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Norway's Nazi outcast Hamsun tiptoes back on stage

Norwegian Nobel literature laureate Knut Hamsun, who fell from grace after World War II for his Nazi sympathies, is gingerly moving centre stage as Norway celebrates his authorship, but his past continues to taint his legacy.

world Updated: Feb 19, 2009 00:41 IST

Norwegian Nobel literature laureate Knut Hamsun, who fell from grace after World War II for his Nazi sympathies, is gingerly moving centre stage as Norway celebrates his authorship, but his past continues to taint his legacy.

For the 150th anniversary celebrations of Hamsun's birth this year, which begin on Thursday, Norway will honour the author in a way it refused to do for his centennial, back when the Scandinavian country was still licking its wounds after five years of Nazi occupation.

"It is understandable that some people, especially the generation that lived through the war, are reacting but it is the literary work, not the political ideas, that we're celebrating," ceremony coordinator Knut Listerud told AFP, admitting however that "it can be difficult to separate the two."

"His books are incredible, among the best. He is one of the greatest Norwegian authors and there is a reason that he is also so popular abroad," he said.

The literary heights the self-taught Hamsun reached were only equalled by the depths to which he plunged under the weight of his political opinions.

Hamsun was barely 30 when he won acclaim for his semi-autobiographical "Hunger," which in hallucinatory terms describes the setbacks of a young author plagued but also inspired by hunger.

In 1920, his epic "Growth of the Soil" was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize, making him one of only three Norwegians to ever win the prestigious award.

But the pride Norwegians felt that his descriptions of Norway's dramatic nature and the lives of Norwegian farmers and peasants could earn such international acclaim, were dashed when the author later decided to give his Nobel medal to none other than Adolf Hitler's propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

In 1940, when Nazi troops were marching across the Scandinavian country, Hamsun appealed to his fellow citizens in a newspaper piece to "throw down your weapons and go home. The Germans are fighting for all of us and are breaking down England's tyranny over us all."

When the occupation ended five years later, Norwegian authorities were at a loss as to what to do with the country's once favourite son.

Embarrassed by his continued outspoken support for the Nazis, they declared him to have weakened mental capacities.

He died destitute and disgraced in 1952.

More than half a century later, his name can still have a toxic affect. Each time the city of Oslo begins discussing naming a street after the Nobel laureate it is forced to backtrack due to the angry reactions.

And Otto Homlung, the theatre chief in Norway's third largest city Trondheim has gone so far as to declare his theatre a "Hamsun-free zone" for the entire commemoration year.

"Before speaking out about the Hamsun jubilee, one should read the obituary the poet wrote for Hitler," Homlung wrote in an opinion piece titled "Celebrating a Nazi."

When the Fuehrer died, Hamsun did indeed describe perhaps the world's most hated man as "a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations."

But many Norwegians today feel the country cannot simply write off one of its greatest writers due to his offensive political beliefs.

"Hamsun is one of Norway's three literary Nobel laureates and his work has had a strong influence on both Norwegian and international literature," the country's central bank said last month on announcing that, for the first time, it would make a commemorative coin in the author's honour.

Far from the thousands of sometimes grandiose events that marked the centennial of playwright Henrik Ibsen's death three years ago, the Hamsun celebrations this year, which begin Thursday with an exhibit in Oslo attended by Queen Sonja, are expected to remain low key.

Ceremony coordinator Listerud hopes nonetheless that Hamsun eventually will be accorded a more prominent place in Oslo's cultural heritage.

"Ibsen started out lending his name to a parking garage in Oslo. Now he also has a street. Maybe the same thing can happen with Hamsun," he said.