Kaj Harald Leininger Munk (commonly called Kaj Munk) (13 January, 1898 – 4 January, 1944) was a Danish playwright and Lutheran pastor, known for his cultural engagement and his martyrdom during World War II. He is commemorated as a martyr in the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church on August 14 with Maximilian Kolbe. He was born Kaj Harald Leininger Petersen on the island of Lolland, Denmark, and raised by a family named Munk after the death of his parents. From 1924, he was the vicar of Vedersø in Western Jutland. The dramas of Munk were mostly performed and made public during the 1930s, although many were written in the 1920s. Much of his work is a contribution to the “philosophy-on-life debate” (religion – Marxism – Darwinism) which marked much of Danish cultural life during this period. He often used a historical background for his plays – among his influences were Shakespeare and Goethe. In his dramas Munk often displays a fascination for “strong characters” and integrated people who fight wholeheartedly for their ideals (whether good or bad). In his play En Idealist, for example, the “hero” is King Herod whose fight to maintain power is the motive behind all of his acts until he is at last defeated by a show of kindness to the Christ child in a weak moment. I Brændingen is a camouflaged portrait of Munk’s antagonist, the anti-religious Georg Brandes whose atheism also impressed him. His 1925 play Ordet (The Word) is often said to have been his best work; it is an investigation of miracles from the unique (at least, to theatre) viewpoint of one who was not prepared to dismiss them. A family of farmers – of differing degrees of faith – find themselves reconciled to their neighbours through a miracle. A 1955 film version of Ordet was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, and won the Golden Globe Award that year for Best Foreign Language Film. On one occasion, in the early 1930s, in a comment that would come back to haunt him in later years, Munk expressed admiration for Hitler (for uniting Germans) and wished that the same kind of unifying figure could be found for Danes. However, Munk’s attitude towards Hitler (and Mussolini) quickly turned to outspoken disgust, as he witnessed Hitler’s persecution of the German Jewish community, and Mussolini’s conduct of the war in Ethiopia. Early on, Munk was a strong opponent of the German Occupation of Denmark (1940-1945) (although he continually opposed the idea of democracy as such, preferring the idea of a “Nordic dictator” who should unite the Nordic countries and keep them neutral during periods of international crisis). His plays Han sidder ved Smeltediglen (“He sits by the melting pot”) and Niels Ebbesen were direct attacks on Nazism. The latter, centering on the figure of Niels Ebbesen, a medieval Danish squire considered a national hero for having assassinated an earlier German occupier of Denmark, Count Gerhard III was a contemporary analogue to WWII-era Denmark. In 1938 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published on its front page an open letter to Benito Mussolini written by Kaj Munk criticising the persecutions against Jews. He was arrested and subsequently assassinated by the Gestapo on January 4, 1944 at Hørbylunde, near Silkeborg. The reputation of Munk is one of the most paradoxical in modern Danish literature. During most of his life he was known as a right-wing anti-democrat, yet he passed into history as the anti-Nazi martyr. He was extremely engaged in his own time, but usually wrote historical plays. He is often called a renewer of Danish drama but, in fact, he tried to revive both romantic and traditional naturalist theatre. He is called a classicist but today his plays are not performed very often. He was a deeply religious person but just as much a man of this world. His engaging personality has been an enduring centre of interest.

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