Rehabilitated: Nobel Prize winner who fell for Hitler

Knut Hamsun was lucky to escape execution for collaborating with the Nazis. Now, almost 60 years after his death, Norway has finally honoured his contribution to literature – and even put his face on a stamp

All this week, Norway is feting a writer who was lucky to escape being shot for his shameless collaboration with the Nazis. Knut Hamsun was either, according to taste, one of the greatest figures in world literature, or a vile old man with a head full of nasty ideas who betrayed his country.

Not many years ago, anyone who went into a Norwegian bookshop and asked for one of Hamsun's books was likely to get a frosty reply from across the counter. And yet he was, to be blunt, the only world-renowned novelist that country has yet produced.

This week, the town of Hamaroey, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where Hamsun grew up, has been celebrating six consecutive "Hamsundagene" (Hamsun Days), with seminars, meetings and exhibitions dedicated to the writer, to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth.

The festivities kicked off on Tuesday, with the formal opening of Norway's first Knut Hamsun museum, by Crown Princess Mette-Marit and the Culture Minister, Trond Giske. There is a musical in preparation, based on his work, and his face will appear for the first time on a Norwegian postage stamp.

Getting the museum to open has taken 15 years of planning and prevarication, because of Hamsun's appalling behaviour in old age. The design, by the American architect Steven Holl, won the Progressive Architecture Award as far back as 1996 but it took until 2007 for the government to allocate the money, as it grappled between its anxiety to remember a fabulous writer, and to forget a traitor.

His case poses an old question about art and morality – whether it is permissible, or even possible, to enjoy the music of Carl Orff, or the poetry of Ezra Pound, or Hamsun's fiction, and overlook the sort of people that they were in life.

Baruch Tenembaum, who founded the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, named in honour of a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps during the Second World War, thinks not. He has written to the Norwegian government to say that he was "astonished and concerned" that they should be celebrating a man who collaborated with "one of the most sinister regimes in history".

Mr Tenembaum told Reuters: "We cannot understand how Norwegians can honour someone who was a criminal and was inciting crimes.

"Hamsun was a great writer, so what? What is more important – art or integrity? It is a bit like if someone said that since Hitler was a good painter, why don't we honour him?"

Except, of course, that Hitler was not a good painter, whereas Hamsun was a giant of world literature. What Edvard Grieg was to music, or Henrik Ibsen to drama, or Edvard Munch to art, Hamsun was to literature. The French writer André Gide put him on a par with Dostoevsky, but thought Hamsun was the more subtle. Ernest Hemingway urged F Scott Fitzgerald to study him. To Isaac Bashevis Singer he was the "father of modern literature".

Hamsun's best-known novel, Hunger, first published in 1890, has never been out of print and it is still sold in the UK. It is the fictionalised memoir of a youth driven by an ambition to write who is starving to death in what was then the capital of Norway, Christiana. Utterly wrapped up in himself, and interested in no one else, he is completely alone in a crowded city.

The author had no literary training. But his collaboration with the Nazis cannot be put down to ignorance, or compared with the case of PG Wodehouse, a political innocent who found himself living under Nazi occupation and who later confessed that he had been a complete fool to agree to broadcast on German radio. Hamsun's Nazi sympathies were the natural outcome of prejudices he had harboured for years. He did not like big cities and had mystic ideas about men and people returning to their ancient rural roots, which chimed with Nazi mythology.

He was a life-long admirer of German culture. He backed the Germans in the First World War, supported Norway's fascist movement in the 1930s, and when Norway was under Nazi occupation, he met Hitler and gave Goebbels the Nobel Prize Medal for Literature that he had been awarded in 1920.

Neither did he relent or apologise when the war was over. A week after Hitler committed suicide, Hamsun wrote an obituary praising him as "a warrior for mankind", "a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations" and "a reformer of the highest sort".

He was arrested in 1945 and it was only the fact that he was then aged 85, and the suspicion that he had gone soft in the head, that protected him from the prospect of joining Norway's wartime prime minister, Vidrun Quisling, in front of a firing squad. Instead, his property was confiscated, he was put under psychiatric observation, and died, disgraced but unrepentant, in 1952, aged 92. The government insists that nothing about this week's celebrations is intended to excuse or obscure Hamsun's ghastly politics. Norway's Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Stoere, insisted: "The Hamsun anniversary in no way condones Hamsun's support for the Nazi regime. He received massive condemnation for this after the war and his pro-Nazi activities must continue to be condemned."

There is no attempt to gloss over Hamsun's Nazi sympathies in the events commemorating his anniversary, the minister said. "Democracy and the education of future generations will best be served by being completely frank about these divergent aspects of Hamsun's life."

But Mr Tenembaum retorted: "We can declare a year of commemorations, issue a stamp, write a musical – and then we say we are doing it to educate people about the Nazis."

On the wrong side: Artists who erred

* PG Wodehouse was trapped in occupied France in 1940, travelled to Berlin and made five humorous broadcasts on German radio. It did not cross his mind that he would be considered a traitor. Despite a huge public outcry, he was cleared, and received a knighthood shortly before his death in 1975. But he never returned to the UK.

* Ezra Pound, one of the greatest American poets of the century, met Mussolini in 1933, and spent the war in Italy making hysterical anti-Semitic, pro-fascist broadcasts. Arrested in 1945, he narrowly escaped execution and spent 12 years in a hospital for the criminally insane.

* Carl Orff, composer of the raunchy opera Carmina Burana, lived and prospered in Germany throughout the Third Reich, but lied his way out of trouble by fooling a de-Nazification court into believing that he had joined the White Rose resistance movement.

News
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer was final surviving member of seminal punk band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
The Mexico chief finally lets rip as his emotions get the better of him
world cup 2014
Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Sport
Yaya Touré has defended his posturing over his future at Manchester City
News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice