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Knut Hamsun: Saved by Stalin?

Knut Hamsun, 1859–1952

876 words

Translated by Greg Johnson

Editor’s Note:

The following article is from Euro-Synergies, July 12, 2009. It is my translation of Robert Steuckers’ translation of a June 24, 2009 item from the Flemish ’t Pallierterke website. I have altered the title and section headings.

In 2009, we mark the 150th birthday of Knut Hamsun (1859–1952). The Norwegian novelist, born Knut Pedersen, is, along with Hendrik Ibsen, the most widely read and translated Norwegian writer of all.

In 1890, Knut Hamsun made his debut with his stylistically innovative novel Hunger. From the start, this novel was a great success and was the beginning of a long and productive literary career. In 1920, Knut Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for literature.

His influence on European and American literature is immense and incalculable. Writers like Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and I. B. Singer were inspired by the talent of Knut Hamsun. Singer called him the “father of modern literature.” In Flanders, two writers, Felix Timmermans and Gerald Walschap, were inspired by the Norwegian Nobel Prize-winner.

In Norway, the 150th birthday of Knut Hamsun will be celebrated by theatrical exhibitions, productions, and an international conference. One of the main squares of Oslo, located just beside the national Opera, will henceforth bear his name. A monument will finally be erected in his honor. One might say that the Norwegians have just discovered the name of their very famous compatriot. Recently, a large number of towns and villages have named squares and streets for him. At the place where he resided, in Hamaroy, a “Knut Hamsun Center” will officially open on August 4th, the day of his birth. On that day, a special postage stamp will be issued. Yet Knut Hamsun was denounced and vilified for decades by the Norwegian establishment.

Hamsun lived a nomadic life much of his existence. He was born the son of a poor tailor. His destitute father entrusted him to a rich uncle. The small boy was to work for this uncle in order to repay the debts that his parents had run up, plus interest. At the end of four years, the young boy, then fourteen years old, had enough of this uncle and went out into the big world. Twice hunger forced him to emigrate to the United States where he took countless odd jobs. But always he had the same objective in mind: to become a writer. His model was his compatriot Björnstjerne Björnson.


After his literary breakthrough with Hunger, Hamsun became incredibly productive. He owed a large part of his success to the German translations of his works. His books received huge printings there. Thanks to his German publisher, Hamsun finally knew financial security after so many years utter destitution. But there was more. The Norwegian writer never hid his Germanophilia. Indeed, it became more pronounced as his Anglophobia grew. British arrogance revolted him. He could no longer tolerate it after the Boer Wars and the forceful interventions in Ireland. In his eyes, the British did not deserve any respect at all, only contempt. To this Anglophobia, he quickly added anti-Communism.

During the German occupation of Norway (1940–45), he certainly aided the occupiers, but remained above all an intransigent Norwegian patriot. In its articles, Knut Hamsun exhorted his compatriots to volunteer to help the Germans fight Bolshevism. In his eyes, the US president Roosevelt was an “honorary Jew.” He was received by Hitler and Goebbels with all honors.

The meeting with Hitler had long-term effects. From the start, Hamsun, who was close to deafness, trampled under foot the rules of protocol and pressed the Führer to remove the feared and hated German governor Terboven. Nobody ever had the cheek to speak to Hitler in this tone and come straight to the point. Hamsun’s intervention was, however, effective: after his visit to Hitler, the arbitrary executions of hostages ceased.

The Gallows?

On May 26th, 1945, Hamsun and his wife, a convinced National Socialist, were placed under house arrest. For unclear reasons, Hamsun was declared “psychologically disturbed” and locked up for a while in a private psychiatric clinic in Oslo. The left government wanted to get rid of him but, but aside from his Germanophilia, he was irreproachable. He had never been member of anything. Quite the contrary! Thanks to him, a good number of lives had been saved. Admittedly, he had refused to deny the sympathy he felt for Hitler.

At the end of 1945, the Soviet Minister for foreign affairs, Molotov, informed his Norwegian colleague Trygve Lie that it “would be regrettable to see Norway condemning his great writer to the gallows.” Molotov had taken this step with the agreement of Stalin. It was after this intervention that the Norwegian government abandoned plans to try Hamsun and contented itself with levying a large fine what almost bankrupted him. The question remains open: would Norway have condemned the old man Hamsun to capital punishment? The Norwegian collaborators were all condemned to heavy punishments. But the Soviet Union could exert a strong and dreaded influence in Scandinavia in the immediate post-war period.

Until his death in February 1952, the Norwegian government spoke of Hamsun as a common delinquent. He would have to wait sixty years for his rehabilitation.


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