience, between theory and practice. The principle character in the novel is the castrated sailor Oliver Andersen. This monster of a person is often interpreted as a grotesque symbol of all the abnormality and degeneration of the "new era"«new_era» of which Hamsun is so critical. It is more than likely that Hamsun has had such symbolism in mind. However, Oliver Andersen belongs to another category too; he is one of the many outsiders in Hamsunís works. And the intricate sense of sympathy that characterizes Hamsunís relationships with his outsiders (the hero of "Hunger"«Hunger», Nagel, Glahn, etc.) turns up once again in the way in which he develops this castrate. Oliver was both a winner and a loser; he is first and foremost a symbol of the paradoxical role played by the imagination in human life. Precisely because he has been castrated ó i.e. emptied, hollowed out ó he is forced to build up his own fantasy existence, and it is this that maintains his vitality. It took another great writer to perceive what no-one else was capable of seeing when the novel appeared. As early as 1922, Thomas Mann emphasized that at its deepest level "The Women at the Pump"«The_Women_at_the_Pump» dealt with art, "with art as the force behind life, with life as art, art as first-aid".

"Vagabonds"«Vagabonds» is based on similar tensions. The ideological message of this novel concerns rootlessness and the vagabondís life as represented by the two tramps Edevart and August. The book sets up the stable and secure life of the farmer as a counter-image. However, the dynamics of the novel lie in the rootless life that the ideological message itself attacks. What fascinate both storyteller and reader are the tall tales of August, the wonderful freedom of the trampís life, and Edevartís experience of how the tension between fancy and disillusionment is a basic factor in human life.

Examples such as these tell us something of importance about the relationship between Hamsunís ideology and his writing. In his books, ideological norms and patterns are present as an essential dimension ó essential if the irony of the text is to function as it shall. The ideological and moral stances that the books communicate are simultaneously undermined by the author. Hamsunís ironically shifting writing is thus a critique of his own ideologies. The situations and figures that we immediately interpret as "negative"«negative», such as Oliver and August, turn out, on closer reading, to include "positive"«positive» elements, first and foremost because they thematize the basic element of fascination in Hamsunís universe ó imagination and fantasy as compensation and as a vital force. It is from this perspective that we must understand the relationship between his ideology and his writing.

A straightforward explanation for Knut Hamsunís pro-Nazi involvement cannot be found. We will probably have to be satisfied with the entanglement of personal idiosyncracies, pure chance, psychological peculiarities and the spiritual inflexibility that is characteristic of old age. What gives the spirit of genius to his writing, on the other hand, is neither the sense of idyll or the fundamental pessimism which appear side by side in his books, but the alterations of stance that belong to his irony, reflection and shrewdness. These in themselves act as a counterforce to every form of unreflecting endorsement ó even of totalitarian ideologies.

[News] [The Student Explosion] [West Coast...] [Hamsun and Nazisme] [Plenty about Poverty] [Anthropology] [Archeology] [Psychology] [Chemestry] [Medicine] [Geology] [Anniversary]