Controversies and criticisms


by Øyvind Tønnesson Peace Editor, 1998-2000

The Nobel Peace Prize has frequently caused controversy. One reason is that many Laureates have been contemporary and highly controversial political actors, another is that the Prizes in many instances, have increased public focus on international or national conflicts. In the latter case, the awards have often been seen by local authorities as “interference” in national matters. On some occasions there has even been strong criticism against the Norwegian Nobel Committee itself and the way its members are selected. In this document, we will present two Prizes that raised questions which were subsequently discussed on several occasions during the first century of the Nobel Peace Prize, and then we shall discuss whether the Nobel Committee should be an international committee of scholars rather than a committee of Norwegian political veterans.

An award to peace activists or to statesmen? The selection of Theodore Roosevelt in 1906

Many of those who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize since 1901 have been statesmen, politicians with power to make both peace and war. The first statesman to receive the Prize was U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt. In some people’s opinion such a man should never be awarded a prize for peace work. Why did it happen?

storting meeting

From the meeting of the Norwegian Storting on 7 June 1905, in which it declared “the Union with Sweden dissolved as a result of the King ceasing to function as the Norwegian King.” After partial military mobilization in both countries, a peaceful settlement was reached later that year, and Norway became fully independent. On 10 December 1906, the Nobel Peace Prize to President Theodore Roosevelt was presented in the same hall.
Photo: Copyright © Scanpix

When the Norwegian Storting appointed the first Nobel Committee in 1897, all members were prominent Norwegian political actors. At the time, Norway had its own government, but was not a fully independent state. Under the Swedish-Norwegian union, the Swedes were largely in control when it came to foreign affairs. However, many Norwegian parliamentarians were actively involved in the international peace movement, as were members of the Nobel Committee. They supported the work of the International Peace Bureau in Geneva and the Interparliamentary Union, organizations that represented radical and idealistic lines of thought. Frédéric Passy, Élie Ducommun, Charles Albert Gobat, Sir William Randal Cremer, and Bertha von Suttner, Laureates in the period 1901-1905, were all affiliated with those two organizations. They were peace activists with little influence on the policies of governments. Many of those who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize since 1901 have been statesmen, politicians with power to make both peace and war. The first statesman to receive the Prize was U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt. In some people’s opinion such a man should never be awarded a prize for peace work. Why did it happen?

In 1905, the Swedish-Norwegian union was peacefully dissolved, and the chairman of the Nobel Committee, became Norway’s first foreign minister. One year later, the committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had acted as mediator to end the war between Russia and Japan in 1905, but he was not really known for being a “peace apostle,” although he favored a world order which could bring peace among all “civilized nations.” During the war between Spain and the United States in 1898, he led an American cavalry regiment in Cuba. Later, as president, he showed his determination to see the United States as a Great Power using military force, primarily in the Caribbean, and this even in the year he became a Nobel Laureate. Many American newspapers found the award curious, and The New York Times later commented that “a broad smile illuminated the face of the globe when the prize was awarded … to the most warlike citizen of these United States.”1

Contrary to Nobel’s intentions?

Did the Norwegian Nobel Committee violate the intentions of Alfred Nobel when it awarded the prize to a statesman? And if so, why? The U.S. president was one of the most powerful politicians in the world. Were the Norwegians after American goodwill, or did they really believe that Roosevelt was the most worthy candidate?

According to Alfred Nobel’s will, the Nobel prizes were to be awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The Peace Prize specifically was to be awarded to persons who had been working for “fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Nobel neither included nor excluded statesmen, so it would be wrong to claim that the 1906 award violated the provisions of the will. But did Nobel think of kings, prime ministers or presidents when he created the Peace Prize? Probably not.

However, the peace movement had undergone change since Nobel wrote his will. At that time, the advocates of peace were primarily idealists with little political influence. But after the turn of the century, governments were increasingly promoting a peaceful solution for international disputes, including arbitration as a method of preventing international conflicts from escalating into wars. It could be argued that the Nobel Committee had to interpret the will in the light of current events, and not as a dogma. When the prize to Roosevelt was presented in the Norwegian Storting on 10 December 1906, the President of the Storting, Gunnar Knudsen, emphasized the change in the peace movement and what he considered as the progressive role of the United States:

“The United States of America was among the first to infuse the ideal of peace into practical politics. Peace and arbitration treaties have now been concluded between the United States and the governments of several countries. But what has especially directed the attention of the friends of peace and of the whole civilized world to the United States is President Roosevelt’s happy role in bringing to an end the bloody war recently waged between two of the world’s great powers, Japan and Russia.”

T. Roosevelt inaguration
A crusader for peace – or a powerful friend? From the inauguration ceremony for U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905.
Photo: Copyright © Scanpix

Roosevelt’s mediation between Japan and Russia was the primary motivation for those who nominated him, but was his “happy role” in bringing the Russo–Japanese war to an end really important enough to make him the most worthy among the candidates for the Prize? And did the committee consider other aspects of Roosevelt’s policies before making its decision?

A critical report

There were other worthy candidates in 1906. Six organizations and 23 individuals were nominated, and six of the nominees were actually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later. We have no records from the committee’s meetings, so we do not know whether they had a long discussion or not, or what was their real motivation. What we do know, is that the committee adviser Halvdan Koht, later committee member and Norwegian foreign minister, wrote a comprehensive, and quite critical, report on the American president – the longest report that the Nobel Committee had ever received. It was based on books on contemporary American history and Roosevelt’s own writings, and contained the following sections: “Biography”, “Ideas on Peace and War”, “Imperialism”, “Peace Policy”, “War Policy”, “Panama”, and, finally, “Mediation between Russia and Japan.”2 Koht presented no conclusion of his own, but here and there he gave both explicit and implicit judgements; for instance when he introduced the section on Roosevelt’s peace policy with the following sentence: “It is obvious, that even if a statesman himself has no faith in the cause of peace, he may still make great contributions to it.” The committee adviser pointed out that through most of his career Roosevelt had been opposed to the peace movement, “it is ‘the fighting virtues’ he (Roosevelt) praises,” he wrote. He also described the American president as an imperialist, and thought that “to Roosevelt, (the Monroe doctrine) is something more than politics, it is religion.”3

In Koht’s opinion, there was a turn in Roosevelt’s policy when he became president – and he had actually been willing to do something for peace. Most important was the fact that during his presidency the United States had supported the International Court of Arbitration and brought the work for arbitration many steps forward. On the other hand, the Nobel Committee adviser concluded that the role played by the United States when Panama was separated from Colombia in 1903 clearly violated international law, and he ended his report by seriously questioning the importance of Roosevelt’s mediation between Russia and Japan.

If the report on Roosevelt was so critical, and there were other worthy candidates, why was he awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? – One possible answer, which was given by contemporary Norwegian and Swedish commentators, is that the committee chairman thought Norway “needed a large, friendly neighbor – even if he is far away.”4 Halvdan Koht later concluded that this was the case, and it may well be true.

Steps along the road

Still, it seems reasonable to assume that the members of the Nobel Committee actually considered Roosevelt a worthy candidate. Furthermore – with due respect for the pioneers of the non-governmental peace movement – the committee may have been determined to use the prize as a tribute to one of those who were really able to get things done in the struggle for peace. By expressing a commitment to arbitration and mediation as a means of solving international problems, Roosevelt was doing something that might be of great symbolic importance. By giving the Prize to the American President, the Nobel Committee made it clear that the Nobel Peace Prize was not to become an award for life-long impeccable behavior, but primarily for specific political or humanitarian actions.


From the late 1960s there were big demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in several countries. Both the peace demonstrators and others found it difficult to understand how the Nobel Peace Prize for 1973 could be awarded to two of the politicians who were responsible for that war. Photo shows an anti-war demonstration near the White House in Washington D.C., USA in 1970.
Photo: Copyright © Scanpix

The award in 1906 was highly controversial within the peace movement. Social democrats and others wrote protests against it. For the next five years the Prizes were awarded to traditional peace activists. But Roosevelt was not to be the only statesman to become a Nobel Laureate, many others were to follow. Some of them were quite uncontroversial, as the U.S. secretary of state, Elihu Root, who was awarded the prize for 1912. Others were not, particularly Henry Kissinger (U.S. secretary of state) and Le Duc Tho (North Vietnamese spokesman at the Paris Peace Conference) who were awarded the prize in 1973. The policy of the Norwegian Nobel Committee also changed over the years: During the inter-war period, many active statesmen appeared on the list of laureates; after the Second World War through the 1960s, the limited number of statesmen who were awarded the prize were no longer active at the time of their award. Since 1970, however, contemporary statesmen have again been among the Laureates.

In her presentation speech in 1973, the chairman of the committee, Ms. Aase Lionæs, explained the awards to statesmen as follows:
“… the Nobel Peace Prize has (also) been awarded to persons exercising political responsibility and heavily committed to the confusing maelstrom of events. They were awarded the Peace Prize because in the course of their activities they had indicated the road that should be followed. (…) They were awarded the Peace Prize because, within the framework of the politically possible, they championed a peace which, though it might not be perfect, was nevertheless a step along this road.”

Ms. Lionæs’ opponents in 1973 did not at all agree that that year’s Laureates had indicated a road that should be followed, but that is another story.

Interfering in a national matter? The award to Carl von Ossietzky

Should ‘the cause of peace’ be considered a purely international matter, or as a challenge involving political conditions within nations as well? When the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1935 to Carl von Ossietzky, a German prisoner of conscience, it took a stand in that debate.

“Ossietzky has attacked his own country in the rear (…) with the use of methods that violated the law long before Hitler came into power – i.e. when Germany was considered a free and democratic country. The Nobel Peace Prize was not initiated to hail that sort of activity. (…) A lasting peace between peoples and nations can only be achieved by respecting the existing laws. Otherwise there will be struggle – and war.”
(Editorial in Aftenposten, a Norwegian conservative daily, November 14, 1936)

The international peace movement which was established in Alfred Nobel’s time was primarily working for disarmament and peaceful relations between states. From the wording of his will, it is quite clear that he wanted to stimulate work for peace and fraternity between the nations. Until 1936, the decisions made by the Nobel Committee were undoubtedly in line with the will on that point: no Laureate – neither among pioneer peace workers, jurists, statesmen or humanitarians – had been known primarily for his opposition against his home government.

Intellectual trouble-maker

However, in 1935, two years after Hitler came into power in Germany, when Mussolini’s Fascist movement had a firm grip on Italy and similar right-wing radicalism was threatening Spain, Germans-in-exile and anti-fascists in democratic countries organized a campaign to secure the Nobel Peace Prize for Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist who had been writing against militarism and in favor of international understanding since the First World War. In November 1931 he had been sentenced to imprisonment for having published secret information about illegal German rearmament. Following an amnesty in December 1932, ‘Lex Ossietzky,’ he was released, but on the night of the fire in the Reichstag building in Berlin, 27 February 1933, Ossietzky was arrested and later kept in a concentration camp as a political prisoner. To many Germans, and surely to Hitler’s national socialists, he was a traitor. But the international campaign for Ossietzky made him a symbol of democratic resistance against Hitler.

A prize against fascism?

Ossietzky was one of 38 nominees in 1935, and the Nobel Committee put his name on its shortlist. The committee adviser, Professor Wilhelm Keilhau, wrote a most favorable report – largely based on material provided by the campaign. He also gave his personal judgment of what possible effect an award to Ossietzky might have: “In addition to the effect exerted by historic personalities through their personal conduct, an important effect is also derived from what they mean to other people. (…) In the minds of countless individuals today, Carl von Ossietzky is seen as a symbol of persecuted pacifism. Had he been awarded the Peace Prize, this would not in the first place have been considered as a reward for his personal achievements. People would see the prize award as a courageous action, a protest against unwarranted and intolerable political injustice.”

The campaigners and, seemingly, the committee adviser, wanted the Peace Prize to become a symbol against fascism. But did the members of the Nobel Committee share their wish? In 1935, the answer was no. They decided to reserve the prize for the following year, and contemporary commentators guessed that committee member Halvdan Koht, who had recently become foreign minister in a Labor government, had persuaded his colleagues not to award the prize to Ossietzky.

However, Koht’s diary from 1935 and 1936 clearly indicates that this was not the case. In the entry on the final meeting in 1935, which is very brief, he reports which candidates were favored by each individual committee member. Ossietzky was nobody’s favorite. The reason the prize was reserved seems to have been that the committee disagreed as to who among the other candidates should be selected. One year later, Koht wrote in a letter that the committee chairman, the conservative Fredrik Stang, had declared that he was sympathetic to the idea of awarding the prize to Ossietzky, but voted for none of the candidates. All the other members had spoken against an award to the German anti-militarist. Koht himself could not see that Ossietzky’s peace work was adequate to be considered worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. “It is correct that I was against it,” the foreign minister concluded, “but I did not have to make any resistance against an award which was suggested by nobody.”5

Well-organized campaign

The Ossietzky campaign went on into the following year. Before 1 February 1936, the Nobel Institute in Oslo had received 86 nominations for Ossietzky, signed by hundreds of parliamentarians and scholars from ten different nations. German authorities at the same time carried out a propaganda offensive against the campaign and warned the Norwegian Foreign Ministry of unfortunate consequences should Ossietzky be awarded the prize. In Norway, the press debated the matter intensely: socialist, communist and liberal newspapers were in favour of an award to Ossietzky, conservative newspapers were skeptical or negative.

Just in time – before telefax and e-mail. Above is the first page of a telegraphic letter of nomination from a large group of French parlimentarians. There was a broad campaign in support of Ossietzky. The Swiss nomination (below), which was signed by many prominent politicians, was explicitly motivated by their opposition to the war policies of all contemporary dictatorships.


The Nobel Committee got a new report on Ossietzky, this time written by Professor of Law Frede Castberg. The report included additional information about Ossietzky’s peace work, quotes from the letters of nomination, and an “interview” with Ossietzky from a Danish newspaper, in which the anti-fascist hero ends up saying “Heil Hitler!” The interview was obviously fabricated, a fact that probably added strength to Castberg’s favorable account of Ossietzky’s activities since the 1920s. He emphasized that the candidate had never been guilty of treason and was no communist – two frequent allegations from right-wingers. The committee adviser even quoted a warning from one of the nominators of what would happen if Ossietzky was not awarded the prize: “An omission of Ossietzky this time, would, within the peace movement, result in a serious loss of prestige for Nobel’s peace institution, whose task is so extremely important right now.”6

Foreign minister in trouble

The entire parliamentary group of the Norwegian Labor Party was among Ossietzky’s nominators. It was quite clear that the Labour foreign minister was in a difficult position. On 9 November he wrote a letter to the Nobel Committee in which he made it clear that he would not participate in the meeting when the final decision was going to be made and he asked his colleagues to call in one of the deputy members. “Especially because the voting within the committee should be kept secret,” Koht wrote, “and because possible dissenting votes cannot be made known to the public, there is a risk that the Government may be made responsible because the foreign minister has been present.” Three days later, committee member Johan Ludvig Mowinckel, wrote that as a former prime minister and foreign minister, he would also be absent from the meeting. “Although I totally disagree with foreign minister Koht’s decision, and regret it, I realize that it has made my position on the committee untenable,” he wrote. In Mowinckel’s opinion, the Storting should appoint new members to the committee as soon as possible.7

The three remaining members of the Nobel Committee publicly announced that they accepted the absence of the two members and called upon deputy members Axel Thallaug and Martin Tranmæl to replace Koht and Mowinckel at the final meeting in which the prize decision would be made. We only know the final outcome of the Nobel Committee’s meeting on 23 November 1936: Carl von Ossietzky was awarded the 1935 Prize, and Carlos Saavedra Lamas, Argentina’s foreign minister, received the Prize for 1936. The former award definitely got the bulk of the media attention. Germany formally protested to the Norwegian government, and in January 1937, Hitler decided that Germans were no longer allowed to receive Nobel Prizes – Germany was to create national prizes within the fields of science and art.

A sign of change

Classifying awarded Prizes as more or less controversial, may be difficult. There is no doubt, however, that the Ossietzky Prize was among the most controversial – and most important – awards in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize. Public opinion in democratic nations was deeply divided over it, and the whole matter made the Storting change the regulations concerning the composition of the Nobel Committee. In retrospect, the award to Ossietzky may actually be seen as a sign of what was gradually to develop after the Second World War: a willingness to consider struggle for human rights as peace work.

women and children
In 1939, the fascists seized Madrid. A contemporary German propaganda picture of Spanish women welcoming the troops of General Franco. Spain was to remain under fascist rule for decades: a purely national matter?
Copyright © Scanpix
Photo: Dr Frantz/Scherl Bilderdienst

Public opinion was split along the same lines as in the discussions related to the Spanish Civil War, which broke out in the same year. On one side were people who, for both political and economic reasons, were against any type of interference in German or Spanish “national matters.” In their opinion, the Nobel Peace Prize should not be too “political.” Two years after the Ossietzky award, in the autumn of 1938, many of those who held that view were in favour of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who, in the Munich agreement, had accepted most of Hitler’s demands and left Czechoslovakia defenseless – in order to preserve peace in Europe. On the other side were those who considered Germany’s rearmament and political developments inside Germany – the suspension of democracy, Nazi propaganda, the persecution of opposition – as serious threats to peace. They applauded the Nobel Committee’s decision, and supported the Spanish republicans in their struggle against the Fascist-related nationalists. After the defeat of Fascism in 1945, it has commonly been held that the latter side was right, but the discussion has continued: Should the international community interfere in national matters?

The Nobel Peace Prize is often considered as the voice of an international community. From the 1960s, the Norwegian Nobel Committee made an increasing number of awards related to human rights matters: Albert Luthuli (1960), Martin Luther King Jr. (1964), Andrei Sakharov (1975), Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (1980), and Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) were examples of this new category of Peace Prize Laureates. Apartheid in South Africa, oppression of black people in the United States, the violation of basic human rights in the Soviet Union, and the persecution of human rights advocates in Argentina or Burma were not purely national matters, but matters of universal relevance, the committee thought. Carl von Ossietzky died as a prisoner in 1938, and never had a chance to use his prize money. But the Prize did make him an international symbol of peace and freedom. Latter members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee have been proud of their predecessors’ interference in German national matters in 1936. More than six decades later, stressing the importance of human rights has become a basic part of common western ‘political correctness’. But future Prizes awarded to human rights activists may still be controversial enough: what would be the reaction if the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident?

An independent committee?

The controversy caused by the prize to Ossietzky made a strong impression on Norwegian politicians, and the whole matter came on the agenda of the Storting. The chairmen of Venstre (Liberals) and Høyre (Conservatives) wanted the foreign affairs committee of the Storting to make a declaration of friendship, directed to the German people, but gained too little support.8 However, when the annual report from the committee was on the agenda of the Storting in 1937, the Presidium of the Storting brought up the question of the way in which the members of the Nobel Committee were selected. The president of the Storting, Carl Joachim Hambro, had – in public – strongly disapproved of the committee’s way of handling the matter of Koht’s and Mowinckel’s absence when the prize was awarded. He thought the Storting ought to have been informed earlier about Koht’s concern at being both foreign minister and member of the committee. Koht and Mowinckel had both been reappointed to the committee only a few months before they decided not to attend the critical, final meeting. The outcome of the debate in the Storting in 1937 was that, in future, members of the Nobel Committee who became members of government, should be excluded from participation in the work of the committee. Still, the majority of the committee members in the following decades were prominent politicians, though not members of the government. Could they really be expected to be independent, and did they possess the right qualifications to judge who, in the whole world, were doing the most or the best work for peace?

tanks in China

A peace hero or a trouble maker? A Chinese student trying to stop tanks with the use of only his own moral strength, in Beijing in 1989.
Photo: Copyright © Scanpix

A Committee of the world community?

“The Storting should reconsider its traditions when the appointment of members to the Nobel Committee is concerned. It would be significant if the committee was constituted by persons who, to a higher extent, represented the world community both ideologically, culturally and geographically” (Member of the Election Committee of the Storting, Berit Ås of the Sosialistisk Valgforbund, 1974)

Alfred Nobel decided that the Peace Prize should be awarded by a committee appointed by the Norwegian Storting. His reasons for this choice are not known. However, we do know that Nobel never wrote that the committee should be composed exclusively of Norwegian citizens. It is also doubtful that he would have wished political experience to be the primary qualification of those who were to award his peace prize.

Should the Norwegian Nobel Committee include some non-Norwegian members, and should they be appointed on the basis of scholarly rather than political merits? The question has been discussed several times, not least among Norwegian politicians, and especially after the controversial Prize to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973.9 It is not our intention to go into the matter in detail, but we want to state some arguments against the present way of appointing members of the committee, and then point out certain possible arguments against changing this procedure.

Firstly, it may be argued that: A committee appointed by the Norwegian Storting, constituted by Norwegians only – normally even former Norwegian politicians – can hardly be expected to be completely independent. People will tend to suspect that national interest might play a part in the committee’s considerations.

In 1906, one year after Norway’s full independence, the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Storting, chaired by Norway’s first foreign minister, awarded the Peace Prize to the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. As we have stated earlier, it does not seem unreasonable to ask if that decision was made primarily because it was politically useful for a small nation which had just become independent. It also seems quite clear that national political considerations were important when Cordell Hull was awarded the prize in 1945. However, the committee members have generally stressed their own independence, and other awards certainly did not ease Norway’s relations with certain countries: The Ossietzky award (1935) in 1936 made Germany react strongly; the Sakharov award (1975) did not make the relationship between Norway and the Soviet Union more friendly, and the award to the Dalai Lama in 1989 was not considered as a friendly act by the Chinese government.

Secondly, we may ask: Is a committee that is constituted only by members of the political establishment in one small West European nation really capable of assessing who – in the whole world, in the preceding year – has done the most for peace? Is it not likely that their decisions will be marked by ethnocentricity, or by some kind of ideological bias?

In Alfred Nobel’s own lifetime, when the European great powers were dominant in world affairs, the fear of war was primarily a fear of war between European nations, and the international peace movement was a European and North American phenomenon. Creating a prize-awarding committee with members from different parts of the world was probably not on Nobel’s mind. However, as times have changed, the Norwegian Storting could have followed suit and changed the composition of the committee, too. It has done so when the political composition of the Storting itself has changed as a result of national general elections, and in 1977, members of the Storting itself were generally banned from the committee, but more fundamental changes could have been made: Political scientists, professors of law, historians or “peace researchers” could have been appointed to the committee. Or people from other parts of the world could have been selected, perhaps on a quota basis?

Critique from the left

In 1973 the Nobel Committee met with strong criticism when the names of that year’s Laureates, U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger and the spokesman of the North–Vietnamese delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, Le Duc Tho, were announced. Two members of the committee, who had voted against the award, resigned. Most commentators in the press – in Norway and abroad – considered the award highly questionable, and the committee majority had little support among Norwegian politicians.

When the Storting received the letter of resignation from the two dissenting committee members on 18 October 1973, a representative of Sosialistisk Valgforbund, an electoral alliance of left-wing socialists and communists, asked for a broad debate on the composition of the Nobel Committee and its duties (see quote above). The Presidium of the Storting prepared an overview of the historical background, Alfred Nobel’s will and the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, and in May 1974 the Storting debated the matter in connection with the appointment of two new members to the Nobel Committee. The majority of the election committee of the Storting wanted to avoid a broad debate on the Kissinger/Le Duc Tho award. They emphasized that the one and only task of the Storting, as far as the Nobel Committee was concerned, was to select its members. The Storting, they thought, should do nothing that might give an impression that the Norwegian parliamentarians could, or wanted to, control the work of the Nobel Committee. The Socialist representative Berit Ås, however, put forward three proposals: Firstly, that the three remaining committee members should also be replaced, secondly, that the committee should be internationalised, with one member from each Nordic country (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), and finally, that parliamentarians should no longer be eligible for the Nobel Committee.10

All three proposals were rejected by a large majority in the Storting, and one of the two who were appointed new members of the committee was not only a parliamentarian, but actually a member of the Presidium of the Storting. Still, many of the parliamentarians belonging to the majority agreed that in appointing the members of the committee in the future, it would be desirable to avoid parliamentarians. Some were also sympathetic to the idea that it should consist of members from different countries.

In 1977 the name of the committee was changed to the present, “The Norwegian Nobel Committee,” instead of “The Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Storting.” From that year, it has also generally been the custom that members of the Storting should not be appointed to the committee. However, the formal rules governing the appointment of the committee members have not been changed, the committee has not become international, and most members have been former parliamentarians with a long record of political activity.

The essential task

There are several reasons which speak against further changes: If the committee were to be internationally representative – on what basis should the members be selected? Should we really believe that members of an international committee would be free of national interests, or, during the Cold War, would have been independent of the interests of the East, the West, or the Non-Aligned Movement? Is it not more likely that having members from different countries would have meant that the committee itself would have been a body of conflict instead of peace?

NNI library
In the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s meeting room, there are pictures of all the Peace Prize Laureates on the walls. Which pictures would have covered the walls if the people who made the decisions sitting around this table had been scholars from the east, the west, the north, or the south?
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation
Photo: Øyvind Tønnesson

And if the majority of committee members were scholars – for instance peace researchers – is there any guarantee that they would make independent, ideologically non-biased decisions? Isn’t it rather a fact that social science and the humanities have been among the major ideological battlefields in the 20th century? If the Norwegian Nobel Committee had been constituted by scholars, one might suspect that they would have been stuck on the theoretical foundation of a peace prize, or on giving a consistent answer to the question: What is Peace?

Politicians may actually, at least when they are not in the middle of an election campaign, be able to put aside their conflicts and concentrate on their essential task – making decisions. The members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee have made decisions. They have awarded the Peace Prize to many different categories of peace workers and can hardly be accused of being biased in favor of candidates from their own country: In one hundred years they have produced only two Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, Fridtjof Nansen being the last, in 1922.

1. Quoted from Irwin Abrams: The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates (1988), p.58.

2. Redegjorelse for Nobelsfredspris, 1906, pp. 37-64.

3. Ibid, p. 46.

4. Quote from Socialdemokraten December 10, 1906.

5. The status of Koht’s letter is obscure. A note which is kept with his diary in the archive of the Nobel Institute is our source. it does not tell us who the addressee was, but quotes a letter of November 11, 1936.

6. By Professor of Philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, Jørgen Jørgensen. Redegjorelse for Nobelsfredspris 1936, p. 59.

7. Koht’s letter was quoted in Aftenposten, 11 November. The letter from Mowinckel was quoted in Stavanger Aftenblad, November 17.

8. Øivind Stenersen, unpublished research paper, The Norwegian Nobel Institute, January 2000. Stenersen is referring to Haakon Lie: Martin Tranmæl. Veiviseren, Oslo, 1991, p. 166.

9. For an account of the discussion on the composition of the Nobel Committee before the first awards were given, i.e. 1897-1901, see Oscar Falnes: Norway and the Nobel Peace Prize, (New York 1938), pp. 135-146.

10. Stortingsforhandlingar, Innst. S. n. 268. Forhandlingar i Stortinget 1973-74, p. 34.

First published 29 June 2000

To cite this section
MLA style: Controversies and criticisms. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Mon. 25 Sep 2023. <>