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With Thanks to Hans Koning

Elizabeth Martinez, who is an activist, university lecturer, and author of six books on social justice struggles in the Americas, was married to Hans Koning in the 1950s. They remained colleagues until his death this year.

Hans Koning died April 13 in his Connecticut home at the age of eighty-five. Monthly Review Press had the distinction of publishing three of his books. One of them, still a classic in many high schools, was Columbus: His Enterprise—Exploding the Myth, the first trade book to challenge the U.S. origin myth. That myth says that this nation was founded by brave white men fleeing oppression—not by genocide, enslaved labor, and imperialist expansion. Originally published in 1976, the U.S. Bicentennial year, it was reprinted in 1992, the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, when it sold 30,000 copies. MR Press also published The Conquest of America: How the Indian Nations Lost Their Continent (1993).

In 1974, MR Press published the paperback edition of Hans Koning’s The Almost World, a haunting personal account of his life that begins with him being ferried from France to England in 1944, on leave as the youngest sergeant in the British army fighting Nazi Germany. As a youth in Amsterdam he had seen his homeland occupied and soon fled to join the British as a volunteer.

Later the book takes us to Indonesia, where Koning ran a cultural radio program for the newly independent government, then to the United States, settling in New York and discovering the idealism of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer along with the dregs of capitalist culture, and the war on Vietnam. “There are more Vietnams to come,” he wrote in a 1972 introductory note.

Koning (who changed his name from Koningsberger) wrote forty other novels, nonfiction works, plays, travel books about China and Russia, and young adult books (The Future of Che Guevara being my own favorite), not to mention many articles in national magazines. He brought history alive, as in A Walk with Love and Death (1961)—one of several Koning books made into a movie—about a French peasant revolt in 1358, written in the first person. Or again in Death of a Schoolboy (1977) , about the high school youth who shot the Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, launching the First World War, also told in the first person by the boy. Beyond colorful, those books raised contemporary issues. Koning’s vision of both humanity and history as boundless defined much of his work.

In its obituary, the New York Times called Koning “left-leaning.” True, though an understatement. (His grandfather founded the Dutch Socialist Party, so there may have been some genes at work.) His revolutionary heart did not fail him, as others including Noam Chomsky have noted. As a radical novelist he can be compared to John Nichols of Taos, New Mexico, who once quoted Hans as having said: “Nothing is uncontroversial….Every word is a stone and every plan a barricade.” Nichols concluded, “Artists need to be activists. A writer’s job is to create in defense of this globe.”

Koning did not simply write his hard-hitting politics. He also served them directly by training participants and leafleting for demonstrations in England and the United States, lobbying officials in more than one country, going to jail for protesting the Vietnam War, preparing regular radio talks, and founding Resist, the direct-action anti-draft movement—a wide variety of actions. Just re-read Nineteen Sixty-Eight: A Personal Report (1987). It is all there.

Koning was an artist, ferocious and devastating but not without beauty. “I want to start a whispering in the universe,” he wrote in 1979. Shall we someday hear the global whisper rise, and rise, and rise, until it roars with justice around our planet and others?

Hans Koning would have it so. I know.

P.S. Do look for the books he finished not long before his death: Rescue and The Irish Deserter, to be published in the near future.

I cannot help but hesitate a moment before opening the bloody record of the Conquest. You have to be careful, writing about history. Humanity has a long and cruel past, and I would not soon label something done on this earth as “without precedent.” But we have to live with the fact that most nations and most men (and, more rarely, women) have under certain historical circumstances been capable of terrible deeds. It is our duty to try to understand how such things could happen and, indeed, still happen and how they can be stopped. Indeed, in our days, for the first time, people are beginning to see themselves as their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, across all borders. There is still hope for the likes of us.

Hans Koning, The Conquest of America: How the Indian Nations Lost Their Continent (Monthly Review Press, 1993)

2007, Volume 59, Issue 02 (June)
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