Hamsun, the Nazi Nobel laureate

Knut Hamsun at his desk in 1929. Image credit: wikipedia

Discuss WWII in our Forum

In 1943, an 84 year-old Nobel prize winner made his pilgrimage to the lair of Adolf Hitler in Germany. The writer Knut Hamsun was received by the Nazi dictator, who was a fan. He shook the Fuhrer’s hand and two years later he would still praise Hitler as “a warrior for mankind”. Like the philosopher Heidegger in Germany and the poet Ezra Pound in the US, Hamsun was an intellectual tainted by World War II. Like these he would inflict a trauma upon the national culture of his country, and raise many ethical concerns. We talked with professor Frode Lerum Boasson from The Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Ane Helga Bondahl, two specialists on Hamsun, in order to discover the truth about the controversial author, by some still regarded as Norway’s finest novelist.

Historyradio.org: Hamsun was arrested after the war, but deemed unfit to stand trial. But was he really senile, or was he simply a Nazi?
Bondahl & Boasson: The short answer to this question must be: No; Hamsun was not unfit to stand trial, but yes he was, or rather, he became, a Nazi. But in order to give a proper answer we must take a wider perspective. We need to start with the trial against Hamsun after WWII. Hamsun was like many others investigated in connection with what we call «the legal purge» in Norway following WWII. During the war Hamsun had written pro-German articles and had expressed sympathy and support for the Nazis. All through the war he wore a Nazi pin on his lapel, and it was speculated that he was a member of Quisling’s National Socialist Party. The trial was, however, far from straightforward, and it has often been emphasized that Hamsun’s prestige as Norway’s most important and most popular writer made any prosecution difficult. How should the state treat a beloved writer who had expressed sympathy for the enemy?

In October 1945, the attorney general stated that he wanted an expert assessment in order to decide whether Hamsun should be placed under judicial psychiatric observation. At the start of the trial Hamsun was shipped off to a psychiatric institution and evaluated by senior doctor and professor of psychiatry Gabriel Langfeldt. The conclusion, which was published as The legal psychiatric assessment of Knut Hamsun (1978), was clear. Several strokes in recent years as well his advanced age had diminished his mental abilities, and Langfedt recommended that he be sentenced to legal observation. Hamsun therefore spent almost four months in a psychiatric clinic in Oslo, and was submitted to thorough examinations. It was concluded that he was not to be regarded as insane, but as a person with “permanently impaired mental faculties” and that there was little if no chance of his crimes being repeated. (Langfeldt & Ødegård, 1978:101). Hamsun was deemed unfit for trial and on the basis of this recommendation, all charges were dropped. In stead, Hamsun was sentenced to pay a fine of 320000 NOK,-. Hamsun describes his trial and the process against him in his final work On Overgrown Paths (1949), which has been regarded as his defense and an apology for his treatment after the war.

Both his diagnosis and his trial has been much debated in Hamsun research. Many have argued that the writer was both sane and completely aware of his actions during the war. His own apology, in which he blames both his limited hearing and a total isolation during the war years, has been subject for much discussion. Many biographers have examined the process against Hamsun, and in one of the more recent books, Jørgen Haugan speculates whether the diagnosis, as well his commitment to a psychiatric institution, was directly ordered by the Norwegian PM at the time, Einar Gerhardsen. In order to save the country’s honor. If Hamsun was sentenced for treason and shot, it was feared that it would harm Norway’s standing in the world. A diagnosis and a judicial acquittal was a far better solution.

The debate over Hamsun’s sanity ended with the publication of On Overgrown Paths (1949), in which he describes the period following the war, his case and his psychiatric examination. The book is both brilliant and scandalous, and leaves no doubt: The writer was fully aware of what he was doing and admits nothing: «What I was writing was not wrong. It was not wrong when I wrote it. It was right, and what I wrote was right». In spite of the fact that Hamsun wrote Hitler’s obituary and described the dictator as «a reformist of the highest order» , a «warrior for mankind and prophet of the gospel of right for all nations». In spite of the fact that he awarded Goebbels his Nobel Prize and allowed himself to be used for various propaganda purposes, the issue of whether he actually was a Nazi has never been settled by Hamsun researchers. However, following the works by Ståle Dingås and by Tore Rem, the apologists have dwindled in number.

Today it seems fairly settled, however: Hamsun was a Nazi by any measure. But the most important issue still remains. How should we approach Hamsun’s works?

Historyradio.org: Are there traces of antisemitism in the literature he wrote? Hitler was a fan of The Growth of the Soil, I have been told?
Bondahl & Boasson:  Scholarly examinations of the issue of antisemitism in Hamsun’s writing have been a hot potato, and have a long history. But systematic studies are few, and for the most part center on the portrayal of the Jew Papst in his Vagabond-trilogy (1927-1933). There is little doubt, however, that Hamsun expresses antisemitism in his letters, in his journalism and in Wonderland (1903). That Hamsun is both stereotypical and racist in his descriptions of the Sami, the Kven, Africans and others is also quite clear.
Hitler’s alleged fascination for The Growth of the Soil is more uncertain. Hitler is supposed to have left The Growth of the Soil on his nightstand, and he must have read it. However, it is propaganda minister Goebbels who was Hamsun’s most avid fan among the senior Nazis. Goebbels even made sure that The Growth of the Soil was handed out as Christmas present to 250000 soldiers in order to remind them about what they were fighting for.

Historyradio.org: Should we perhaps, as a matter of principle, distinguish between an artist and his work?
Bondahl & Boasson: This question strikes at the heart of Hamsun research and points to the issue often referred to as «the Hamsun-problem»: How do we relate to the fact that one of the really great writers was a Nazi?
The question has proven divisive. For the most part researchers have tried to distinguish between Hamsun the individual and Hamsun the writer, between his ideologies and his fiction, between his literature and his politics. These are the ways researchers have tried to avoid the politics of writing and the specter of Nazism. By doing so, we have ignored the unspoken contract between reader and writer, Hamsun’s ideological subtexts and the moral dimension. This is, however, a complex reading and several researchers have in recent years stated that such an approach neither benefits Hamsun nor literature in general. Why and how should such a distinction be made?
We cannot escape the fact that Hamsun was both a Nazi and one of the greatest writers in Norway. This is not an answer, it’s a beginning. The question is how politics emerges in Hamsun’s writing and how we should relate to it. Great art is often immoral and will continue to be so, even if we distinguish between artist and art. There has been some debate on this issue in a Norwegian literary journal, Vagant.

Historyradio.org: He was married to Marie Hamsun, and she was more friendly toward the Germans than most. How did the two of them meet?
Bondahl & Boasson : Marie Hamsun was an enthusiastic member of the Norwegian National Socialist Party. She supported the Germans and the Nazi ideology during the war. Hamsun had a turbulent marriage, and he often argued with his wife. After the war, he wanted nothing to do with her, and for a while the two were separated. After his trial, however, when he returned to his farm Nørholm i Grimstad, she was again embraced, and she took care of him in his final years.

The two first caught each other’s eye on the 17 of April 1908 at the theater. This has been mentioned in many biographies. Anne Marie Andersen was known as Marie Lavik at the time. She was an actress and was living with a much older man, Dore Lavik. They were not married, but Lavik had helped Marie achieve her dream to become an actress. She met Hamsun this day because she wanted to play the character Elina in one of Hamsun’s plays. She hoped the author might help her. They met and the first thing Hamsun said was «My God, how pretty you are, my child!»

Like many of his fictional characters, Hamsun fell head over heels in love with Marie and invited her to Theatercafeen, a writer’s hang-out in Oslo. One meeting became several, and they were both swept off their feet. Hamsun traveled a lot and wrote love letters that not only make you blush, but which almost seem to form part of his fiction. They were engaged, but had to wait for Hamsun’s divorce from his first wife before they married. They were married on the 25 of June 1909 at the city magistrate in Kristiania (now Oslo). Marie was 27 years old, and he was 49.

Initially, they had a passionate relationship. However, it soon became apparent that Hamsun was a jealous and controlling man. He was afraid her life as an actress with all its attributes, as well her lengthy relationship to Dore Lavik, would cause her to leave him. Marie consequently left her profession and became a full-time house wife. It has often been noted that Marie too, was jealous, and that she couldn’t stand the fact that her husband met other women. They were both jealous. There is little doubt, however, that they had artistic temperaments and strong personalities, and that this fueled their married life. They were even so married until Hamsun’s death.

Historyradio.org: Hamsun is very attached to Nordland, and the magnificent local scenery. In some ways Hamsun is a man who finds something universal in the familiar. Is this a requirement for writing great fiction, do you think?
Bondahl & Boasson : Yes. Finding the universal in the familiar is a hallmark of great art. And you find this in Hamsun’s writing, sometimes at least. And not only in his descriptions of nature, but also in his exaggerated sensibility and his humor.

Historyradio.org: Hamsun opposed  the previous generation of Norwegian writers quite strongly. Tell us a little about his rebellion?
Bondahl & Boasson : Like all great artists Hamsun distanced himself from his predecessors by attacking them head on. And it was the giant among them who would suffer the most: Ibsen. According to Hamsun Ibsen barely counted as a writer, at least not in his later years. The younger Ibsen who wrote Peer Gynt, was, however, a master craftsman. The older Ibsen who concerned himself with social issues after 1870 was as mysterious as the Sphinx, according to Hamsun.

Hamsun felt his predecessors failed to describe the psychology of the individual. Realism was, in his view, neither adequately sensitive, vivid or sufficiently aristocratic. The realists represented a materialist and bourgeois simplicity, while Hamsun’s sought to portray the complex, attentive and refined minds that we encounter in his famous essay “From the Unconscious Life of the Mind” (1890). Realism was poetry about society for the public, adapted for «the least developed among us». Hamsun, on the other hand, would demonstrate that we were beings of flesh and blood consumed by sex, desire and psychological drives. This was not a moral issue for Hamsun. He simply wanted to portray life the way he saw it, the way it actually was. We should «frame all aspects of life in art».

Historyradio.org: Hamsun visited the US, and was inspired by Mark Twain. Tell us a little about his relationship to Twain?
Bondahl & Boasson: To my knowledge, Hamsun never met Mark Twain, but he both admired and was influenced by him. When Hamsun writes about American journalism, he mentions Twain as one of his preferred reads. He also contributes a text to a book written to honor Twain. Hamsun writes: «I smile at the mere mention of Mark Twain because his humorous spirit overwhelms me. But he was not only a humorist, there is a depth to his jokes, he was both a teacher and an educator. His wit communicated fundamental and valuable truth».
Hamsun was clearly thrilled, and he was probably very influenced by Twain’s humor and linguistic prowess. Hamsun began playing with words in a new way and to create funny situations, exaggerations and subtleties that are influenced by Twain’s popular caricatures and descriptions of ordinary folk. Hamsun plays around in a similar way.

Historyradio.org: What would you say is Hamsun’s great strength as a writer? He is not  social commentator on the level of Ibsen?
Bondahl & Boasson : Hamsun’s greatest strength as a writer is undoubtedly his style. His refined sensibility is both tender and awkwardly ironic, sometimes with flashes of humor and sometimes as harsh satire.
He was, it must be said, also a social commentator, both in his fiction as well as in his articles. The difference is that he was often wrong, unlike Ibsen.

Historyradio.org: Hamsun was a very old man during WWII, and he lived at the same time as another Norwegian Nobel laureate, Sigrid Undset. Did the two of them have any sort of relationship?
Bondahl & Boasson: Hamsun and Sigrid Undset were on opposite sides during the war. Undset’s son was shot by the Germans, and she was as much opposed to Germany as Hamsun was opposed to Great Britain. Except for the fact that they were both Nobel Laureates they had little in common. They disagreed on most issues.

Their different views become apparent in the so-called discussion over «child killings» between 1915-1917. Hamsun initiated the debate by focusing on the increasing number of infanticides. Hamsun felt that such crimes should be punished by deterrence and lengthy sentences, that is, by hangings. He also felt that orphanages should be improved so that young mothers with unwanted children could place them in care in stead of killing them. But only the healthy. These were the only ones with a claim to life, while the blind, the sick and the handicapped were worthless: «I want to exterminate and purge the hopeless in favor of lives that may assume value.» He also treats the subject in his Nobel Prize winning novel, The Growth of the Soil (1917).

Undset was shocked by Hamsun’s views and felt that there was a social dimension to the increasing number of infanticides. Undset had a handicapped daughter and Hamsun’s purge was met with disapproval. The Norwegian intelligentsia was in turmoil, and many followed Undset in distancing themselves from Hamsun’s anti-humanism.

Hamsun and Undset faced each other on another more political issue, the Ossietzky scandal of 1936 in which Hamsun attacked the Polish-German writer and journalist Carl Von Ossietzky, who at the time was in a Nazi prison camp. Ossietzky was awarded the Nobel prize, much to Hamsun’s dislike. Undset led the charge against Hamsun. The two writers disagreed and represented different political traditions. Bjørn Fontander has written extensively on this issue.

Historyradio.org: Hamsun is well-known as a novelist, but he tried his hand as a dramatist and as a poet. How did that go?
Bondahl & Boasson : Hamsun re-invented the novel, and this is not only an exaggeration by literary scholars. It is actually the case. At least if we accept the testimonies of the next generation of writers, Kafka, Joyce and Thomas Mann, who all claim to be influenced by him. However, his dramatic efforts were not as successful. In his own day, he was noted, but today? Nobody remembers that he wrote 6 plays as well as one in verse. And to be honest- they aren’t very memorable.

Historyradio.org: Hamsun has a special place in the hearts of Norwegians, but how do foreigners regard him?
Bondahl & Boasson: In Norwegian literature Hamsun’s legacy as the modernist re-inventor of the novel is assured. He is almost modernism personified- and he was a Nazi. He is still the only one among the greater Norwegian writers, who, with the exception of Ibsen, continues to be read by everyone. Not only researchers.

Hamsun seems to have maintained his standing abroad, especially in Germany. Still, his esteem is perhaps less in the Anglo-Saxon world, especially since the increased focus on his Nazi views after the 1960s and 1970s. In spite of this, the official Hamsun commemoration in 2009 was celebrated all over Europe. New translations continue to appear and he might even see a new wave of popularity. After all, Hamsun was «the father of the modern school of literature», according to Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Professor Frode Lerum Boasson

Ane Helga Bondahl
Knut Hamsun with with wife, Marie and their children. Image credit: the National Library of Norway