Kaj Munk was born Kaj Harald Leininger Petersen on January 13, 1898, at Maribo on the South Danish island of Lolland. He was the only child of Carl and Anna Mathilde Petersen. His father died when he was only eighteen months old and his mother when he was five and a half years old. He was adopted and reared by his mother’s cousin, Marie Munk, and her husband, Peter. The Munks had no children of their own, and Marie had promised Anna Mathilde, as the latter lay on her deathbed, that she would rear the child and would love him and care for him as her own. The Munks were yeoman farmers, and Kaj was brought up in a wholesome, healthy environment, full of love and close to the land, and was instilled with a love for learning and a deep and lasting faith.
Munk, though rather frail, was an inquisitive and talented student who demonstrated unusual literary abilities at a very early age. When he was eight years old, he was visited during an illness by his schoolmaster, who wrote: “What a surprise when I turned the paper over and found it covered from top to bottom with poems. I nearly fell over backwards at the sight of what had been written there by a boy of eight years. The contents were naturally immature, but the rhyme, as well as the arrangement of the words, was witness to a very real sense of language.”
Munk was educated first at the country school at Vejleby, then at Maribo Realskole, and later at the neighboring Nykøbing Latin School. While he was enrolled at the Realskole, under the remarkable tutelage of an unusually capable headmaster and a young, talented staff, Munk first became truly excited about learning. Munk was especially impressed by the poetry of Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger. While in his last year at the Nykøbing Latin School, Munk wrote his first play, Pilatus, which is of particular interest not only because it is the first example of his dramatic talent but also because it contains the seeds of the later important work He Sits at the Melting Pot.
At the age of nineteen, Munk enrolled at the University of Copenhagen. During his years at the university, he experienced some of his most carefree, happiest times, although he never lost sight of his educational goals and was a very serious student. He lived at the prestigious student residence Regensen, where he became “Klokker,” or head student. He continued to be active as a writer and, though enrolled as a student of theology, underwent considerable inner turmoil regarding his own faith and whether his life should be spent as a priest or a writer. He ultimately became both.
At the University of Copenhagen, Munk began to write his first publicly produced play, Herod the King. He was preparing for his finals in theology when a professor happened to remark, in a lecture on Herod the Great, that it was too bad that William Shakespeare had never tried his hand at this material. The chance comment was taken as a challenge by the receptive student, and before finishing his finals, Munk had written four-fifths of the play, which he finished soon after assuming his duties as village priest at Vedersø.
Munk became pastor at Vedersø, a small village on the west coast of the Danish mainland, in 1924. His friends could not believe that, having been so happy in the city, he could tolerate for long the life of the small town. In fact, life was somewhat difficult for a time, but he became very fond of the area and beloved by its people. He was married to a young woman who was a native of the area, Lise Jørgensen, on January 13, 1929. During the years that followed, Munk’s fame—as a playwright, public speaker, and journalist—increased. Nevertheless, he was always a pastor first. He never neglected his duties toward his flock and, in spite of his increasing fame and wealth, remained humble and dutiful in visiting his parishioners and in carrying out his duties where they were concerned. He even took a certain satisfaction in the knowledge that his words and thoughts, which originated in such an unimportant place, could have a significant impact on the outside world.
During these early years at Vedersø, Munk began to achieve success as a playwright, beginning with the presentation by the Copenhagen Royal Theater of Herod the King in 1928. He went on to write more than thirty plays, and by the late 1930’s, Munk productions were being simultaneously presented in as many as nine principal cities in Denmark and Sweden. As Munk was both a preacher and a playwright, he often mixed the two. He considered drama to be, among other things, one way of preaching the word of God. Some of his plays are thus quite didactic, although he always sought first to entertain.
As the world, and particularly Europe, became ever more involved in conflict, Munk’s plays began to take on decidedly political overtones. He Sits at the Melting Pot, written in 1938, is very critical of the Germans, especially of their attitude toward Jews. After the Occupation, which took place on April 9, 1940, Munk continued to write critical political drama, such as Niels Ebbesen, written in 1940, and Before Cannae, of 1943. Much of his writing in the last few years of his life was suppressed by the Occupation forces. It nevertheless was widely dispersed and had a great impact, both at home and abroad. Munk felt himself especially akin to Niels Ebbesen, the Jutland patriot who had successfully defied the Germans six hundred years earlier.
When Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini first took power, Munk had actually admired them and had considered a strongman type of government desirable. He became increasingly disenchanted with the developments in Europe, however, and became both a dedicated and an effective critic of Nazism. Munk refused to still his criticism even when ordered to do so by the Danish Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, which in March, 1943, in a circular addressed to members of the clergy, instructed them to abstain from all public comment on the struggle of the Norwegian Church. In an open letter to the minister, Munk wrote, “I hereby take the liberty to inform the honored Church Ministry that I intend not only to disobey its orders, but to act directly against them. . . . It is better that Denmark be endangered in her relations to Germany than in her relations to our Lord Jesus Christ.” In a similar vein, in a sermon entitled “Render Therefor unto Caesar the Things That Are Caesar’s and unto God the Things That Are God’s,” Munk said:Much might be demanded of us: our money, our labor, the best years of our youth, our health, our very lives. But if Caesar demands that we call black white, tyranny freedom, violence justice, and falsehood truth, we shall answer him: “It is written, thou shall have no other gods but me. . . . By our death we shall conquer. We must obey God before man.
Little of what Munk wrote or preached during the Occupation was not directed in some way or another at the Germans. Although other notables fled to Sweden or elsewhere, he refused to do so, preferring instead to remain, to do what he could and to face the consequences. He concluded his final sermon, on New Year’s Day, 1944, with these words: “Therefore he who knows what is right and does not do it, for him it is a sin.” He then encouraged his parishioners to continue the struggle against the Nazis. On January 4, at about eight o’clock in the evening, a car arrived, filled with five agents of the Gestapo. Under orders from Berlin, Munk was taken from his wife and five children and was shot in the head and left in a roadside ditch. Munk had become too much of a thorn in the side of the Germans. Ironically, by murdering him, they made of him a martyr and an even more potent adversary.