Fridtjof Nansen

Nobel Lecture


Nobel Lecture*, December 19, 1922


The Suffering People of Europe

In the Capitoline Museum in Rome is a sculpture in marble which, in its simple pathos, seems to me to be a most beautiful creation. It is the statue of the “Dying Gaul”. He is lying on the battlefield, mortally wounded. The vigorous body, hardened by work and combat, is sinking into death. The head, with its coarse hair, is bowed, the strong neck bends, the rough powerful workman’s hand, till recently wielding the sword, now presses against the ground in a last effort to hold up the drooping body.

He was driven to fight for foreign gods whom he did not know, far from his own country. And thus he met his fate. Now he lies there, dying in silence. The noise of the fray no longer reaches his ear. His dimmed eyes are turned inward, perhaps on a final vision of his childhood home where life was simple and happy, of his birthplace deep in the forests of Gaul.

That is how I see mankind in its suffering; that is how I see the suffering people of Europe, bleeding to death on deserted battlefields after conflicts which to a great extent were not their own.

This is the outcome of the lust for power, the imperialism, the militarism, that have run amok across the earth. The golden produce of the earth has been trampled under iron feet, the land lies in ruins everywhere, and the foundations of its communities are crumbling. People bow their heads in silent despair. The shrill battle cries still clamor around them, but they hardly hear them anymore. Cast out of the lost Eden, they look back upon the simple basic values of life. The soul of the world is mortally sick, its courage broken, its ideals tarnished, and the will to live gone; the horizon is hazy, hidden behind burning clouds of destruction, and faith in the dawn of mankind is no more.

Where is the remedy to be sought? At the hands of politicians? They may mean well enough, many of them at any rate, but politics and new political programs are no longer of service to the world – the world has had only too many of them. In the final analysis, the struggle of the politician amounts to little more than a struggle for power.

The diplomats perhaps? Their intentions may also be good enough, but they are once and for all a sterile race which has brought mankind more harm than good over the years. Call to mind the settlements arranged after the great wars – the Treaty of Westphalia1, the Congress in Vienna with the Holy Alliance2, and others. Has a single one of these diplomatic congresses contributed to any great extent to the progress of the world? One is here reminded of the famous words of Oxenstjerna3 to his son when he complained about the negotiations in Westphalia: “If you only knew, my son, with how little wisdom the world is ruled.”

We can no longer look to traditional leadership for any hope of salvation. We have of late experienced one diplomatic and political congress after another; has any one of these brought the solution any nearer? There is at present one in progress in Lausanne4. Let us hope that it will bring us the longed-for peace in the East so that at least one delicate question may be resolved.

But what of the main evil itself, the heart of the disease? It is whispered that France does not want to reach a final settlement with Germany, does not want Germany to finish paying her indemnities. For in that case, the pretext for occupying the western side of the Rhine would be removed, and she could no longer unsettle German industry with threats against the Ruhr district. This is naturally only malicious slander, but how common are such rumors!

It is also whispered that neither do. the industrial leaders of Germany desire a final agreement with France. They would prefer the uncertainty to continue so that the value of the mark will fall steadily, enabling German industry to survive longer. For, if a settlement were to come, then the mark would be stabilized or even rise in value, and German industry would be ruined since it would no longer be competitive.

Whether these things are true or not, the mere fact that they are uttered at all reflects the manner in which the whole European community and its way of life have been and still are toys in the hands of reckless political and financial speculators – perhaps largely bunglers, inferior men who do not realize the outcome of their actions, but who still speculate and gamble with the most valuable interests of European civilization.

And for what? Only for power. This unfortunate struggle, this appalling trampling of everything and everyone, this destructive conflict between the social classes and even between peoples exists for power alone!

When one has stood face to face with famine, with death by starvation itself, then surely one should have had one’s eyes opened to the full extent of this misfortune. When one has beheld the great beseeching eyes in the starved faces of children staring hopelessly into the fading daylight, the eyes of agonized mothers while they press their dying children to their empty breasts in silent despair, and the ghostlike men lying exhausted on mats on cabin floors, with only the merciful release of death to wait for, then surely one must understand where all this is leading, understand a little of the true nature of the question. This is not the struggle for power, but a single and terrible accusation against those who still do not want to see, a single great prayer for a drop of mercy to give men a chance to live.

Surely those who have seen at first hand the destitution pervading our misgoverned Europe and actually experienced some of the endless suffering must realize that the world can no longer rely on panaceas, paper, and words. These must be replaced by action, by persevering and laborious effort, which must begin at the bottom in order to build up the world again.

The history of mankind rises and falls like the waves. We have fallen into wave-troughs before in Europe. A similar trough occurred a hundred years ago after the Napoleonic Wars. Everyone who has read the excellent work of Worm-Müller5 describing the conditions here in Norway during that time must have noticed the many remarkable similarities between the situation then and now. It may be a consolation to know that the abyss of those times disappeared and that Norway struggled upward again; but it took a depressingly long time, thirty to forty years.

This time, as far as I can see, the trough is even deeper and more extensive, embracing the major part of Europe, and, in addition, exists under conditions that now are more complex. It is true that industry did exist at that time, but people lived off the land to a far greater extent. Now industry has come into its own, and it is more difficult to bring recovery to industry after a depression than to agriculture. A few good years will put farming back on its feet, but many years are required to develop new markets for industry. All the same, we may reasonably hope that the process of revival will be more rapid this time, for everything happens more quickly in our day because of our systems of communication and the vast apparatus of economic facilities that we now possess. But there are as yet few signs of progress. We have still not reached the bottom of the wave-trough.

What is the basic feeling of people all over Europe? There is no doubt that for a great many it is one of despair or distrust of everything and everyone, supported by hate and envy. This hatred is each day disseminated among nations and classes.

No future, however, can be built on despair, distrust, hatred, and envy.

The first prerequisite, surely, is understanding – first of all, an understanding of the cause and the nature of the disease itself, an understanding of the trends that mark our times and of what is happening among the mass of the population. In short, an understanding of the psychology of every characteristic of our apparently confused and confounded European society.

Such an understanding is certainly not attainable in a day. But the first condition for its final establishment is the sincere will to understand; this is a great step in the right direction. The continuous mutual abuse of groups holding differing views, which we witness in the newspapers, will certainly never lead to progress. Abuse convinces no one; it only degrades and brutalizes the abuser. Lies and unjust accusations achieve still less; they often finally boomerang on those who originate them.

It must also always be remembered that there is hardly a trend or movement in the community which does not in some degree possess a reason and right of its own, be it socialism or capitalism, be it fascism or even the hated bolshevism. But it is because of blind fanaticism for and against – especially against – that conflicts come to a head and lead to heartrending struggles and destruction; whereas discussion, understanding, and tolerance might have turned this energy into valuable progress.

An expansion of this subject is not possible here; suffice it to say that the parable about seeing the mote in your neighbor’s eye while not aware of the beam in your own6 is valid for all times, and not least for the age in which we live.

But when understanding is absent and especially when the will to understand is lacking, then that fermenting uncertainty, which threatens us with total destruction, arises. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. Many people live as though each day were the last, thus sliding into a state of general decadence. From this point the decline is steady and inexorable.

Moreover, the worst that this insecurity, this speculation in uncertainty, creates, is the fear of work; it was bred during the war, and it has grown steadily since. It was bred by the stock-jobbing and the speculation familiar to us all, whereby people could make fortunes in a short time, thinking they could live on them for the rest of their lives without having to work and toil. This created an aversion to work which has lasted to this very day. There are still some who will honestly and wholeheartedly settle down to hard toil, but the only places where I have met this sincere will to work are those where the angel of death by starvation is reaping his terrible harvest.

I shall always remember a day in a village east of the Volga to which only one-third of its inhabitants had returned; of the remaining two-thirds, some had fled and the rest had died of starvation. Most of the animals had been slaughtered; but courage had still not been completely extinguished, and although their prospects were bleak, the people still had faith in the future. “Give us seed”, they said, “and we will sow it in the soil.” “Yes”, we replied, “but what will you do without animals to pull the plough?” “That does not matter”, they said; “if there are no animals, we will put ourselves and our women and children to the plough.” It was not selfindulgence that was speaking here, not extravagance, not mere showmanship – it was the very will to stay alive, which had not given in.

Must we all live through the bitter pangs of hunger before we learn the real value of work?

I might also mention conditions in Germany. I have been told that because of short working hours and restricted output, Germany does not produce the coal needed for her own requirements and must therefore buy coal from England – I believe a figure of one million tons a month was mentioned – and pay for it with foreign currency. But if the working hours were increased to ten hours a day, Germany could herself produce an adequate supply of coal. That is but one example.

In Switzerland where everything is grinding to a halt, where industry is ruined because it can no longer produce at prices attractive to world markets, I was told that if the daily working hours were to be increased to ten, with reasonable pay, the workers would find employment for the whole week instead of for the three days during which the factories are now running at a loss merely to stay in existence. Moreover, the workmen themselves would gladly work longer if they dared, but they cannot do so lest they contravene their union’s program. Such is the situation.

This sad state of affairs can, it is true, be blamed partly on the unpredictable fluctuations in the value of money. These are characteristic problems which, it appears to me, not even the experts can satisfactorily explain.

But below the surface of these obvious factors there are, quite plainly, greater internal ones. It is an undeniable fact that people cannot live without working, and there has been too little work for too long. It will be asked: “What is the purpose of work if there is no market for the products?” And markets are indeed not there. But neither can markets be created without work. If no work is done, if markets are not created where they should exist, then no purchasing power will be developed, and everyone must suffer in consequence. The universal disease is, in fact, lack of work. Even honest work cannot thrive, however, except where there are peace and confidence: confidence in one’s self, confidence in others, and confidence in the future.

Here we strike at the heart of the matter. How then can this confidence in peace be inspired? Can it proceed from politicians and diplomats? I have already expressed my opinion of them. They can, perhaps, do something, but I am not particularly convinced of that, nor of the ability of politicians of the individual countries to achieve anything in this situation. In my opinion, the only avenue to salvation lies in cooperation between all nations on a basis of honest endeavor.

I believe that the only road to this goal lies through the League of Nations. If this fails to introduce a new era, then I see no salvation, at any rate at present. But are we right in placing so much faith in the League of Nations? What has it done so far to promote peace and confidence? In asking this question we must remember that the League is still a young plant that can easily be damaged and prevented from growing by the frost of doubt. We should bear in mind that the League can attain full powers only when it embraces all nations, including the big ones still outside7. But even in its short lifetime, it can claim credit for actions which point to a brighter future. It has already in its short active life settled many controversial questions which would otherwise have led, if not to war, at least to serious disturbances.

One example was the Åland controversy between Sweden and Finland. Though there were some who were dissatisfied with the solution8, they nevertheless accepted it, thus preventing further trouble.

A serious frontier dispute arose between Yugoslavia and Albania. Serbian troops had already crossed the border. The League of Nations intervened, settled the question, and both parties accepted the solution9 without further bloodshed.

Mention can also be made of the Silesian question which threatened serious trouble between Germany and Poland. This too has been settled – very badly according to some, while others maintain that any other solution would have been impossible in view of previous agreements reached in the Treaty of Versailles10. But the fact is that the settlement has been sanctioned by both parties and that it has not led to any further trouble.

Another example is that of Poland and Lithuania. It is true that the League of Nations did not in this case reach any settlement, the problem having proved too difficult because of various reasons which I am not going to delve into here. The fact is, however, that the act of investigation by the League of Nations in itself prevented the two parties from taking up arms11.

It may be claimed that these were controversies between small nations, but what if real issues arose between greater powers – would they yield to the arbitration of the League of Nations? Well, I point to the Silesian question again. Germany is no small nation, and it is moreover a fact that the victorious great powers which set out to settle the question were unable to reach agreement; so the matter was referred to the League of Nations. Recently, however, we have had an even better example of great powers submitting to the judgment of the League of Nations in an issue between Great Britain and France.

In 1921 the French government issued a decree declaring that everyone living in Tunisia and Morocco was compelled to do national service. Thus British subjects living in the French protectorates were liable to conscription in the French army. The British government objected strongly, while the French maintained that this was an internal problem. Neither would give in and the controversy became serious. Nine years ago such a question could only have ended in a war or at best in an expensive diplomatic conference. At that time there was no world organization which could have dealt with such a question. Now, however, it was referred to the League of Nations, and the tension was immediately released12.

The mere fact that the League of Nations has set up the Permanent Court of International Justice13 constitutes a great and important step toward the more peaceful ordering of the world, a step in the direction of creating confidence among nations.

If any doubt still exists about the position now occupied by the League of Nations in the minds of people, reference can be made to the last election in Great Britain. Of the 1,386 candidates standing, only three dared to face their electors with a declaration that they were opponents of the League of Nations. Two or three more made no mention of the subject, but all the rest expressed their faith in the League.

In my opinion, however, the greatest and most important achievement of the League so far, and one which presages a really new and better future for Europe, is the measure initiated at the last Assembly in Geneva, that of arranging an international loan to Austria14 to give her a chance of surviving the threat of economic ruin. This action raises hope for yet more; it is the prelude to a new and promising trend in the economic politics of Europe.

It is my conviction that the German problem, the intricate differences between Germany and her opponents, cannot and will not be solved until it too has been laid before the League of Nations15.

In addition, the difficult question of total or partial disarmament was first broached at the last meeting in Geneva. Here, as well as in most other fields of the League’s activity, there is one name which stands out, namely that of Lord Robert Cecil16. Again we must keep in mind, particularly in the matter of partial disarmament, the serious difficulties arising from the fact that there are important military powers which are not yet members of the League.

But more important by far than any partial disarmament of armies and fleets, is the “disarmament” of the people from within, the generation, in fact, of sympathy in the souls of men. Here too, in the great and important work that has been carried on, the League of Nations has taken an active part.

I must, however, first mention the gigantic task performed by the Americans under the remarkable leadership of Hoover17. It was begun during the war with the Belgian Relief, when many thousands of Belgians, children and adults, were supported. After the war, it was extended to Central Europe, where hundreds of thousands of children were given new hope by the invaluable aid from the Americans, and finally, but not least, to Russia. When the whole story of this work is written, it will take pride of place as a glorious page in the annals of mankind, and its charity will shine like a brilliant star in a long and dark night. At the same time, the Americans have, through other organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Near East Relief, achieved the unbelievable in the Balkans, in Asia Minor, and now, finally, in Greece. Many European organizations must also not be forgotten. In particular, divisions of the Red Cross in different countries, among them our own, have contributed much during and after the war.

The League of Nations sponsored activities of this nature soon after its formation. Its first task was the repatriation of the many thousands of prisoners of war still scattered round the world two years after the war, mostly in Siberia and Eastern and Central Europe. I do not intend to dwell on this theme since it has already been mentioned at the meeting in the Nobel Institute. I shall say only that, as a result of this effort, nearly 450,000 prisoners were sent back to their homes and, in many instances, to productive work.

Immediately after this, the League took up the fight against epidemics which were then threatening to spread from the East, and worked to control disease in Poland, along the Russian border, and in Russia itself. The League has, through its excellent Commission on Epidemics18, worked effectively to prevent the spread of epidemics and has saved thousands from destitution and annihilation.

Efforts are now being made, through a special organization sponsored by the League of Nations19, to provide subsistence aid for destitute Russian refugees, more than a million of whom are scattered all over Europe.

Mention must also be made of the work now in progress in support of famine-stricken refugees in Asia Minor and Greece20. It is true that it has still barely begun, but this work too can be of the greatest importance. Under the present conditions in these areas, there is a threat of disorganization and despair worse than anywhere else in Europe. If this danger can be averted or at least reduced, if this malignant growth can to some extent be eradicated, then there will be one such cancer the less in the European community, one risk the less of unrest, of disturbance, of dissolution of states in the future.

Having already emphasized the significance of this type of work, I must do so once more. The relief in thousands of homes in seeing the return of their menfolk, the help received by them in their distress; the gratitude this inspires, the confidence in people and in the future, the prospect of sounder working conditions – all this is, I believe, of greater importance for the cause of peace than many ambitious political moves that now seldom reach far beyond a limited circle of politicians and diplomats.

Finally, a few words about the assistance to Russia21. In this the League of Nations did not participate, a fact which I deeply regret because I cannot but believe that had the League, with its great authority, lent its support while there was still time, the situation in Russia would have been saved, and conditions in both Russia and Europe would now be totally different and much better.

I shall not go into greater detail on the work that has been done. I wish only to emphasize that the difficulty certainly did not lie in finding the food or transporting it to those who were starving. No, there was more than enough grain in the world at that time, and adequate distribution facilities were available. The problem lay in obtaining funds, an obstacle which has always bedeviled such attempts to supply aid – not least so at this moment.

European governments were unwilling to sanction the loan of ten million pounds sterling which appeared indispensable if the starving millions of Russia were to be saved and the famine prevented from turning into a tragedy, not only for Russia, but for all Europe. The only alternative, therefore, was to rely on private contributions and to institute an appeal for charity to individuals all over the world.

The result exceeded every expectation. Donations poured in from all countries, and not least from our own. In spite of the existence of people here at home who thought it right to oppose the collection, the contribution of our little country was still so great, thanks to the Norwegian Parliament, the Norwegian government, and the excellent work of the Famine Committee, that had the big countries contributed in proportion, the famine in Russia would now be a thing of the past.

One notable exception outside Europe must be mentioned. Once again, the American people contributed more than any other, first through the Hoover organization and then through the government itself, which donated twenty million dollars to the fight against famine on the condition that the Russian government would provide ten million for the purchase of seed. Altogether, America has certainly contributed fifty to sixty million dollars to the struggle against the Russian famine, and has thus saved the lives of countless millions.

But why were there some who did not want to help? Ask them! In all probability their motives were political. They epitomize sterile self-importance and the lack of will to understand people who think differently, characteristics which now constitute the greatest danger in Europe. They call us romantics, weak, stupid, sentimental idealists, perhaps because we have some faith in the good which exists even in our opponents and because we believe that kindness achieves more than cruelty. It may be that we are simpleminded, but I do not think that we are dangerous. Those, however, who stagnate behind their political programs, offering nothing else to suffering mankind, to starving, dying millions – they are the scourge of Europe.

Russia is not alone in being threatened by a new and terrible famine. The situation in Europe also looks black enough. No one knows yet where it will end. The destitution is so great, so nearly insurmountable, the conditions so desperate, even in the rich fertile area of Russia, not to mention other countries, that in spite of widespread private generosity, what can be provided constitutes only a drop in the ocean.

Everyone must join in this work. We must take up the fiery cross and light the beacons so that they shine from every mountain. We must raise our banner in every country and forge the links of brotherhood around the world. The governments too must stand shoulder to shoulder, not in a battle line, but in a sincere effort to achieve the new era.

The festival of Christmas is approaching when the message to mankind is: Peace on earth.

Never has suffering and bewildered mankind awaited the Prince of Peace with greater longing, the Prince of Charity who holds aloft a white banner bearing the one word inscribed in golden letters: “Work”.

All of us can become workers in his army on its triumphant march across the earth to raise a new spirit in a new generation – to bring men love of their fellowmen and an honest desire for peace – to bring back the will to work and the joy of work – to bring faith in the dawn of a new day.

* The laureate delivered this Nobel lecture in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo. For this translation the text used is that published in Norwegian in Les Prix Nobel en 1921-1922. The lecture was not given a title; the one used here is taken from the third paragraph of the speech.

1. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) ended the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

2. The Congress of Vienna attempted (1814-1815) to settle the political affairs of Europe after the first abdication of Napoleon I; the Holy Alliance, formed in 1815 primarily to maintain the status quo in Europe, lasted until 1848.

3. Count Axel Gustavsson Oxenstjerna (1583-1654), chancellor of Sweden (1612- 1654), prominent figure in Thirty Years War.

4. The Lausanne Conference (1922-1923) resulted in a new treaty of peace between the Allies and Turkey.

5. Jacob S. Worm-Müller (Norwegian historian and politician, 1884-1963), Christiania og krisen efter Napoleonskrigene (Oslo: Grøndahl and Sons, 1922).

6. Matthew 7:3 – 5.

7. At the time of this lecture: Germany and Russia, which joined later, and the United States, which never joined.

8. In 1921 the League settled the dispute over the Åland Islands by awarding them to Finland, with autonomous status and an agreement against militarization.

9. Under pressure by the League, the Conference of Ambassadors on November 9, 1921, confirmed the frontiers of 1913 for Albania, also making some concessions to Yugoslavia.

10. By the terms of the Versailles Treaty, a plebescite to determine the frontier in Upper Silesia was held on March 20, 1921; disputes followed, and after study by a committee, the Council of the League made recommendations on October 12, 1921, and named a negotiator; a convention of settlement was signed at Geneva on May 15, 1922.

11. The city of Vilna was assigned to Lithuania by the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, but in the following year was occupied by Poland and annexed in 1922. Bad relations continued from this time, when the laureate was speaking, until 1927-1931 when, over a period of four years, agreements were reached on several issues.

12. The League submitted the dispute to the Permanent Court of International Justice which, in February, 1923 (two months after the laureate’s lecture), found that this question was not a purely internal affair, whereupon the two governments made an amicable agreement.

13. The Permanent Court of International Justice (1921-1945), provided judgments on international disputes voluntarily submitted to it; popularly called the World Court, it was supplanted by the International Court of Justice.

14. On October 4, 1922.

15. Germany, not a member of the League at this time, was admitted in September,1926.

16. Edgar Algemon Robert Cecil (1864-1958), recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1937.

17. Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964), president of the United States (1929-1933); director of food administration and war relief bureaus during and after World War I.

18. Established May 19, 1920.

19. The High Commission for Refugees was established by the League on June 27, 1921, with the laureate appointed as High Commissioner.

20. See biography.

21. On August 15, 1921, an international conference of representatives of certain governments and of delegates from forty-eight Red Cross and charitable organizations had appointed Nansen to direct the relief effort in famine-stricken Russia.

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

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