A tale of 2 Norwegian Nobel Prize winners for Literature

One was a supporter of the Nazis; one worked to save the Jews. Guess which Norway is honoring?

June 29, 2009 20:59
4 minute read.
A tale of 2 Norwegian Nobel Prize winners for Literature

Knut Hamsun. 248.88. (photo credit: )


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Norway recently assumed the chairmanship of an international task force on Holocaust education. Yet the Norwegian government also recently launched a year-long celebration of the life and work of a supporter of the Nazis. The object of this adoration is Knut Hamsun (1859-1952), author of such acclaimed novels as Hunger, Pan and Growth of the Soil, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. Among the latter book's most ardent fans was Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who had it translated and published in a special edition for German soldiers during World War II. The feeling was mutual. Hamsun welcomed the Nazi occupation of Norway, met personally with both Goebbels and Adolf Hitler, and in 1943 sent his Nobel Prize to Goebbels as a gift. After the war, Hamsun was arrested for treason but escaped trial after he was found to suffer from "weakened mental capacities." He was, however, found to be civilly liable, and received a substantial fine, because of his membership in the Norwegian fascist party Nasjonal Samling, led by the infamous Vidkun Quisling. NONE OF THAT has stopped the government of Norway from undertaking "Hamsun 2009," commemorating Hamsun's 150th birthday with a year of public events, exhibits, commemorative coins, a new 27-volume collection of his writings and, on August 4 (Hamsun's birthday), the opening of a $20-million, six-story Hamsun Center in his home town of Hamaroy, complete with the unveiling of a huge bronze statue of the honoree. Queen Sonja personally kicked off the festivities, joining members of the Hamsun family for a viewing of the National Library's exhibit of Hamsun's handwritten manuscripts. The exhibit included an article Hamsun wrote hailing Hitler as "a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations." Afterward, the queen would say only, "I think we'll have to keep two thoughts in our head at the same time." Evidently she meant thoughts about both Hamsun the writer, on the one hand, and Hamsun the Nazi supporter, on the other. A third thought might be in order - a thought about the fact that the royal family was forced to flee Norway when the Nazis, so admired by Hamsun, occupied their country. THE CONTRAST between the experience of the royal family in the 1940s and the behavior of the Norwegian royalty today is not the only irony in this story. Consider the fact that the only other Norwegian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in the past 100 years was Sigrid Undset, a fervent anti-Nazi - in other words, Hamsun's moral opposite. Undset (1882-1949) won the Nobel Prize in 1928 for her novels about life in medieval Scandinavia, including the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter. Joseph Goebbels had no interest in Undset's works; the accolades of her countrymen, and her readers around the world, had to suffice. Undset fled Norway in 1940 to escape the Nazis. Taking up residence in New York City, she soon became cochair of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson Group), which pressed the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews from the Nazis. While the Nazis, cheered on by Hamsun, were deporting more than 700 Norwegian Jews to Auschwitz in the autumn of 1942, Undset was a leading activist in the Bergson Group's campaign of rallies, newspaper ads and Washington lobbying for US action to save the Jews. Yet there is no word from Oslo about any plans by the Norwegian government to hold any year-long celebration of her life and work, nor to erect a statue of her, nor even to sponsor an exhibit acknowledging her literary and moral achievements. ALL OF WHICH would be bad enough, but to make matters worse, Norway recently assumed the chairmanship of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education Remembrance and Research, a group of 26 European countries organized in Stockholm in 1998 to promote awareness of the Nazi genocide. In an essay published last week, Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, challenged Norway's chairmanship of the task force. "This country is unfit to hold such a position when in the same year it has held major memorial activities for the Nazi-admirer Hamsun," Gerstenfeld wrote. Each of the countries belonging to the task force has pledged to carry out the eight-point final declaration of the Stockholm Conference. Point number six is particularly relevant to the Knut Hamsun controversy: "We share a commitment to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and to honor those who stood against it." This puts the Norwegian government in something of a bind, because instead of honoring "those who stood against the Holocaust," such as Undset, it is honoring someone who stood for it. In the 1940s, Undset and Hamsun made their choices: Undset sided with good, Hamsun with evil. Today, Norway too must make a choice, between venerating the memory of the Holocaust, and desecrating it. It cannot do both. The writer is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C.

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