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The farce of the Nobel Peace Prize

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

Betraying the Nobel: The Secrets and Corruption Behind the Nobel Peace Prize Unni Turrettini, with a foreword by Michael Nobel

Pegasus, pp.304, 20

Betraying the Nobel opens with a detonation from Michael Nobel, Alfred’s great-grandnephew. The vice-chairman and then chairman of the Nobel Family Society for 15 years, Michael believes that the Nobel Peace Institute has betrayed the ‘original conditions of Alfred Nobel’s will and intentions’. Its selection process is ‘very sketchy’ and its committee of Norwegian parliamentarians reflects the balance of power in their parliament. Its awards follow ‘personal interests’, ‘political and national considerations’ and ‘human rights or global warming’, all of which have ‘little or nothing’ to do with Alfred Nobel’s bequest.

The Prize was a dynamite idea when it was founded in 1900. What better way to avoid war than to recycle the profits from explosives into an incentive scheme for perpetual peace? But, as Unni Turrettini describes in her efficient and quietly devastating account, the Peace Prize soon fell to secret horse-trading, moral grandstanding and what one Norwegian parliamentarian calls ‘the privatisation of foreign policy’.

Alfred Nobel, the Swedish engineer who had stabilised nitroglycerine in 1863, began selling it to miners as ‘Safety Powder’ in 1867. Safety Powder created the St Gotthard tunnel through the Alps. It also killed Tsar Alexander II when assassins lobbed a dynamite-filled bomb at his carriage. Nobel died in San Remo in 1896, aged 63. Childless and unhappy — his mother had blocked a love match with Bertha Kinsky, an idealistic Russian countess — the ‘Dynamite King’ bequeathed annual prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature, to be administrated by apolitical Swedish institutions; the Karolinska Institute, a medical university, awards the medicine prize. A fifth, in memory of Bertha’s values, was to be granted by the Norwegian parliament.


Bertha received the Peace Prize in 1905, but the committee didn’t do badly in its early decades. It managed to vote down nominees such as Mussolini (1935), Hitler (1939, allegedly as a joke) and Stalin (seriously in 1945 and 1948). It missed Gandhi, probably to avoid antagonising the British, but it bravely recognised Carl von Ossietzky (1935), a German pacifist imprisoned by the Nazis. Two pro-German members resigned.

The Ossietzky controversy accelerated the Peace Prize’s conversion into a weapon of Norwegian foreign policy. Postwar Norway allied with the US, but the nominations also reflected Norway’s ‘love affair with the United Nations’ and its aspirations towards becoming what Henrik Thune, the current director of Norway’s foreign policy institute, calls ‘a secret superpower within peace and reconciliation’. Hence Cordell Hull (1945), FDR’s secretary of state and the ‘father of the UN’. Hence, too, the career soldier George C. Marshall (1953) and the necessary Cold War equivalency of Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (1973) and Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat (1978).

The appointment of Geir Lundestad as secretary of the Nobel Peace Institute in 1990 was a watershed. Lundestad converted the award ceremony into a ‘grandiose show, resembling the Grammy Awards’. He raised the Institute’s profile, but this increased its financial dependency on the Norwegian government. With the Soviet threat gone and Norway’s social-democratic consensus ossified, a barely repressed tendency to moral pomp now ran wild.

The Prize slowly changed into a spark i leggen (a ‘kick in the leg’) against the Americans. After 9/11, it went to the UN and Kofi Annan (2001) and Jimmy Carter (2002) for not being George W. Bush; Mohamed El Baradei of the IAEA (2005), who ‘took sides in conflicts and hid information from the public in order to protect certain member states’; the climate alarmist Al Gore (2007); and Barack Obama (2009) for winning an election while black.

The committee could not have known that Begin (1978) would invade Lebanon in 1982, or that Obama would step up his predecessor’s drone wars and destroy Libya. But only vanity could have masked the unsuitability of the Guatemalan ‘guerrilla fighter’ Rigoberta Menchú (1992), whose bestselling autobiography had already been discredited by a New York Times investigation; the professional terrorist and KGB client Yasser Arafat (1994); and Ellen Sirleaf (2011), a Liberian politician who had served in the government of the dictator Samuel Doe and been banned from participating in politics by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that she herself had established.

The Nobel has succumbed to the politicised inertia that has sapped the independence and judgment of similar philanthropic monsters, such as the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. The Peace Prize is now more likely to go to sainted abstractions such as the European Union (2012) than to actual peacemakers. If the prize really followed Alfred Nobel’s wishes, 2020’s winners should have been Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE. That this seems comically impossible shows how far the Nobel has drifted into partisan theatre. Turrettini provides a detailed account of how it all went wrong. The capsule biographies of the less worthy winners are especially droll.

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