Al Pacino has withdrawn from a Danish stage version of Knut Hamsun's novel, Hunger, after learning that the Norwegian Nobel prize-winning author had been an ardent supporter of Nazi Germany. The move dismayed some of Hamsun's defenders, but it's also a reminder of the appalling state of intellectual life during the rise of fascism. So many writers and thinkers embraced fascism in those years that they constituted what came to be called a "fascist foreign legion."
Hunger (1890) is considered a classic of psychological literature, and Hamsun himself is regarded by many critics and writers as one of the fathers of literary Modernism, and an important influence on such writers as Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and many others. In a 1987 introduction to Hunger, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote that "The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun."
The head of Norway's Hamsun Society, Hege Faust, lamented Pacino's failure to distinguish Hamsun's writerly achievements from the politics he embraced as an old man. "If one looks at the impact Hunger made on Hemingway, Kafka, Hesse, Lindgren, Singer, and other prominent authors at the time, it is somewhat strange to see to what extent this differs from today's judgement" by Pacino, she told Britain's Telegraph.
Hamsun's fascism was hardly a byproduct of hardening of the arteries. He lived for a time in the 1880s in the U.S., and came to dislike the country for its egalitarian principles, and because it had a large black population (even though that population wasn't benefitting much from the egalitarianism). His 1918 novel, Growth of the Soil, is a pretty good example of "blood and soil" lit. John Carey, a British critic, cites a passage from Hamsun's Kareno trilogy of dramas, written in the 1890s, as indicative of his outlook:
"I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar."
Hamsun, who gave his Nobel to Hitler as a mark of his esteem, remained faithful to the fascist cause to the bitter end. Hamsun's most-often quoted words come from the brief eulogy for Hitler that he published in a collaborationist newspaper in May 1945, a week after the Fuehrer died.
"Hitler was a warrior," wrote Hamsun, "a warrior for humankind and a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations." Many of his fellow Norwegians reportedly chose to mark the end of the Nazi occupation by burning Hamsun's books. Hamsun was eventually fined, though a doctor asserted that his guilt should be understood in terms of the writer's "permanently impaired mental abilities." The supposedly impaired Hamsun was later to publish a book defending his collaboration.
Something similar happened with Ezra Pound, the U.S. poet and champion of the avant-garde who delivered propaganda radio broadcasts on behalf of Mussolini ("the Boss," as Pound calls him in the Cantos). Instead of standing trial for treason, Pound presented a plea of insanity and ended up receiving Hemingway and other visitors in his book-lined room at St. Elizabeths asylum in Washington, with the connivance of the hospital staff.
Neither Hamsun nor Pound were outliers; the list of admired (or once-admired) writers who in turn admired fascism is quite long; some later paid a price in terms of their reputations, others—in common with the large cadre of writers who embraced the Soviet Union—have had their embarrassing politics reduced to footnotes.
"Who is the true friend of the people?" asked Louis-Ferdinand Celine. "Fascism is," he answered. "Who has done the most for the working man? The USSR or Hitler? Hitler has." That's the same Louis-Ferdinand Celine who revolutionized French writing with such novels as Journey to the End of the Night (1932), a work that has influenced even Anglophone artists from Charles Bukowski to Jim Morrison; Catch-22 is in some ways a tribute to it. Celine also wrote material so intensely anti-Semitic that even the Nazi occupation authorities in France thought it "counter-productive." (They preferred to encourage an illusion of normality, at least for a while.)
Like Hamsun, playwright Luigi Pirandello gave his Nobel to fascism, contributing it to a metal drive in support of Mussolini's imperial ambitions in Africa. The incident is shrugged off. On the other hand, Massimo Bontempelli, a writer who was also a fascist cultural authority, has become a nobody, even though literary "magical realism" begins with him. (Strangely, Bontempelli is referenced in the notorious 1928 porn novel, Le Con d'Irene [Irene's Cunt], now attributed to the French poet Louis Aragon. For his part, Aragon became a staunch communist, even writing an ode to Stalin's secret police.) Italian Fascism was heavily indebted to the Decadent novelist, poet, and "adventurer," Gabriele D'Annunzio—Mussolini adapted much of his leadership "style" from him—and to the Futurist writer and theorist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.
The French executed author and journalist Robert Brasillach, and came to ignore the work of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (who killed himself in 1945), though director Louis Malle revived interest in him for a time with a 1963 film adaptation of Le Feu Follet. The list of opportunistic (though not necessarily fascist) cultural collaborators in France during the occupation, from Cocteau to Colette, is depressingly lengthy.
George Orwell wrote in 1946 that, "The relationship between fascism and the literary intelligentsia badly needs investigating, and [William Butler] Yeats might well be the starting point." Such investigations have since been written, of course, and they include the expected chapters on Yeats as well as others on D.H. Lawrence (The Plumed Serpent may be the clearest example of Lawrence's fascism), T.S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis (who at this point is probably as well known for his fascism as for anything else he did).
What was the appeal of fascism to such people? It wasn't just that many of them were racists and/or anti-Semites (though that didn't hurt); plenty of authors have been racists without embracing totalitarian systems. The underlying issue for many of these figures, according to investigations by John R. Harrison and by John Carey, was an antipathy to democracy.
"Many twentieth-century writers," wrote John R. Harrison in The Reactionaries: A study of the anti-democratic intelligentsia (1966), "have decided that culture has been sacrificed to democracy; the spread of culture has meant that the level of the masses is raised, but that the level of the elite is lowered." As for writers like Pound, Yeats, and others, "they realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes."
In other words, democracy and the spread of literacy under democratic capitalism were empowering hordes of "ordinary" people, politically and culturally, whom these authors found mediocre and unworthy. It was imperiling art by overwhelming it with what they regarded as trashy popular forms. It was marginalizing deserving people of taste—themselves—and subsuming civilization's elite.
Some writers responded to these cultural upheavals by turning Left, seeing communism as the scourge of the piggish middle classes while closing their eyes to the inconvenient mass murder, tyranny, and the near-total destruction of cultural freedom. Others embraced the eugenics movement in the hope that it would limit cultural decline by limiting the numbers of the horrid masses; in some cases intellectuals became positively genocidal (H.G. Wells believed that one way or another, the "inferior" black and brown races had to go). In all too many cases, from Hamsun on, they embraced fascism.
Jon Stephensen, the manager of the Copenhagen theater producing the dramatic version of Hunger, sounded very understanding, in a Nordic sort of way, of Al Pacino's withdrawal. "He jumped at the last minute because he couldn't come to terms with Knut Hamsun's support for the German occupation and Nazism," he told a Danish paper. "We must respect that."
In fact, one of Pacino's early stage successes was a satire on the rise of Hitler, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, ostensibly about a Chicago gangster and his ruthless control of the cauliflower market. The play was written by Bertolt Brecht, winner of the Stalin Peace Prize, and, in public at least, a supporter of the military suppression of the 1953 uprising against the East German regime, including the use of Soviet troops. "History will pay its respects to the revolutionary impatience of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany," he wrote in a letter to East German strongman Walter Ulbricht. (In fact, Brecht had very different thoughts about the suppression, but they didn't appear until Brecht was dead.)
Anyway, Stephensen sounded wistful, in a box-office sort of way, at the missed opportunity on his Copenhagen stage. "It would have been really been great if it had succeeded," he said of the play. "I have several times in the process thought that I was dreaming. It would have been massive if [Pacino] had come to Copenhagen."