Carl von Ossietzky, who has been awarded the Peace Prize for 1935, belongs to no political party. He is not a Communist; he is not in any sense a conservative. Indeed, one cannot easily pin on him any of the usual political tags. If I were asked to give my impression of his personality, I should say that he seems to me to be a liberal or, if you prefer, a liberal of the old school. In using this description I do not have in mind economic liberalism, but liberalism in a completely different sense; a burning love for freedom of thought and expression; a firm belief in free competition in all spiritual fields; a broad international outlook; a respect for values created by other nations – and all of these dominated by the theme of peace.
An account of Ossietzky’s life is to be found in all the newspapers, and I shall not weary you by needless repetition.
He served in the war as an ordinary soldier. But the war had the effect of maturing and crystallizing the pacifist ideas which he had already cherished for a long time. When the war ended, he threw himself into work for peace. In Germany he was among those who formed the movement which took as its slogan: «No more war». He became secretary of the German Peace Society1, the president of which was Mr. Quidde, who was himself subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Office work, however, failed to satisfy Ossietzky. He saw his true vocation as being in journalism. And so, leaving his job as secretary, he cast himself into the fray, applying his talents to the public platform as well as to newspapers and periodicals.
We are told that he is a gifted orator. The role in which he is best known, however, is that of journalist and essayist. He is an author of note; his style is supple, elegant, often bitingly witty. He covers a large field, writing about all aspects of modern politics, but his thought is focused above all on the cause of peace. His favorite weapon is the rapier. The sudden thrust, the lightning parry – these characterize his style. And in truth there is in him something of the knight, a quality which those who know him have remarked upon.
And yet we cannot today obtain a true impression of his merit and importance as a journalist simply by reading the articles he has written in the past. The work of the journalist is akin to that of the stage artist in that it lives in the present and cannot be re-created. The sum total of a journalist’s work does not reside in the faded print which you can, if you care to take the trouble, seek out and read. The sum total of the journalist’s craft, like that of the stage artist, lies in the impact it makes on the minds of others at the time. The truly great actor lives on in our minds, a vivid memory to the end of our days, a legend to be passed on to younger generations. It is somewhat the same with the journalist. We can browse through an old newspaper and read of events with which we were once well acquainted, and the words can still evoke some of that nervous tension, that vitality and warmth with which they were charged when cast into the maelstrom of the moment. But the spark of life is lost, for the words belong to their own day.
But balancing this we have the full force of the testimony of those who followed him in his fight and who were inspired by it. The sources of such testimony are so varied and their number so great that I cannot enumerate them here. Let me point to only one noteworthy fact: no less than six previous recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize have lent their support to Ossietzky’s candidacy for the award.
But, many people ask, has Ossietzky really contributed so much to peace? Has he not become a symbol of the struggle for peace rather than its champion?
In my opinion this is not so. But even if it were, how great is the significance of the symbol in our life! In religion, in politics, in public affairs, in peace and war, we rally round symbols. We understand the power they hold over us. Moreover, as a rallying point, a symbol may well be preferable to a personality. Men can all too often be compared to the «hulder», the wicked Norwegian fairy, beautiful when looked at from the front, but hollow in the back. Such is not the case with the symbol because the symbol is born of an idea and is the bearer of an idea. It exists through the idea which first created it and reflects it faithfully and without distortion.
We have among our poems a few lines about a symbol, lines which are quoted more and more frequently:
For that is the great thing and the sublime thing,
that the banner may wave, though the man has to die.
The symbol certainly has its value. But Ossietzky is not just a symbol. He is something quite different and something much more. He is a deed; and he is a man.
It is on these grounds that Ossietzky has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and on these grounds alone. His candidacy was examined in the same manner as that of all others, and the decision was reached according to the same principles. If we look back upon all the men and women who have received the Peace Prize over the years, we find that they are of widely divergent personalities and views and that the lives of many of them were marked by passion, grief, and struggle. It is quite obvious that the Nobel Committee, in awarding the prize to these different personalities, has neither shared all the opinions which they held nor declared its solidarity with all of their work. The wish of the Nobel Committee has always been to fulfill its task and its obligation, namely, to reward work for peace – that and nothing else. And the Nobel Committee has been able to do so because it is totally independent. It is not answerable to anyone, nor do its decisions commit anyone other than itself.
In awarding this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Carl von Ossietzky we are therefore recognizing his valuable contribution to the cause of peace – nothing more, and certainly nothing less.
* Mr. Stang delivered this speech in the Norwegian Nobel Institute on December 10, 1936. Because of ill health and the «protective custody» under which he was held (see biography), the laureate was unable to be present to accept his prize – the Peace Prize for 1935 which was reserved in that year – or to give a Nobel lecture. The Ossietzky candidacy brought about a change in the practice governing membership on the Nobel Committee. Since the award of the prize to Ossietzky would be interpreted as implying disapproval of the Nazi government, Halvdan Koht, one of the members of the Committee and Norwegian foreign minister at that time, decided to withdraw from the deliberations of the Committee, a decision made also by Johan L. Mowinckel who had held office as prime minister and as foreign minister. Their places were filled by substitutes. In 1937 the Parliament resolved «that members of the Nobel Committee, upon becoming appointed to the Government, shall withdraw from the Committee» (August Schou, «The Peace Prize» in Nobel: The Man and His Prizes, p. 606). The translation of Mr. Stang’s speech is based on the Norwegian text in Les Prix Nobel en 1936, which also carries a French translation.
1. Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft, founded 1892.
Their work and discoveries range from paleogenomics and click chemistry to documenting war crimes.
See them all presented here.