August 27, 2009

The writers and the Nazis


A dilemma between the quality of the work and vile behavior

The beautiful and democratic Norway has taken itself into an unnecessary problem due to a decision made by the Royal family (or by King Harald V and his wife, Queen Sonia’s, advisers): celebrating a Nazi writer. The excuse given is based on the need of differentiating the quality of a literary work and the vileness of a personal conduct. A criminal can also be a good artist and the examples are numerous. Knut Hamsun was a Norwegian novelist who won the Nobel Prize in 1920. His fame however was acquired much earlier, due to his works Hunger (1890) and Pan (1894).

As in every human issue, the subject is not as simple as black and white. Therefore it is necessary to reflect upon its nuances. This year would be Hamsun’s 150th birthday, a round number that could as well inspire one celebration or two. But is it sufficient to put up an exclusive museum, organize several activity programs on his homage and dedicate the entire year to his memory? In Hamaroy, north of the Polar Circle and where the writer lived for a certain period of his life, the Hamsun Center will be inaugurated, with a spectacular tower designed by Holl. The city of Grimstad, north of Norway, will also honor him with a square and a monument. What is intriguing is that since March 2009, Norway chairs a task force comprised of twenty-seven nations dedicated to the international cooperation on educating and preserving the memory of the Holocaust.

Knut Hamsun wasn’t just any average Nazi sympathizer. He vigorously supported national-socialism, stood up for the German invasion of Norway in 1940, supported the government of Quisling (which name is now a synonym of traitor in Norway) and contributed for the deportation of Jews to death camps. In order that no doubts would still be raised about his ideology, Hamsun personally gave his Nobel Prize award to Joseph Goebbels in 1943. Still not satisfied, after the war was over and its atrocities revealed to the world, he wrote an obituary for Hitler, describing him as a ”fighter for humanity and for the rights of all nations”. Until his death in 1952, he never regretted his actions.

Vidkun Quisling was judged as a national traitor and sentenced to death by a firing squad. Hamsun almost had the same fate: he was also judged as a national traitor, but eventually escaped from death penalty. What is curious is that these judgments took place in the courts of Grismtad, the same city that now looks at a monument being built in its square.

The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation’s president wrote a harsh protest letter to Queen Sonia, who has been supporting these honors, and princess Mette-Marit, proclaimed as ”patron” of the festivities. ”There were many Nazi geniuses, but I do not know about anyone who has been honored by Heads of States”, he claimed, among other statements.

The Norwegian people have been reacting with perplexity and indignation to such celebrations. One of the protests made was the ”decoration” of one of Hamsun’s monuments with flags caring the swastika symbol. They want to make clear that they have not lost their memory, as it seems to be happening to those in power.

One can argue that Norway should not forget to honor it’s Nobel Prize laureate. But the country has two more: the poet Bjomstjeme Bjornson, in 1903, and the extraordinaire chronicler and historian Sigfrid Undset, who won it in 1928.

Sigfrid Undset was the brilliant counterbalance of Hamsun. Although born in Denmark, Undset acquired the Norwegian nationality while she was still young. In 1924, she converted to Catholicism and started working as a secular teacher. Her public aversion to Nazism led her to flee to the US in 1940, when the Germans invaded her country. As soon as the war was over, she returned to Norway. Her most well-known work is a splendorous trilogy about medieval Scandinavia, entitled Kristin Lavansdatter, comprised of three volumes published between 1920 and 1922; all of them incredible original. The trilogy is a touching portrait of a woman, from her birth to her death. Later on Undset published other novels, characterized by modernist boldness, such as a flow of conscience and other techniques. Having been translated to several languages and studied by critics from all over the world, Sigfrid Undset is a paradigm of moral integrity combined with a brilliant writing talent.

Other authors have taken intermediate paths. The lists of Nazi, anti-Nazi and neutral authors are extensive, endless. Many were assassinated, other committed suicide; a few were able to survive. Names as Stefan Zweig, Walter Benjamin, Ana Frank, Emil Ludwig, Lion Feutschwanger, Imre Kertész, Primo Levi, Bertold Brecht, Iréne Némirovsky, Elías Canetti, Hermann Broch, Alfred Döblin, Thomas y Heinrich Mann, Nelly Sachs, Jorge Semprún, Gershom Scholem, Robert Musil, Joseph Roth stand out; they were all anti-Nazis who suffered the consequences of resisting.

In order to illustrate the nuances of the subject – as I proposed in the beginning of this article – let’s talk about another powerful and emblematic artist: Ernst Jünger. He wasn’t Scandinavian as Hamsun, but German, which makes it even more interesting. He was born in a mythical center of culture: Heidelberg. Ever since he was young, he was fanatically attracted to nature associated with nationalism, a rare combination that could anticipate adventures life that was ahead of him. Turning 18 years he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and fought in Africa. After that, he had an active role in the World War I, for which he was later condecorated. By the time he was 25 years old, he published Storms of Steel, where he describes his personal experiences during the time of war. This work brought him fame and recognition.

While Hitler advanced on his unstoppable quest for absolute power, Jünger took part on a complex political-cultural movement called Conservative Revolution, comprised of authors such as Karl Smitt and Oswald Spengler that were against liberalism and democracy. Jünger then published other books that increased his prestige: War as an interior experience, General mobilization and The Worker.

Nonetheless, Jünger’s refusal to embrace anti-Semitism was incomprehensible and started to get him in trouble. For this very reason he bravely turned down the invitation to take part in the German Poetry Academy, which had been purged by the Gestapo a few weeks before. He didn’t flee Germany nor the Nazis dared to touch him. And that went on until 1934, when he insolently requested the government to stop manipulating his writings, refused to take a seat in the Reichstag and published a provocative work criticizing racism. He was a headache that couldn’t be easily healed.

He was forced to participate in the World War II, when he was sent to Paris during the city’s occupation. Over there, Jünger started to go to literary salons and general places where he could smoke opium. He started socializing with military who plotted to kill Hitler and he secretly saved many Jews from the Holocaust. Around this time he wrote in his journal ”the uniform, the military honors and the shine from the guns that once I loved so much now disgust me”. In 1942, Jünger was sent to the Russian front and in 1944, after the plot of murdering Hitler had failed – plot in which Jünger secretly participated – he quit the Army after almost being executed.

During the post-war, many contradicting stories about his past began to come up and consequently Jünger was prohibited of publishing his works until 1949. Despite that, he managed to publish Der Friede ( The Peace , 1946), Atlantische Fahrt (Atlantic Journey, 1947) y Aus der Goldenen Muschel (From the Golden Shell, 1948) in Amsterdam.

In the 1950`s he became friends with Albert Hofmann, the creator of LSD, and many of Jünger books, directly or indirectly, began to reflect his personal psychedelic experiences. His publications coincided with the ones written by Aldous Huxley.

Jünger coined the term ”psiconauts” and exposed in many of his works his experiences of different kinds of substances. He received the Goethe Award in 1982, the same award given before to Sigmund Freud. One of his last works was Die Schere (The Scissors), published in 1989 when he was 95 years old. Of great historical and literary value, his journals written during World War II, Radiations, are now considered the biggest contribution to German literature in the twentieth century. He died in February 17, 1998, two weeks before his 103rd birthday and a few months after he had been converted to Catholicism.

Hamsun, Undset and Jünger comprise a curious group of authors surrounded by the poison of Nazism. They lead a procession of writers who have taken the similar paths as theirs. Nonetheless, in Hamsun’s line there are authors such as Martin Heidegger, Ferdinand Céline and many other geniuses whose brains got poisoned by alienation.

The Queen of Norway assured – after having received so many international critics – that the celebrations of the Nazi Knut Hamsun will also comprise of an extensive teaching against totalitarianism and discrimination, teaching that this fascist criminal and traitor lacked, whose only merit for so many honors is only the fact that he was born a hundred and fifty years ago.