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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 and the Nazis

“Nazi” — the word means so many things that it is close to meaningless, and that’s a problem, because the real Nazis were a group of vicious, dangerous thugs with an ideology that continues to attract a disturbing number of people worldwide. Nazism should be strenuously guarded against, because its outcome is misery and chaos. So, let’s use it accurately, as the first line of defence against its resurgence and the first act of understanding the complexity and diversity of what went on in Germany during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, and what is still going on around the world. To set the record straight, Gunnar used this sheepfold …


to sort sheep as part of communal activity. In contrast, Nazis used this pen …

p1140486Nazi Zoo at Buchenwald

… to stage bear fights, as a lesson to new guards about the need to have no squeamishness about violence against Russian prisoners and communists, who, after all, were “Russian bears” and “beasts” were known in Nazi ideology to be politically self destructive, and used the electrified fences of the camp (right beside the zoo and visible in the upper left of the image) to herd people and spiritually and physically destroy them. Today I am writing an essay about the complicated relationship between Gunnar and the Nazis, but, ultimately it is as simple as the difference between these two types of fences and the uses to which they were put.


Easter on Middle Earth

Christ has arisen. This isn’t just a bit of a ghost story with a happy ending. If your imagination is rooted in the earth, or even in books, should that be your fate, it is mathematics and geometry.  Here’s the middle view of Christ’s ascension, in this stopping house, this alms house, this shelter from storm, this cloister between worlds:


ValÞjofsstadur Church, Fljótsdalur

Note the mathematical precision of its construction. Note as well the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost of the entrance, and how one enters through the Middle Way, Christ, the Son. That’s not an accident.

The Church makes eternal order out of temporary beauty. That’s kind of its point. It is a form of intellectual activity.


The Point

It’s not just a cross. It’s an entire intellectual tradition. All Western peoples today stand within it. It’s inescapable. Nor should it be escaped from. It is.

Gunnar Gunnarsson’s childhood farm, that guided much of his writing, faced out over the graveyard where the church now stands. Here’s how it looks today, with the old turf houses gone but the old trees remaining.



This is the week that the farmer brings the manure out by the wheelbarrow load and dumps it in his field. You can see some of it there in the centre of the image, just in front of the buildings. Sweet springtime!

Easter is a celebration of rebirth and renewal from the dead (and the stink of closed winter barns full of way too many animals). Another way of putting that is to say that the dead don’t leave the living, nor do the living leave the dead, but that they’re all travelling together on one road that leads out into the fields and the light after a long, cold winter. Here, then, is the real church, in its wild state …

ahnenValÞjofsstadur Graveyard

The ancestors lie quietly in their pews, most with a form of mathematical perfection rising from their souls. It is a joyous place, a sanctuary from the work of the world, a kind of retirement, shall we say, a waiting.

I have been writing poems about Easter, so forgive my mind for wandering like this through the trunks of these trees, but look, both churches are standing together in communion, the church among the ancient trees, the ancestral church, and the new one rising from the mind …

twochurchesChurch, Ancestors, and the Ancient Trees, ValÞjofsstadur

All travelling together into the sky, all tied to the earth, on the middle way.

When the earth and its peoples are stood with organically, as Gunnar stood with them and that farmer with his manure still does, rather than under-stood, or standing under, as a priest might put it (especially in the past), looking down from his or her pulpit and speaking the Words of God to his or her “flock”, its patterns flow like water and light and know no bounds. A boy, or a man, such as Gunnar, perhaps, could learn to write books just by walking in the world with his eyes open.


The Church, the Cross, Chairs like Tombstones, the Mountains and the Ancient, Sacred Trees

Are all woven from light, from the inside and the outside, from reflection and what is seen through.

A window, now that’s an ancient word. Consider this, every river in Iceland has the same name. It’s an á, pronounced ‘ow’. In German, that would be an “au”, a meadow, a place of particular fruitfulness, naturally fed by wetland water — and usually the place at which Irish monks set up their missionary churches in the 9th century. That’s not far from Iceland, really, where the early farms were set up along river bottoms, which could produce the abundance of grass necessary for 10th century Norse farming practices, and these rivers were all variations on an á. One just down the road from Skriðuklaustur, for example, is the Hengifossá …

hengifossaHengifossá Mouth

And the river of the wind? Ah, here it is …


The Four Cardinal Directions

Notice how the Wind’s Á, its meadow, opens from inside, so the outside can come in. First, though, one has to go inside.

The tradition of the church and its remarkable magical buildings constructed to ancient conceptions of mathematical balance and beauty go very deep, with roots in the world. Here’s the pulpit …

pulpitThis is a Book

But not just a paper one. The world is part of the spiritual picture. It is through it that one finds the light. And the Word. And the word.

By “world” here, I don’t mean the usual thing. I don’t mean “the community of men and women and their children” and the national and international relationships they build up between themselves, as the word is often understood, but the world as stood with, which is often called the earth. There’s an old book in Nordic tradition, called Volvens Spådom (The Prophecy”, which in one of its opening passages goes like this…

volvensThe Middle Way from Volvens Spådom

Without a world, the sun and stars have no anchor. That is to say, no tether, no home, which is to say that they are not at-home, or, to use the old word, they are not haunting. In the middle way, on Middle Earth, things haunt.

Things haunt like the reflections in the windows above, like the trees growing from hallowed ground, and like this image that has been made from them, purified in the manner of making wine (in this case, making wine from light and the world) …


The Eye of God and the Mountains of ValÞjofsstadur…

…seen through the wind’s oh, its á, its au, its river of ValÞjofsstadur Church. The mind streams in with it. That’s the kind of spiritual place this world is, witnessing the mathematical beauty that streams through it, because, after all, a window opens two ways. It is, in fact, not a mouth or an eye, but a passage, a path, a way.

I took those images yesterday. Today, I went out to witness the sun rise, and I discovered that on this holy morning, before the first planes started flying to Keflavik from Europe, the Middle Earth was clear for all to see who were awake and walking. In the West …


The Moon, Setting

… and in the East, across the sky …


The Sun, Rising

… and in between …

P1370850The Horses of the World

The horses are spiritual creatures. Here they are in the words of the scottish poet Edwin Muir, best known for translating Kafka into English. This is written after the devastating war that Gunnar had hoped to prevent by uniting all Nordic peoples on the Middle Way. Ironically, it ws Muir, who endured more directly the anguish and fear of that conflict who found, in the horses of the world, the horses of God’s Grace, his Eden, his au…

(Dear Readers, it’s a longish poem, but not a difficult one, and it is one of the best in all of human tradition. If reading poetry is not your thing, why not scroll down to the images or listen to my reading of it here. The link will take you to a new page. When done, please press the back button to continue …

The Horses.

I hope you’ll listen and read and look at the images. That would be like being together on this day.)

Here’s am image to set the scene …


The Horses

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
‘They’ll molder away and be like other loam.’
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

Edwin Muir
P1370898An Icelandic Blue in the Skriðuklaustur Pasture
Middle Earth contains not just humans and horses on their spirit paths, but, of course, our trees …
Poplar on Easter Morning
… elves (more on that, soon) …
P1370763Easter Sunrise Through Frosted Glass
… sacred space …
P1370767The Cloister at First Light
… trolls, charmed …
… the dead, of all kinds …
Giant’s Skull in a Cave in the Skriðuklaustur Cliff
Turned to stone, I may point out by the rising sun … which, on this day, is Christ ascending. Accident? Coincidence? No. It is part of the sacred order of things viewed as things. After all, a “Thing” is a meeting place, in the old languages, a parliament, a place of talking and coming together, of all the people … including, I presume, the sheep which shelter in this cave in summer.
… because even though it is a Christian world, it is built upon the bones of an older one, and does not dishonour them and is not dishonoured by their presence. How could it be? If it were so, God would be made by men. It is to this world that Gunnar returned when he left Denmark in 1939. All during his time on Mainland Europe, he was walking the Middle Path, living between worlds, trying to be a broker between them, trying to be a writer, which in the pre-modern Icelandic tradition of his birth and youth meant to be a pastor, to write sacred texts and to present them to the people, to stand among them but slightly apart, and to look both ways, like a wind’s á. This is the character we meet in his 1932 novel Vivivaki, a reclusive writer in the Icelandic highlands, to whom the Dead awake on New Year’s Eve, to the sound of the Danish National Hymn on the radio, and who look to this rebirth as the Resurrection and look to him as God. Next, I’ll unravel the rest of Gunnar’s life as a Secret Agent, but first, the blessings of this day of rebirth and ascension and grace, from the blind earth …
… to the light of the sky …
Blessings, all, from Skriðuklaustur.

Home in Skriðuklaustur

The residency begins. Gunnar Gunnarson was there to greet me. The tree growing out of his head, that’s my wish for growth and spirit here. gunnarGunnar Gunnarson at Skriðuklaustur

Gunnar came here when there was nowhere else to go but to go back home. It was 1939. The war he had dreaded was on the horizon, and some of its shadow stuck to him. He resolved to go back farming.


Skriðuklaustur Chicken Coop

The farming didn’t pan out all that well. My father and grandfather came to Canada from Germany with the same dream, and under very similar pressures, one after the first half of the Twentieth Century War and one after the second half of it. I am the dream they made, and so when I see things like this …

rustMy Father’s and Grandfather’s Tools at the Top of the World

The remains of Gunnar’s dream, Skriðuklaustur

… I know it is time to roll up my sleeves and get back farming. Tomorrow my work at Skriðuklaustur begins. I intend to farm here, but in words, and at a very deep level. Look for my discussion of the life in rock, as the first words from this new and old ground. It feels great here. I am here to honour Gunnar and my own ancestors, and to bring their stories together in the living ground of words. As I came close to the Klaustur, this is who saw me first …

horsesHorses in Fljotsdalur

What a great welcome!