A controversial attempt to commemorate one of Norway’s literary giants has run into a new round of trouble, just as the climax of the publicly funded project “Hamsun 2009” draws near. Knut Hamsun was a Nobel Prize-winning author and this year marks 150 years since he was born. Hamsun was also a Nazi sympathizer, however, and critics both in and out of Norway don’t think he should get any attention at all.
Newspaper Aftenposten reports that officials in the southern coastal town of Grimstad — where Hamsun once lived and where the commemoration’s main events will be held in September — are evaluating stricter security measures following some recent vandalism. A controversial bust of the author mounted in a plaza named after him was almost immediately vandalized with a swastika, while other local art work tied to the Hamsun commemoration was also torn down and vandalized.
Upcoming commemorative events have also set off new debate, “some of it not very nice or relevant,” local museum director Olav Haugsevje told Aftenposten . Concerns are also rising over the August unveiling of another Hamsun statue in Vågå, the mountain town where the author was born.
“Of course I’ve thought about whether it might be vandalized,” its sculptor, 81-year-old Skule Waksvik, told Aftenposten . He said he concentrated on Hamsun’s “fantastic” literature while he worked on the sculpture, calling it “tragic” that Hamsun hurt his reputation with Nazism. Waksvik says his statue will portray Hamsun as “arrogant and aristocratic.”
More noise over the commemoration emerged this week when one of the 15 board members of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation harshly criticized Norway for conducting the events. “It now remains up to the Norwegian government to put an end to this offensive vindication of Nazism and live up to the standards the world has come to expect from it or live with the consequences of such unacceptable behavior,” board member Nicholas Tozer told Israeli newspaper Haaretz .
Tozer, who sent a letter or protest to the Norwegian organizers, has also said that by declaring 2009 “Hamsun Year,” Norwegian officials have damaged an international Holocaust awareness effort they were recently appointed to head. The foundation of which Tozer is a director is dedicated to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who disappeared after helping thousands of Hungarian Jews escape the Holocaust.Controversial in Norway, too
Plans to launch a year of mostly state-funded events commemorating Hamsun have been controversial within Norway as well. Few argue that Hamsun was an important and brilliant author, and his novels like Hunger and Growth of the Soil remain popular a century after their publication. Hamsun has been described by some as “the father of modern literature,” and Norway’s first modern monarch, King Haakon, once commented that Hamsun’s works reflected Norway’s soul.
National pride in Hamsun faded quickly during the 1930s, when Hamsun and his wife Marie emerged as Nazi sympathizers, and during the war years when Norway was under occupation by Nazi Germany. Hamsun famously met Adolph Hitler during the war, and while he allegedly complained to Hitler of Nazi conduct in Norway and tried to get the despised Josef Terboven removed as Reichskommissar, he also made clear his support for Nazi Germany and his dislike for the British and the Americans. King Haakon, married to a former British princess, was in exile in London at the time, while the crown princess and youngest heir to the throne, today’s King Harald, were in exile in the US.
Hamsun, already an elderly man, was arrested when the war ended, confined to a psychiatric hospital and ordered after a civil trial to pay compensation to the state. He died in 1952.
Public support for this year’s commemoration has been less than overwhelming. Organizers had trouble raising sponsorships: While an jubilee for playwright Henrik Ibsen raised NOK 68.3 million in 2006, Hamsun organizers had only collected NOK 11.5 million by the time events began. More than 80 embassies were eager to participate in the Ibsen celebration, while only 15 had sent in proposed events by January. While some Hamsun fans think the events list is too modest, others think it’s more than adequate.
(For a list of official Hamsun events, click here .)
Commemoration organizers have been trying to balance Hamsun’s literary achievements against the reality of his politics. They claim progress was made with the decision not to brush Hamsun’s Nazi past aside but rather focus on it. “In the beginning, it was thought that the commemoration shouldn’t look back, but only forward, and focus only on Hamsun as an author,” Even Arntzen, a professor at the University of Tromsø, told Aftenposten . “But it’s not possible to forget what happened during the war.”
‘Interesting’ royal participation
Arntzen and others thus feel the criticism of the commemoration is unwarranted. Norway’s Foreign Ministry has argued that by facing up to Hamsun’s Nazi past, future generations can learn from it. That may be what motivated Norway’s Royal Family to allow Crown Princess Mette-Marit to be a patron of the commemoration, symbolizing royal participation in “Hamsun 2009” that surprised many.
“It would have been unthinkable for either King Harald or Queen Sonja to take on such a role, because of the war generation,” Hamsun biographer Ingar Sletten Kolloen told Aftenposten earlier this year. He said it was “undoubtedly controversial” for the crown princess to be part of the Hamsun commemoration, “but it’s an interesting decision that the king and queen must support. It shows that this commemoration must portray both the author and the man.
“When the crown princess agrees to do this, she’s not doing so to support the Nazi Hamsun, but as a representative for the opposition within us all.”
Not everyone seemed so fascinated by the royal participation. Resistance hero Gunnar Sønsteby, who fought the Nazi occupation from 1940-1945, refused to comment on the crown princess’ role in “Hamsun 2009,” nor would author Ebba Haslund, who was a firm critic of a proposal to name a plaza after Knut Hamsun in 2007.