Hamsun and Germany

In Germany, Knut Hamsun’s writings attracted attention early. The article “Vom unbevissten Seelenleben” was printed in Frankfurter Zeitung the same year as it was published in Norwegian (1890). And in 1891, Hunger was translated and published at Fischer Verlag, only one year after the book was published in Norway.

An important link between Hamsun and Germany was established during Hamsun’s stay in Paris in 1893-95. Hamsun rented an apartment in the Latin Quarter, with the aim to learn French and to write novels – the latter he accomplished. In 1894 Hamsun was acquainted with the 10 year younger, German, wealthy businessman Albert Langen. By that time, Hamsun’s novel from 1892, Mysteries, had recently been translated to German, but it was rejected at Fischer Verlag. Albert Langen was deeply affected by Mysterien and offered Fischer to cover the publication costs so that they could print the book. But Fischer still didn’t want to publish Mysterien. Langen then founded Albert Langen Publishing House in Paris and printed Hamsun’s novel himself. Albert Langen Verlag moved together with Langen back to Germany and München. In 1895 Albert Langen printed Pan: Aus Lieutenant Glahns Papieren, and in 1898 Redakteur Lynge. These books had been published in Norwegian in 1894 and 1893 – so we see there was just a short amount of time between the Norwegian book and the German translation. Several of Hamsun’s most important books were published by Albert Langen in the years to come.

We see how Hamsun early captured a position among German readers. In contrast, Hunger was translated into English first in 1899, by Mary Chavelita Dunne (alias George Egerton). And first after Hamsun won the Nobel Prize in 1920 for the novel Growth of the Soil (1917), the English translations of Hamsun’s novels started.

Hamsun read Nietzsche and Schopenhauer early in his authorship and paid their philosophy much attention. He never learnt to speak or write German, and later Marie took over the German correspondence. But Hamsun admired German culture and pleaded Germany’s case during World War I. He was upset by the conditions offered to Germany at the Treaty of Versailles. And in the 1930s, Hamsun followed eagerly the rebuilding of German society and the political development lead by Hitler. He was indignant in 1935 when the German journalist and political prisoner Carl von Ossietzky was appointed the Nobel Peace Prize and wrote a deeply critical article about this the same year. Ossietzky was in fact a great admirer of Hamsun and even though he knew about Hamsun’s opinions, he asked the German engineer Finn Lie and his wife, when they visited him in the concentration camp in 1938, to give Hamsun his regards. He also wished to receive Hamsun’s last novel The Ring Closed (1936) when it was translated into German. But at the time the translation was published, Ossietzky had died in imprisonment.

Strangely enough, Knut Hamsun never stayed in Germany for longer periods of time. He had gone twice to America in his youth, to Russia, Caucasus and Turkey in 1899, and in the 1930’s he travelled to Italy, France and Yugoslavia. He had stayed for some time in Denmark, one year in Finland and for about 2 years in Paris. But he had neither lived nor travelled in Germany. In 1934, Knut Hamsun was appointed to the German Goethe-prize, but he refused – “because I didn’t want to profit from being the humble friend of Germany in Norway,” Hamsun wrote in 1939.

Due to Hamsun’s political ideas, Hitler’s Pan-German visions and his “Dritte Reich” offered an alternative road for Europe and Norway and a way out from the political and cultural threat from East (Soviet and communism) and from West (America and a modern society Hamsun spoke against). During World War II Hamsun supported the German occupation of Norway, and he declared his support to Hitler and Quisling in articles and considerations throughout the war – causing a great amount of anger and disappointment among the Norwegian readers. And the German occupants admired Hamsun back – even though Hitler allegedly preferred the Norwegian writer Trygve Gulbrandsen before Knut Hamsun. Growth of the Soil and Pan was printed as Front-Ausgaben and distributed to German soldiers in the North and their families. In May 1943, Knut and Marie Hamsun went to Berlin and visited Mr. and Mrs. Goebbels, a meeting that both parts enjoyed. Back at Nørholm, Hamsun wanted to send Joseph Goebbels a present – but what could possibly be worthy to send Goebbels? The solution was: Hamsun sent Hitler’s minister of propaganda his Nobel medal. «Ich bitte Sie meinen tiefsten Dank für alle Ihre Güte zu mir während meine [sic] Reise in Deutschland entgegen zu nehmen. Ich kann Ihnen nicht genug danken …», seems to have been the start of the letter that followed the gift.

The perhaps most well-known travel to Germany by Knut Hamsun happened later the same year. After a journalist conference in Vienna, Hamsun went on to Hitler’s residence Berghof in Obersalzberg 26. Juni 1943. The meeting with Hitler soon took a wrong turn when the extremely deaf Hamsun started to advise Hitler to depose the German reichskommisar in Norway, Josef Terboven, because the brutality of Terboven was turning the Norwegian population against Germany, Hamsun argued. Hitler broke off the meeting and left it furiously. Hamsun didn’t like either Terboven or Hitler. Still he wrote an emotional necrology about Hitler for publishing in the evening paper 7. May 1945, printed on the same front side that announced German capitulation the next day.

Several of the most important novel writers during the 20th century, among them the famous German writers Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann, express their debt to Knut Hamsun and how they are inspired by his way of developing the novel into a modern genre characterized by – amongst others - lyrical prose, retrospection, “stream-of-consciousness”, strange protagonists, and subjective ways of telling. The political role Hamsun played during World War II throws dark shadows over his authorship. Still, international interest in Knut Hamsun’s literature has not decreased but rather increased during the decades after 1945. His writings are still speaking to modern human beings and his life and books still provoke and arouse strong feelings: anger and enthusiasm, joy and sorrow, amazement and recognition.