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by Bamber Gascoigne

Kaj Munk (1898-1944) - Kaj Harald Leininger Petersen


Danish playwright and priest, whose outspoken, passionately patriotic sermons during World War II led to his being killed by the Nazis. Munk helped revitalize the Danish theatre by his rejection of the naturalistic drama in favor of the more spiritually oriented plays. Dominant features in Munk's writings were his deep Christian faith and admiration for the strong-willed man of action.

"Mester med den tunge Tornekrone
jeg kan ikke følge efter dig,
naar en Præestegaard, en venlig Kone
og to raske Drenge lokker mig."

(from 'Mester med de tunge Tornekrone', 1921)

Kaj Munk was born Kaj Harald Leininger Petersen on the island of Lolland. His father, Carl Emanuel Petersen, was a tanner and shopkeeper. After his death Munk's mother, Mathildem tried to continue the business but she died soon of tuberculosis. In his book of memoir, Foraaret saa sagte kommer (1942), the writer tells that in his childhood he saw on his parents gravestone a small place reserved for his own name, too.

The young Kaj was raised by a family named Munk – they were distant relatives – in Opager. In 1916 he was adopted by his foster parents Peter and Marie. The pietistic atmosphere of the home influenced Munk's decision to become a priest. Oscar Geismar, supporter of Gruntvig's ideas, assured Munk with his own example that religion would not only offer comfort and security for him, but visions and poetry. Munk's favorite author in his youth was Kipling, but Geismar encouraged him to read Iliad and Odyssey, and gave him an edition of Adam Oehlenschläger's (1779-1850) selected works. Oehlenschläger had gained fame with poems dealing with Scandinavian mythology and his poems also expressed a strong pantheistic vision of the world.

Munk was educated at the Nykøping Cathedral School and at the University of Copenhagen, where he took a degree in theology in 1924. After being ordained as a minister, he became a pastor of the parish Vedersø in western Jutland, a post he held until the end of his life. In 1929 he married his former housekeeper Elise Jørgensen; they had four children. The Munks also adopted one child.

As a playwrigt Munk started with Pilatus (1917), written at the Nykøping Cathedral School, but not published until 1937. En Idealist, which premiered at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in 1928, was partly based on Frants Buhl's study Det israelitiske Folks Historie. The protagonist, Herod, King of the Jews, is perhaps the best example of Munk's fascination with Napoleonic supermen, dictators, who triumph over all obstacles, and challenge the authority of God. The exaggerated passions the drama were too much for the audience and critics considered the author an amateur and sadist. Other great heroic charaters in Munk's later works were professor Krater (in I Brændingen, 1929), King David (in De Udvalgte, 1933), and Wolsey and Cromwell (in Cant, 1931). Though brute force and sin rules in Munk's merciless world, eventually God always wins. Munk's view of Christ offended many – Munk considered him a "man of the world" who appreciated highly food, wine, good company, and courage.

I Brændingen was about the great Danish critic and philosopher Georg Brandes, who is portrayed as an idealist with negative tendencies, and whose contempt of his fellow human beings and his anti-Christian attitude makes him a tragic character. His life is changed when a young daughter of a priest takes a place in his family. Krater breaks with his two elder sons and his younger son commits suicide.

In 1931 Munk gained fame with Cant, a historical verse drama focusing on the events surrounding the brief marriage of England's Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn. The king is presented as a ruthless despot who cleverly disguises his desires as divine commands and who becomes self-deluded in his belief in his own lies. The biblical drama De Udvalgte described the sins and doubts of King David, who loves passionately Batseba and commits crimes after another. Eventually he is saved through his belief in God. Egelykke (1940) was about Danish romantic poet and theologian N.F.S. Gruntvig (1783-1872). In its prologue Munk asked, "who loved his country, who loved God / if he didn't first love a woman?"

"They believe in the miracles I wrought two thousand years ago, but they have no faith in me now." (from Carl Dreyer's film Ordet, based on Munk's play)

Among Munk's best-known works is the modern miracle play Ordet (The Word, written 1925, prod. 1932). Set among the peasants in West Jutland, it poses the question of whether miracles are possible. Partly the play was based on Munk's experience – she had witnessed the death of a woman, and wanted to take her hand, saying: "Rise!" The central characters are Mikkel Borgen, who doesn't believe in miracles, and his sons. Inger, the wife of Mikkel's eldest son, dies in childbirth. Johannes, the second son, a Christ figure, recovers from insanity, and asks for and obtains the miracle of Inger's resurrection from her coffin.  

The screen adaptation of The Word by Carl Dreyer received mixed reviews. Even though it incorporated less than half of the dialogue from the play, it was unusually talkative for a Dreyer film. Robert Hatch wrote in Nation: "The background is so impressive that it takes the viewer some time (maybe ten minutes) to realize that Ordet is a turkey. It is pretentious, humorless, obscure, and the nearest think to immobility that the screen has thus far achieved." (December 21, 1957)  

"Outwardly, Dreyer's Ordet is still concerned with spiritual faith, but its inward, secret mainspring is fleshly love. Admittedly, the atheistic Mikkel announces his new-found belief when his wife is resurrected, but consider the words he uses, which refer to God only in connection with the stillborn child:
Inger: Does the child live?
Mikkel: Yes, Inger, it lives at home with God.
Inger: With God?
Mikkel: Yes, Inger, I have found your faith."
(Tom Milne in The Cinema of Carl Dreyer, 1971)

It is often ignored that at the beginning of his intellectual and literary career, Munk rejected democracy as a political possibility, and advocated authoritarianism. He had admired Hannibal and Napoleon in his childhood, and later Mussolini, whom he called in 1935 the savior of Italy and genius. His enthusiam for the Third Reich Munk expressed in the essay 'Gennem Hitler's Tyskland' (1934, Through Hitler's Germany). For his controversial opinions and outspoken sermons at Vedersø Munk was called "Denmark's Savonarola."

When Munk traveled to Berlin in 1933 to write an article on Hitler's rise to power, he assured his readers that "No Dane can honor Hitler's deed more than I." ('The Spiritual Resistance of Kaj Munk' by Helle Mathiasen, in Resisters, Rescuers, and Refugees: Historical and Ethical Issues, edited by John J. Michalczyk, 1997, p. 79) But he also raised his voice against Italy's invasion of Abyssinia and the Fascist persecution of Jews. Munk urged in an open letter to Mussolini, published in Jyllandsposten in November 1938: "Your Excellency, now YOU must act. You hate chaos, and you are healthy. You are just about the only healthy man in Europe who can act. . . . And tell your friend Hitler, that now it is enough . . . in the name of mercy ‒ solve this world problem, and we will kiss your hands." (ibid., p. 80)

In the remote regions of Vedersø, with its untouched moors, woods, and lakes Munk learned to enjoy an outdoor life. He also published a popular book about hunting and fishing, Liv og glade dage (1936). During the 1930s he started to reevaluate his concept of the hero in the political dramas Sejren (1936), in which Mussolini was portrayed as a corrupted idealist, and Han sidder ved Smeltediglen (1938, He Sits at the Melting Pot). The latter  presents a weak man as a hero.

Although Munk showed little sympathy for democratic political patterns, he became one of the most prominent opponents of Nazis after German occupied Denmark in 1940. From Kierkegaard Munk inherited the conviction, that the truths of Christianity can be realized only in action, and consequently his plays, such as Niels Ebbesen (1942), about a medieval Danish hero who had fought aganist Germans, and Før Cannae (1943), about Hannibal, appealed to Danes to resist the occupiers. Niels Ebbesen, dedicated to "Our Young Soldiers of April Ninth" (the date of the German invasion of Denmark in 1940), was prohibited as soon as it was printed. 

On January 4, 1944, Munk was taken from his home by the Sonderkommando Dänemark and shot on the road to Silkeborg. His Bible was found some twenty meters from his body, as if it had been taken away before he was killed. A  sign  pinned to his body read: "Swine, you worked for Germany just the same." Members of  the Peter Group, which got its name from Untersturmführer Peter Schäfer (alias of Otto Schwerdt), were Otto Skorzeny's commandos, who carried out terrorist actions in Denmark. (Otto Skorzeny: The Devil’s Disciple by Stuart Smith, 2018, pp. 89-91) After the war Skorzeny, the legendary Waffen SS commander, claimed that he had been on a skiing holiday at the time. (ibid., p. 255) Seven Danish collaborators of the Peter Group were executed for war crimes but none of the German Sonderkommandos.

For further reading: Kaj Munk, kritisk Studie over en heroisk dramatisk Digtning by Bo Bojesen Rund (1938); Er Kaj Munk 'dansk Aandlivs Høvding' by Chr. Reventlow (1940); Kaj Munk by Ole Palsbo (1940); Kaj Munk som Dramatiker by J.K. Larsen (1941); Kaj Munk - Playwright, Priest and Patriot by R.P. Keigwin (1944); Kaj Munk by Sven Stolpe (1944); Kaj Munk and His Plays by R.P. Keigwin (Drama, 1949); Kaj Munk as a Dramatist by S. Arestad, in Scandinavian Studies, 26 (1954); Portraits of Destiny by M. Harcourt (1969); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975); 'The Spiritual Resistance of Kaj Munk' by Helle Mathiasen, in Resisters, Rescuers, and Refugees: Historical and Ethical Issues, edited by John J. Michalczyk (1997); 'Munk, Kaj,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Christianity and Resistance in the 20th Century: From Kaj Munk and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Desmond Tutu by Soren von Dosenrode (2008); Kaj Munk and Germany: Theater and Politics by Søren Daugbjerg (2011); Kaj Munk: digter, præst og urostifter by Per Stig Møller (2014) - Suom: Sven Stolpen elämäkerta Munkista ilmestyi 1944 suomeksi; runot oli kääntänyt Elina Vaara.

Selected works:

  • Pilatus, 1917 (play, publ. 1937)
  • Samson, 1917 (play, publ. 1949)
  • Christoffer II, 1918 (play, Christopher II),
  • Operationen, 1919 (play)
  • S'mænd et Offer, 1922
  • Rub og Stub, 1922
  • Kærlighed, 1926 (play, prod. 1935)  
    - Love (in The Norseman 1, 1949)
    - Rakkaus: näytelmä (suom. Vappu Roos, 1985)
    - film adaptations: Kärlek, 1952, prod. Svensk Filmindustri (SF), dir. by Gustaf Molander, featuring Sven Lindberg, Doris Svedlund, Erik Strandmark, Victor Sjöström, Anders Henrikson, Jarl Kulle; 1960 (TV play), prod. by Danmarks Radio (DR), dir. by Torben Anton Svendsen
  • En Idealist, 1928 (written in 1923-24)
    - Herod the King (translated by R. P. Keigwin, in Five Plays, 1953)
    - Idealisti (suom. 1958)
  • Kardinalen og Kongen, 1929 (play)
  • I Brændingen, 1929 (play)
    - TV play 1965, prod. by Danmarks Radio (DR), dir. by Edvin Tiemroth, featuring Henrik Bentzon, Clara Pontoppidan, Carl Ottosen, Henning Palner, Hannah Bjarnhof
  • Cant, 1931 (play)
    - Cant (translated by R. P. Keigwin, in Five Plays, 1953)
  • Ordet, 1932 (play, written in 1925)
    - The Word (translated by R. P. Keigwin, in Five Plays, 1953)
    - filmed twice: 1943, prod. by Svensk Filmindustri (SF), dir. by Gustaf Molander, screenplay by Rune Lindström; 1954, directed by Carl Dreyer, starring Henrik Malberg, Emil Hass Christensen, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Birgitte Federspiel
  • De Udvalgte, 1933 (play)
  • Saul, 1933 (play)
  • Vedersø-Jerusalem retur, 1934
  • Os bærer den himmelske Glæde, 1934
  • Ti Oxford-Snapshots, 1936
    - Pikapiirtoja Oxford-liikkeestä (suomentanut Toivo Winter, 1937)
  • Knaldperler. Digte for Børn mellem knap 3 og godt 70 År, 1936
  • Sejren, 1936 (play)
  • Liv og glade Dage, 1936
  • Diktatorinden, 1937 (play, publ. 1949)
  • Himmel og Jord, 1938
  • Han sidder ved Smeltediglen, 1938 (play)
    - He Sits at the Melting Pot (translated by R. P. Keigwin, in Five Plays, 1953)
  • Filmen om Christiern den Anden, 1938 (screenplay)
  • Dette dødsens legeme, 1938
  • Fugl Fønix, 1939
  • Puslespil, 1939 (publ. 1949)
  • Egelykke, 1939 (play)
    - Egelykke (in Modern Scandinavian Plays, 1954)
  • Tempelvers, 1939
  • Navigare necesse , 1940
  • Atterdag, 1940 (play)
  • Sværg det, Drenge, 1941
  • Ved Babylons Floder. Danske Prædikener, 1941
    - By the Rivers of Babylon (translanted by  translated by John M. Jensen, 1945)
  • Kongen, 1941 (play)
  • Foraaret saa sagte kommer, 1942
  • De Herre Dommere, 1942
  • Præsten i Vejlby, 1942
  • Med ordets sværd, 1942
    - Sanan miekalla: tanskalaisia saarnoja vuosilta 1941-1942 (suom. Kalle Hautamäki, Lauri Kemiläinen, 1944)
  • Niels Ebbesen, 1942 (play) 
    - Niels Ebbesen (translated by Hanna Astrup Larsen, in Scandinavian Plays of the Twentieth Century, Second Series, 1944)
    - Niels Ebbesen (suom. 1946)
  • Det unge nord, 1942
  • Foraaret saa sagte kommer, 1942
  • Med Sol og megen Glæde, 1942
  • Småbyens sjæl, 1943
  • Før Cannæ, 1943 (play) 
    - Before Cannae (translated by R. P. Keigwin, in Five Plays, 1953)
    - TV play 1962, dir. by Edvin Tiemroth, cast: Jørgen Reenberg, Harry Katlev, Carl Ottosen, Poul Reumert, André Sallyman
  •  Ewalds død, 1943
    - The Death of Ewald (in The Norseman 1, 1949)
  • Eventyrspillet om. Danmark, 1943?
  • Danmark, 1943
  • Tre Prædikener, 1943
  • Den skæbne ej til os, 1943
  • Jesus' historier, 1943
    - Jeesuksen kertomuksia (suomentanut Margareta Deschner, 1954)
  • Apostlenes Gerninger, 1943
  • Den blå anemone, 1943
  • Sømandsvise, 1943
  • Kaj Munk: Playwright, Priest, and Patriot, 1944 (translated and edited by R. P. Keigwin)
  • Four Sermons, 1944 (translated by John M. Jensen)
  • 8 nye digte, 1944
  • Et norsk Digt om Norge, 1944
  • Tre tusinde kroner, 1946
  • I Guds Bismer, 1946
  • Saa fast en Borg. Kronikker m.m., 1946
  • Sangen til vor ø: Digtet til Fødeøen, 1946
  • Alverdens-urostifterne: efterladt, ufuldendt skuespil om Paulus, 1947 (publ. 1947)
  • Ansigter. kronikker m.m., 1947
  • Landlige interiører i lollandsk bondemål, 1948
  • Kærlighed og andre Skuespil, 1948
  • Naturens egne drenge, 1948
  • Mindeudgave, 1948-49 (9 vols.)
  • Det onde Liv og den gode Gud, 1951
  • Vers om Syndefaldet, 1951
  • Five Plays, 1953 (translated by R. P. Keigwin, contains Herod the King, The Word, Cant, He Sits at the Melting Pot and Before Cannae)
  • Herod the King, 1955
  • Julevers fra Landet kirke på Lolland, 1956
  • Digte, 1966 (edited by Niels Nøjgaard og Knud Bruun-Rasmussen)
  • Vandringer i Kaj Munk’s Vedersø, 1968 (edited by Henry Bailum)
  • Livet gad jeg ønske jer: Erindringer om, taler af og breve fra Kaj Munk, 1984 (edited by Svend Aage Nielsen)
  • Sådan var han: oplevelser med Kaj Munk, 1986 (edited by Frede Pries Nielsen)
  • Af et overfladisk, gejstligt Menneskes Papirer, 2001 (edited by Søren Hansen)
  • Manden og værket: udvalgte og kommenterede tekster, 2015 (edited by Søren Dosenrode)

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