Tag Archives: Atlantis

People Come to Iceland for the Nature, but…

… I come for the cities.

Welcome to Vik, sprawling metropolis of 291 people on the floor of the sea. For Gunnar, this was a last remnant of Atlantis.

Welcome to the Vik suburbs! Well, urban sprawl, eh, but, still, the Atlantic drop straight off and smells only of iodine and salt, so that’s ok, then.

And the waves of the Sea of Atlantis splash up over the bones of the world.

I like it that it does that. I just wanted you to know that tonight. Whatever ladder you use…

… to climb out of the surf…


… and make land.

A Dictionary of Atlantis

When I left Skriðuklaustur a little less than a year ago, a fox ran beside me as I turned away from the lake towards Egilsstaðir and a glorious, sunny flight (with Air Iceland chocolate) to Reykjavik. I took it as a good omen. On my hard drive, I had the notes towards a book written during four weeks of becoming so immersed in Gunnar Gunnarsson’s work that it was written in the death-dance style of his novel Vikivaki. It is now finished and ready to find its way into the world. It begins like this:

A DICTIONARY OF ATLANTIS, by Harold Johanesson

An introduction to Gunnar Gunnarsson’s books of literary spy craft Islands in a Giant Sea, The Shore of Life, The Black Cliffs, Vikivaki, The Gray Man, and The Good Shepherd by Gunnar Gunnarsson, in the form of Vikivaki and in the light cast upon them by the essay, Our Land, which Gunnarsson presented to Hitler and Goebbels in the wartime spring of 1940.

Atlantis? Yes, Gunnar took a cruise there with his mistress and a group of Danish and German intellectuals and literary figures dabbling in racial theory, in June of 1928. The trip changed his life and set him on a twelve-year-long program as a secret spy working entirely on his own, without confiding in anyone, to change the course of the foreign and military policy of the Third Reich. Here’s the image that haunts me, of the day in the spring of 1940, just after he hoped to stand triumphantly before Hitler. Quite the opposite was the case.

berlin

Secret Agent Gunnar (in the black coat).

Note the fencing thrust of the right leg of the SS Officer next to him. That’s Otto Baum, who would soon capture Norway for Hitler.

My book shows both what Gunnar had in mind and how his use of literature to further his cause created a genre both ancient and 75 years ahead of his time. My next tasks are to find a publisher for this book, to write a play about Gunnar’s meeting with Hitler, and to open the book up into a series of literary essays about Gunnar’s works, their form and their context. 20th Century literature has lost one of its central stories. By sheer good fortune I have found it. There is much exciting work to be done.

Gunnar Gunnarsson Secret Agent: the Transcripts

In 1940, the writer Gunnarsson went to Germany on a book tour, for which, among other things, he has been called a Nazi. I’ve been giving you photography that will be the heart of the book I’m writing about him, but there is a point at which his story as a man of the land clashes with the affairs of the world, and it was here, in the moment just before this photograph was taken …

gunnar_hittir_hitler_1a_lille_1172715

Iceland-Danish Author Gunnar Leaving his March 1940 Meeting with Hitler 3 Weeks Before the  Invasion of Denmark and Norway Source: http://fornleifur.blog.is/blog/fornleifur/entry/1257968/

From left, Hinrich Lohse, Gauleiter of Schleswig-Holstein, Head of the Nazified Nordic League Literary and Film Club of Lübeck, of which Gunnar was a member and under whose auspices he was on this tour (Lohse was soon to become Kommissar of the Baltic States as well), a hidden man in civilian clothes, Gunnar, two SS Officers (likely Werner Best, later the Nazi administrator of Denmark, and Otto Baum, later head of the Das Reich Division of the Waffen SS), and an SS guard.

What was said inside that building that could make Gunnar so upset? I have been working on this for a few days now. Here’s my theory: in 1928, Gunnar went on a cruise to Atlantis (Ireland, Madeira, Teneriffe, Lisbon, Morocco, Seville, Mallorcca) along with, I believe, this soon-to-be-prominent Nazi-era photographer and photographic pioneer …

frerk

Frerk’s 1928 Book About a Cruise to Madeira, Tenerife, Lisbon, Morocco, Seville, Mallorcca…

There’s a big story about the Atlantis idea, but let’s just say that it was a huge fad at the time in many circles, including Nazi ones, that the continent of Atlantis (and its ‘advanced spiritual civilization’) had sunk into the mid-Atlantic in a volcanic explosion, leaving only the islands and cities mentioned above, plus Iceland. This isn’t that story. It is, however, the story of Gunnar’s decision to become a spy, without mentioning it to anyone, and to do so by writing cables back to Denmark that used literary language that could easily double as criticisms of the Third Reich’s racial policy. I believe that  Herman Wirth, one of the architects of that policy, may have been on the cruise, and I believe it was that voyage that the “non-existent” Luftwaffe installed and tested a prototype ship-launched fighter plane, disguised as a mail-delivery plane. At any rate, read Gunnar:

 “It’s good for one’s health to get off the ship. From the cool of the ship and the shadows of the quay, one rises on smooth, wave-beaten steps of stone into the deafening sunshine. The humming of the sun and the murmuring of the sea boil together in one’s head; one becomes dizzy. Out of the boiling light, a pair of heavy palms suddenly cut themselves; there they stand, with their blank green, sharply drawn against a blinding white wall.”

Gunnar, Islands in a Great Big Sea, 1936 (originally published in Copenhagen’s Politikken, 1928)

Sure, it could just be the words of a man on a romantic cruise with a woman who was not his wife, enchanted with the landscape, in love, and catching a glimpse of exotic green trees in a stunning landscape, not the need to escape from the odd, racist environment of the ship’s dining room conversation, or the security personnel in plain clothes (or not). Still, the book doesn’t really read like that, and his next books, Vikivaki (1932) and “The Good Shepherd” (1936) read as parables, which can be read anyway you want, depending on your prejudices. “The Good Shepherd” certainly was. It was used as propaganda by the Germans, the British and the Americans, and then at the close of the war was among the books that suddenly read as secret condemnations of the Nazis, published from within the Nazi Propaganda Ministry. At any rate, more on that story later. There is a third text, even less widely distributed, and that’s the speech Gunnar gave in 44 Third Reich Cities before meeting Hitler, whose support of Gunnar’s books [albeit as propaganda material for a Scandinavian annexation] had made Gunnar very rich. I believe this speech, called “Our Land”, was a correction to the message in “The Good Shepherd”, and was intended to correct the propaganda aims to which that book had been put despite Gunnar’s efforts to keep it as a message of peace extended to all men, regardless of their politics. A passage from this text is just below. When you read it, remember that Gunnar’s friend from the pre-Nazi Nordic League, Fritz Höger, who had wanted to be the Reich’s leading architect and redesign its buildings along North German (ie Danish) lines, had lost out to Albert Speer, who was responsible for the monumental, kitschy architecture that came to represent the Reich (including the building in the image above). Here goes:

“What is necessary is to open the eyes of Icelandic youth to Icelandic nature and its beauty. Not as if they don’t see it; but do they know what they see? Have our youth been lead to understand clearly for themselves, what goes well within our Icelandic landscape and what less so? At the very least one sees no sign of it in the newest of Icelandic buildings and the way people carry on through the country and even, at times, in the villages themselves. It pains one to see the way the land is mishandled and alienated through tastelessness, through kitsch, which will lead only to a a weight on the people themselves and bring disrepute to our land and our people. It is far better to view the inner life of people in the way it views itself, without outside direction, than to do so with words and discipline. To see the right path from these roots is more important than one might think from a distance. And, at any rate, one sacrifices little if one holds to taste and good manners. And if it ever should be time to talk of sacrifice, our land has already earned it completely, and our joy at its beauty will never be complete, so long as these things are not put into an order that no longer give any cause for rebuke.”

I believe that Hitler heard that exactly as he was meant to, behind his tiny desk in its huge room like a concert hall in the Chancery in Berlin, where he usually greeted heads of state. He would have heard this…

“What is necessary is to open the eyes of German youth to German nature and its beauty. Not as if they don’t see it; but do they know what they see? Have your youth been lead to understand clearly for themselves, what goes well within their German landscape and what less so? At the very least one sees no sign of it in the newest of German buildings, built by that idiot Speer, with his head in Italian clouds, and the way people carry on through the country and even, at times, in the villages themselves. It pains one to see the way the land is mishandled and alienated through tastelessness, through kitsch, which will lead only to a weight on the people themselves and bring disrepute to our land and your people. It is far better to view the inner life of people in the way it views itself, without outside direction, than to do so with words and discipline. To see the right path from these roots is more important than one might think from a distance. And, at any rate, one sacrifices little if one holds to taste and good manners. And if it ever should be time to talk of sacrifice, your land has already earned it completely, and Höger’s and my joy at its beauty will never be complete, so long as these things are not put into an order that no longer give any cause for rebuke.”

After all, both Gunnar and Hitler shared a believe in the identity of Iceland and Germany as Nordic states united in brotherhood — they just understood that differently. Here’s Gunnar a little later in the speech (Remember, at this time the British and the Americans hadn’t invaded Iceland and there were no appreciable building projects of any kind, but there were in Germany)…

Few lands that can call themselves populated are so little touched by the traces of time. Here it’s not, as it is in richer territories, buildings and the works of man that make a land appear all-powerful. On the contrary. In the past, the houses stood so simply and artlessly in the land that they were hardly to be reckoned as houses, and human habitation snuggled into the landscape and passed well with it. In recent times, a massive change has stepped in to this relationship, and sadly not for the best. It is sad to see how foreign so many of the new houses appear above their home meadows and how ugly and gauche they clash with the Icelandic valleys, among its rivers and against the strata of its mountains. Regrettably, out of tastelessness, which they are also anchored within, springs only decline and bad fortune.

Again, neither of these two men were stupid (That Hitler was evil is another matter), they shared a symbolic language, and I believe that what Hitler heard went much like this:

Few lands that can call themselves populated are so little touched by the traces of time as Germany. Here it’s not, as it is in France and Italy, buildings and the works of men [the Nazi Party] that make a land appear all-powerful. On the contrary. In the past, the houses stood so simply and artlessly in the land that they were hardly to be reckoned as houses, and human habitation snuggled into the landscape and passed well with it. In recent times, a massive change has stepped in to this relationship, and sadly not for the best. It is sad to see how foreign so many of Speer’s Greek palaces and your new Autobahn bridges appear above their home meadows and how ugly and gauche they clash with the German valleys, among its rivers and against the strata of its mountains. Regrettably, out of tastelessness, which they are also anchored within, springs only decline and complete and utter defeat and destruction.

In both of these speeches, a tiny change, well within the compass of the title “Our Land” and Gunnar’s relationship with the audience to which he was speaking, bring out an amazing subtext. Gunnar’s 1930 novel “The Black Cliffs” demonstrate that he had the depth of writing skill and the depth of psychological understanding to attempt to pull this off. Can any of this be proven? No, hardly. It does, however, make absolute sense. If it is in any way true, however, Gunnar’s reputation as a early-to-mid-twentieth century writer needs to be reassessed. If this is what Hitler got out of those speeches, the conversation inside that building, of which Gunnar never mentioned a word, would not have gone well. Any other writer who had tried to use his authority as a writer (and none were more famous or sold better or were more beloved than Gunnar) to trump Hitler’s had wound up in Buchenwald, even Ernst Wiechert, whose Baltic folktale novels were very similar to Gunnar’s nordic  ones. If such a half-veiled threat had been made, and was accepted bluntly and openly rather than as the psychological suggestion I think it was intended as, Gunnar’s expression would have been understandable, especially given the company he has on those steps. Here is that photo again:

gunnargrimaceGunnar Gunnarsson: A Man Trying to Broker Peace?