Was Knut Hamsun guilty? Was he a Nazi?
Reconciling with the past
Mogens “Mo” Pedersen
Was Knut Hamsun a Nazi?
This question about the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun was directed to the Danish writer Thorkild Hansen. The year was 1978. The location was a Norwegian TV studio. Hansen had just published his trilogy The Case against Knut Hamsun. The book was initially received with enthusiasm in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The subject was the legal settling of scores in Norway after World War II. Nobel Literature Prize winner Knut Hamsun was widely regarded as the Nordic poet laureate and a national icon.
Someone had allegedly predicted that this particular work might well ignite a civil war in Norway. Perhaps, but it did not come to that, after all. There was, however, a frenzy of outrage. Norwegians faced a dilemma, then (1945) and now (1978). On the one hand, they regarded Hamsun as their national poet par excellence, beloved as no other. On the other hand, his name had been under articles supporting what was now known as a criminal and inhuman regime. His public declarations and actions smelled of treason. How could these feelings be reconciled?
Hansen refused to answer the title question with a “yes” or a “no.” He pointed out that he had used 834 pages to answer that very question. Could it have been done in less space, he would have done so.
“I will not reduce the answer to one small label, for that would make it wrong.”A Norwegian literature professor and the TV host had both placed themselves opposite Hansen at the table. “Then you are a coward!” said the professor with indignation in his voice. Hansen held his own throughout the third-degree interrogation that followed, but his career was over. The people’s court had spoken.
As a historian, not a literary critic, I approach these events from the perspective that recent history often becomes a battleground for opposing interpretations. This is no less true when dealing with the history of occupation, such as in Norway, in Denmark, in France, or in any of the occupied nations. Here the struggle to conquer the commanding heights of history has been long and bitter, leaving little or no room for nuances and complexity. Roughly, the divide is between the resistance on the one hand and the collaborationists on the other. This controversy is not limited to the media and public opinion, but is seen among historians as well.
After the liberation in May 1945, there were clear winners and losers. The latter were not given the benefit of the doubt. There was no magnanimity in victory. The losing side, those seen to have collaborated with the Germans, were judged and condemned. The legal framework for dealing with the losing side was, according to respected and high ranking members of the legal community, “a legal madhouse.”
I imagine that Hansen in that Norwegian TV studio must have felt judged and condemned. What he had tried to describe in The Case against Knut Hamsun was, 30 years later, being inflicted on himself. Not an outcome he would have expected.
What did Norwegian TV have in mind with this interview? If it was dialogue, it failed. When the interviewed subject has been labeled a coward, the dialogue is already dead.
In August 1944, the infamous Roland Freisler presided as judge in the Berlin show trial against the accused from the failed July 20 assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. Hitler had ordered Freisler not to allow the defendants to make any statements. He accomplished that by shouting them down with accusations of cowardice – of all things! There was much that had to be hidden from the German population.
What was it in 1978 that had to be kept hidden from the Scandinavian public? Hansen’s book was already out in a couple of print runs. However, his credibility could be challenged, if he could be dismissed as a coward or—even better—as a Nazi sympathizer. Could that be done, interest in the book could be eliminated from the outset. The attack succeeded. The Case against Hamsun was soon forgotten.
Thirty years earlier in 1948, the actual case against Knut Hamsun had at long last ended with a supreme court verdict. Hansen quotes Jens Bjørneboe, who in his book Under a Darker Sky writes: “The conformity in media, literature, and legal procedures was terrifying. Not under Quisling, but after the war, came the fascist period in Norwegian history. You have to go to Hitler’s Berlin or Stalin’s or Brezhnev’s Moscow to find a similar legal system. A particular scandal was the case against Knut Hamsun.”
Hansen is not necessarily in full agreement. “Perhaps,” he says. He goes on: “Few things better define a period than its perception of the nature of crime and how to punish.”
In our time, crimes of opinion seem to hold first place, just like during the inquisition, but the punishment is no longer torture at the stake, as we in our modern society have something worse. The worst possible crime in our time is to hold the wrong opinions, and the worst punishment you can mete out is to take a person’s money.
For Hamsun, the laws concerning treason, with their emphasis on the economic aspect meant that the issue of his personal guilt was downgraded. The punishment had already been determined.
With the verdict, and in particular the psychiatric evaluation, the system running the Norwegian legal reckoning for the occupation period had solved the problem of the Gordian knot by slicing it in half. This move of genius was found in the conclusion of the psychiatric evaluation, which turned the great literary genius and national cultural icon into someone with “diminished mental capacity.” That way the nation got to keep its beloved poet and his entire creative work, whereas all the unpleasantness about articles and visits during the occupation could be swept under the rug of “diminished mental capacity.”
The four-month long psychiatric evaluation at the Psychiatric Clinic in Oslo was just one part of a prolonged wearing down of the old man, a “torture slow enough to be called rule of law.” The rules and norms governing a state ruled by law were systematically violated. Read The Case against Hamsun and judge for yourself: rubber stamps, repeatedly exceeding arrest warrants, violations of the rights of an indicted person, no legal representation for the accused during crucial parts of the case. The list is long.
In spite of all efforts to destroy his willpower, the old man, against all odds, managed to make secret notes on which to base his own account, På gjengrodde Stier (On Rediscovered Paths).
Norwegian publishers at first rejected the book, but it appeared abroad and was recognized for what it was: a masterpiece à la Hamsun. It was a powerful refutation of the false diagnosis “diminished mental capacity.” It was not a plea of innocence for his attitude during the war. In 1949, Gyldendal Norway finally gave in and published it. On the cover of the 1978 photographic reprint, they wrote: “This is a human document, an old and ostracized writer’s monologue, as moving as his best work and in the end lending a touch of redemption to his tragedy.”
Hamsun’s last work was unapologetic. He rejected any attempt to defend himself. He wanted to stand by every word and act, right or wrong, as he strongly felt that he had behaved in accordance with his conscience. As he saw it, he had attempted to benefit Norway and Norwegians during a time of crisis. He refused to defend or even “reduce” anything he had done. His actions could withstand scrutiny.
Naturally, this opened the way for others to offer their hostile interpretations unopposed. One example is his 1943 visit to Hitler’s Berghof residence near Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, Germany. The photos of Hitler and Hamsun went all over the world. After the war, they were, as could be expected, interpreted as Hamsun idolizing the Führer.
The truth was different. Unlike so many other events, on this occasion there was a reliable witness: Hitler’s personal interpreter, Ernst Züchner. Hamsun was accompanied by Hitler’s press secretary, Dr. Otto Dietrich, and the Norwegian undersecretary Egil Holmboe. When Hamsun requested and Hitler consented, that Holmboe interpret their conversation, Züchner retired to the other end of the room, from where he could hear everything. He made copious notes, and in the end, his account of the meeting did come out during the trial, although it did not attract much public attention.
After the war, it was said “that Hamsun in abject humility had prostrated himself for the barbarian Adolf Hitler,” as supreme court attorney Kr. Fr. Brøgger expressed on June 24, 1945, in Aftenposten. Maybe Ernst Züchner happened closest to the truth, when he said to the media:
“I cannot give you details, but one thing you can take away from here: What this man has done for Norway will only be fully appreciated by his countrymen in the future.”
The 83-year-old Hamsun had planned the meeting carefully, how he would use Goebbels as a stepping stone to Hitler, and what he wanted to achieve. The all-important goal was to get Hitler to recall Josef Terboven, the German Reichskommissar to Norway. This man ruled with brute force and terror and had no understanding of the country or its people. In his dealings with Hitler, Hamsun made this demand with a persistence and audacity unheard of. Maybe the project was politically naive. The Reichskommissar was not recalled, but Hamsun did manage to get two Norwegian hostages released. After the meeting, Hitler was furious for days.
We forget that on the ground and in real time that people navigate based on how they perceive the world around them. Unlike historians, they cannot know the consequences or the outcome of current affairs. Born on Aug. 4, 1869, Hamsun had lived his life evenly divided between two centuries, about 40 years in each. For various reasons, he had become antagonistic toward the English and Americans, the first for their arrogant brutality as rulers of their empire, the latter for their materialism and vulgarity. Germany and German culture, on the other hand, he loved and admired. He felt that he owed that country a great deal. He did not waiver when it came to these long-held beliefs.
It did not get any easier for him to shift after he had become nearly completely deaf in the 1930s. Peculiarities in his marriage and within his family had in essence isolated him in his home, Nørholm, in Grimstad in Agder County. This was particularly important during the years leading up to and throughout the occupation. His knowledge of the outside world had become patchy, to say the least.
Hamsun saw the occupation as an opportunity for Norway to get a more prominent place in the new Europe under German leadership. He wished to further this cause by advocating Norwegian interests as he saw them. He tried hard to help those of his countrymen on the opposing side who had been caught and were now facing grim consequences. To his frustration, he was far from successful in every case. He was well aware that his position with the Germans made him a figure of hate for most Norwegians. That was a price he was willing to pay, as long as his conscience told him that he was acting for Norway.
He was sadly mistaken about many things and paid a high price. Whether or not he was a Nazi, I, too, am at a loss to say. But I can say that he was not a bad person. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who he had deliberately harmed. He was generous throughout his life, and he saved lives. He did write articles and give statements that we can hardly understand, not to mention accept today. As the Hitler visit shows, things are not always what they appear to be at first glance. Likewise, the Nobel laureate, the artist, the husband, the father, and the human being Knut Hamsun was infinitely more complex and nuanced than the labels so many people have tried to pin on him.
Hansen’s The Case against Hamsun is a work about our time and its people. It is about the conflicts between the individual and the compact mass, between politics and art, society and citizen, and between husband and wife. It neither accuses nor acquits. It advocates everyone’s right to be heard—including someone whose opinions we don’t like.
- Processen mod Hamsun, Thorkild Hansen. Gyldendal (Copenhagen 1978)
- På Gjengrodde Stier, Knut Hamsun (Gyldendal Norsk Forlag 1949, fotografisk optrykt 1978)
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.