The beloved Scottish poet…who loved Hitler and Stalin

This week we’re poking through George Orwell’s 1949 list of writers and journalists whom he suspected of being “crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way,” and therefore not to be trusted by the British government. We’ve seen that in one case after another, Orwell was right on the money.

Here’s another.

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Hugh MacDiarmid

Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) was widely considered the great Scottish poet of his day, and is now viewed as something of a Scottish hero. He was also a Stalinist and self-declared “Anglophobe.” Born under the name Christopher Murray Grieve (MacDiarmid was a nom de plume), he was, in the 1920s, an enthusiastic supporter of Mussolini – and of fascism in general, which he considered a version of socialism. In 1923, he “argued…for a Scottish version of Fascism, and in 1929 for the formation of Clann Albain, a Fascistic para-military organisation that would fight for Scottish freedom.” In 1928 he helped found the Scottish National Party and became a leading champion of Scottish independence. In the 1930s he joined and was expelled from the British Communist Party; in 1956 (the year Soviet tanks crushed Hungary’s democratic revolution) he rejoined the Party.

Hugh MacDiarmid...Scottish modernist poet Hugh MacDiarmid (1892 - 1978, left), 21st August 1962. (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
MacDiarmid in 1962

Some of his wartime writings – which weren’t published during his lifetime – reveals a mind drawn even more passionately and perversely to totalitarianism than most of his published work suggested. In a 1940 letter, he wrote that while “the Germans are appalling enough…the British and French bourgeoisie…are a far greater enemy.” In June of the same year, on the eve of the Battle of Britain, he wrote (but didn’t publish) a poem that included these lines:

Now when London is threatened

With devastation from the air

I realise, horror atrophying me,

That I hardly care.

macdiarmid2The next year, writing to his friend and fellow poet Sorley MacLean, MacDiarmid maintained that while the Axis powers might be “more violently evil for the time being,” they were, in the long run, “less dangerous” than the government in London and in any event “indistinguishable in purpose.” In other words, Scotland might well be better off under Hitler than under Churchill. (MacLean disagreed: “I cannot see what the Nazis would give Scotland when they give Vichy to France, Franco to Spain and Quisling to Norway.”)

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Orwell with his son, Richard Horatio Blair

These documents, note well, didn’t come to light until recently – the letters in 2010, the poem in 2013 – when they were discovered by scholars in the archives of the National Library of Scotland. Their publication made headlines; as James MacMillan wrote three years ago in the Telegraph, they reveal MacDiarmid to have been “a clear and Scottish example of that melding of nationalism, fascism and Leftism which seemed so seductive to young idealists at the time.” But Orwell didn’t need to see that poem or those letters to know just what a foul stooge for totalitarianism – of whatever stripe – Hugh MacDiarmid really was.

More to come.

Monuments to shame: Sweden’s useful stooges

There’s no useful stooge like a Swedish useful stooge.

That isn’t an old saying, but perhaps it should be.

During World War II, the Danes, from the king on down, courageously showed their contempt for the Nazi occupiers. When orders came down to ship Danish Jews to camps, Danish Christians snapped into action, rescuing almost every last one of them overnight and ferrying them under the Nazis’ noses to safety in neutral Sweden.

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Poster for The Heroes of Telemark

The Norwegian Resistance did valiant work, too, most famously destroying a heavy-water plant that could have been useful in the Nazi effort to produce nuclear weapons. The story of this escapade was told in the 1965 Burt Lancaster movie Heroes of Telemark and, again, in a recent (and first-rate) miniseries, The Heavy Water Wars.  A terrific 2008 movie, Max Manus, focused on the eponymous hero of the Norwegian Resistance, a masterly saboteur, but also featured actors playing several other illustrious Resistance members.

Meanwhile, Sweden was shipping iron ore to Germany to be used in the production of Nazi weapons.

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Torgny Segerstedt

Yes, there was a Swedish Resistance. His name was Torgny Segerstedt. He was the editor-in-chief of Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning, a financial daily in Gothenberg, and in his editorials was a fierce critic of Hitler.

Admittedly, it’s a slight exaggeration to suggest that Segerstedt was the only Swedish anti-Nazi. Behind the scenes, some high-profile Swedes made modest efforts to help the Allies and to persuade the Nazis to be a tad less beastly to the Jews. But to a remarkable extent, Segerstedt was a lone warrior. You might expect that someone else in the Swedish news media would’ve dared to slam Hitler. But nobody did – at least nowhere near as much as Segerstedt did.

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Jesper Christensen as Segerstedt

A film about Segerstedt, The Last Sentence, directed by Jan Troell, was released in 2012. It did a splendid job of portraying the pusillanimity of the Swedish cultural elite in the years leading up to the war, and then during the war itself. At an elegant dinner party soon after Hitler’s installation as German chancellor, Segerstedt (played by Jesper Christensen) rails ardently and eloquently against the outrages of Nazism – and his friend react as if he’d let loose a loud, roaring belch. Why, they’re clearly wondering, does he insist on ruining their pleasant evening with such matters? He’s a moral crusader in a community of cowards.

Not long after, he receives a stern letter from Goebbels demanding that he cease and desist. He frames it. Swedish officials, up to and eventually including the prime minister, make various threats in an attempt to silence him. Finally he’s summoned to the Royal Palace, where the king himself, Gustav V (Jan Sitelius), tells him angrily that if Sweden ends up being dragged into a war with Germany, it’ll be Segerstedt’s fault.

Gustav V actually did say that to Segerstedt, by the way. Their meeting took place in 1940. The episode is hardly surprising to anyone familiar with Gustav’s record. He was friendly with Hitler and other Nazis, and in November 1941 threatened to abdicate if his government refused to grant a Wehrmacht division safe passage through Sweden from Norway to Finland.   

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King Gustav V (right), Hermann Goering (middle), and Prince Gustav Adolf (left), February 1939

In 1942, Segerstedt implicitly criticized his own monarch by praising Norway’s King Haakon. He too had threatened to abdicate, but for opposite reasons. When the Germans invaded Norway and ordered Haakon to appoint their puppet Vidkun Quisling as prime minister, Haakon met with his cabinet, presenting them with the order and telling them that he’d abide by their decision, whatever it was – but that if they chose to cave to the Germans he would step down from his throne, because he could not, in good conscience, inflict Quisling on his people. The cabinet unanimously supported him, and king and cabinet both escaped to Britain, where they formed a government-in-exile.

Here’s what Segerstedt wrote about Haakon: “King Haakon didn’t falter when it counted. His burden was heavy. He became great by bearing it….The Norwegian people and the king are one. Together they have erected the proudest monument known to the history of the Nordic region.”

Indeed. By contrast, many Swedes, like Gustav V, have erected monuments to shame. We’ll start meeting some of these Swedish stooges tomorrow.

Putin’s Quisling

Tomorrow, October 7, Vladimir Putin celebrates his sixty-third birthday. To commemorate this occasion, we’re spending a few days here at Useful Stooges looking at Putin – and at a few of his benighted fans around the world. Today: a nutty but high-profile creep in Norway.

Ad for the TV series Occupied, showing a Russian flag flying over the Norwegian Royal Palace

In late August, Russia’s Foreign Ministry publicly condemned Occupied, a forthcoming Norwegian TV series, complaining that its premise – in the near future, Russia invades Norway and seizes its oil fields – brings to mind various anti-Soviet movies made in Hollywood during the Cold War. (One imagines they’re thinking of such fare as 1984’s Red Dawn, in which Soviet forces overrun the U.S.) The ten-part series, which was created by bestselling mystery novelist Jo Nesbø and will premiere in October on Norway’s TV2, had another critic: Bjørn Ditlef Nistad, who was identified by a Kremlin-controlled “news” website, Russia Beyond the Headlines, as a historian and an Associate Professor of the University of Oslo.

Nistad was paraphrased as saying that Occupied is offensive to residents of Norway, liberated by the Soviet Union from German occupation in 1944.”

What? Norway liberated by the Soviet Union in 1944?

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Bjørn Ditlef Nistad

Yes, it’s true that on October 18, 1944, Red Army soldiers chased retreating Nazi forces out of Russia and into the remote, sparsely populated far northern tip of Norway, with which Russia, then as now, shares a 122-mile-long border. But to describe these troops as having liberated Norway is Orwellian. On the contrary, even though Stalin was nominally an ally, the leaders of the Norwegian government-in-exile in London were so concerned about the entry of his troops into their territory that they dispatched Norwegian soldiers to the region, partly to try to minimize the damage done by the scorched-earth policy that the Nazis were pursuing as they fled southward but also partly to ensure that Uncle Joe didn’t annex so much as a square centimeter of Norwegian soil.

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Josef Stalin

When did the German occupation of Norway end? Ask any Norwegian. It ended on V-E Day, May 8, 1945, when the Nazis surrendered to the Allies. The date is still celebrated in Norway as Liberation Day. Soviet troops lingered in northern Norway until late September 1945, when they finally packed their bags and went home. Fortunately for Norway, Stalin had his hands full subduing and Communizing Eastern Europe and knew that any effort to turn his foot-in-the-door presence in Norway’s icy attic into a conquest of the entire country would be a difficult proposition and would be fiercely resisted both by Norwegians and by the Western Allies, who at that point were tacitly accepting his ongoing imprisonment of the people of Eastern Europe behind what Churchill had yet to call the Iron Curtain.

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Vladimir Putin

So how can a professor of history at Norway’s leading university present such a twisted version of the facts? Well, first of all, as it turns out, Nistad isn’t on the University of Oslo faculty. He got his Ph.D. in Russian history there in 2008, and stayed on as a temporary lecturer until 2010, but has not held an academic position since. He claims to have been unable to find a job. Why? Because, he says, of his “pro-Russian” views – by which he means his unqualified approval of absolutely everything Vladimir Putin does and says. Nistad supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; he endorses Putin’s oppression of gays. “I think Vladimir Putin is a good guy and a likeable politician who has saved Russia,” he told Dagbladet last year. He has even compared Putin to Churchill.

Because no Norwegian university will hire Nistad, he compares himself to a Soviet dissident. He’s tried to arrange financial backing from Russian oligarchs to pursue his “pro-Russia research.” There’s less freedom of speech in Norway today, he claims, than in Putin’s Russia.

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John Færseth

Not that he’s been silenced. Far from it. Despite his inability to wangle a sinecure at the University of Oslo, he’s secured, in the words of writer John Færseth, “an important role in Norwegian debates about Ukraine, not least on NRK,” Norway’s government-run TV and radio network. Nistad, according to Færseth, is the “most important – or in any case the most obvious – defense player on the Russian team on the Norwegian scene today.” While most Norwegian commentators on the crisis in Ukraine, observed Færseth last November, are “in practice mouthpieces for Russian propaganda,” what sets Nistad apart is that his readiness to defend Putin and Putin’s former puppet in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, “has as times led him over into pure bloodlust, as when he wrote in July that the ‘coup makers’ in Kiev should be hanged.” Nistad has called pro-freedom Ukrainians fascists and neo-Nazis, and has written that killing a “few hundred” of them “would be a small price to pay” if it succeeded in establishing “that fascists would not be able to come to power through a coup in one of Europe’s most populous states.” 

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Vidkun Quisling

Here’s another way that Nistad stands out: he’s not one of those Putin fans who deny any similarity between the current regime in Moscow and the Soviets. On the contrary, as his fantasy version of the liberation of Norway might suggest, he was a fan of the USSR, too. In 2011, Norway’s newspaper of record, Aftenposten, ran an article by him headlined “Can We Learn from the Soviet Union?” His answer: da! The USSR, he maintained, was “one of the few reasonably successful multiethnic and partly multicultural societies that the world has known.” Its 200-odd ethnic groups “lived together in peace.” They had “a common dream: of building a socialistic society.” And this shared goal made them “good, honest, and hard-working citizens.” Although Gorbachev, in Nistad’s version of history, did a deplorable amount of damage to this paradise, Soviet values still survive among today’s Russians, thanks largely to Putin – who, he explains, has breathed new life into those values and made Russians proud again.

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Nistad on NRK

Bjørn Nistad: remember the name. If the scenario imagined in Nesbø’s TV series ever did come to pass, it’s not a bad bet that Nistad would be to Putin what Quisling was to Hitler: a devoted Norwegian acolyte, willing to run his puppet government and enforce his tyranny.

What a shame that, in the meantime, Norwegian students won’t be able to learn at the feet of this courageous truth-teller!