by Catherine Mauk
It was a wet morning in Oslo in late July, 2015. The rock face along Uranienborg velen where the road had been cut, glistened black in the rain. A piece of fogged plexiglass muted a three-foot swastika painted on the rock face — a disturbing reminder of the German occupation during World War II. I passed it each day as I walked from my guesthouse through the unsecured grounds of the Norwegian royal residence and into the city center.
Weserüburg was the German code name for a simultaneous attack at six strategic points across Norway that caught the country off guard on 9 April, 1940, allowing German troops to capture major airports and destroy allied air access to the country. Oslo fell in less than twelve hours and, with a German presence of several hundred thousand men — one soldier for every eight Norwegians — in a population of just under three million, Norway was the most heavily occupied of European countries. Within two months of the attack, allied forces and the Royal Family had evacuated by sea, leaving the Nazis in control until the end of the war.
In the small town where I grew up in the western United States, I learned none of this. Schoolbook accounts of world events tended to begin and end with the involvement of the US and were punctuated by the triumphs of our military. Then, as now, it was as if the rest of the world was merely a footnote to the dramas of the US. By mid-century, when I was a child, our soldiers had replaced their uniforms with business suits and overalls, married their sweethearts and bought houses in the suburbs; mothers baked pies and pot roasts, joined the PTA, and played bridge; we young ‘baby boomers’ filled the rows of wooden desks in public schools, with bright eager faces we looked forward to prosperity and a new world order. With the explosion of the atomic bomb, the US had ended the war and made the world safe for democracy. History lesson over.
Each November, veterans sold poppies for remembrance, and community parades paid tribute to our national pride. And although my father had been an officer on a ship in the Pacific Fleet and marched with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, we rarely talked about the war.
It wasn’t until I read works by Herman Wouk and Leon Uris in my early 20s that I began to have a sense of the scale and devastation of WWII, particularly in Europe. Then, when I moved to Australia, nearly thirty years ago, my grasp of ‘the War’ and the evils humans can inflict on one another expanded further: the Kokoda Trail, the Burmese Railroad, Changi Prison in Singapore, and the Sandakan death marches in North Borneo.
On that same wet July morning in Oslo, I saw a poster outside the National Gallery announcing a tapestry exhibition featuring the work of Hannah Ryggen. I went into the Gallery out of curiosity, and what I found astonished me.
In 1940, Hannah lived on the west coast of Norway, near the mouth of the Trondheim Fjord. Although trained as a portrait painter, she taught herself to be a tapestry artist too, and worked in a tradition born out of the culture of farm life. She and her husband, Hans, also a painter, led a life of self-sufficiency and art, subsisting on what they could grow on their twelve acres, in the remote community of Ørlandet, a windswept coastal lowland looking out to the Norwegian Sea.
Together they raised a few sheep. They sheared them and collected, combed, and carded the wool. Hannah spun the yarn and boiled her own dyes, using branches, bark, roots, berries, leaves, lichen, moss, minerals, earth, and even urine. The work was demanding; the complicated process took time and stamina. Lacking electricity, she worked in daylight: she lugged buckets of water from the well; she brewed the colors in a metal cauldron in the yard and carried the yarns to the shore for rinsing in seawater before drying. Through trial and error she learned how to intensify and fix the colors.
Hannah was a pacifist with radical beliefs, an egalitarian, a woman of uncompromising opinions. She despised those who abused their power, the oppressors, whatever their guise, and her concern was for those who suffered at their hands. Using the loom her husband built, she probed and commented on the inequality, the persecution, the exploitation she witnessed. She worked without drawings or patterns; her weavings expressed her internal conversation about the state of the world.
As fascism engulfed Europe in the 1930s, she filled her vats with cochineal and ochre. She threaded the warp of her loom with brown and grey and the weft with black and potent shades of red — red for suffering, red for rage, red for death, for brutality, for horror, for hope — and she ran the shuttle back and forth through the strands of the warp creating blood-red hands and faces, blood-red robes, curtains of blood, skies of blood, skies raining formidable red. And up rose the faces of the despots and the complicit, as well as those of the imprisoned, the tortured, the executed, the terror-struck; their faces large and nightmarish. In their expressions, the gruesomeness of it all.
Then, suddenly, the invaders were on her shores; they marched in their hundreds of thousands across her country. They captured the local seaport —Trondheim, one of the strategic points for attack — and occupied her town. They defiled the coastal villages with prison camps and artillery sites, tunnels and bunkers. Astonished, confused and frightened, she and her husband planted their garden and tended their animals. She continued to ready her work for a planned exhibition. The occupiers appropriated homes, businesses and schools and restricted the movement of citizens. Over the months and despite the constant threat and uncertainty, life settled into a tense new routine around the occupiers. But any pretence of normalcy was upended when, 14 months later, the invaders declared martial law. A curfew was imposed, assembly forbidden, long-distance transportation prohibited. Political parties were outlawed, radios confiscated, newspapers banned. The 13,000 police and soldiers who occupied Trondheim, enforced the new laws and regulations. Stores emptied of coffee, sugar, flour, bread and butter, then meat, vegetables and fruit, clothing and furniture. Each day, the occupiers marched starving Yugoslavian POWs past the Ryggen farm to a nearby work site where they exhausted their strength building an airstrip. The Ryggens had seen the POWs tortured and tied to posts overnight. Had seen them shot. Hans joined the underground resistance helping the POWs escape.
Word reached Hannah of the murder of two trade union officials and, in her anguish, she turned to her work: a red-robed Christ emerged in the centre of the tapestry, on his right a soldier in grey robes masquerading as a judge, and on the left an angel in white holding two heads on a platter. She named it “Freedom”.
The persecution intensified. In Trondheim, the occupiers made an example of ten prominent residents, who were accused of resistance. The men were rounded up, bound, blindfolded and taken to the forest where they were positioned in front of a mass grave and shot by a firing squad. A tribunal condemned fifteen more people the next day; they were executed the following morning. And, the next day, another nine. The occupiers raided nearly 1500 homes and arrested 93 individuals.
Her cauldron boiled. She wove her next story large in three panels. On the left, she knotted the caricatures of wickedness, below them the faces of the dead and mourning. In the middle panel she constructed a figure of hope, or was it a figure of abandonment? And on the right she placed herself, her husband, and her daughter, Mona, in a black boat filled with red roses, escaping across the sea. Fearlessly, she displayed this enormous tapestry on the side of their house in full view of the oppressors who marched the forced laborers to and from their toil each day, but there were no recriminations. In time, however, her husband was arrested, charged with perpetrating illegal acts, and imprisoned.
The ‘resistance tapestries’—as I have come to call them — were hung in a small room, separate from Hannah’s later tapestries. All these tapestries were large, some over sixteen feet wide. Not hung side by side along a wall in a long room as is more usual, they faced each other in a close space, many hanging from ceiling rods like screens, together telling a single tight-knit story. In the dimmed light, the weavings appeared as corrugated ropes of blood and concrete and metal. Red splattered the room, as if one were walking through a battlefield. Here were the stories of the evil triumvirate — Mussolini, Franco and Hitler: Mussolini’s assault on Ethiopia and the failure of the League of Nations to respond; the torture of German citizens in concentration camps; the suffering of citizens in the Spanish civil war; the executed trade union leaders, their heads on a silver platter. The tapestries laid bare the emotional truths of living in the midst of tyranny and war: rage, revulsion, vulnerability, incredulity, terror, despair.
Two tapestries, in particular, unsettled me: “Death of Dreams” (1936) and “Lise Lotte Hermann Beheaded” (1938). The first, because of the massive field of swastikas that filled the middle of the bottom half of the tapestry, the distinct faces of political prisoners behind bars above, and one man in bare feet suspended above the wall, being throttled by Hitler, Göring and Goebbels. In “Lise Lotte Herman” the background is so intensely red it is as if Hannah had bled her own veins into the cauldron. In the subdued contrast of the foreground, a young woman sits feeding her infant, a tableau of innocence and domesticity, though the twenty-year-old student was soon to be arrested and beheaded for her criticisms of Nazi violence in Germany.
An enormous tapestry titled “6 th October 1942” — the one Hannah had hung from her house — was equally disturbing in its detail. On that date, the first ten citizens of Trondheim were executed. One was a theater manager and actor, whom Hannah and Mona, had watched perform in Ibsen’s play, “The Wild Duck”, only hours before he was arrested. In the tapestry, the actor is cradled by his wife and surrounded by the faces of others who had been executed. Above them a flying Hitler, pistols firing, is propelled by oak leaves (the symbol of German power) blowing out of his ass. The faces of the Nazi sympathiser and writer, Knud Hamsen, and the leader of the puppet government, Viktor Quisling, fly around Hitler as black birds. In the middle of the tapestry looms Churchill, protected by a brick turret, the Tower of London in the background. And on the right, is the chilling depiction of the Ryggen family sailing to freedom. In a coffin boat they are surrounded by crimson roses; the local police, who were complicit in the death sentences of the Trondheim citizens, watch from above. This was an escape that never happened.
In the central space of the room hung a tapestry of Hans, prisoner 13943. He is seated in his cell painting a skull and cross bones, the red faces of the imprisoned above and behind him circled in barbed wire; other faces fall as if into flames. The tapestry is divided: outside prison and inside, left and right. Outside, a naked Mona rides her horse; there are flowers, a village. Inside, red bathes the tapestry in ongoing horror.
Hannah’s work haunted me, haunts me still. In part, it was the astounding intensity and complexity of her process, her extraordinary skill. But what impressed me most was her courage. She made and displayed these works—an uncompromising remonstration—in the midst of Norway’s occupation and at great risk to her safety, to her life. She threaded her loom with what was immediate and personal and political at a point in time and, in her art, captured the timeless and ubiquitous circumstances of war and oppression and suffering —the artist as conscience and historian.
As British writer Rebecca West once wrote: “art is… a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted”. In Hannah’s work I tasted life and anguish and evil and death, but I also tasted the power of refusing silence.
Impelled by Hannah’s story and work, the next day I visited the Nobel Peace Center, which stands in Oslo not far from the National Gallery. The featured exhibition happened to be about the 15 year-old Peace Prize Laureate, Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who campaigned against the Taliban prohibition on the education of girls. But I was most interested in seeing the permanent exhibition, the Nobel Field. I climbed the stairs to the second floor where I walked into a dark room lit by a meandering lane of fairy lights. 128 darkened screens lined the lane. Each screen lit up when I stopped in front of it and displayed the story of a particular Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a screen for each person or group awarded the prize since 1901.
Here were the stories of those who had created organisations committed to peace, the individual campaigners for disarmament, the humanitarians and champions of social justice, the negotiators of treaties and accords, the intrepid who took on oppressors through non-violent protest and paid a high price. Here were 128 representatives of the world’s most inspiring conversers, advocates, organisers, marchers, writers, debaters, conciliators, resisters, orators, promoters, crusaders, chanters, and cheek-turners. Here were one hundred and some years of individual mettle, collaboration and perseverance in the crusade to rise above the human propensity for violence and cruelty.
To walk that lane was to fill with a deep reverence and gratitude for the best among us.
The 1935 prize recipient was a German pacifist named Carl von Ossietzky, one of the handcuffed and imprisoned figures depicted in Hannah’s weaving “Death of Dreams”. He was, in fact, imprisoned at the time for exposing Germany’s illegal rearmament in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. An outspoken critic of militarism, anti-Semitism, Nationalism, and the Nazi party, he was arrested in 1933 and detained in concentration camps. In the year he received the award a spokesperson for the International Red Cross, who visited Ossietzky in one of the camps, reported that he had been so severely abused he was “a human being who had reached the uttermost limits of what could be borne.” Not only was he denied release to accept the prize — and, in fact, ordered by Goebbels to refuse acceptance, which he did not — the German government prohibited all of its citizens from accepting any future Nobel Prizes.
No prizes were awarded between 1939 and 1943, as the war raged on. But in 1944, the prizes resumed with an award to the International Red Cross for its humanitarian work during World War II.
After the War ended with the explosion of ‘Little Boy’ — the codename for the type of nuclear device dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 — Emily Greene Balch, an American academic, was awarded the prize in 1946, for her work with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Her acceptance speech was prophetic: she asserted that continued peace would challenge both our minds and our sense of responsibility. She found it incomprehensible that following such a monstrous and destructive conflict, mankind “…is today so largely occupied in preparing for war in more hideous forms than ever before. Huge sums of money and treasures of human cleverness and industry are invested in inventing new and more ghastly poisons, methods of disseminating diseases and perfecting instruments of destruction instantaneous and almost unlimited.”
Hannah, too, continued to be troubled by the potential for human destruction after the end of the War. In 1951, she created “Mr. Atom”, a tapestry in which the destructive Mr. Atom sits cross legged on high in the center of the weaving, wearing a helmet of radioactive atoms. Below, are the naked figures of a man and a woman. It reminds one of God casting Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, only this time it is Mr. Atom, surrounded by the bluish light of an atom bomb and a sky infused with red, masquerading as god of an earth devoid of life.
Ten years later, in response to the continuing arms race, Hannah completed “Grey Figure”. The work was inspired by a photograph she had seen of the silhouette of a carbonized person preserved on a wall by the heat of the atomic flash in Hiroshima. In the center of the tapestry is the fragmented shadow of a man on a white brick wall; red hexagons contain symbols resembling those for atomic energy; chains of Xs seem to negate life. Disembodied heads rise above walls near the top of the tapestry and peer around the center wall. These, claimed Hannah, are the faces of the uninvolved and the indifferent.
Hannah’s work and the awe-inspiring stories along the meandering lane of fairy lights in the Nobel Field, took on a new relevance for me three years later when, back home in Australia, I learned that the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) — an organisation founded in Melbourne, Australia by a group of medical practitioners in 2007 — “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”.
Amazingly, it was a recognition that was all but ignored. There was no ticker tape parade, no fete at Government House, no dinner at the Prime Minister’s Lodge, no reception at the Australian War Memorial. In fact, there was not a single Australian government or diplomatic representative at the award ceremony in Norway.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, as proposed by ICAN, was adopted at the UN in July 2017. It prohibits the “development, testing, production, manufacture, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, transfer, use and threatened use of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”. To come into effect, the treaty must be signed and ratified by 50 countries. As of September 2019, 79 countries have signed the treaty and 32 have ratified or otherwise acceded to it.
Agreements similar to those written into the ban treaty have been reached on chemical and biological weapons, land mines, and cluster munitions — the ‘ghastly poisons and diseases and instruments of destruction instantaneous’ as Emily Greene Balch named them — but there is strong resistance among a number of countries to an international ban against nuclear weapons, the ultimate in ‘instruments of destruction instantaneous’. Predictably, of the nine nuclear armed nations, none supports the ban and none participated in the UN talks. Australia was also one of the countries to boycott the UN negotiations (not surprising, when you consider that it shelters under the nuclear umbrella of the United States and serves as a vital outpost for US military and intelligence operations). France, the UK and the US, in a joint press statement, cautioned: …“Accession to the ban treaty is incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence… . We all share a common responsibility to protect and strengthen our collective security system in order to further promote international peace, stability and security.”
In other words, the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is preferable to complete prohibition as a path to ‘international peace, stability and security’, …
…even though every woman, man and child on earth lives under the perpetual threat of 1800 nuclear weapons around the globe that stand ready to launch within 15 minutes and have the potential to decimate much of the planetary biosphere within 24 hours;
…even though there is currently an arsenal of nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world — the US tallying 6,800 and Russia, 7,000;
…even though the World Nuclear Association (WNA) admits enrichment and reprocessing technologies have been the cause of proliferation through illicit or unsafeguarded use, yet Australia, for one, continues to export uranium to most of the nuclear-armed nations; and
…even though some countries continue to ‘modernise’ their arsenal, which in effect, amounts to development of new weapons.
Nuclear armed countries maintain that an up-to-date arsenal is essential for deterrence and defence as long as nuclear weapons exist. Such logic conjures an image of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, its imposing white pyramid inscribed with the slogan WAR IS PEACE: I hear the Ministry of Peace intoning that perpetual war is necessary to keep the peace and to balance power in the world.
“These weapons are not a necessary evil,” said Setsuko Thurlow in her acceptance lecture before the Nobel Committee when ICAN was awarded the Peace Prize, “they are the ultimate evil.” Ms Thurlow, a tireless nuclear disarmament campaigner, was 13 years old and living in Hiroshima when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb at the end of World War II. She described her emergence from the rubble of her school where 351 of her schoolmates lay dead:
Processions of ghostly figures shuffled by. Grotesquely wounded people, they were bleeding, burnt, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing. Flesh and skin hung from their bones. Some of their eyeballs hanging in their hands. Some with their bellies burst open, their intestines hanging out. The foul stench of burnt human flesh filled the air.
She described the remains of her four-year-old nephew — “his little body transformed into an unrecognizable melted chunk of flesh”.
We refuse the truth: possession of nuclear weapons by any country threatens every one of us, and continuation of any nuclear capability amounts to ‘tacit’, if not overt, support for the potential use of nuclear weapons.
In 1795, the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, wrote in his essay “Perpetual Peace”, “No treaty of peace shall be regarded as valid, if made with the secret reservation of material for a future war. Otherwise a treaty would be only a truce, a suspension of hostilities but not peace, which means the end of all hostilities.” He considered a treaty of this guise to be an ‘artifice’ based on ‘bad faith’ and ‘beneath the dignity of a sovereign’. Support for nuclear nonproliferation rather than prohibition is such an artifice.
These arsenals and this ongoing game of ‘nuclear chicken’ evidence further truths: an abject failure of diplomacy, a resignation to the inevitability of conflict, a lack of good will, disregard for all living things, and unskilful application of our human potential to solve problems.
Where is the crucial conversation about the legitimacy of any country putting all of humanity at such risk?
Which sovereign will take up the leadership in denouncing the myth that nuclear weapons make us safe, that they foster world peace, that they keep us from having to live our lives under constant threat of war, of obliteration?
Which will ever have the courage to take a stand and demand that all countries set down their nuclear arms?
Each year, here in Australia, when we pay tribute to the men and women who have fought and died in terrible wars, I am reminded of the days of parades and poppies from my US childhood. As with cities around the world, we honor these men and women with ceremonies and commemorate each war with monuments. National institutions preserve the paraphernalia of those who fought: their letters, their uniforms, their weapons, their rations, their airplanes. Dioramas recreate battles. A Roll of Honor lists the names of the dead. These contribute to an absorbing but unsettling conversation about the past. The past stands as an example of what can happen with the abuse of power, with oppression of one group of people by another, and with the insidiousness of evil. It must be our teacher. But the conversation needs to extend beyond remembering the atrocities of the past and honoring the military heroes and victims of war. At times, it seems as if countries have turned their participation in war into a badge of honor, made it a fundamental part of their identity.
How and when do we honor citizens who refuse war and advance peace?
When will we have an honest conversation about the future we are committed to and what that requires of us?
We need to consider the lesson Sebastian Haffner emphasized in his book “Defying Hitler: A Memoir”: that history gets it wrong when it focuses too heavily on the decisions and actions of those in power, because it absolves we “anonymous others”, who are not just “pawns in the chess game”, but rather, who by our action or inaction, en masse, enable those in power1 .
Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, was questioned about awarding the prize for a treaty that had not come into effect and in an environment when no international measures against nuclear weapons have been reached. She replied, “If we don’t mobilize against nuclear weapons, what choice are we making? We cannot sit around and wait for the politicians to do this. We cannot wait for America to give up its nuclear arms.”
Sometimes I imagine Hannah’s cauldron boiling with dyes for a tapestry she might weave today; a commentary on the escalating threat of nuclear war and the ineptitude of world leaders who march us toward nuclear Armageddon.
Surely, the smell of blackberries would saturate the late summer air as she steeps her yarns to achieve various tones of grey to interweave the grim background.
Next, the cauldron would simmer with dark roots and bark and ferrous sulphate to make black — the most difficult of colors — or, perhaps Hannah would combine her own blend of blue indigo, reddish-brown, and yellow for the very blackest dye. Black for the hateful hearts of world sovereigns who know no alternative to malevolence and greed and destruction; black to weave their loins, withered with cowardice; black for their immoral tongues that justify their disregard for the fate of the earth and all life; black for the ‘damned spot’ that will never wash from their souls. Black for the anguish of humanity. Black for we ‘anonymous others’ who remain silent.
Perhaps there would be a return of Mr. Atom in his helmet of radioactive atoms, the unique color of blue fixed with the pots of urine she collected from her visitors. She might show him surveying his destruction, smiling at the grey and black walls of our war memorials etched with millions of names, so many names the walls would course down our long avenues of monuments; not the names of the brave and courageous, but the names of innocent victims like Setsuyo’s nephew and classmates, like the 200,000 people who lost their lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, names like yours, like mine. And next to each name a knotted red poppy. Lest We Forget. Is there enough cochineal and ochre in the world for so many poppies?
And, finally, would Hannah leave us with only a bitter cup of despair that can be lifted to the lips and tasted, or would she find some way to represent our better selves? Might she redeem us with a meandering trail of fairy lights in a dark corner of the tapestry?
Sunstein, Cass R., “It Can Happen Here”, New York Review of Books, June 28-July 18, 2018, Volume LXV, Number 11.
Read the Backstory
Cathy is a US expat who has lived in Australia for nearly 30 years. She is a writer of literary nonfiction; primarily memoir, the politics of place, and philosophical issues that fascinate her. She has had numerous essays published both in the US and Australia, and her work has been selected as runner up/finalist and winner in multiple literary nonfiction contests (terrain.org, Solstice, Nature Writer Conservancy, Calibre Essay Prize, Crab Orchard Review, Briar Cliff Review, Tasmania Wildcare Nature Writing Prize). Recently, her essay, “Present Progressive,” was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2019. The attached essay, “Refusing Silence,” has been selected as a finalist for the Fourth Genre Steinberg Essay Prize and the Cutthroat Barry Lopez Essay Prize. She is currently developing a collection of essays, the working title of which is Storied Lands: The Politics and Poetics of Place. “Refusing Silence” is part of that collection.