Literary Fascists of the 1930s, Great and Small
From Hamsun to Wolfe to the Creator of a Kid's Book About Otters
Freedom of expression is so fundamental to a writer that it can come as a shock to discover how many celebrated literary figures of the 20th century were drawn to fascism. The very notion that writers of the stature of Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis or Norwegian Nobel Prize-winner, Knut Hamsun, could openly condone a regime that publicly burned books, or tortured and killed people simply for expressing a view, is deeply perplexing. Yet T.S. Eliot is among those who have been charged with fascist leanings, while W.B. Yeats was a supporter of the Irish Blueshirts.[*] And even if such accusations are unfounded or exaggerated, the question remains—how was it possible for any foreign writer of conscience not to be actively condemning a dictatorship whose hallmarks were brutality, censorship and suppression?
Such matters seem to have been of little concern to Henry Williamson, whose book Tarka the Otter won the Hawthornden Prize in 1928. He saw in Hitler’s Germany only what he wanted to see. As an infantryman in the trenches he had taken part in the famous Christmas truce of 1914, an intense experience that had convinced him—contrary to all the propaganda—that he was essentially at one with his enemy. Then, 15 years after the war, his own country still mired in depression, he saw Hitler leading the Germans to a bright new future while at the same time rekindling their hunger for national tradition. The Nazi cry of Blut und Boden was the longed-for summons to a simpler era when peasants worked their land in harmony with nature, and tribe and territory were one. For Williamson, immersed in the natural world, this mystical past had profound romantic appeal. In Hitler, he saw a leader in perfect sympathy with such views and, moreover, one whose Hitler Youth movement was inspiring the young.
Early in August 1935, Williamson, then living in Devonshire, received a letter from his old friend and fellow writer, John Heygate, inviting him to attend the Nuremberg Reichsparteitag [Reich Party Day] and offering to pay his fare. After Heygate’s adventures in the Tyrol distributing Nazi propaganda, he had returned to his job at the UFA studios in Berlin. He explained to Williamson that the invitation came from the Reichsschrifttumskammer [Office for the Direction of German Writers], clearly the real source of funds. Unperturbed by the fact that such a sinister-sounding government department should even exist, Williamson eagerly accepted. The Nazis had made a wise investment. From the moment he set foot in the country, the naturalist and novelist became an ardent advocate for the regime, soaking up its propaganda, never questioning its claims. He was particularly attracted by the Führer’s vision (“an improved version of Lenin’s”), “based on every man owning, in a trustee-to-trustee-nation sense, his own bit of land and fulfilling himself in living a natural life.”
Recording his visit a year later, Williamson described how they had left Berlin for Nuremberg early on September 7th in Heygate’s MG. “We rushed into the faint mists of sunrise, smoothly at 82 mph,” he wrote. “It was thrilling to pass field-grey troops on the march, long boots and lumber wheels faintly dusty, each soldier wearing a flower in helmet or tunic.” As they neared Nuremberg, fireworks lit up the horizon making it “glow and dilate as though with gunfire.” On arrival, Williamson was astonished to see so many foreigners, most of them billeted in railway carriages shunted into sidings. He noted the “lines and lines of Mitropa coaches filled with military attachés, secretaries, embassy underlings, Oxford Groupists, Boy Scout bosses, journalists, social lecturers, industrial millionaires, dozens, scores, hundreds of foreigners including unclassified outsiders like ourselves.”
By 8 am the next day, the two men were already seated in the vast Luitpoldarena [Nazi Party rally grounds]. “We have a good place at the end of a gangway,” Williamson recalled. “I sat on the edge, sleeves rolled up sunbathing.” But within minutes his day was ruined. Not by the terrifying display of totalitarianism unfolding before him, but because, “A bulky rump thrust itself against my lean one, and I was squeezed up out of my end seat. I turned and looked at this fleshy cuckoo. . . I saw he had, in his pale podgy hands, a large envelope, the address of which was Oxford University.” A name then came into view revealing that Williamson’s unwelcome neighbor was none other than the Reverend Frank Buchman, American founder of the Oxford Group.
The Oxford Group, later known as Moral Re-Armament, had a catchphrase—”God Control.” Buchman’s big idea was that world peace would come only through “God-controlled nations” created by “God-controlled personalities.” And as he witnessed the true extent of the Führer’s power that day, magnified by the adoring millions, he must have dreamed of what a “God-controlled” Hitler could achieve for his movement. Here was a leader, a genuine Übermensch, who had already proved himself by defeating the Anti-Christ in the guise of communism. “This far-seeing seer may show us the way out,” Buchman subsequently wrote. But neither he, a man of God, nor the sensitive nature-loving Williamson appear to have shown the least concern for the Jews who, so it was announced at the very same rally, were within days to be legally stripped of their citizenship.
Buchman often traveled in Germany during the mid-1930s, at a time when the Oxford Group enjoyed considerable success throughout Europe. His penchant for royalty and comfortable hotels did not go unnoticed, although he liked to present himself as a simple man (“an extra travel bag was a sin”), who toiled “from country to country, from home to home, from heart to heart.” He wanted to bridge “the gulf between haves and Have-nots, between class and class, between nation and nation.” The only time he paused on these arduous journeys was “to let the still small voice give him direction for his future course”. A couple of weeks after Nuremberg, Buchman’s divine guide led him to Geneva where, with memories of Führer, flags and pounding boots still fresh in his mind, he made a speech: “There are those who feel that internationalism is not enough,” he told his audience. “Nationalism can make a nation. Super-nationalism can make a world. God-controlled nationalism seems to be the only sure foundation for world peace.”
Williamson was just one of a number of English guests officially invited by the Nazi Party to Nuremberg that year. Unity Mitford, her sister Diana Guinness (by then, Sir Oswald Mosley’s mistress) and their brother Tom (shortly to join the British Union of Fascists) also numbered among the honored guests. Some of these, so the British military attaché Major Hotblack reported back to London, were heard to express “very anti-British views.” He marked out Williamson as being a “particularly talkative critic,” noting that he also went round falsely claiming to be a special correspondent of The Times. Although Williamson’s enthusiasm for National Socialism remained at high pitch, he began to weary physically. “The masses and movement had exhausted my eye nerves, accustomed to grass, trees and sameness of valley life,” he wrote. After spending a further week on a Nazi-organized tour for foreign journalists, Williamson’s German excursion ended ingloriously in Berlin at the Adlon Hotel:
My Reichs checks gave out; I had no money; the others went back to England; I sat alone wondering how I could get a few marks to tip the bedroom valet, and pay my fare back to Bremerhaven and Southampton. I didn’t like to borrow from John [Heygate]; nor go to the Berlin publisher of my sole translation, Tarka—which anyway had earned only about 11 marks in the past year. At last I confided in our host from the Propaganda Ministry, who came into the lounge. He went to the hotel office, and returned, and ordered coffee. While we drank, he covertly slid a bundle of notes across the table, murmuring, with eyes averted, “This will fix it for you.” 150 marks.
It would be easier to feel more sympathy for Williamson if, after the war, he had admitted that he had been wrong. But in 1969 when interviewed by Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs, he said merely that he had not then been wise enough to know that “a man of tremendous artistic feeling should never be in charge of a nation.” The nearest he came to acknowledging a Nazi crime was when he remarked that Hitler had been a perfectionist “and once you begin to force perfectionism on other people you become the devil.”
Norway’s most famous novelist, Knut Hamsun, was in terms both of literary achievement and devotion to Nazi Germany in a different league. His books, with their focus on the individual ego and their spontaneous style, had a profound impact on European writing. When Hamsun won the Nobel Prize in 1920 for Growth of the Soil, Thomas Mann commented that it had never been awarded to a worthier recipient. Hemingway recommended Hamsun’s novels to Scott Fitzgerald; André Gide compared him to Dostoyevsky. Anticipating the likes of Kafka, Joyce, and Sartre, the Norwegian was regarded by many leading writers as the progenitor of modern literature. But if the emotional and psychological thrust of his novels inspired the literary avant-garde, paradoxically Hamsun also struck a deep chord with the Nazis. Indeed, he achieved the remarkable feat of being cited as a favorite writer by both Hermann Hesse and Joseph Goebbels.
The Nazis despised any hint of modernism but Hamsun, who was born into a peasant family and grew up in the harsh beauty of the Arctic Circle, won their admiration for his Nordic reverence for Nature and the Blut und Boden themes that emerge particularly in his later novels. Even more important from the Nazi point of view was the fact that this world-renowned writer was so utterly and so publicly dedicated to their cause. An added bonus was that his profound love of all things German was matched by an equally deep hatred of all things English. Hamsun bitterly denounced the British as arrogant hypocrites bent on world domination through treachery and murder. Hitler, on the other hand, was a crusader, a reformer ready to forge a “great Germanic world community” in which Norway would play a key role. Despite his empathy for Germany—”I am. . . a Norwegian and a German” he once telegraphed to the Nordic Society—he spent surprisingly little time in the country. When, after an absence of 35 years, he returned there in January 1931 at the age of 72, he was greeted by newspaper headlines reading “Willkommen Knut Hamsun.” Indeed, so intense was the public excitement that he felt unable to leave his Berlin hotel room. Two days later he departed with his wife and son by train for Italy.
Although Hamsun never himself stayed long in Germany he made sure that his children did, believing that it was only among the “decent and supremely capable German people” that they would receive a proper education. “I send my children one after the other to Germany” he wrote to a friend. “For years they have found a home there, are in good care there and return as mature human beings.” This statement was not entirely borne out by the facts. A few weeks after he wrote those words, his youngest daughter Cecilia, aged 16, was sending home distressing accounts of life in Berlin. Hamsun was having none of it.
Cecilia you are in living in a great and wonderful country. You mustn’t go writing to the maid about this or that person committing suicide, they will think it is awful in Germany. Write about the things Hitler and his government are achieving, despite the whole world’s hatred and hostility. You and I and everybody will thank and bless Germany. It is the country of the future.
For all his enthusiasm, however, he was not overjoyed when his son Tore joined the SS, commenting, “It is both a good thing and a bad thing.” He certainly did not welcome the extra cost involved. “You wrote in a previous letter that you would not need more than DM 250. I added DM 50 and yet now you want more for an SS coat! Remember that you are in a penniless country. . . if I were in your shoes, I would act as modestly as possible and hide the fact that your name is Hamsun rather than court favoritism because of it. Think about it, Tore!”
The travels of American novelist Thomas Wolfe offer a more nuanced perspective. Wolfe’s deep love of Germany was no doubt heightened by the fact that his books sold particularly well there—even the Nazis adored him. When he arrived on his fifth visit, in May 1935, his recently published book, Of Time and the River, was already causing a stir. Lionized in Berlin, he was swept up in a “wild, fantastic, incredible whirl of parties, teas, dinners, all night drinking bouts, newspaper interviews, radio proposals, photographers and dozens of people chief among them Martha and the Dodds.” William E. Dodd (described by Truman Smith’s wife Kay as “small with wrinkled, dried up, colorless skin and hair, his soul was the same”), was the American ambassador and Martha his unconventional daughter. In her book My Years in Germany, Martha wrote, “To the desolateness of the intellectual life of Germany, Thomas Wolfe was like a symbol of the past when great writers were great men.”“Hamsun bitterly denounced the British as arrogant hypocrites bent on world domination through treachery and murder. Hitler, on the other hand, was a crusader, a reformer ready to forge a “great Germanic world community””
On his way to Berlin Wolfe had passed through Hanover, where he had lunched at Knickermeyer’s. “Huge oaken Germanic, Bürgerbräu place with heavy Wotans—food to match—great ships’ models hanging from ceiling—young aviators, special table and waiters’ obsequious haste to serve them.” Less appetizing was a pub entered by chance. “I opened a door and was immediately greeted by such a slough of filth and fetid odors, and stupid and corrupted faces that my heart recoiled. An old man all hair and eyes and yellowed whiskers. . . was sitting at one of the tables, slobbing up some mess out of a plate on to his whiskers.” But this unlovely scene was for Wolfe an aberration that bore little relation to the real Germany. That Germany was a land of romantic beauty where “the green is the greenest green on earth and which gives to all [its] foliage a kind of forest darkness, a legendary sense of magic and of time.” Wolfe is equally persuasive when describing the urban scene:
A tram, cream-yellow, spotless, shining as a perfect toy, slit past, with a kind of hissing sound upon the rails and at the contacts of the trolley. Except for this the tram made no noise. Like everything they made, the tram was perfect in its function. Even the little cobblestones that paved the tramway were spotless as if each of them had just been gone over thoroughly with a whisk-broom, and the strips of grass on either side were as green and velvety as Oxford sward.
Although friends like Martha Dodd did their best to open Wolfe’s eyes, he was as reluctant to let go his German idyll as he was to be influenced by the views of others. But, although on that occasion he returned to America his illusions largely intact, seeds of doubt had begun to take root.
A year later he was back in Germany. Prohibited by currency restrictions from taking his substantial royalties out of the country, he decided to spend them there on a long holiday. When it was over, Wolfe left Berlin by the Paris train on the first leg of his journey home. At the frontier town of Aachen there was a scheduled stop of 15 minutes and it was here the he experienced his Damascene moment. Having become friendly with his fellow passengers, he strolled with them along the platform while waiting to re-board the train. But as they returned to their compartment it was clear some terrible crisis had occurred. Wolfe instantly recognized the signs: “You do not know, of course, the precise circumstance, but what you sense immediately is the final stage of tragedy. . . Even before one arrives one knows from this silent eloquence of shoulders, backs, and heads that something ruinous and horrible has happened.” It quickly emerged that this particular drama centered on another of Wolfe’s fellow travelers, a nervous little man with whom he had conversed all morning and had nicknamed Fuss-And-Fidget. It was only now that Wolfe discovered that his new friend was Jewish and had been caught trying to leave Germany with a large sum of money. The official who arrested him, the American noted, had “high blunt cheekbones, a florid face and tawny mustaches. . . his head was shaved, and there were thick creases at the base of the skull and across his fleshy neck.” Wolfe did not particularly like Jews but he found himself
trembling with murderous and incomprehensible anger. I wanted to smash that fat neck with the creases in it, I wanted to pound that inflamed and blunted face into a jelly. I wanted to kick square and hard, bury my foot, dead center in the obscene fleshiness of those clumsy buttocks. And I knew that I was helpless, that all of us were. . . I felt important, shackled, unable to stir against the walls of an obscene but unshakable authority.
There was, however, one weapon Wolfe did not have in his power to deploy—his pen. But, as he well knew, the publication of the story would come at great personal cost. His books would be banned in Germany and he would never again be able to visit the country that he adored. I Have a Thing to Tell You was published in the New Republic a few months after he returned to America. It is a powerful piece that concludes with a touching goodbye. “To that old German land with all the measure of its truth, its glory, beauty, magic and its ruin,” Wolfe wrote, “to that dark land, to that old ancient earth that I have loved so long—I said farewell.”
[*] The Blueshirts was the name given to a pro-fascist organization operating in Ireland during the 1930s.
From Travelers In The Third Reich. Used with the permission of Pegasus Books. Copyright © 2018 by Julia Boyd.