Peace campaigners tend not to be very effective, as Jay Nordlinger’s entertaining and readable history of the Nobel Peace Prize shows. The first decade of the 20th century was the climax of the first great era of peace campaigning: it culminated in the First World War. The horrors of that war not unnaturally caused good men and women to redouble their efforts. Yet the next two decades ended not with universal peace and brotherhood, but the Second World War.
Many of those worthies were early recipients of the Nobel, launched in 1901 five years after Alfred Nobel’s death: men like the 1903 laureate Sir Randal Cremer, a Liberal MP who co-founded the Inter-Parliamentary Union with one of the inaugural winners, Frédéric Passy. In his Nobel lecture, Cremer proclaimed of his fellow peace advocates: “The darkness is ending, a new day is dawning, and the future is ours. Hurrah! Hurrah!” That was fairly typical of the Nobel mindset, then and now.
The 1906 winner, Theodore Roosevelt, then President of the United States, was most certainly not. He was awarded the prize for his efforts in ending the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, in which some 200,000 people had died. In his Nobel lecture he took a very different tack: “Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness . . . No man is worth calling a man who will not fight rather than submit to infamy or see those that are dear to him suffer wrong.” Nordlinger comments: “Very, very seldom has a Nobel peace lecture sounded this way — indeed, pretty much never.”
More’s the pity. The Nobel committee has always oscillated between rewarding the pacifists and those who achieve peace through strength of arms, but the Cremers of this world, however well-meaning, have carried it off far more often than the Roosevelts. Many organisations have been awarded it too, from the outstandingly deserving — the International Red Cross (three times), to the much less so. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (1985), an organisation co-founded by Dr Evgeny Chazov, a member of the central committee of that well-known instrument of peace, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In 1973 Chazov had signed a letter denouncing Dr Andrei Sakharov, the 1975 Nobel peace laureate, which launched the official campaign of persecution against him — a perfect example of the Nobel committee’s misguided attempts at even-handedness or, put another way, blind stupidity.
That was never more evident than in 1992 when the award went to Rigoberta Menchu, a 33-year-old Mayan woman from Guatemala, largely on the basis of her autobiography, which was later shown to be largely fictitious. Still, that hasn’t stopped her becoming a sort of professional Nobel laureate, a Unesco “goodwill ambassador” championing the latest modish causes, as well as being garlanded by Fidel Castro. As Nordlinger deftly points out, many previously obscure Nobel prizewinners, such as the Irish peace campaigners Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire, are captured by the Left in similar fashion, touring the world to denounce the US and, in particular, Israel.
Among the duds, there remain of course some magnificent winners: Lech Walesa, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, and in 2010 the (still) imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, whose case bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the 1935 laureate, Carl von Ossietsky, a German pacifist jailed by the Nazis. Tortured and broken, he died in 1938 in a sanatorium. One hopes that, unlike Ossietsky, Liu will eventually be allowed to collect his award in Oslo. Meanwhile, the Chinese, like their Nazi and Soviet predecessors, have set up a rival peace prize. Last year, this Confucius Prize was awarded to . . . Vladimir Putin.