Tag Archives: World War II

Welcome to the 21st Century, Gunnar

 

Gunnar argued for the independence of Iceland during Germany’s military struggles of the 1940s, on the principle that the land is written in the chain-linked patterns of the Icelandic sagas, with the suggestion that the Icelanders wrote the sagas in response to the chain-link rhymes of the land.

Grundarfjördur

His observation is obvious. Equally obvious is how poor a tool such observations are for deflecting a military conqueror. Less obvious is the point that when you are from the land and have nothing and yet have to do something, you use what you have. Still, the approach has its dangers. It might stress one form of pattern, for instance, but it obscures another. So, let’s look at Gunnar’s saga again. This time, note the story of trolls and ogres written in the rock.

Gunnar was a humanist, a twentieth century man. This tale of ogres and epic battles is one he could have told as well, including how it generates the water of life as cold passes into warmth. That he didn’t is an example of how writers adapt to their audience. It is also an example of how we can re-read them, and free them… and us.

 

The Harsh Romance of Colonial Iceland Today

Oh, how time changes things. There are people on Earth, such as Canadians and Icelanders, whose social lives are profoundly shaped by the culture of the United States and its exported industry, wars, culture and technologies. For three generations, we have accepted these intrusions as business arrangements, for the mutual benefit of all. The image of Hvalfjörður below illustrates the principle well: the airfield that protected the Allied Fleet during the Battle of the Atlantic in the foreground, when Iceland was occupied by the US Army, and the American aluminum plant in the background, which has brought a certain level of industrial economy to Iceland, although dominating the fjord and depressing its possibilities as a residential suburb of Reykjavik, adding to the pressure to expand Reykjavik upon unstable volcanic terrane. Both speak of a long, although not always willing, partnership that not only lead to Iceland’s independence but to Iceland’s freedom from poverty and to world peace.

We can only hope that some beneficial partnership can continue, now that the aluminum from this American plant is subject to a penalizing tax if it were to be shipped to the United States or bought by another American corporation, on the grounds that it is contributing to the military vulnerability of the United States. That this is essentially a tax on the freedom brought to Iceland by the USA under the guise of a beneficent occupation (first military and then economic) is ironic, as it will strengthen Iceland’s ties with nations other than the United States, including China, the main target of the US tax. In other words, the image above is of two ruins: the old airfield, now a bird sanctuary, and the aluminum plant across the fjord. Iceland will continue, in its resilient ways, but this is an image of a lost world. Best to see it before it’s gone, like the colonial Danish sulfur mines above Lake Myvatn, now a major tourist site, with nary a sign to say these are the slag heaps.

Romantic display holds great power here, but masks a harsh social reality of a proud people who must actively trade with the world to maintain their independence from it. The balance is difficult.

Icelandic Architecture: Thinking Small

Werner Daitz

Werner Daitz,the architect of Hitler’s concept of claiming Lebensraum (existential space) from Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonian, Finns, Czechs, Slovaks, Jews, Serbs and Ukrainians, updated his arguments in 1943, after the debacle of Stalingrad. On the principle that the fate of no one people was at stake but of Europe as a whole, he wrote in The Europe Charter:

A healthy life is only possible when every individual being, just like every naturally-occurring community, follows the Rule of Self-Sufficiency: as a foundational principle, to live in its own space and from its own strength — which is to say to live a non-imperial life. Imperial life is an unhealthy life for an individual, just as it is for a community. And, as it is today [1943], when the Individual human being has the “freedom” to lead an unhealthy life but only at the price of its own decline or to join a partnership under the pressure of an emergent crisis, so does a family, or a family of peoples, also have the undeniable freedom to temporarily lead an unhealthy — an imperial — life. But then it must either return from the compromises demanded by emergent crisis to an autonomous life or disappear.

Ralph Giordano

The article is a chapter in Dietz’s 1943 book The Rebirth of Europe through European Socialism. Daitz inspired Gunnar Gunnarsson’s friend, the architect Fritz Höger, after he spoke to the Nordic Society, a pan-Baltic, cross-cultural association of folk-based writers, which included Gunnar. Remember, though, that “European Socialism” in this context means “Nazism” and “Rebirth” means “the normalization of life after war.” As to what that normalization means, we can thank Ralph Giordano, from Höger’s Hamburg, who hid in a basement for the duration of Daitz’s war, as his father was Jewish and “freedom” meant the freedom to die in Auschwitz. In 1989, Giordano published a book titled What if the Nazis Had Won the War. He noted that Best, who had experience administering the Danes, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians through the German terror, developed a four-level administrative model:

 

 

Every people must look after itself, after looking after the continental administrators [Germans].

Every people must manage its own affairs, as representatives of the German government.

The central government of every people must work within the oversight of representatives of the Race of Leaders.

Under no circumstances will a replaced people participate in the government at any level.

Brutal stuff.  In the light of Best’s practical experience, it’s highly likely that Dietz meant that a return to normalcy meant a return to the world of folktale, with all other peoples replaced in order to forestall the creation of a liberal state or melting pot in which individual cultures would disappear. Höger and Gunnar, who met Daitz in 1932, took different lessons from Daitz’s existential war — different from Daitz’s above and from each others’. Höger tried to become the national architect of the Third Reich, to build buildings representing German folk traditions, and failed. Hitler wanted the imperial roman wedding cake architecture of Albert Speer. Gunnar left the continent to live the life as a modern German farmer in Iceland, in a house that Höger built.

Skriðuklaustur

The idea was likely to merge German-inspired administrative skill with Icelandic farm life, to enable more people to succeed on the land. No doubt, the plan was also to avoid Hitler’s war. Note that the building’s turf roof is an echo of old Icelandic turf houses, while the stonework is solid and North-German. Well, not really. Those rocks were supposed to have been square cut, but Gunnar’s Icelandic workmen could find no cuttable stone, so on their own, independent Icelandic initiative, drove down to the Hengifossá River (to the right) and brought home some river rocks and worked with that. The result is comic. Höger was incensed. It’s kind of a fairytale house as a result, but I’m proud of those Icelanders. They broke all of Best’s rules, all at once, even before he started planning the invasion of Denmark in April, 1940. Here they are again:

Every people must look after itself, after looking after the continental administrators [Germans].

Every people must manage its own affairs, as representatives of the German government.

The central government of every people must work within the oversight of representatives of the Race of Leaders.

Under no circumstances will a replaced people participate in the government at any level.

 

All broken! Even more lovely: for all his ambiguity and his bad choice in friends, Gunnar got it right too and also broke most of those laws, going so far as to tell Hitler the following in March, 1940, in his speech Our Land:

But one must always have the effect on the landscape at front of one’s mind and guard against mistreatment. For the way the landscape is treated is the way the people are treated. If tastelessness becomes the norm in the Icelandic landscape, gets a roothold and spreads widely, it will soon become visible in the spiritual life of the people as well. Perhaps there are already signs of this today.

In other words, none of Speer’s architecture and its imperial pretensions in Iceland, not for Gunnar. The Icelanders would look after their land themselves. None of this kitsch:

Just this:

And a day’s drive to the East, this:

And, everywhere, this kind of thing:

There’s more than one way to knock the stuffing out of imperialism.

So, You Want to Start a War, Eh?

Think again. This is a nature preserve in the Whale Fjord in West iceland.p1400403 It is also one of the runways of the fighter base that protected the Allied Fleet during the Battle of the Atlantic during the early 1940s. Here’s another view. Back then, this fjord would have been filled with ships, protected by fighter cover and a submarine net across the mouth of the fjord.p1400402 This is the naval base today.p1400400

Iceland has, wisely, left this history almost unacknowledged, and has given this land to the birds. We can honour that forever. We don’t have to stop honouring that wisdom any time soon.

An Icelander’s Secret Faith

In his speech “Our Land”, with which he tried to prevent a German invasion of Iceland in 1940, Gunnar Gunnarsson wrote that the long months of Icelandic winter darkness were as much a part of the Icelandic soul, in a positive way, as the long months of light, and that an Icelander, a person of the land, could not be removed from it. I read that as an attempt at planting the suggestion in Hitler’s head that an Icelander was a true person of the land, and a German was not — either in Germany or Iceland. Those were dangerous and courageous words, whether they were true or not. There is a report that after Gunnar gave this speech in forty cities in Germany and Occupied Europe, Hitler screamed at him and threatened him with … wedon’t know with what, but most writers threatened by Hitler and his inner circle were threatened with death should they ever write again. Gunnar scarcely did. Was it that he was frightened? Or was it that his work was over, because the British invaded within two weeks, denying any possible German foothold? The answers are lost to history, but the observations about the land remain. I have come in these months of darkness to try to understand. Look how dark it is here:

p1390341Looking South

What do you think? Is this darkness?

p1390340Looking North

In his book Advent, another of Gunnar’s psychological manipulations, Gunnar wrote about a man’s true friends, a dog, a ram and a horse, and how they gave their lives freely to a man who one day would have to take those lives.

p1390390Sheep Will Roam

Gates optional.

In Advent, Gunnar was writing about many things: Christ, writing, Gunnar, and the Germany of 1936. Was he telling his German readers that Hitler would ask for their death one day, in ways without the Christian mercy or poetic symbolism of his own faith? We will never know (although it seems likely), but the animals remain, as human companions in this vast space.

p1390142Is that darkness? Is that an empty space? Is it people who spring from this land, or something else? Faith perhaps? At any rate, people are not alone here.

p1390113And, let’s face it, with his lines about darkness, Gunnar was not talking about Iceland. He was talking about something symbolic, something psychological, something that did not come from a world of light but which was expressed, in Gunnar’s Iceland, in a world of light. It is not something which falls easily into non-Icelandic categoreis. The image below shows a place of human habitation in Gunnar’s world.

p1390399Notice how the house is not a dwelling. The land is the dwelling. The house is a small shelter to protect human weakness, but the dwelling place is out in the fields, between stone and sky. Even the water flows with primal force here: the sky made liquid.

borgarfjordurwater

Even the setting sun. This is Borgarfjördur, where Gunnar bought property from his book sales, before moving back to East Iceland from Denmark in 1939, shortly before his disastrous (or successful?) speaking tour in wartime Germany. This would be the land and darkness he was talking about, here in one of the seats of Christian Iceland, on the shoulders of its darkest pre-Christian sagas. Let this be a warning to all of us trained in post-Christian intellectual traditions: we do courageous men such as Gunnar wrong to read him outside of his faith.

p1390408

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.