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Tarnished by Nazi ties

May 9, 2010

In the coming weeks, a museum dedicated to Knut Hamsun, one of Norway's most notable authors, is due to open to the public. Organizers say the writer's association with the Nazi party will be explored in the exhibition.

The exterior of the Hamsunsenteret - the Knut Hamsun Center - contrasted against mountains
Hamsunsenteret - the Knut Hamsun Center - is architectural eye candyImage: Ernst Furuhatt, Nordlandsmuseet

Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920 for his epic, "Growth of the Soil." He is noted for laying the groundwork for the modern novel by developing literary styles of revealing the intricacies of the human psyche. Such techniques would find their way into works by Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Virginia Wolf, to name just a few.

But Hamsun was also an ardent advocate of the Nazi party both before World War II and after Germany occupied Norway in 1941. In 1943, he sent his Nobel Prize to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels as a gift. He later visited Adolf Hitler and after the Nazi leader's death, proclaimed in a May 1945 newspaper eulogy "he was a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations."

Despite his Nazi association, many Norwegians have renewed their respect for his literary greatness. Last year saw extensive festivities commemorating the author's 150th birthday, peaking in the August opening of the Knut Hamsun Center (Hamsunsenteret) in Hamoroy, north of the Arctic Circle, where the writer grew up. The museum closed soon after, with organizers then beginning preparations of the exhibition that is to showcase Hamsun's literary talent, as well as his dark past, when the museum opens to the public on June 11th, 2010.

Deutsche Welle spoke with Bordil Borset, director of the Hamsunsenteret.

Knut Hamsun, undated archive photo
The 150th anniversary of Hamsun's birth was celebrated last yearImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Deutsche Welle: Why was the museum built to honor the writer and Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun?

Bordil Borset: He came here to Hamoroy when he was three years old with this parents, stayed here as a child, and came back as a grown-up during different periods of his life. And this area - Nordland [province] and Hamoroy are very important in his life and works.

The idea to build the museum came about in 1986, but it was a long, complicated process before it was actually completed. Part of the problem was getting enough funding, but the long process also had to due with the controversy surrounding Knut Hamsun as a person and his sympathizing with the Nazis before and during the Second World War.

How has that controversy been played out?

There have been a lot of restrictions about naming streets, places and monuments after Hamsun in Norway. And if one considers the new museum to be a monument to Knut Hamsun, then the question is asked: "Why would we build a monument to someone who has brought shame to Norway?"

And what's your answer to that?

The museum is built as a center for communicating and researching about Knut Hamsun's life and literature, and it's a museum for all aspects of the person, just like other museums devoted to writers.

What's unique about this particular one is its architecture. It's designed by one of the world's most famous architects, Steven Holl. This is unique around the world, this combination - a museum devoted to a Nobel Prize-winning author, designed by an internationally famous architect as an interpretation of the writer's work, literary figures and his life. And all of it placed in this Nordland landscape, with nature completely surrounding it, and which was so central in Hamsun's works.

How does the museum's architecture reflect Hamsun's literary landscapes?

Steven Holl's idea with the building was to construct it as a human body, a figure which includes all the contradictions and themes found in Hamsun's literary characters in his novels "Hunger," "Mysteries," and so on.

The building is a place of contradictory forces - there are dark corners and big, open spaces, and labyrinths, and the changing light and seasons make it appear different each day. It's a complex building that is always changing, just like the psychology of Hamsun's early characters.

The exterior is supposed to represent a church tower - here, it contrasts again the sky
The exterior is supposed to represent a church towerImage: Ernst Furuhatt, Nordlandsmuseet

What's unique about Hamsun's literary works?

He created a new way of describing the human psyche, which is quite close to what James Joyce did in the early 20th century, except that Knut Hamsun did that 20 to 30 years before stream of consciousness or modernism or the modern novel. He's a predecessor of the modern novel in the 20th century. And he invented some techniques of describing the human psyche, this new hyper-sensitivity toward the modern world.

And then his work opens up and he invents this gallery of characters. When he wrote literature, he wrote on small pieces of paper - like sheets from a calendar - and spread them out, plotted them out in front of him, on his desk to invent this literary universe. What is also unique is how he combines this hyper-sensitivity and complexity of characters with his love of nature and the inspiration he gleaned from that - all using his beautiful linguistic techniques.

How does that his keen sensitivity as a novelist jibe with his Nazi affiliation?

This is the big question and mystery of Hamsun which has been haunting us for 50, 60, 70 years. How can one of the world's finest writers, someone who writes with such sensitivity about love, nature and the human psyche, take such a political stance as a person? I can't answer that. It's one of those contradictions of Knut Hamsun. Yes, he was one of the world's greatest authors, and yes, he supported the terrible Nazi regime, which we have absolutely no sympathy for.

Did he ever offer an explanation for that?

No. After World War II, he was fined a huge sum of money, which was to be paid to the Norwegian state. [Editors' note: He was to stand trial for treason, but was deemed mentally unfit due to his advanced age.] But it could never be proved that Hamsun was actually a member of the Nazi party. The subject is addressed again and again in biographies about him; it's a question that cannot be answered. Just as his characters were complicated and contradictory, so was he. That's how human beings are. There are lots of aspects about human beings that we can't explain.

How is Hamsun's Nazi past addressed at the museum?

In the exhibition, all aspects of Hamsun's life and literature are addressed and presented - everything from first editions of his works to the trial after World War II. We are also offering lectures, movies, debates, and conferences on the issue. It will always be treated critically, and it has to be because there is no other way of learning how we are and how we behave today. He can learn from Hamsun's life and actions and perhaps apply that to how we are today. That's what literature does to us, what makes it eternal, what makes it great.

The only way to handle the topic is to address it openly. But I think there is a new generation of historians coming on stage now who are dealing with the war in a different way. All last year, during the jubilee for Hamsun's 150th birthday, the political aspects of him were discussed.

The twists and turns within the museum are limitless; here, a visitor goes up a set of stairs
The interior is deliberately labyrinthineImage: Ernst Furuhatt, Nordlandsmuseet

Hamsun was actually just one of many Nazi sympathizers, but because he was an important person, because he claimed to be one of the big, new Norwegian writers - our national poet -, the disappointment, the betrayal people felt was all the greater. It was a trauma for the Norwegian people. How could he do this? And why did he never apologize? Or show remorse or regret after the war?

Please tell me more about the architecture of the museum.

When you enter the area around the museum, you see this big, black tower, which is reminiscent of old, wooden, Norwegian churches. But it also refers to a scene in one of Hamsun's novels. Then, on the top of the roof, you see bamboo, which is like a strange mix of hair and grass. The building sort of leans to the side, and all this together makes it appear like a figure.

Inside, it's white, so you get this contrast of the black, wooden exterior and white, concrete interior. In the middle of the building, there is this brass elevator. If the building is a metaphor for the body, then this brass elevator is like the spine holding it all up; it's the core, the stable element. But there are glass panels in it, so you can see the movements both inside and outside the elevator - like the nerves in the spine of human beings.

Stephan Holl has all these playful tricks and illusions inside the building that make it challenging, and create a dynamic between the open spaces and the darker corners.

Also, on the first level, the floor is made of blackish-gray concrete and is slightly tilted, so when you move inside the building, you actually have quite a physical, special experience of working with or against the building. And then there are funny elements in there - like a yellow balcony, which is a reference to Hamsun's novel "Hunger," or a wooden structure that symbolizes the empty violin case in "Mysteries."

Interview: Louisa Schaefer
Editor: Kate Bowen