Al Pacino Reopens Debate Over Pro-Nazi Celebrities

by Rafael Medoff 

(Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America’s Response to the Holocaust.)

The decision by actor Al Pacino to withdraw from a Danish play because its author supported the Nazis during World War II has reopened a long-simmering debate over cultural contributions by individuals whose racial or political views are anathema.

Pacino, the Academy Award winning star of such films as The Godfather and Scent of a Woman, pulled out of the Copenhagen production of a play adapted from novel “Hunger,” after learning that its author, the late Knut Hamsun, backed the Nazis.

Hamsun, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, welcomed the Nazi occupation of Norway, met with both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, and in 1943 sent his Nobel Prize to Goebbels as a gift. After the war, Hamsun was arrested for treason but escaped trial only because he was found to suffer from “weakened mental capacities.” He was, however, found guilty, and fined, for having joined the Norwegian fascist party Nasjonal Samling, which was led by the infamous Vidkun Quisling.  

Hamsun was not the first cultural icon with a Nazi past to later receive accolades from his colleagues.

Recall, for example, that at the 2004 Oscar Awards ceremony, Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was included in a tribute to recently-deceased movie industry figures. Riefenstahl was personally chosen by Hitler to direct films glorifying the Nazi regime, such as the infamous Triumph of the Will (1935). She even used Gypsy prisoners from a Nazi concentration camp as extras in one of her movies. Although Riefenstahl later claimed she had not been pro-Nazi, the fact is that when Hitler conquered Paris in 1940, she sent him an effusive telegram: “Your deeds exceed the power of human imagination. They are without equal in the history of mankind. How can we ever thank you?”

The poet Ezra Pound was in 1999 nominated by some of America’s most famous writers and poets to be added to the prestigious Poets Corner of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, even though Pound was virulently antisemitic and made pro-Axis radio broadcasts from Fascist Italy during World War II. “I know the horrendous things that Pound did, and I also know that he was a great American poet,” the poet Donald Hall asserted, explaining the nomination.

Germany’s most acclaimed novelist, Gunter Grass, admitted in 2006 that he had served in Hitler’s Waffen-SS, the most notorious perpetrators of torture and mass murder. Yet some prominent writers stood by him. Novelist John Irving denounced what he called “the “predictably sanctimonious dismantling” of Grass’s reputation “from the cowardly standpoint of hindsight.” Irving assured Grass: “You remain a hero to me, both as a writer and a moral compass.”

Perhaps Al Pacino’s principled stand will influence Norwegians to start facing up to Hamsun’s past, something many of them have been reluctant to do. In 2009, the government of Norway commemorated Hamsun’s 150th birthday with an entire year of public events, exhibits, commemorative coins, a new 27-volume collection of his writings and the opening of a $20-million, six-story Hamsun Center in his home town of Hamaroy, complete with a huge bronze statue of the honoree. Queen Sonja personally kicked off the festivities–evidently forgetting for the moment that the Royal Family was forced to flee Norway when the Nazis, whom Hamsun so admired, invaded and occupied their country.

Perhaps, too, Norwegians will finally honor their only other winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature–Sigrid Undset, who also happened to have been an activist for the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust. Undset, who won the Nobel Prize in 1928, fled to the United States in 1940 to escape the Nazis. She became a co-chair of  the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson Group), which sponsored rallies and newspaper ads urging the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Hamsun deserves Norway’s scorn; Undset deserves Norway’s official praise and recognition.

In the 1940s, Knut Hamsun sided with evil, while Sigrid Undset sided with good. In 2015, Al Pacino has taken a moral stand; when will the Norwegian authorities do likewise?