‘The ignoble Nobel’

‘The ignoble Nobel’ by Tariq Ali for the Guardian, December 7, 2002

On Tuesday, former US president Jimmy Carter will fly to Oslo and receive the Nobel Peace Prize from the unassuming bicycling monarch of Norway. Why him? Why now? And what is the real aim of the peace prize?

When it was first established in 1900, the Nobel committee clearly thought it should be awarded to people who really did believe in peaceful solutions and non-violence. Accordingly, in 1901, the first brace of recipients were Jean Henry Dumont, the Swiss founder of the Red Cross, and Frédéric Passy, the French dreamer who founded the International League for a Permanent Peace. Similar recipients were sought and found over the next four years.

A rearguard action must have been mounted soon after, because in 1906 the prize was awarded to Theodore Roosevelt, the US president. To be fair, this swashbuckling, aggressive leader never hid his love of war and adventure. In The Rough Riders (1899), a riveting account of the Spanish-American war (which led to the establishment of the base atGuantanamo Bay), Teddy describes an engagement with the Spanish enemy in Cuba: “By this time we were all in the spirit of the thing and greatly excited by the charge, the men cheering and running forward between shots, while the delighted faces of the foremost officers, like Captain CJ Stevens, of the Ninth, as they ran at the head of their troops, will always stay in my mind.”

The imperial resolve of the old warrior is admired to this day. Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, has a plaque in his office with a quotation from Roosevelt in praise of war and empire. The prescience of the Nobel committee can only be admired.

The decision must have led to a vigorous debate in which the doves triumphed. For the next four years, the prize was awarded to genuine peace activists. Soon after, the blood of the first world war soiled the drawing rooms of the belle époque. A traumatised Nobel committee went into hibernation. No prizes were awarded between 1914 and 1919, with the exception of the prize given to the Red Cross in 1917.

This is slightly surprising since there was no shortage of distinguished thinkers and politicians opposed to the war: Keir Hardie and Bertrand Russell in Britain; the French Socialist leader, Jean Jaures, who was assassinated for his hostility to the conflict; the German Socialist member of parliament, Karl Liebknecht, who voted against war credits in the Reichstag and declared that “a patriot was an international blackleg”, and his colleague Rosa Luxemburg, who was imprisoned for her fiery anti-war speeches; and yes, two unknown Russian exiles, Lenin and Trotsky, who convened a European conference in the Swiss town of Zimmerwald to oppose the war. None of these people was considered suitable for the prize.

There was no doubt in 1920. The architect of the Treaty of Versailles was the unanimous choice of the committee. Both variants of US imperial power – Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson – had now been rewarded. A pity that no member of the committee had bothered to read Keynes’ lucid pamphlet, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which predicted the dire results that led to the rise of fascism in Germany.

Throughout the 1920s, the committee reflected a pathetic helplessness in the face of a growing crisis. Politicians, usually of the same liberal-conservative stripe, were regularly rewarded. During the 1930s, world politics was dominated by the fascist victories in Italy, Germany and Spain, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the eruption of a mass non-violent struggle against the British empire in India. The committee, sensitive to these developments, was divided. In 1938, the shortlist for the prize was headed by Hitler and Gandhi. The choice proved too difficult for the mandarins. The prize ultimately went to the Nansen International Office of Refugees.

The committee’s inclusion of Hitler appears shocking today, but at the time many in the west regarded the German Führer as a bulwark against Bolshevism. Earlier, the American writer Gertrude Stein had come out for Hitler getting the prize. “I say that Hitler ought to have the peace prize, because he is removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany,” she wrote in the New York Times magazine in May 1934. “By driving out the Jews and the democratic and left element, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace… By suppressing Jews… he was ending struggle in Germany.”

In 1938, Time magazine had made Hitler its “Man of the Year” with an appreciative profile and in Britain, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, had no doubt that an Anglo-German deal was vital for world peace. Hitler’s pre-invasion rhetoric, too, emphasised his desire for peace. The invasions were presented as defensive, humanitarian operations, necessitated by the threat posed to the Third Reich or ethnic Germans by Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, etc.

The committee decided that if Hitler was not acceptable, then neither was Gandhi. But did it ever consider giving them a joint prize, as became the norm later in that century?read more

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