Nobel Peace Prize (1901-1933): The Great Illusion
Written by Eric Walberg    Saturday, 20 November 2010 04:58    PDF Print E-mail

Everyone knows that Alfred Nobel created his eponymous Peace Prize partly to assuage his guilt for unleashing dynamite on an already saber-rattling world. Fewer know that he wrote at the time that if the world still needed the prize 30 years later, we would "inevitably lapse into barbarism".

Still fewer know that he 'invented' MAD (mutually assured destruction), long before the atom bomb. He once speculated to his assistant, friend and future Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bertha Suttner (1905) that he would like to invent "a substance or a machine with such terrible power of mass destruction that war would therefore be made impossible forever".

His own proposal for world peace was "a treaty by which the governments bound themselves jointly to defend any country that was attacked. By degrees this would lead to partial disarmament, which is the only thing possible, since there must be an armed force for the maintenance of order."

In a cloak-and-dagger finish to his career as inventor-philanthropist, his hand-written will, composed without a lawyer a year before his sudden death in 1896, was contested by a shocked family (he was a bachelor with no children), delaying the awarding of the first prizes. He added a whiff of anti-colonialism to the prize by entrusting it to Sweden's quasi-colony Norway, which achieved complete independence only in 1905.

Now that the prize is alive and well 110+ years on and more than 100 million war dead later, it is worth looking back at some of the more outstanding or unusual winners. It is a motley crew to say the least, including Teddy Roosevelt (1906), Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (1973), Begin and Sadat  (1978), Arafat, Peres and Rabin (1994) and Obama (2009) to name the most controversial winners. In defense of the peace prize committee, it has been argued that it made its awards with a healthy dose of wishful thinking, hoping to give its blessing to intractable problems.

20 times it has gone to organizations (4 times alone to the Red Cross – 1901, 1917, 1944, 1963), despite Nobel's express wish that it should not go to organizations, but to committed individuals. 20 times it was not awarded at all, most recently in 1966-7 and 1972, due to war and committee discord. So far only 51 times has it been awarded to one individual, 24 times jointly, 12 times to women. Once the award was refused (Le Duc Tho), once awarded posthumously (Dag Hammarskjold in 1961) and once awarded to a previous Nobel laureate (Linus Pauling was awarded the chemistry prize (1954) and peace prize (1963)). The greatest peacenik of the 20th c, Mahatma Ghandi, was nominated 4 times (shortlisted with Adolph Hitler in 1938) and passed over 4 times.

Sometimes it balanced a pacifist like Jane Addams(1931) with a strident critic of pacifism (Nicholas Butler); sometimes it threw the prize money at wealthy public figures with little to recommend them, as in 1925 (Sir Austen Chamberlain and Charles Gates Dawes). It has generally been the kiss of death for politicians, as Mikhail Gorbachev (1990), Shimon Peres (1994), Kim Dae Jung (2000) and Barack Obama have discovered. Lester Pearson was the only Canadian to win (1957), and it can be argued it did him little good politically.

Browsing through the official site, I have found a few gems. In this 2-part survey, I would like to highlight a few dark horses and reflect on the changing face of the Nobel Peace Prizes over the past 110 years.

Before WWI, it was awarded mostly for humanitarian work, to the organized peace movement, or to prominent members of the establishment promoting mediation, arbitration and international law. After the disarmament conference in The Hague called with great pomp by Tsar Nicholas in 1899, the burning question was 'Does disarmament lead to peace or must we build an international order to obviate the need for arms?' The sad story of disarmament campaigns since then can only be rivaled by the even sadder story of attempts to build an international order that can do away with the need for arms.

The inter-war years were the period in which major liberal-conservative politicians predominated as laureates, beginning with Woodrow Wilson, the second American president to win the Prize (1919) for his efforts to establish the League of Nations.

A winner who is now largely forgotten is the 1933 recipient Sir Norman Angell, like Nobel a life-long bachelor, born to a well-to-do British family. He was slight and only 5’ tall, but took to the road at 17, emigrating to America to work as a ditch digger, cowpuncher, homesteader, prospector, and, finally, reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. He returned to England, became a pacifist, and wrote his best-selling The Great Illusion (1910, revised 1933), in which he posited that the common economic interests of nations make war futile. He tried in vain to keep Britain out of WWI, was a fierce critic of the Versailles treaty, became a Labour MP (1929-31), and was knighted in 1931.

The cult popularity of The Great Illusion gave rise to  "Norman Angellism", which holds that "military and political power give a nation no commercial advantage, and it is impossible for one nation to enrich itself by subjugating another." Angell wrote close to 50 books over a long career as peacenik, with such prescient titles as America and the New World-State: A Plea for American Leadership in International Organization (1915) and America's Dilemma: Alone or Allied? (1940), and died in 1967 at the age of 94.

I can't prove it, but I suspect Angell's first and best book was the inspiration for Jean Renoir's anti-war film of 1937 La Grande Illusion, since its theme -- that war corrupts both victor and victim -- is Angell's very thesis. "Wars destroy in a few months what took a society centuries to build," wrote Renoir in 1974.

The following excerpts from Angell's Peace Prize speech "Peace and the Public Mind" give an idea of his penetrating logic.

In the year that Hitler came to power, he wrote:
Nationalism is a gravely dangerous because it "finds response in deep human impulses, instincts, in psychological facts which we must face.”
Peace through strengthen "defies alike ethics, equality of right, and arithmetic… Each denies to the other the right he claims for himself.” The argument goes: "We give you our most positive assurance that that power will be used purely for defense. And by defense we mean this: that when we get into a dispute with you as to our respective rights, when, that is, the question is whether you are right or we are right, what we mean by defense is that we shall always be in a position to be sole judge of the question. And so much stronger than you, that you will have to accept our verdict without any possibility of appeal. Could anything be fairer?"

As the League of Nations withered on the vine, he put the case for collective action clearly:
"We use power, of course, in the international fields in a way which is the exact contrary to the way in which we use it within the state. In the international field, force is the instrument of the rival litigants, each attempting to impose his judgment upon the other. Within the state, force is the instrument of the community, the law, primarily used to prevent either of the litigants imposing by force his view upon the other. The normal purpose of police - to prevent the litigant taking the law into his own hands, being his own judge - is the precise contrary of the normal purpose in the past of armies and navies, which has been to enable the litigant to be his own judge of his own rights when in conflict about them with another. In the days when every householder had firearms as a matter of course, when the security of each household depended mainly upon its own powers of defense, highwaymen and bandits were very much more common than they are now when not one house in a thousand has any firearm at all. Plainly, therefore, the relatively greater security of today is not due to the improvement of household firearms because they do not exist. The improvement is due to the development of the collective method of defense within the state.

While national economies moldered in the Great Depression, he wrote:
"Wealth, in our modern world of intricate division of labor is a flow, a process, analogous to keeping the traffic moving upon the highways of the world. If that traffic is blocked, as it inevitably is blocked, by the dislocations that follow wars, such as unpayable debts, which create in their turn a maldistribution of monetary gold, which involves in its turn dislocation of the whole credit and monetary system, disorganization of the exchanges -- if that sort of thing happens, then material ceases to be wealth. The Brazilian burns his coffee, the Norwegian his fish, but neither burns the coal of the British miner, who goes without both the coffee and the fish. But traffic can be kept moving in one way only, by traffic rules. But a great popular press in Britain protests clamantly every time an international conference is called for.”

His argument concerning human nature vs behaviour:
"Nine out of 10 of the critics of the peace movement get the argument turned upside down. 'You cannot change human nature' has become a sort of incantation with those critics. Perhaps you cannot 'change human nature' -- I don't indeed know what the phrase means. But you can certainly change human behavior, which is what matters, as the whole panorama of history shows.”

To the extent that Canada still has sovereignty as a small nation, Angell gives some hope:
"It is the little states, like this one of Norway, which have today evolved the highest civilization and the greatest social stability, have developed, more than others, the art of free and peaceful life together. They, more than others, may show the way by which the world may be led to security and peace.” (2002, revised 2011)


From Peace & Socialism

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Eric Walberg

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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.