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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 67April 2018

Nordahl Grieg’s commitment to peace

Recent developments should be the beginning of a renaissance for Nordahl Grieg’s authorship. His efforts for peace and freedom stand as a shining example.

Ever since my youth, the Norwegian journalist, poet, novelist and dramatist Nordahl Grieg (1902-43) has played a significant role for me. It began when I read his novel Forever Young the World Must Be[1], written from first-hand experience of the Soviet Union, where he had lived in 1932-4, and of Spain, which he had visited as a war correspondent in 1937. Central to the book is the young Englishman Leonard Ashley’s meeting with the Soviet state, reflected through his experiences in Moscow, and his youthful sympathy for socialism, but also his difficulty in overcoming bourgeois prejudices.

Grieg is scarcely known outside the Nordic countries, but he was listed in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia as one of the most important Scandinavian writers of all time. He was a committed anti-fascist and communist although, in order better to serve the communist idea, he was by agreement never a member of the Communist Party of Norway (NKP). Following his return from Moscow, he became chair of the Norwegian Friends of the Soviet Union. His actress wife Gerd was the daughter of NKP chairman and MP Adam Egede Nissen and Grieg was close to many active communists.[2]

He was a universal man who mastered many genres. After sailing to Australia and back as an ordinary seaman in 1921, he published his first collection of poems, Around the Cape of Good Hope, and his first novel, The Ship Goes On, which aroused attention and some controversy, because of his realistic descriptions of the hardships and temptations of a sailor’s life.[3]

From 1925 Grieg travelled as a journalist for the Oslo evening newspaper Oslo Aftenavis.[4] His Græske breve (Greek Letters) (1926) express his youthful joy at experiencing the world. Unfortunately not yet translated into English, the Letters transport the reader to the ancient people, their struggle for independence and the creative power of their art, philosophy and drama. Here is an excerpt from Lykken (Happiness):

One day, a marvellous day, has passed. We came down from the temple at Bassae, which is at four thousand feet, high up in Arcadia ... .

And now it is evening. A violet twilight runs down the green mountain, a spark projecting up there, the evening star, which poor Sappho sang about two-and-a-half-thousand years ago: the evening star, which brings everything together as the bright morning has spread, you bring the lamb, you bring the goat, you bring the child to her mother ... .”[5]

Grieg had really drunk of the spring Kastalia [6] – the source of the Muses!

From 1927, after travelling to China, to report on the Civil War there for the Norwegian press, Grieg increasingly turned his attention to drama. His most outstanding success was the play Our Power and Our Glory (1935), dealing with the Norwegian shipping situation towards the end of the First World War. He vividly contrasted the fate of the seamen, exposed to German submarine attacks, with the luxurious life of the profiteering shipowners.[7]

A major theme of Grieg’s plays is the conflict between humanitarian objectives and the supremacy of force in the world, so that its use cannot be discarded without disaster.[8] In arguably his best play, The Defeat (1936), inspired by the Spanish Civil War and dealing with the Paris Commune on 1871, he attacked the pacifist humanism of the Western world. The proletarian Varlin, one of the leaders of the Commune, says:

This is peace. ... It’s not something you own, it’s something you have to conquer. ... it’s always threatened; every day you must guard it from harm by vindicating human dignity. ... peace must be the most unresting thing in the world.[9]

In 1940, having served in the Norwegian Army in the campaign against the Nazi German invasion, Grieg escaped to Britain on the same ship as the Norwegian royal family and the national gold reserves. Thereafter, he put himself in the service of the resistance by writing patriotic war poems which were broadcast in his own voice from London, dropped in leaflet form in Norway or otherwise secretly distributed. Through this he became a national hero. But he also wanted to be where the fighting was. He died on the 2nd of December 1943 when the Australian bomber on which he was serving as a reporter was shot down over Berlin. In 1945 his war-time poems were published in Norway in Friheten (Freedom) and Flagget (The Flag).

Recently, I had a pleasant surprise when reading the manuscript of Grieg’s screenplay Større kriger (Greater Wars)[10], written during his exile in London. It concerns a meteorologist who refuses to make an independent assessment of fascism in Germany. The script works strongly to this day, especially the poignant scenes when Norway is attacked. Grieg’s moral is that, if you do not take action against war and fascism, then suddenly one day it will be knocking on your own front door. The manuscript deserves to be filmed, because the problem Grieg describes is still topical. Too many people turn their backs on reality and escape into their own little world.

July 2016 will see the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attack against the Norwegian labour movement youth organisation by Anders Behring Breivik. As in the 1930s, capitalism is in deep crisis, and one of the consequences is a growth in extreme right-wing and fascist forces throughout Europe. This fact has not appeared in the public debate on the terrorist attack, since politicians and the media have preferred to present it as the actions of a single, insane person. We can only understand the Oslo atrocity by drawing a parallel with the 1930s crisis-riven capitalism which, of course, led to the Second World War.

The struggle for peace permeates Grieg’s literary and poetic work. Therefore, it is natural that his 1936 poem inspired by the Spanish Civil War, Kringsatt af fiender (Surrounded by Enemies),[11] which was set to music in 1952 by Danish composer Otto Mortensen, has been sung at the many commemorations of the victims of the Oslo terrorist attack. The poem’s message is one of creating peace by creating human dignity.

The fight for peace and justice gains more and more importance in our time, not just in one country but as a global commitment. We can now see that the US-led “War on Terror” is a pretext for reintroducing a modern version of colonialism, which can hardly be separated from the supposed ethos of the medieval crusades. It is fought under the guise of a war for human rights and democracy, for ‘humanitarian intervention’, and for preventing terrorist attacks.

The setbacks for the labour movement and other democratic forces after 1989 have affected many people and their belief in socialism. Here, and in the fight against war and the right-wing turn, Nordahl Grieg’s writings are a great encouragement – a force to maintain faith in the future and social progress.

In the poem Den menneskelige natur (Human Nature) there is a clear appeal to us:

But you who live,
must watch
The peace we glimpsed
In the neighbouring closet of death
Be above all not weary –
As people become
after wars –
When turbid and greediness arises
According with despondency
The warm putrefied mire
Saved by hundred
generations
Where the mind can creep
to rest
And he that we killed
can arise.[12]

We must above all not be weary, but continue to put present-day phenomena and events into a social framework. This applies wherever democratic, social and other human rights are overridden.

Grieg’s war-time poem The Best was published in July 1943 in the Danish illegal paper Vestjyden:

The Best

Death can flame like a cornfield;
Clearer than once we spy
Each life in that glowing anguish;
They are the best who die.

The string and the single-hearted,
Who willed and dared the most, –
Calmly they took their parting,
Each in his turn was lost.

The world is ruled by the living.
Never can be suppressed
The competent, indispensable
Host of the second-best.

The best are murdered in prisons,
Swept off by bullets and seas;
Not in their hands our future;
To die is enough for these.

So we build them shrines of our weakness,
The sense of our emptiness;
But this is to fail our greatest,
Betray them with vain distress.

They would live in our faith and courage;
They would not be mourned as dead;
Still flows in hearts of the fearless
The blood that the fallen shed.

To each of us here that knew them
More wealth than was theirs descends;
For children had these for fathers,
And men have had these for friends.

Increasing the life they yielded,
Their ghosts in new men survive.
Upon their graves shall be written –
For ever the best shall live.[13]

The poem is a tribute to the many who sacrificed their lives in the resistance fight in WW2, but also a wake-up call to us – the descendants – about the need to continue the struggle for peace, freedom and equality. Like his idols Keats, Shelley and Byron,[14] Nordahl Grieg died young, but his name lives on through his books and poems as a living testimony to the struggle for peace.

Bibliography

Only a few of Grieg’s works have been published in English, and most are now out of print. His war poems, All That Is Mine Demand, were published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1944; “The Defeat” is in Masterpieces of the Modern Scandinavian Theatre, Collier Books, New York, 1967, pp 311-397; “Our Power and Our Glory” appeared in Five Modern Scandinavian Plays, Twayne – The American Scandivanian Foundation, 1971, pp 299-362; and the sea poems, Around the Cape of Good Hope, were published in 1979 by Nordic Books.


[1] N Grieg, Ung må verden endnu være, Gyldendal, Norwegian Publisher, 1938.

[2] Personal correspondence from Runa Evensen, chair of of the NKP.

[3] G M Gathorne-Hardy, Nordahl Grieg 1902-1943, in War Poems by Nordahl Grieg: All That Is Mine Demand, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1944, p 10. Gathorne-Hardy knew Greg and translated the poems

[4] See Grieg, Johan Nordahl Brun, at http://www.leksikon.org/art.php?n=1020.

[5] Translated by LUT from N Grieg, Langveisfra: Græske breve, Kinesiske dager, Spansk sommer (Scenes from Afar: Greek Letters, Chinese Days, Spanish Summer), Gyldendal, Oslo, 1964.

[6] The spring emerging beside the seat of the Delphic oracle.

[7] H Beyer, Citizen of the World, in Masterpieces of the Modern Scandinavian Theatre, R W Corrigan, ed, Collier Books, New York, 1967, p 309.

[8] Gathorne-Hardy, op cit, p 11.

[9] N Grieg, The Defeat, Act 2, Scene 1, in Masterpieces of the Modern Scandinavian Theatre, op cit, p 343. However, Bertolt Brecht considered the play as “astonishingly bad”, leading him to write The Days of the Commune, in which he “cut out the petty-bourgeois nonsense” (Letter to Helene Weigel, 25/26 February 1949, quoted in Brecht Collected Plays 8, Methuen, London, 2003, pp 225-6). Brecht’s Varlin, unlike Grieg’s character, comes over to recognising the need for revolutionary terror.


[10] A draft for two screenplays found in Oslo in 1989; Gyldendal Norwegian Publisher, 1989.

[11] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Til_Ungdommen.

[12] Translated by LUT from the original Norwegian. Grieg’s complete text can be found online at www.bokselskap.no/boker/haabet/den-menneskelige-natur.

[13]War Poems by Nordahl Grieg, op cit, pp 45-6. Vestjyden (The West Jutlander) was an illegal paper printed by the Danish Communist Party in Esbjerg during the war. The poem was printed in several illegal papers and had a great influence on the morale of the Danish resistance movement. The reference is from Vestjyden, July 1943.

[14]De unge døde (The Young Dead), an essay collection on Byron, Shelley and Keats, Gyldendal Norwegian Publisher, Oslo, 1932.

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