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FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam

Words and violence. Literary intellectuals between democracy and dictatorship 1933-1952

Alternative title: Ord og vold: Forfattere mellom demokrati og diktatur 1933-52

Awarded: NOK 7.2 mill.

Project Number:


Project Period:

2022 - 2027

The Words and Violence research group will analyze the democratic resilience and vulnerability of cultural life in the 1930s and ’40s, using statistical and qualitative approaches drawn from a range of disciplines. This will be done by comparing the Norwegian experience with that of other countries under fascist occupation during World War II, notably France. Researchers will examine why writers, translators, and intellectuals made the choices they did, faced with censorship and terror, but also with a new kind of public investment in culture, orchestrated by the dictatorship. The study and the narrative will start with the so-called culture wars of the 1930s. The endpoint will be the year 1952, when DnF, the Norwegian writers’ association, allowed the NS writers, who had been expelled in 1945, to rejoin. In addition, Knut Hamsun, the key figure of the tragedy, died that same year. The aim is to produce solid knowledge about historical issues that are hotly debated and of obvious contemporary relevance, but that are rarely researched in a systematic way. Writers enjoy a privileged status in questions of Norwegian identity and self-understanding, thus the fascist engagement and “landssvik” (high treason) of Hamsun, Norway’s greatest novelist, remains nothing less than a national trauma. The efforts made after the war to reestablish trust in literature through trials and professional purges, have also been controversial and the subject of much debate, not least concerning the ethics and role of the intellectual. Experiences from the recent surge of right-wing policies in the US and Europe, confirm a familiar pattern where right-wing intellectuals, like Newt Gingrich, Steve Bannon, Aleksandr Dugin or Éric Zemmour help authoritarian mobilization by the staging of “culture wars”. The renewed threat of authoritarianism makes it especially important to generate knowledge on how intellectual and civic freedoms were defended, lost and regained in the 1930s and ‘40s.

This proposed project will conduct a social network analysis (SNA) of the Norwegian field of literary intellectuals before, during and after the German occupation. The project will draw scientific robustness from systematic cultural sociology, but will also employ other approaches, ranging from digital data mining to archival studies and historically-informed literary analysis. The project will be comparative, drawing on European experience. Key research questions will be: 1. What explains the political positioning of writers and intellectuals during the occupation: literary or non-literary factors? Which groups of writers were most likely to collaborate or to resist nazification when it comes to social origin, geographical trajectory, education, age, gender, genre and literary affiliation, small/large scale of literary production etc, etc. 2. How were concepts concerning the responsibility of the intellectual and a professional ethic (honors code) for writers and developed during the war and how were they employed during the professional purges (“æresretten”) that followed the war? As in France (Sapiro 1997) the politico-literary struggles of the 1940s were in many ways a replay of the "culture wars" of the 1930-s, with vengeance often being a strong motive. The formally relatively autonomous literary field became very politized in the 1930’s. As there is no good sociological study of the so-called cultural wars of the 1930s, we would like to draw the study and the narrative back to 1933. The endpoint of the study will be the year 1952, when DNF, the Norwegian writers’ association, allowed the NS-writers who had been expelled in 1945 to rejoin the association. In addition, Knut Hamsun, the key figure of the tragedy, died that year. One of the work packages will examine the Norwegian cultural experience of the 1930s and 40s from the perspective of democracy theory, examining the democratic vulnerability and resilience of cultural life.

Funding scheme:

FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam