Taking ‘Peace’ Out of the Nobel Peace Prize

Despite the occasional polite nod to Alfred Nobel, the committee — which will name this year’s award on Saturday — has never made known his vision of peace through global demilitarization, writes Fredrik S. Heffermehl.

The Storting, or parliament building, in Oslo, Norway. (Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org, CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia Commons)

By Fredrik S. Heffermehl
in Oslo
Special to Consortium News

This week one hundred years have passed since the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave the peace prize for 1922 to Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian polar explorer, scientist and thinker who was later named Norwegian of the Century.

Norwegians were jubilant to see him receive Nobel honors, but the world had every reason to regret it as a farewell to Alfred Nobel´s great donation for global peace.

According to the Nobel Committee it was Nansen’s “work for prisoners of war and starving people that secured Nansen the Peace Prize.” Great humanitarian work to alleviate the consequences of war is a worthy cause, but Nobel had higher ambitions: a prize to end war by global co-operation on peace and disarmament.

Prevention is much better than repair. In his will, Nobel described the type of recipients and the type of peace work he had in mind for his “prize for champions of peace.” It is filled with  language about the community of nations, disarmament and peace congresses.

Norwegian scientist and diplomat Fritjof Nansen. (Henry Van der Weyde, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

The committee had never done its first and most basic duty.  It had never checked what Nobel himself wanted for his prize as described in his will.

Instead, it handed out its own prize, based on its own interpretation of a word — peace —  a word that, over the years, it has imbued with an increasingly free and limitless content.

Could the executors of a will have committed a more egregious failure?

In countless articles and speeches by laureates, the committee was constantly reminded of Nobel’s vision of peace through global demilitarization but it has ignored it.

I found this out when I studied the committee’s internal archives for my latest book, A Farewell to War (as yet only available in Norwegian).

Thus, we may fairly assume that the committee in 1922 chose Nansen with full knowledge that it did not respect Nobel’s will.

A new mentality took hold. From now on, Nobel’s intention expressed in his will would have little influence on the awards. Despite the occasional polite nod to the name Nobel, the committee has never, as it should, made known his ideas for peace.

I rediscovered the wording of the will in 2007. After 110 years, it was high time to make this known, but neither the Storting (Norwegian Parliament) nor the Nobel Committee showed the slightest interest.

In 2008 I published the book Nobel’s Will, the first known, professional interpretation of the document.  

[Related: 2021 Nobel Peace Prize: Freedom for the Press or the US?]

Nobel himself called it the “prize for champions of peace.” But when he died in 1896 the political winds had turned. Norway then feared that war might be necessary to break free from the union with Sweden.

In my latest book I surmise that the presidents of Norway’s Parliament in chambers quietly decided to disregard the clear words of the will on “reduction or abolition of standing armies.” Instead, they called it the “Peace Prize” and elected themselves to form a majority in the five-member award committee to give out the prize as they saw fit.

Worst Decade in Prize’s History

Portrait of Alfred Nobel, circa 1901. (Public domain)

The award fell to the U.S. president, Teddy Roosevelt, in 1906 but not for the  kind of popular peace work Nobel would have supported. The award to Nansen in 1922 then ushered in the worst decade in the history of the peace prize.

The First World War had weakened the belief that militarism could be reined in. Awards to hawkish politicians became common.

In 1929 the award, with every reason, paid tribute to the Briand-Kellogg Pact, a ground-breaking treaty against war. Tucked away in the Nobel Committee’s archives, I found that the nominees who should have received the honor that year, Salmon O. Levinsohn, Charles C. Morrison and John Dewey, were denied.

These intellectual giants had mobilized a major movement in the United States to end war with a total ban.

Instead, the Norwegian Nobel Committee, led by Norway’s combined prime minister and foreign minister, Johan Ludwig Mowinckel, awarded the prize to statesman Frank Kellogg, the U.S. secretary of state.

With this, it became very clear that a committee controlled by parliament was not the best suited to strengthen popular pressure for world peace on political leaders.

“War cannot be regulated or controlled, it creates its own merciless laws; the whole system of war, with its web of power and its portent of death, must be uprooted, rejected, declared illegal – abolished.” That was how the Outlawry movement of Levinsohn, Morrison and Dewey formulated their views at the time.

Many have said the same over the years, expressing ideas very far from the political culture that dominates today. The demand for the demilitarization of international politics may seem to be a political idea threatened with extinction.

A main task for the Nobel Committee should be to stimulate an open debate about creating a global order of peace. Unfortunately, all too often, as with the latest prize shared between dissidents in Russia and Belarus, and a supporter of President Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine, the committee has returned to its Cold War line.

The prize becomes a participant, taking sides in a war, rather than against it. It may be time to take awarding of this prize out of the hands of politicians.

Fredrik S. Heffermehl is a lawyer and author. His latest book is The Reverse of the Medal.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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13 comments for “Taking ‘Peace’ Out of the Nobel Peace Prize

  1. Dr. Hujjathullah M.H.B. Sahib
    December 11, 2022 at 12:27

    This is clearly a revealing piece by the learned Heffermehl, bringing out the real pacific intent of Nobel’s will and the sad fact of it having been bent and put to convictional abuse ending up serving the realpolitik interests of Norwegian foreign policy in particular and the Western geopolitical (broadly-defined) agenda of extending its global reach, influence and control generally. It is laudable that despite having built up his fortune including via explosives manufacturing, Nobel also had the altruistic objective of securing, unbelievably, global disarmament, demilitarization and elimination of war too. It is unfortunate that the Norwegian Nobel Prize committee subsequently miscarried Nobel’s peaceful testament and unethically began bestowing it also on either unsavoury characters like Wilson, Kissinger and worse Begin or on lackeys unabashedly serving Western ideological agenda like Sakharov, Walesa, Aung San Suu Kyi and debateably also on Le Duc Tho and yes more famously Gorbachev instead of more deservedly on the Outlawry movement and down to the many other pacific institutional prospective awardees and on truely distinguished personalities like Eisenhower, Kennedy, Mohammed Ali, Leo Tolstoy and contemporarily even on Putin, don’t laugh, remember he had patiently endured highly provocative aggressors against captive ethnic Russians for over 7 or 8 years despite having the clear R2P and all the powerful means to deliver it ! Anyway, is the Nobel Prize actually a “Peace Prize”, a “Piece Prize” (under both of which Gorbachev richly merited it) or gradually a “Puss-puss Prize” (for the increasing numbers of snowflake awardees who neither worked for peace nor delivered any piece) ? Still, despite the UN having been a joke, it has been allowed to continue unreformed, so why not also show the Nobel Prize too a similar unreformable tolerance after the initial testamentary betrayal ?

  2. W A Zdaniewski
    December 10, 2022 at 18:18

    See Rebecas Gordon “American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes”.

    Peace prize winner Barak Obama is listed there.

    Kissinger another famous war criminal.

    Milton Friedman et al. were crookes whoe ruined the economy in Chile.

  3. Alan Ross
    December 10, 2022 at 11:43

    Rename it the Ignobel Peace Prize?

  4. Vera Gottlieb
    December 10, 2022 at 10:50

    I can no longer respect an organization that granted the Nobel prize to Barack Obama.

    • December 11, 2022 at 07:42

      You are right as he won the prize while at war, and this is as oxymoronic as it can get. The general public have no clue as to what the actual purpose of the prize was, and this has been by design. I would say that Julein Assange would be a better candidate for the prize than any of the recipients from the beginning. Nobel would not be happy about what they have done in his name. Thank you Vera.

  5. WillD
    December 9, 2022 at 21:53

    Awarding it this year to the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties was a mistake, as, by the time of the award in October, Ukraine is no longer a democracy – having banned opposition parties and censored the media.

    The Nobel committee also made the mistake of openly taking sides in the conflict as outlined on its website, thus discrediting itself even further.

    I lost respect for it when it awarded the Peace Prize prematurely to Obama, who then went on to clearly and visibly not deserve it.

    • December 11, 2022 at 07:52

      Zelensky being considered for the prize is as insane as awarding it to Hitler as they are cut from the same cloth. This just shows how insane the world has become since the Kennedy coup took place. The best men and women do not go into politics unfortunately when they do, they are murdered If you look, we have been at war for over a century. If anyone is familiar with Smedley Darlington Butler, Major General, USMC he wrote a little book called war is a racket and he would know. F. William Engdahl has written extensively on the history of war and the who and why.

  6. December 9, 2022 at 21:45

    Very sad, but it’s to be expected from any political group in today’s “fractionalized” world. The dominance of the US/UK cabal in global affairs has to end for the very existance of humanity. I am elderly, & have lived in ignorance of the US domination around the world. & the strife it has caused.

  7. rgl
    December 9, 2022 at 15:09

    Alfred Nobel’s peace prize has become a global joke. O’bomb’em? A ‘peace’ prize winner? It is to laugh. This thing is nothing more than a very bad joke.

  8. Andrew Nichols
    December 9, 2022 at 14:13

    Stockholm,Martha Gelhorn and AlQuds prizes are peace prizes. The NPP is a debased reward for the person who serves Western Mainly White Minority World jdeology the best in any calendar Year.

  9. Em
    December 9, 2022 at 13:34

    Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to any Ukrainian organization; especially that the regime it represents perpetrated an uninterrupted mass slaughter of its Russian speaking populace, in the east of the country, for 8 years preceding Russia’s intervention to rescue those who were being massacred, is just as laughable as it was to award the prize to Barak Obama just after he became president; before his international slaughter of innocents worldwide, in the name of US hegemony.

    For me, this points to Nobel’s prizes themselves as being nothing more than an oligarchs elitist self-promotion, and formal elevation of academia, in general, to the class above mere mortal.

    What a sickening joke!

  10. Altruist
    December 9, 2022 at 13:24

    The Nobel Prizes – especially those based on subjective categories such as “peace” and “literature” – shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Great accomplishments will be recognized for what they are, regardless of chest medals and prize money handed out by the Swedish Academy, which don’t have any special competence in recognizing merit.

    Looking at the list of winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, there many nonentities, a few persons who really deserved the recognition – like Bertha von Suttner and Martin Luther King – and some persons whose being awarded this prize can only be considered as grotesque – the likes of Kissinger, Woodrow Wilson, and the various Middle East “peacemakers” like Begin, Sadat, Perez, Rabin and Arafat. Or for that matter the International Committee of the Red Cross (multiple prizes, including in 1944), which had close working relations with Nazi Germany, with nurses serving in concentration camps. And some people were awarded this prize for having done nothing at all, like Barack Obama, who seemed embarrassed having received it, but failed to make the honorable move of rejecting it (as was done by Le Duc Tho).

    On the other hand. real peacemakers like Mohandas Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy didn’t receive this prize (the latter also failing to receive the Nobel Literature Prize).

  11. JonnyJames
    December 9, 2022 at 12:49

    Agreed. Henry Kissinger (is still alive) has a so-called peace prize, as does Barack Obama. They might as well give one to Bush Jr. and Joe Biden as well. The prize has become something of a sarcastic joke. Nobel prize for slick-talking warmongers and war criminals.

    Similarly: The prize for economics usually goes to a right-wing ideologue espousing ‘neoliberal’ or monetarist nonsense. See Milton Friedman et al. Ask Prof. Michael Hudson about that…

    Rhetorical question: Whose interests do these “Nobel prizes” serve?

Comments are closed.