Fighting our friends instead of our enemies

Norwegians see Knut Hamsun's contrasting literary work and pro-Nazi stances as educational opportunity.

Knut Hamsun. 248.88 (photo credit:  )
Knut Hamsun. 248.88
(photo credit: )
A number of important public and academic Jewish groups and personalities have recently attacked the current Norwegian chairmanship of the International Task Force for Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research (ITF). The ITF, founded in 1998 by then Swedish premier Göran Persson, is an intergovernmental body providing a political umbrella for global efforts to promote Holocaust education and fight Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. Until now, 27 governments have joined, including, of course, Israel. The occasion for the attacks was the decision of Norway to commemorate the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, a Nobel Prize laureate in literature on the one hand, and in his old age a fervent supporter of the Nazis on the other. The Norwegians believe the contrast between the work of a brilliant and universally-acclaimed author, and his personality as a pro-Nazi, is an occasion for educational efforts. After the war ended, Hamsun was tried by a Norwegian court, but unlike the Norwegian Nazi leader Vidkun Quisling, he was not sentenced to death but to a heavy fine and penury, with the comment that he was mentally unstable (he was 86 years old). The above-mentioned writers demanded that the ITF terminate the Norwegian chairmanship forthwith. As the ITF is a body run by consensus, that would have meant the agreement of 26 governments to take such action. The writers obviously know that this is impossible, so their attack is basically against an intergovernmental body that includes Israel, the US, the UK, Poland, France and so on, working in the fields of Holocaust education and anti-Semitism. Clearly, therefore, this is nothing but an exercise in public relations. I CAN HARDLY claim to objective. I admit to the crime of having been a major influence in the ITF, as its academic guide, since its inception, and I am still its honorary chairman (I am also the honorary chairman of the Simon Wiesenthal Scientific Institute of Holocaust Research recently established in Vienna in honor of my late friend, Simon Wiesenthal). The arguments against Norway would be more credible if the Norwegians did not admit that there is anti-Semitism in Norway, that they ignored or wanted to bury Hamsun's pro-Nazi stand or that they hampered ITF's work in fighting anti-Semitism in any way. Not only is none of this true, but it was the Norwegian chairman that, before this controversy exploded, insisted on including the fight against anti-Semitism as a central component in the ITF's immediate future program - the proposal was accepted by acclamation. The Norwegian Center for Holocaust Studies, located in Quisling's old villa, held a two-day conference in which Scandinavian, especially Norwegian ,scholars dealt in detail with Norwegian Nazi collaborators, SS men and pro-Nazi tendencies in these countries during World War II. Unfortunately anti-Semitism, including the Scandinavian variety, cannot be dealt with by public relations stunts. I cannot guarantee that the ITF's work has succeeded. I only know that without it, we would be in a much worse situation. For 11 years we have educated very large numbers of teachers, have made possible reconstruction of sites, have introduced our message into museums and so on. Yad Vashem is a central pillar in ITF's work. The governments represented in the ITF, including Israel, have informed the ITF that they fully support Norway's chairmanship. On July 20, the chair published a statement rejecting the accusations against it, and promised to continue its struggle against anti-Semitism and for Holocaust education. I do not know what was behind the attacks on Norway, but I am deeply worried about an increasing Jewish tendency to fight against our friends instead of our enemies. The writer is a historian.