Sources of the History of the Nobel Peace Prize

By Øyvind Tønnesson, Peace Editor, 1998-2000
1 December 1999

What do we know about the Nobel Peace Prize, the Laureates and why they were selected? How has the Norwegian Nobel Committee interpreted the concept of peace and Alfred Nobel’s will in the changing historical context of the 20th century?

In the following we will briefly present sources of information about the Nobel Peace Prize. They can be divided into three main categories:

  • Information which has been made public by the Nobel Foundation or the Norwegian Nobel Committee
  • Independent literature on the Prize and/or the Laureates
  • The Archive of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

Official Publications

Since the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, the Nobel Foundation has published an annual, Les Prix Nobel, which contains basic information about each year’s prizes. Included in the annual are the names of the members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, a brief account of the prize ceremony, an autobiography or historical review of the Laureate/institution, the presentation speech(es) given by the chairman or other members of the committee, the acceptance speech(es) given by – or on behalf of – the Laureate(s), and, finally, the Nobel lectures which have been delivered by most Laureates. In some editions of the annual (1945-1970) can be found toasts given at the banquets in the evening of December 10, after the prize ceremony.

Up to 1975, the Norwegian Nobel Committee cited no reasons for each year’s award when they announced it. Therefore, the presentation speeches are the best publicly available sources for anyone who wants to know why the committee made the decisions they made. In many instances the toasts and presentation speeches also reveal how contemporary international affairs were viewed by the committee spokesmen. After 1975, the Prize announcements from the Norwegian Nobel Committee have included a brief account of the basis of their decision, but the presentation speech still gives a more elaborate line of argument. Recent editions of Les Prix Nobel include the announcement by the Norwegian Nobel Committee on the selection of the year’s Laureate in October.

Literature on the Prize and the Laureates

There are references to the Nobel Peace Prize in many works on the 20th century’s international affairs. Separate volumes have been written on many of the Laureates. We do not intend to present a comprehensive account of available writings about the Nobel Peace Prize or the Laureates here; a search in an updated library is what we would recommend. (The Norwegian Nobel Institute Library database will soon be available on the web.)

Before the 50th anniversary of the Nobel Prizes in 1951, the Nobel Foundation and the Prize-awarding institutions initiated the writing of the book Nobel, The Man and His Prizes (1950). The Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, August Schou, wrote the chapter on the Peace Prize in the book which was later (1972) re-published in a revised edition. Irwin Abrams has both written and edited a large number of books and articles on the Peace Prize and on some of the Laureates, the most comprehensive work being The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates (1988). Abrams is also one of the contributors to a German 15-volume work, Der Friedens-Nobelpreis von 1901 bis heute (1987-1993), edited by Michael Neumann, which includes essays on all the Laureates from 1901 up to 1992. A team of Norwegian writers, Ivar Libæk, Øivind Stenersen and Asle Sveen, are now working on a comprehensive book on the history of the Nobel Peace Prize which is to be published both in Norwegian and English in 2001, at the time of the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prizes.

Most of the literature on the Peace Prize, the above-mentioned works included, primarily presents the life and achievements of the Peace Prize Laureates. Aase Lionæs, member of the committee from 1948 until 1978, in her book Tredveårskrigen for Freden (The Thirty Years’ War for Peace) (1987) wrote about her own experiences as committee member and on some important events in the history of the Prize, such as the awards to Carl von Ossietzky in 1935 (given in 1936) and to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973. However, there are generally few accounts of the process of nomination or of the discussions among the members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the literature. This is of course due to the general confidentiality of the committee’s work. There are, however, sources available which shed some light on the decision-making process.

The Archive of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

The statutes of the Nobel Foundation provide for strict secrecy as far as the work of the Norwegian Nobel Committee is concerned. Minutes from Committee meetings are not only kept secret – they are non-existent. But we may still get to know something. Letters of correspondence and all letters of nomination since 1901 are found in the committee’s archive, the reports from the committee’s advisers have been printed in separate internal volumes for each decade. The diaries of two committee members are also kept in the archive. After 50 years the Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute may give access to these archival sources, primarily for the purpose of historical research.

A registry of the nominees for the Peace Prize offers valuable information: names of both candidates and nominators, their nationality, and whether the candidates were on the committee’s “short list” or not.

The reports from the committee advisers give a good indication as to how well-informed the committee members were before they made their final decisions. The advisers rarely explicitly supported or opposed certain candidates, but they presented an extract of available biographical information and other facts that could serve as arguments both in favour of and against the candidature in question.

Committee member Halvdan Koht (1919-1937) wrote on committee matters in his diary, and so did committee chairman Gunnar Jahn in the period 1945-1966. Both diaries include information on the committee’s internal discussions. Researchers may gain access to the Koht diary and to those parts of Jahn’s diary which are older than 50 years.

The advisers’ reports and the diaries are written in Norwegian. Articles at on the history of the Nobel Peace Prize are primarily based on the above mentioned sources. To get more information or access to archival material, please contact the Norwegian Nobel Institute.