Ragnhild M.H. Henden: did Hamsun have antisemitic tendencies

2017-04-2511:52 Marianne Gjelseth

I saw the director twice, each time for perhaps a quarter of an hour. He gave the impression of being forthright and without pretension; it was possible to talk with him. He only made the unexpected mistake of shoving in my face a report of my visit to Hitler, when I was supposed to have expressed anti-Semitism. I have not to this day read this, nor acknowledged it. I make attacks on the Jews? I have had too many good friends among them for that, and these friends have been fine friends to me. I respectfully suggest that the director search through my collected writings and see if he can find any hostility to Jews."1

This is a quotation from Knut Hamsun’s letter of 23 July 1946 to the Director of Public Prosecution. In the letter he describes the treatment he received during his stay at the Psychiatric Clinic in Oslo after the end of the war. What is Hamsun trying to say here? Is it really true that he never made verbal attacks on Jews? Or did an anti-Semitic attitude form a natural part of his support for Hitler’s Germany? It is well known that Hamsun was an advocate of Germany long before the time of national socialism, and that he continued to be so after Hitler’s rise to power. However, his opinion of Jews and his position as an anti-Semitic ideologist and a writer have been and still are more debatable topics.

An anti-Semitic ideologist?
In certain periods of his life Hamsun was a keen contributor to newspaper debates, and his statements could be exceedingly direct – at times even crass. From the outbreak of the First World War, his support for Germany could be clearly evinced in several of his newspaper contributions. For example he writes of his “long-standing steadfast sympathy for Germany” (Simplicissimus no. 19, 1914) and says that “at some time Germany will beat England to death because it is a necessity of nature” (in the daily newspaper Tidens Tegn, 6 December 1914).

On the other hand, Jews are seldom mentioned in Hamsun’s polemic. A major exception is a letter written to Mikal Sylten on 1 December 1925. Sylten published the journal Nationalt Tidsskrift in the years 1916–1945, and Hamsun’s letter was printed in no. 11, 1926. Sylten was an anti-Semitist and also published Hvem er hvem i Jødeverden (Who’s Who in the Jewish World) which contained lists of people in Norway whom Sylten assumed were Jews. This booklet was last printed in 1941, and it was an important reference work for the police during the deportation of the Norwegian Jews. Hamsun’s letter to Sylten includes the following:

Dear Editor! You receive little gratitude for the work you do, and the fact that you have continued for so long shows your strong and honest faith in the matter. Anti-Semitism can be found in every country – it follows Semitism just as effects follow causes. Your “Who’s Who?” has been of considerable interest to me.

However, the issue you struggle with is a difficult one. […] They are very talented people. […] The best thing would be for all Jews to be gathered together in one country that they could call their own so that the exclusive white race would be spared further mixing of blood. And from there the Jews could still demonstrate their best qualities to the benefit of the whole world. But where is that country? Can Palestine be extended? Have the Turks any spare land? […] But as long as this does not happen, the Jews have no home other than the home of others. They must continue to live and work in communities that are foreign to them, to the misfortune of both parties.2

This is one of the texts in which Hamsun goes furthest with a negative portrayal of Jews. The same arguments are presented in several private letters: the Jews are a gifted people but do not belong in the European countries and should therefore be given their own land. The fact that Hamsun is here making himself a spokesman for the Jews’ right to their own country is not necessarily to his credit since the support is clearly based on the wish to remove them from “communities that are foreign to them”. Such attitudes did not preclude Hamsun having close Jewish friends: for instance he contacted the German authorities in an attempt to get the Jewish writer Max Tau out of Nazi Germany – an attempt that was successful.

Hamsun never went as far as to give written support to the extermination of the Jews, but neither did he publicly oppose the Holocaust when the facts became generally known after the war. From a moral perspective such compliance is reprehensible, but the notes of director Ørnulv Ødegaard following Hamsun’s stay at the Psychiatric Clinic nonetheless show that Hamsun did have some willingness to atone:

He [Hamsun] knew of nothing that Quisling had done wrong. “Well, he needn’t have done what he did to the Jews,” he says spontaneously. “We can benefit from having some Jews in the community, the same as other people can.” But there was not one word about the Jews in the two newspapers he read, and he only got to know about it afterwards. When he was in Germany he did see signs – there were some yellow benches, and he saw small children who were forced to move from one bench to sit on one of the yellow ones because they were Jews. “But you must understand that I’m an old man… I just followed blindly because I didn’t hear. How foolish of me!”3

It is difficult to ascertain from his statements whether Hamsun had a uniform perspective of Jews. There is much to suggest that he made a distinction between his personal Jewish friends and the Jewish people as a whole, with the latter group being described in negative terms in several cases.

An anti-Semitic writer?
Attempts have repeatedly been made to transfer the negativism of a number of Hamsun’s public utterances about the Jewish people to his writings and to the ideological content of his novels. However, it is difficult to find uniformity in his literary universe, also with regard to his portrayal of Jews.

Jews are assigned a marginal role in Hamsun’s work as a whole, although we do find key Jewish figures in some novels. Papst, the watch dealer in Wayfarers, is one of these. He is inspired by a real figure – the Jewish peddler Marcus Pabst, born in 1819 in Prussia, who died in 1895 and was buried in Berlin. Marcus Pabst travelled around northern Norway for several seasons trading in watches, leather and down goods in a number of towns, villages and different markets. In the local newspaper Tromsø Stiftstidende of 7 June 1877 he announces his arrival in the town of Tromsø. A copy of the announcement can be seen in the series of photos.

It is not unlikely that Hamsun met Marcus Pabst in his youth since he spent some periods of time working as a shop assistant in the same district, but his literary Papst is just as much part of his fiction and is not to be regarded as a portrait of a real person. Papst’s friendliness at their first meetings has a crucial effect on the protagonist, Edevart, who eventually starts working for Papst and sells numerous watches for him. But the watches are useless, and after two days Edevart discovers that Papst is using him to cheat the customers.

Papst is portrayed as a devious salesman and at the same time as a good judge of character. He exploits Edevart’s trust in him – apparently with the single aim of earning as much money as possible – and then defends himself as follows:

“Ho! Ho! You’re a strong lad!” Papst laughed. “Besides, you’ll never be returning to Levanger. But I will. Old Papst must keep roaming around from place to place and returning regularly. Yes, indeed!”4

The description Papst gives of himself invokes strong connotations of the depiction of the eternal Jew – Ahasver – who according to legend was condemned by Jesus shortly before the crucifixion to wander endlessly around on earth. This figure has been re-written in a number of literary texts for several hundred years,5 which shows the viability of negative portrayals of Jews. In Hamsun’s novel this picture is repeated towards the end of the plot when Papst is described “the eternal watch-selling Jew, older, his beard whiter, but as fat as ever as he lumbered along in his trailing overcoat with all those watch chains across his belly” (page 421). Papst undoubtedly has many negative qualities, but the novel’s final judgement on him is positive. This is not expressed in direct comments from the narrator, but rather in Papst’s final act, when he favours Edevart with a large sum of money and thus rewards him, most probably on account of his nature and his conduct – both of which Papst greatly appreciated.

In the novel Chapter the Last, the short story “Udi søden sommer” (“In the Sweet Summer”, in Strident Life from 1905) and the travelogue In Wonderland from 1903, the issue of Jews and anti-Semitism plays a role in the interpretation. The degree of anti-Semitism in Hamsun’s works has been and still is a controversial topic of discussion among literary scholars and Hamsun enthusiasts. However, it must be said that apart from a couple of very negative utterances about Jewish individuals in the texts mentioned above, Hamsun often incorporates various anti-Jewish prejudices in a literary interaction, thus obscuring to a greater or lesser degree his possible ideological intentions as a writer.



1 Knut Hamsun: On Overgrown Paths (1949), transl.: Carl L. Anderson, MacGibbon & Kee, 1967, p. 57)
2 Quoted according to (and translated from) volume 27 of Knut Hamsun: Samlede verk. Ny utgave 2007–2009 (Collected Works. New edition 2007–2009). Publishers: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag.
3 Quoted according to (and translated from) Tore Hamsun’s book about his father: Knut Hamsun – min far. Gyldendal, Oslo 1987, p. 325.
4 Knut Hamsun: Wayfarers (1927), transl.: James McFarlane, Souvenir Press, 1980, p. 119.
5 cf. Mona Körte and Robert Stockhammer: Ahasvers Spur. Dichtungen und Dokumente vom “Ewigen Juden”. Leipzig 1995.


Ragnhild Maria Hauglid Henden is a PhD candidate at the Holocaust Center, Oslo.

English translation: Ruth Johnson