Norwegian Writer Knut Hamsun Is Arrested for Treason

Knut Hamsun, Norway’s greatest modern writer, openly supported the nominal government of Norwegian Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling. During World War II, Norway was occupied by Germany. Hamsun’s articles supporting Quisling embarrassed the Norwegians and led to his arrest for treason soon after Adolf Hitler’s death. He was tried for collaboration—not for treason—found guilty, and heavily fined.

Summary of Event

Knut Hamsun’s already intense admiration for German culture grew even stronger when his novel Mysterier (Mysteries, 2001) was published in Berlin by Albert Langen Buch and Kunst Verlag in 1892. By 1910, Hamsun was describing himself as “a Germanish soul,” and World War I prompted numerous outbursts of praise for Germany and a corresponding dislike for England. He argued that Germany needed land for its expanding population, whereas England required no more colonies. [kw]Hamsun Is Arrested for Treason, Norwegian Writer Knut (May 26, 1945)
[kw]Treason, Norwegian Writer Knut Hamsun Is Arrested for (May 26, 1945)
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Hamsun, Marie
Quisling, Vidkun
Langfeldt, Gabriel

Knut Hamsun.

(Library of Congress)

Hamsun scholars still debate whether his Nazi sympathies were the genuine convictions of a rational person or the product of senility. The two psychiatrists who examined him at length after World War II, Gabriel Langfeldt and Ørnulv Ødegård, pointed to his “permanently impaired mental faculties,” a judgment that conveniently cleared him of guilt. Others, such as his English biographer, Robert Ferguson, consider Hamsun’s fascism “a genuinely held political conviction,” and that Hamsun may have believed that it was Germany’s turn for world dominance. Beyond this geopolitical thesis was a contempt for the English people as rude and unfeeling. This attitude emerged in the two novels he published in 1908, Benoni and Rosa, in which an Englishman, Sir Hugh Trevelyan, is caricatured in both works as an arrogant drunk. Ferguson further dismisses suggestions that Hamsun’s anti-English stance marked him as an eccentric artist drawn naïvely into the spell cast by Hitler, Adolf Adolf Hitler, arguing instead that like many others during the 1930’s he saw in fascism a cure for the decade’s ills.

Animosity between the Left and the Right in Norway was at its peak when Hitler came to power in 1933, and almost half the nation’s trade unionists were out of work. The defense minister, Vidkun Quisling, urged a dictatorship and started his own Nazi Party, the Nasjonal Samling Nasjonal Samling (national union), or NS, a movement that never had any significant success.

In November, 1935, Hamsun attacked the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzsky in an article that aroused a loud protest in Norway, even though, Ferguson notes, much of the Norwegian middle class was sympathetic to Hamsun’s point of view. The German leaders recognized Hamsun’s propaganda value and promoted a vision of a Nordic community emphasizing a Germanic race free from sexual and intellectual contacts with other races. Many people were repulsed by Hamsun’s attitude toward the old, the weak, and the disabled, the care of whom he felt used up resources better devoted to the young.

During the war Hamsun wrote about twenty-five articles that constituted the main evidence against him of treason in his 1945 trial. Perhaps the most devastating piece came on May 4, 1940, when he penned the plea “NORWEGIANS! Throw down your rifles and go home again. The Germans are fighting for us all, and will crush the English tyranny over us and over all neutrals.” Another damaging missive at this time was an open letter to a Norwegian journalist, rebuking him for describing the German invasion as an act of aggression. This letter was written to muster support for Quisling, whom he praised as a natural leader but who disappointed him when they met. In January, 1941, he wrote an embarrassing newspaper piece, “We Have Changed Tracks and Are on Our Way in a New Time and a New World.” Ferguson considers “surreal” Hamsun’s vision of life under the Nazis as an idyllic world of cooperation among all peoples.

On his eightieth birthday in 1939, Hamsun received congratulatory telegrams from both the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg Rosenberg, Alfred and Hitler’s propaganda minister, Goebbels, Josef Josef Goebbels. Goebbels was a failed writer himself and he admired Hamsun tremendously, calling him a poet who had transcended good and evil. On May 19, 1943, while in Berlin, Hamsun and his second wife, Marie, also a Nazi sympathizer, called on Goebbels, who wrote an excited account of their meeting and immediately ordered that 100,000 copies of a new German edition of Hamsun’s works be published. Hamsun was so moved by the visit that he sent Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal, won in 1920, as a gift.

If Hamsun’s meeting with Goebbels was a success, his meeting with Hitler Hitler, Adolf
[p]Hitler, Adolf;and Knut Hamsun[Hamsun] turned into a disaster. On June 23, Hamsun flew to Vienna, Austria, to address the Press Internationale. His speech was his most fierce denunciation of England, and ironically he delivered it in English because he never mastered German. Goebbels had organized the conference to solicit sympathy for Germany, as it endured crushing air raids by the British and Americans. Hamsun’s tirade against “Anglo-Saxon barbarians” was exactly what was wanted. The meeting with Hitler was arranged at the last minute, but on June 26, Hamsun and his translator landed at Obersalzberg and were driven to Hitler’s retreat at Berghof.

Fortified by a large glass of cognac, Hamsun was ushered into a reception room, where he soon began questioning Hitler. Why, Hamsun persisted, would Josef Terboven, the Reich commissioner in Norway, not release to Quisling certain documents that would prove that the king of Norway, and his government, were pro-English? Moreover, the Nazi policy of confining Norwegian shipping to rivers and home waters was damaging the industry. Hamsun’s loud protests (he had a hearing impairment) continued, especially his criticism of Terboven, until Hitler abruptly left the room and soon said a cool goodbye. At Hitler’s death in May, 1945, Hamsun published a brief obituary in Aftenposten, judging Hitler as “a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.”

The day after the obituary appeared, Terboven committed suicide. The next day, Quisling was arrested, followed by forty thousand other NS members. Marie and Knut Hamsun waited until May 26 before they were placed under house arrest. Marie went to jail on June 12; on June 28 she was followed by her husband, who was placed in the hospital in Grimstad.

Hamsun denied membership in the NS and asserted that he supported Germany to help Norway attain a high place in a German-oriented Europe. In September, he was moved to a comfortable old person’s home in Landvik. The authorities planned to charge him on two counts—treason and inciting others to commit offences—but the psychiatrist, Langfeldt, thought Hamsun showed evidence of mental decline, an opinion shared by many Norwegians. Accordingly, he was sent to Langfeldt’s psychiatric clinic at Vindern to be examined by Langfeldt and Ødegård. After 119 days of struggle with Hamsun, Langfeldt produced an eighty-three page document (May, 1946) concluding that Hamsun was not insane but suffered from “permanently impaired mental faculties,” a judgment that sent him into a rage. In December, he was tried not for treason but for financial collaboration, then found guilty and fined. On February 19, 1952, he died in his sleep at the age of ninety-three.


Hamsun’s treason and his trial resulted from his ingrained hatred of the English and his admiration for Germany’s cultural achievements. Many Europeans felt that Germany had been punished too harshly at Versailles, and with most of Europe suffering from economic chaos Hamsun must have been only one of many who saw in Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Benito Mussolini strong individuals who would restore order. After all, the NS enrolled forty thousand members, most of whom surely had no idea of the horrors for which Hitler would be responsible.

The kroners that Hamsun paid his government were nothing compared to the cost that Hitler’s cheering throngs during the 1930’s were to pay, and Hamsun’s lesson—and he must have seen his humiliation as a lesson—was emblematic of Germany’s infatuation with power. Langfeldt and Ødegård were right to quote from Hamsun’s 1895 play Ved Rigets Port (at the gate of the kingdom), in which Ivar Kareno declares his faith in the “born leader, the natural despot, the great commander, the one who is not chosen but who elects himself to mastery over the hordes on the earth. I believe and hope for one thing, and that is the coming again of the Great Terrorist, the Life Force, the Caesar.” The impact of Hamsun’s trial, and of the larger phenomenon of which it was a part, was to muffle the voice of the Great Terrorist. Norway
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Further Reading

  • Barth, Else Margarete. A Nazi Interior: Quisling’s Hidden Philosophy. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. This work, although not focused on Knut Hamsun, is nevertheless important for any study of Nazi collaboration and sympathies in Norway during World War II. It looks beyond the failures of Quisling’s administration to find the philosophy and principles that animated his efforts, which Hamsun supported.
  • Ferguson, Robert. Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987. A comprehensive biography on Hamsun’s personal relationships and his trial for treason. Considered the classic English biography of Hamsun.
  • Frank, Jeffrey. “In From the Cold: The Return of Knut Hamsun.” The New Yorker, December 26, 2005. A relatively long survey of Hamsun’s career and trial, occasioned by the publication, in Norway, of Ingar Sletten Kolloen’s two-volume biography.

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