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 the Occupation of Denmark of World War II. He is commemorated as a martyr in the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church on 14 August, alongside 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 until his death, Rev. Munk was the vicar of Vedersø in Western Jutland. Munk's plays were mostly performed and made public during the 1930s, although many were written in the 1920s. Much of his other work concerns the "philosophy-on-life debate" (religion – Marxism – Darwinism) which marked much of Danish cultural life during this period.
On one occasion, in the early 1930s, in a comment that came back to haunt him in later years, Munk expressed admiration for Hitler (for uniting Germans) and wished a similar unifying figure for Danes. However, Munk's attitude towards Hitler (and Mussolini) turned to outspoken disgust, as he witnessed Hitler's persecution of the German Jewish community, and Mussolini's conduct of the war in Ethiopia. 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.
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 World War II-era Denmark. Despite friends who urged Munk to go underground, he continued to preach against Danes who collaborated with the Nazis.
The Gestapo arrested Munk on the night of 4 January 1944, a month after he had defied a Nazi ban and preached the first Advent sermon at the national cathedral in Copenhagen. Munk's body was found in a roadside ditch in rural Hørbylunde near Silkeborg the next morning with a note saying "Swine, you worked for Germany just the same." Four thousand Danes attended Munk's funeral. Munk's death motivated the Danes, who until then had resigned themselves to German occupation, to rise against their foreign oppressors.
Munk's body was returned to his parish church, Vedersø, where it is buried outside the choir. A simple stone cross was also erected on a small hill overlooking the site where Munk's body was dumped. The Danish government allowed his widow, Lise, to live at the parish house until she died in 1998. The Dansk Folkeparti restored the church and parish house as a memorial to the simple playwright priest, and opened it to the public in 2010.
Munk often used a historical background for his plays—among his influences were William Shakespeare, Adam Oehlenschläger, Henrik Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw. As a playwright, Munk became known for "strong characters"—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.
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 numerous awards, including the Golden Lion in the 1955 Venice Film Festival and the 1956 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Monk's plays, many of which have been performed at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen, and elsewhere, include:
- Pilatus (1917. Published 1937)
- Ordet (tr. The Word) (1925)
- Kærlighed (1926)
- En Idealist (1928)
- I Brændingen (1929)
- Kardinalen og Kongen (1929)
- Cant (1931)
- De Udvalgte (1933)
- Sejren (1936)
- Han sidder ved Smeltediglen (1938)
- Egelykke (1940)
- Niels Ebbesen (1942)
- Før Cannae (1943)
- Chronological table, The Kaj Munk Research Center, Aalborg University
- Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer, 1960. Retrieved 23.3.13
- Kaj Munk, Den Store Danske, Gyldendal