Award ceremony speech

Presentation Speech by Fredrik Stang*, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, on December 10, 1922

I take pleasure in announcing that this year’s Peace Prize has been awarded to Professor Fridtjof Nansen.

Work of an international character carried out by Mr. Nansen during these past years has brought him the Peace Prize. I might especially mention his work in the repatriation of prisoners of war, his work for the Russian refugees, his work in aiding the millions in Russia struggling against famine, and now his work for the refugees in Asia Minor and Thrace. Although this activity has been in progress for only a few years, its extent and significance are such that the Nobel Committee has felt it worthy of the great distinction of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Those of us who have remained at home, following events only through the newspapers, have had but isolated glimpses of all this. We have seen how great international tasks have again and again been entrusted to Nansen. We have seen him appear as the High Commissioner of the League of Nations1, its representative and plenipotentiary. We have seen him negotiating with representatives of nearly every country in Europe or with agencies created under his administration. We see him incessantly on the move: one day we read in a cable that he is having talks with Lloyd George2 in London; then we suddenly learn that he has gone to Rome for a conference with the Pope. Next he is in Russia to study the famine at first hand and to negotiate with the Soviet government; typhus claims some of his closest collaborators, but he himself, as so often before, emerges safe and sound from the danger. Another day he is to be found in the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva, pleading the cause of humanity in the face of all political prejudices. Then he is off once more on his travels, most recently to Constantinople and Greece, until he now stands for a moment among us, in his homeland, to receive the Peace Prize awarded to him without his even having been aware of his candidacy.

Nansen’s reports to the League of Nations and the records of its debates provide an authentic and comprehensive account of his activities during these years3. I shall try, with the aid of this material, to give an outline of the principal facts.

In April, 1920, the League of Nations charged Professor Nansen with the direction of the repatriation of the prisoners of war who had not yet been exchanged. He was authorized to negotiate with the various governments and to cooperate with the organizations which had already begun this work.

There were then about half a million people languishing in Europe and Asia, still waiting to return to their homes. The greater part of them had been made prisoners during the gigantic struggle between Russia and Germany in the early years of the war. So they had been waiting for four, five, and even six years. Most of them had suffered exceedingly, both physically and mentally. Homeless, starved, tortured, unwanted where they were, they longed to return to the homes from which they had been torn and where they were now anxiously awaited.

As representative of the League of Nations, Nansen immediately approached the Soviet and German governments, as well as those of a number of other states, and concluded agreements for the delivery of the prisoners and for their board and transport. Relying particularly on using the Baltic route, he succeeded, after considerable difficulty, in chartering some of the ships which Germany was to deliver to England under the terms of the peace treaty4. These were used for the repatriation of the prisoners which now proceeded quickly and at unexpectedly low cost. Some of the prisoners, those from Eastern Siberia, had to be sent home via Vladivostok, others through the Black Sea, thus creating more serious problems as well as entailing more time.

The greatest difficulty, however, was in raising the required funds, for it was necessary to arrange governmental loans to a number of the Central European states whose prisoners were to be returned. This took some time but was successfully accomplished in the end.

In September, 1921, Nansen was able to report to the League of Nations that it had been possible to repatriate 350,000 prisoners via the Baltic, 12,000 via Vladivostok, and 5,000 via the Black Sea. His task was practically finished.

But even before it could be concluded, Nansen was given another and still more difficult one.

Russian refugees had settled all over Europe, their number being estimated at one and a half million. Some of them had managed to obtain work and put down roots where they were. But many were without work or resources and consequently were a burden to the countries in which they lived.

In June, 1921, the Council of the League of Nations decided to appoint a High Commissioner whose assignment would be to promote mutual cooperation between nations, with a view to transferring unemployed and needy prisoners to countries where work was available. In August, 1921, Nansen took over this post of High Commissioner.

His first job was to obtain a clear picture of this multitude of scattered and homeless human beings and to consider what future possibilities could be opened up for them. Having done this, he had to negotiate with countries which might be willing to accept Russian refugees and provide them with work and opportunity. Obviously, it was here that the greatest difficulties would be encountered.

Nansen started negotiations with a number of governments, and also appointed representatives who could negotiate on his behalf. As had to be expected, a number of states refused to accept any refugees. But many others responded favorably. Moreover, a large number of refugees originally from countries which were separated from Russia after the war – for example, many Estonians – were taken back home.

This work has already achieved a large measure of success. It has been hampered and delayed, however, by the inadequacy of the funds available. In one of his reports to the Council of the League of Nations, Nansen says that the whole problem could have been solved much more quickly if he had had at his disposal only a fraction of the huge sums which the governments paid out during a single year to support the Russian refugees.

With this work still in progress, Nansen received his third and most formidable mission.

The famine in Russia had assumed enormous proportions and threatened to ravage vast areas. The lives of twenty to thirty million people were at stake.

In August, 1921, Nansen was asked to direct the famine relief work. This time the request came not from the League of Nations but from a conference of governments and private organizations held in Geneva5.

From one point of view, Nansen’s task was not so difficult; for although millions in Russia were starving and approaching certain ruin unless they were given aid, there were huge quantities of grain in other countries. In the United States, for example, the wheat lay rotting for lack of buyers, and in Argentina there was such an abundance of maize that it was used as fuel for railway engines. Nor did the shipment of the grain to Russia present a great problem, since whole fleets of ships were lying idle. Moreover, the transport network inside Russia itself was adequate for the distribution of the grain, especially if it arrived before winter closed rivers and lakes.

There was, however, another and greater difficulty to be faced. In a world where nations, social classes, and individuals fought each other to further their own ideas and ambitions, there had to be created a feeling of solidarity strong enough to transcend national frontiers and political differences.

Nansen immediately approached the Soviet government and concluded an agreement on two points: first, that the grain sent would reach those for whom it was intended and, second, that Nansen would be empowered on behalf of the Soviet government to ask the European governments for a credit of ten million pounds.

The work of obtaining the grain supplies started without delay. Considerable sums of money were raised through private and semiofficial organizations and from private donations; and large shipments were made.

To solve the problem completely, it was essential to arrange a loan to Russia since it was decided that the scheme could not and should not be based on charity alone. This matter of a loan met with a serious obstacle, for the Soviet government was not recognized, nor the political system which it represented approved, by the other governments6. Consequently, in spite of the agreements concluded by Nansen, there were many who remained unconvinced that the aid given would really benefit those for whom it was intended.

Nansen’s hardest task was to break down this opposition. Time and again he turned to the League of Nations for moral support in his demand that credit be granted to the Russian state. In a powerful speech, the words of which still ring in our ears, he argued before the League of Nations that the rescue of millions from death by starvation should not be impeded by political considerations. Even if political considerations are taken into account, he says, they too indicate that aid must be given. For it is the very areas in Europe that have hitherto yielded the largest exports of grain which are now being devastated. Can Europe do without the Volga districts? Can it do without Russia? Some argue that to send grain to Russia is to aid the Soviet government. Nansen answers: I do not believe that we are supporting the Soviet simply because we are showing the Russian people that there is compassion in Europe. But suppose that such aid would support the Soviet – is there any man who dares come forward and say: It is better to allow twenty million people to die of starvation than to support the Soviet government?

It has not been possible to obtain the credit for Russia. States have contributed, Norway among others; private and semiofficial organizations have raised large sums of money; but the help which could have halted the disaster in the beginning has been withheld.

The consequence is that the work has not yielded the results which could have been achieved. Millions, it is true, have been helped, and in the end nearly ten million were being kept alive. But many have succumbed – between two and four million of them. And since the harvest this year was poor because the spring sowing was done by people who were starving and short of both seed corn and working beasts, we can predict that the distress will again be appalling when spring approaches.

Nansen has now been entrusted with a fourth mission of an international character. As the High Commissioner of the League of Nations, he is going to direct the work of aiding the unfortunate people of all races and religions who have become victims of the Greco-Turkish War. It is necessary above all to help the refugees who are now streaming in from Eastern Thrace and Asia Minor to the Balkan countries and Greece7. This work is now in progress, and the newspapers carry reports of it every day.

These are the missions with which Nansen has been charged and the work that he has accomplished, an account of which we wished to give here. He has found at his side, however, not only a great number of individuals, but also a series of organizations with which he has worked and which deserve a large share of the credit for the results obtained8.

The human mind cannot visualize this enormous activity any more than it can grasp astronomical figures. One starving person, one human being lying like forgotten wreckage on a street corner, wasting away bit by bit – this we understand; here our feeling is so strong it becomes compassion. One refugee, even a crowd of refugees, if you like, pushing their children and their possessions in wheelbarrows in front of them – this we understand. But millions of these, hunted like game from country to country, behind them the fires of their burning homes, before them the emptiness of a future over which they have no control – here our minds stop dead; instead of producing images, they merely play back the statistics presented to them. Charity on an intimate scale, even charity on a larger scale, for our countrymen or for our provinces – this is within our reach; this we understand. But a program whose aim is to rescue a continent’s millions from misery and death – this presents proportions so immense and involves such a myriad of jumbled details that we give up and allow our minds to rest.

It will be the task of future generations to give this work its proper place in world history. We who have lived through it can merely make a few observations upon it.

And that is what I wish to do now.

What is it that has sustained the work? Is it the functioning of the ordinary machinery of nations? Is it the stirring of the consciences of politicians and statesmen which has found such magnificent expression? Oh, no! The source lies deeper. It lies in the fact that it was to the people themselves, to their deepest and broadest stratum, that the appeal was addressed and from them a world opinion crystallized. Indeed, war had to be declared against all political considerations to enable the idea and the feeling to break through the barriers erected by nations, classes, and individuals. The appeal had to reach those innermost depths in man which no statecraft can enter.

Men’s deepest feelings are often invoked, and often by politics. But the feelings politics stirs up are most frequently those which divide: national self-interest, class consciousness, suspicion, lust for power. There are times, it is true, when politics appeals to that which unites, not only to what unites nations and social classes, but also to what binds mankind together most closely. But this does not happen often. For me one of the most important aspects of the work before us is that it has penetrated the very depths of the human feeling which lies buried within all of us, the feeling that the family of man is one, whatever its national or social divisions. As Nansen says in one of his speeches, it is love for one’s neighbor that he has wished to enroll in the service of his work. And he has succeeded. Progress has not been rapid, and the goal is still far away. This wave of warmth rising from so deep within has struck ice and cold. Nevertheless, it has advanced far enough that the work it has supported has become an event in the history of mankind.

In the forefront of it all we see a number of combatants, each stationed at his post: organizations and individuals engaged year after year in the struggle to clear a path through all the barriers which stand between the victims of misfortune and their rescuers. At their head we see first and foremost one single man. What burdens he has borne upon his shoulders! What organizing ability his work has demanded, what energy and initiative, what self-sacrificing patience, what talent for coming straight to the heart of any problem! What he has lived through, this man who has seen Europe’s misery at first hand and who has felt a sense of responsibility for it!

Seeing him in our midst today awakens many memories. Behind him is a life which we have all, in our thoughts, lived with him.

Perhaps what has most impressed all of us is his ability to stake his life time and time again on a single idea, on one thought, and to inspire others to follow him.

We remember a young boy, for he was but little more than that, crossing Greenland on skis. He thought that up there in the North where the costly expeditions from great nations always suffered shipwreck, Norwegian sports equipment and Norwegian familiarity with ice and snow would be able to succeed. He did succeed, and his trip became a landmark in the history of Arctic exploration.

We recall too a mature man who, on the basis of his scientific knowledge, developed the theory that a current flows from east to west across the Polar Sea. Nearly all the scientists believed that he was wrong. But he staked his life on the theory; he allowed himself to be frozen into the eastern ice to be carried over the Pole. The current was there and carried him forward to his goal9.

And is it not much the same thing that we have now witnessed? An undercurrent in which few have believed has again carried Nansen forward: the deep current of human feeling which lies beneath the layer of ice in which nations and individuals encase themselves during the daily struggles and the trials of life. He believed in this current and because he did, his work has triumphed. May this current also carry much for the future!

* Mr. Stang, newly elected chairman of the Nobel Committee and at this time rector of the University of Oslo and professor of jurisprudence, delivered this speech in the auditorium of the Nobel Institute in the afternoon of December 10, 1922. Mr. Halvdan Koht, a member of the Committee, preceded Mr. Stang, giving a brief eulogy on Jørgen Gunnarsson Løvland, recently deceased, who had been a member of the Committee since its beginning and its chairman since 1901. At the conclusion of his own address, Mr. Stang presented the Nobel medal and diploma to the laureate who responded with a short speech of acceptance. This translation of Mr. Stang’s speech is based on the Norwegian text published in the Oslo Morgenbladet of December 11, 1922, collated with the French text carried by Les Prix Nobel en 1921-1922.

1. The League of Nations created the office of High Commissioner for Refugees on June 27, 1921; Nansen held the position from August 20, 1921, until his death in May, 1930.

2. David Lloyd George (1863-1945), prime minister of Great Britain (1916-1922).

3. For a listing of the major Nansen reports to the Leauge of Nations and the sources of their texts, see Hans Aufricht, Guide to League of Nations Publications (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951), pp. 192-194.

4. The Treaty of Versailles (1919).

5. Held on August 15, 1921.

6. Great Britain recognized the Soviet government on February 1, 1924, being followed shortly thereafter by most of the other European powers; by Japan in January, 1925; by the United States in November, 1933.

7. See biography.

8. This paragraph appears in the French text of the speech in Les Prix Nobel en 1921-1922, p. 116, but not in the Norwegian text in the Morgenbladet.

9. See biography.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1901-1925, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1922

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