This week the final part of Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiography, Min Kamp VI is to be published in German as Kämpfen. In this novel there is a long essay on Hitler and Nazism. It has been criticized in Scandinavia, by myself and others, because Knausgård wishes to portray Hitler as an ordinary man, at the same time withholding important facts.[i]
Let me start by saying how much I appreciate reading Knausgård when he describes his own life. There is a nerve and energetic presence even on the greyest and most ordinary of days, when he writes about his daily doings in Malmö, Sweden, in the years 2009 to 2011, as a father of three small children and with a life companion at his side who is strongly affected by his writing: it is tremendous reading. But I really don’t like the way he writes about Hitler and Nazism in the more than 400 pages long essay, inserted in the middle of the novel.
Obviously this is not just about history. Much taking place in our own days resounds chillingly in Knausgård’s writing.
When Pamphlets of Violence Turn into Reality
At the very time the novel takes place in Malmö, there is – in the non-fictional city itself – a serial killer out on the streets. But this is not even mentioned in the book, as far as I can see. When Karl Ove in the novel goes to the playground with his kids, there is – in real-life Malmö – a man cleaning his weapons not so far away. He aims at complete strangers anywhere, and shoots to kill. But he only levels his laser sight at those who look like strangers, in his eyes. The killer in Malmö is a Nazi, and to him racial war has a deeper meaning; it is a kind of crusade. No one knows how many people he tried to kill between 2003 (the time of the first known killing) and November 2010, when he was finally arrested by the police. He was sentenced for two murders, and for the attempted murder of another eight people. His thoughts concerning the necessity of a racial war and concerning Hitler were found in a kind of manifesto, The Teutonic Philosophy, in his computer at the time of his arrest.[ii]
The title of Knausgård’s autobiography is Min kamp in Norwegian and in Swedish; a literal German translation would read “Mein Kampf”. Knausgård is playing sophistically with mirrors and identities in the sixth and final part of his work. His main character in the novel is Karl Ove Knausgård who is writing a book with the same title as the one that the reader is holding. In this book there is a long non-fiction sequence of several hundred pages, about Hitler and Nazism. But is it the real author or the author character in the novel who is its writer? Is this fiction or reality? No matter which, the text is there. The text exists in reality – and affects reality.
In the novel we read about how Knausgård’s earlier writings – about himself and other people – start to influence his life and the life of others, when the texts are published as autobiography. This also affects the perception of the text – text and reality. The author character – Knausgård in the novel – carefully observes all these reflections in the tumbling hall of mirrors that he himself has created with his text.
And he makes a comparison with Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He discusses how the perception of that text changed after the Holocaust and the war, once his monstrous message had become reality. Knausgård asks: But who was Hitler when he wrote the book fifteen years earlier? He finds a deadly earnest and idealistic young man, ready to go to extremes in defending his ideas, a young man with a strong attachment to his mother, but a fear of women and of closer human contact, which has the author thinking that Hitler was actually a bit like Karl Ove himself as a young man.
Knausgård has a feeling of fascination, a feeling he wants to examine. Nazism is present in his family history too; he finds a Nazi lapel pin among things left after his father’s death, and discovers that Grandmother had an old copy of Mein Kampf lying in a chest in the living room. She hadn’t got rid of it after the war.
Knausgård explains (in the Norwegian paper Dagsavisen, 10 May 2016) that he wants to understand Nazism by examining it with his own empathy and feelings. So he allows himself to be enticed by the ambiences and emotional outbursts that are fundamental to Nazism.
A Story About an Ordinary Man?
There is an important passage in the book where he lets his own text converge with Hitler’s. Here readers finally get an explanation of his startling choice of name for the autobiographical cycle of novels. Knausgård writes: “Adolf Hitler was an ordinary man; when he wrote it he hadn’t killed anybody, he hadn’t ordered anybody to kill, he hadn’t stolen anything or burnt anything down.”[iii]
This is an odd thing for Knausgård to write. Hitler was a criminal when he wrote the first, and best-known, part of Mein Kampf. While drafting his work, he was serving time in a prison for a very serious crime; he had been sentenced for high treason and an attempted coup d’état. On 8 November 1923, when thousands of people had gathered at a meeting in a Munich bierkeller to hear the Bavarian government talk about the political situation, Hitler let 600 of his SA men surround the bierkeller and block the entrance while he fired his gun, shooting at the ceiling and yelling: “The national revolution has broken out!” At gunpoint, the Bavarian government members were forced leave the stage and were taken hostage. But on the following day the “Beer Hall Putsch” was defeated by police in a battle leaving 19 dead. I don’t know why Knausgård writes that the leader of this violent, anti-democratic party that led the putsch was an innocent man. But the text is there, in both the Norwegian and Swedish editions, and the book is now being translated to other languages.
Knausgård is mainly interested in the young Hitler. He deals at length with events that occurred more then ten years before Hitler wrote Mein Kampf. But he has very little to say about the doings of Hitler one year earlier. He discusses Hitler’s success as a public speaker, and wonders what the secret might be to an oratory that can mesmerize the masses. But he has not much to say about the fact that that political involvement and agitation also included violence. Hitler’s time with the “Kampfbund” hardly gets mentioned, although he was appointed leader of all private armed corps that were marching on the streets of Munich, demonstrating their strength and their capacity to introduce violence into politics, in the autumn of 1923. Thousands of organized fighters, not just the SA but a coalition of several different nationalistic “Kampfbünde”, were training their combat skills and organizing armed manifestations on the streets and in the parks of Munich, to frighten and provoke the Bavarian government. This is not adequately explained in Knausgård’s work.
Knausgård wants us to understand that Nazism didn’t stand out as obviously monstrous or evil at the outset. This is a dangerous approach, as it paves the way for a kind of blindness to what racial ideology really is, and what effect it can have on people’s minds. Organized violence was a part of the Nazi movement from the start. The violence was fundamental, and the ideology, at its core, an explanation of the legitimacy of the racial war. This meant, that you had to get rid of old ethical standards and impose new – based on the explicit assumption that human lives are of differing value.
Knausgård writes that the Germans embraced Nazism as if they loved it, and that Hitler lit a fire in all who heard him speak. But that is not true: many people found Nazism repellent in the 1920s. Omitting to mention that is somehow tantamount to “elevating” it, turning it into something alluring. The truth is that Hitler, after seven years as party leader and public orator, had not lit a fire in more than a mere fraction of those who had heard him. In the general election in May 1928, the NSDAP only got 2.6% of the vote. And, up until the 1929 stock market crash, the Nazis’ passage to power was in no way evident. However, dramatic events worldwide made people frightened, and this led to NSDAP success in the elections. Hitler got 30% of the votes in the first presidential election in 1932, and in the second and final run-off, between only two candidates, he got 36%. That is less than half of the votes.
Fascinated, Knausgård describes a deep and mysterious understanding between the masses and Hitler. But my impression is that he reproduces something he has seen in Nazi propaganda footage from party rallies etc, produced after the Nazis came to power in 1933, when democracy was abolished, and political opponents had been put behind bars or murdered or had been frightened into silence.
By describing Hitler as an ordinary man, Knausgård wants to challenge the reader. Yet he also contributes to undermining thresholds and taboos surrounding these dangerous ideas. Writing affects reality; text and life are intertwined. One of Scandinavia’s most appreciated authors chooses to have a strange attitude towards the truth about Hitler – at the very time that Nazism, as an ideology behind racial war, finds new followers in Europe.
Guest article by Maja Hagerman. This text, translated by Maja Hagerman and Jonathan Mair, is an edited version of an article written for the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen. As a comment, it reflects the author’s view on the book by Karl Ove Knausgård.
Maja Hagerman is a Swedish author, historian, journalist and TV-producer living in Stockholm (www.majahagerman.se).
[i] The text is an edited version of an article written for the Norwegian Klassekampen 4 June 2016 and also published by Dagens Nyheter in Sweden 11 June 2016. http://www.dn.se/arkiv/kultur/min-kamp-blundar-for-nazismens-rasideologi/. The debate then continued in DN with sociologist Kjell Magnusson http://www.dn.se/kultur-noje/kulturdebatt/kjell-magnusson-darfor-ger-knausgard-ett-viktigt-bidrag-till-forstaelsen-av-nazismen/ and historian Mikael Nilsson http://www.dn.se/kultur-noje/kulturdebatt/kallkritiken-brister-i-knausgards-berattelse-om-hitler/ I also discussed Knausgård’s essay on Hitler in Dagens Nyheter when the book was first published in Scandinavia in 2013 http://www.dn.se/ledare/kolumner/forvridet-perspektiv-pa-hitler/. The Norwegian literary magazine Vinduet (4/2015 and 2/2016) published two articles where the historian Sten R. Helland argued that Knausgård went too far in normalizing Nazism. Knausgård replied in Dagsavisen 10 May 2016 http://www.dagsavisen.no/kultur/svaret-fra-knausgard-helland-forstar-ikke-skjonnlitteratur-1.722583.
[ii] A book on the serial killer Peter Mangs in Malmö, Sweden, is Raskrigaren (2015) by Mattias Gardell.
[iii] “[…] Adolf Hitler, var da han skrev den, en vanlig mann, han hadde ikke myrdet noen, hadde ikke forordnet drap på noen, hadde ikke stjået noe eller brent ned noe.” Page 481 in the Norwegian edition of Min kamp 6, page 480 in the Swedish edition.