7. Knut Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, but a decade later, his reputation was in tatters due to his passionate support of the Nazis.
It wasn’t just American and British intellectuals and writers who publicly flirted with fascism during the 1920s and 1930s. In Norway, the country’s undoubted literary star Knut Hamsun also spoke out in support of Nazi Germany. What’s more, the winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature even sided with the fascists during the Second World War, even after the Nazis had invaded and occupied his native country. In 1940, for example, Hamsun told his fellow countrymen that “the Germans are fighting for us”. More remarkably, he even penned a short obituary for Hitler, calling the dictator “a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations”.
In the summer of 1945, the Norwegian police arrested Hamsun and the literary legend was put on trial for treason. In court, he pleaded ignorance, claiming he wasn’t aware of the true nature of the Nazi regime. Since he was in his 80s by then, Hamsun was released, though he had to pay a fine. Ever since then, his support of Nazism has tainted his legacy, while several of Hamsun’s biographers have attempted to pinpoint the reasons behind the writer’s treachery and love of fascism. Could it have been an inferiority complex, or even an intense hatred of all things English, that led the Nobel Laureate to embrace Nazism?
6. Mackenzie King believed that, in his role as Canadian Prime Minister, he was destined to work with Hitler to preserve peace in Europe.
In 1937, the Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King paid an official visit to Nazi Germany. Like many world leaders before him, he was determined to suss Adolf Hitler out. What’s more, King was convinced that he could work with the dictator to ensure Europe would not be plunged into another war. By all accounts, King was impressed by what he saw in Berlin. Even though the racism and ant-Semitism of the Nazi regime was pretty much common knowledge by 1937, the Canadian premiere left with a favorable impression of the Fuhrer – and of himself.
According to one account, King felt that it was his destiny to play a role in bringing a lasting peace to a fractured continent. Indeed, he noted in his diaries that he felt his meeting with Hitler was “the day for which I was born”. The issues of racism or violence or looming war never came up in the brief meeting. Rather, King tried to stress the links between Canada and Germany. He even praised Hitler’s “knowing smile”, his good health and his love of nature. Despite his optimism, however, King could not deter the Nazis from pursuing an aggressive foreign policy and within a few years, the PM was resigned to the fact that, not only was a war inevitable, but that Canada would be forced to fight in it.
5. William Dudley Pelley went from being a famed Hollywood scriptwriter to an infamous supporter of an American strand of Nazism.
In 1920s Hollywood, William Dudley Pelley was a renowned, and award-winning writer. In the 1930s, however, he was better known as a wannabe dictator. According to the man himself, a near-death experience in 1929 led him to conclude that he was destined for bigger things than writing movie scripts. So, when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Pelley assumed that he was to follow his lead. Not only did he admire Hitler from afar, he attempted to establish a homegrown Nazi movement in America, with himself as its leader.
The Silver Legion, which Pelley established, in the early-1930s, was modeled on the Nazi Party. The uniforms looked like SS uniforms, while the ant-Semitic rhetoric and the focus on militarism was unquestionably Nazi in nature. For all Pelley’s bombast, however, the Silver Legion only ever numbered 35,000 members at its peak. Moreover, Pelley’s attempts to assume political office never amounted to much. Then, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, Pelley was jailed for 15 years for sedition. He served 8 years of a 15-year sentence. Upon his release, he ditched his fervent Nazism for a passionate interest in UFOs and extra-terrestrials.
4. Ezra Pound was so enamored by Mussolini’s Fascist movement that he moved to Italy and even became a spokesman for the authoritarian regime.
In the 1920s and 30s, a number of writers and academics flirted with authoritarianism. Most, however, were quick to renounce their views once the true nature of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia were revealed. Not so Ezra Pound. The American fully embraced far-right politics. Indeed, he aligned himself with vile regimes for 20 years and even became a spokesman for fascism. According to his supporters, Pound was mentally unstable, and was even exploited by Nazi and Fascist propagandists. To his critics, however, the author was fully responsible for his actions, and his was more than just a relatively harmless flirtation with the politics of repression and hate.
Pound didn’t start out a fascist. He moved to the right steadily from 1915 onward. In 1924, he moved to Italy, largely as he believed the new Fascist society was sympathetic to his economic views. By the 1930s, however, he had embraced the anti-Semitic ideology of Nazism. As such, the radio broadcasts he made from Italy between 1941 and 1943 blamed America’s descent into war on ‘the Jews’. In 1945, Pound handed himself in to be tried for treason. While in prison, he welcomed numerous literary guests and was finally deemed mentally unfit to stand trial. After 12 years in an asylum, Pound was released – he immediately returned to Italy.
3. W.B. Yeats may be regarded as one of Ireland’s literary greats, but the way he used his talents to pen marching songs for fascists will forever taint his legacy.
William Butler Yeats, often known as W.B. Yeats, was one of the giants of 20th century literature. The Irishman was one of his country’s greatest poets, with a keen interest in his country’s rich past as well as in the occult. Yeats was also a deeply political figure. He was a lifelong Irish Nationalist, writing prose supporting independence during the 1920s. During the 1930s, however, Yeats became increasingly authoritarian in his politics. For him, the ‘people’ could not be trusted. Democracy was for the weak, and a strong arm was needed. Unsurprisingly, then, Yeats was attracted by far-right movements springing up across Europe, including in his native Ireland.
Yeats was a vocal supporter of the far-right Blueshirts movement that emerged in the Irish Free State at the start of the decade. The poet saw in the movement’s leader Eoin O’Duffy the strongman the newly-independent Ireland needed, a homegrown Mussolini capable of keeping Ireland Catholic, well-ordered and free from Communism. Though no street fighter himself, Yeats helped the only way he could, by writing marching songs for the Blueshirts. Within a few years, however, he had become disillusioned, and publicly denounced the group as amateurish. Even then, however, Yeats maintained his distrust of democracy right up until his death in 1939.
2. The 5th Duke of Wellington was just one of many English aristocrats who felt the Nazis could save Europe – and their family fortunes – from the Communist threat.
The 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, was a true British hero, defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo and then serving as Prime Minister. His descendant, the 5th Duke of Wellington, was less distinguished. Born into immense wealth and privilege in 1876, he served in the military and then fought in the First World War. By the time he inherited the Dukedom in 1934, however, he was proudly pro-German and had aligned himself to a number of far-right causes. Above all, the 5th Duke of Wellington was one of Britain’s most-outspoken anti-Semites. Unsurprisingly, he did more than merely flirt with Nazism.
Wellington took over as Chair of the elitist Right Club in 1939. He stated openly that the aim of the association was “to oppose and expose the activities of organized Jewry”. He believed Britain should align itself with Germany and against the Soviet Union and was aghast when the two countries went to war in 1939 – a war he would blame on “anti-appeasers and the f***ing Jews”. The disgraced 5th Duke of Wellington died in 1941. Notably, his son and successor was to die just two years later, killed in action while taking part in a daring commando raid during the Allied invasion of Italy.
1. Martin Heidegger might have stopped going to Nazi Party meetings in 1934, but was the philosopher’s flirtation with Nazism really so fleeting?
German thinker is widely-regarded as one of the most important Western philosophers of the 20th century. Above all, his debut book, 1927’s Being and Time continues to influence scholars to this day. Notably, several Jewish thinkers and academics have spoken out in favor of Heidegger, including Hannah Arendt. However, for some critics, Heidegger’s reputation will always be tainted due to his association with the Nazis. Moreover, the discovery of his private notebooks – ‘the Black Notebooks’ – in 2014 have called some scholars to question just how antisemitic Heidegger was – and the extent to which his thinking was shaped by his personal bigotry.
Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and stayed a member right through the worst of its excesses. On the one hand, he resigned from his post as Rector of the University of Freiburg in 1934. Furthermore, he stopped attending Party meetings soon that. Such a lack of overt support for the regime have led some supporters to argue that his flirtation with Nazism was merely an “error” he regretted. On the other hand, even after the war, Heidegger never condemned the Nazis. He never even mentioned the Holocaust, lending weight to the argument that he was profoundly antisemitic and merely concerned with his own career and reputation.
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