The description of the movie "Hamsun" at IMDB states:

Knut Hamsun is Norway's most famous and admired author. Ever since he was young he has hated the English for the starvation they caused Norway during WWI.

Based on an internet search, I have been unable to confirm that there was starvation in Norway during WWI. I can find nothing on measures taking by the British against Norway (such as a naval blockade) that might have been the cause of a famine.

The information I have found is that during WWI the British pressured neutral Norway to put some part of its merchant fleet at their disposal, and that a British naval blockade during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s caused famine in Norway.

The fact that Hamsun (1859-1952) was in his mid-fifties at the outbreak of WWI (no longer a "young man"), and born some forty years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars further would further seem to shed serious doubt on the accuracy of the quoted statement.

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    The movie is not a documentary. Have you done any research on the trade between Norway and Germany before the war? Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 1:25
  • I know very little about Scandinavian history overall, but my vague understanding is that in post-medieval (or post Hanseatic League) times, Norway's economic ties to Britain have been stronger than its economic ties with Germany. I understand that a movie is not a documentary; the quoted statement simply piqued my interested and since I couldn't determine with certainty whether it may have a basis in fact from one hour of internet searches, I figured asking here may elucidate the issue in a more efficient and authoritative manner.
    – njuffa
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 2:18
  • The period from 1800 to 1900, ish, congruent to the industrial revolution, would be the place to start regarding trade between Germany and Norway to be in context with your question. Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 2:27
  • I am not sure how trade between Germany and Norway plays into the answer to my question? My, possibly naive, assumption is that any food imports Norway may have required in the early 1900s (no idea whether any were necessary!) would have been satisfied by imports from Denmark. There may have been other imports to Norway relevant to food production, e.g. fertilizer such as potash, of which Germany is a major producer and which could have been impacted by the Allied naval blockade of Germany. Is that what you are driving at?
    – njuffa
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 2:33
  • Yes. If that trade was curtailed, you might get at the basis for the complaint. Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 2:34

3 Answers 3


You are correct.

While there was some hardship in Norway during the First World War, in which Norway was neutral, there was no starvation and no direct attack from Britain. On the other hand, during the Napoleonic Wars Denmark-Norway and England were on opposite sides and British naval action blocked grain imports on which Norway depended.

Hamsun wrote several newspaper articles during the war elaborating on his dislike of the British. However, I have not been able to find any of these online. What I did find was this short article on the webpage of the Norwegian state broadcaster, written by Ingar Sletten Kolloen, biographer of Hamsun:

Men han hadde også en annen grunn som er vanskelig for oss å forstå i dag; for England på 1800-tallet og begynnelsen av 1900-tallet var det samme som Amerika er for mange i dag. England var den store imperiemakten, og England tuska til seg land etter land. De slo ned opprør og brukte vold og alle slags midler for å opprettholde imperier.


Hans foreldre opplevde jo hungersnøden da engelske skip blokkerte Norge, slik at ikke Norge fikk mat. Og det fortelles at Hamsun som guttunge lærte seg diktet "Terje Vigen" av Henrik Ibsen. Og da han deklamerte hvordan Terje Vigen ikke fikk mat, så rant tårene hos Knut Hamsun. Så dette er noe han har hørt av sine egne foreldre, og besteforeldre, hvordan de sultet i hjel også i Gudbrandsdalen, fordi England blokkerte Norge.

My translation:

But he also had a different reason which is hard for us to understand today; England in the 19th and early 20th century was the same as what America is for many today. England was the great imperial power, and England grabbed country after country. They struck down uprisings and used violence and all kinds of means to maintain empires.


His parents experienced the hunger when British ships blockaded Norway, so Norway was not able to get food. And it is said that as a kid, Hamsun learned Henrik Ibsen's poem "Terje Vigen" by heart. And when he declaimed how Terje Vigen could not get any food, Hamsun's tears were running. So this is something that he heard from his own parents and grandparents, how they starved to death even in Gudbrandsdalen, because England was blockading Norway.

Other sources corroborate this. The general dislike might have been amplified by World War One but the hunger reference appears to be specifically to the Napoleonic Wars. Terje Vigen is a famous poem referring to the hardships experienced in this war. The Scandinavian famine in the 1860s, mentioned in another answer, mainly affected parts of Sweden and Finland.

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    The starving of Hamsun's parents fits the historical record, and seems plausible and sufficient motivation for his hatred of the British, perhaps re-enforced by reading Ibsen's poem, which seems quite famous in Norway, from what I gather. It seems that either the makers of the movie "Hamsun", or the author who penned the text at IMDB got slightly mixed up with respect to historical details.
    – njuffa
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 18:49
  • Yes. I have not seen the movie, at least not all of it, but I think it is relatively well regarded and I would expect any such error to have been made by IMDB rather than the makers of the movie. (I also edited the answer to read "famous poem", as you are absolutely correct in that.)
    – Jørgen
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 18:52

Although a Nobel Prize winning author, Knut Hamsun was, to put it mildly, pro-German, to the point of being openly pro Nazi during World War II. His views about the British blockade in World War I, or other topics involving Germany, must be viewed in that light. The fact of the matter is that the British blockade did cause a certain amount of starvation in Germany, and he may have conflated that with "starvation in Norway."

As an author, he was also against "realism" and "naturalism," preferring to believe in a "mystic" past. Born in 1859 (but living to 1952, that is, to his nineties), Hamsun was no longer a "young" man during World War I--except possibly in his own mind.

Apparently there was a famine in Sweden and Norway in 1868 when Hamsun was young, so that part may be correct. So it's quite believable that he said the quote attributed to him, given his other biographical data. It just had nothing to do with the British blockade in World War I.

  • My question was focused on whether there was a famine in Norway during WWI.The answer indirectly indicates that there was no famine in Norway during WWI, it would be preferable to clarify that point. I agree there is a possibility of a conflation of events, such as the 1868 famine in Scandinavia (which I did not know about), or the famine in Germany during WWI to which the British blockade contributed (which I did know about) in the mind of the author of the text at IMDB, or the makers of the movie, or Hamsun himself (impossible to tell which). BTW: "Hamsun", not "Hanson" :-)
    – njuffa
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 14:14
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    @njuffa: To the best of my knowledge, there was no famine in Norway, during World War I, although the British blockade did wreck some hardship. Again, Hamsun may have conflated "shortages" with outright famine. The problem is that his pro-German stance and his apparent conflation of events makes his comments suspect, even if they are grounded in "half" truths.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 15:49

Others have covered the Hamsun angle fairly well, I'll expand on the starvation: Norway was an exporter of fish before and during the war. Before the war, it went both to Germany an Great Britain, but Britain was able to negotiate a number of deals which curtailed and finally ended Norwegain exports to Germany (not only of fish, but also of other things, like metals; see The neutral ally on Wikipedia).

However, food in general (e.g. grains) was in no great supply and got more and more expensive, as the Germans sunk Norwegian trade ships. People did not starve to death, but securing the food supply was a priority, and it was not unreasonable to be upset about this. For someone with a strong pro-german bias like Hamsun, it was probably easy to blame this not one the war, but rather on Great Britain.

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