Notes on the Nobel Nomination Process

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The Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway

Despite what you may have read in the news, the nomination and decision-making process for the Nobel Peace Prize is designed to be private, not public. In fact, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation insist that “neither the names of nominators nor of nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize may be divulged until fifty years have elapsed.” 

In other words, the very act of talking about nominating someone or claiming to be nominated for the prize may disqualify a candidate. Those who engage in such behavior are expressing an overt disregard for the established guidelines.  

This year (2019), the committee received 301 nominations for the prize. The record was 376 individuals and organizations in 2016. You can learn more details about the nomination and decision-making processes here: https://www.nobelprize.org/nomination/peace/ 

The Norwegian Nobel Committee (as well as the related committees in Stockholm, which administer all awards other than the peace prize) follows strict guidelines in determining who is worthy of the annual honor. These derive from Alfred Nobel’s intentions, as outlined in his last will and testament. Contrary to what some may believe, the prize was not developed with long-standing institutions or powerful politicians in mind. Nobel wrote that the peace prize should go to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

Over the years, committee members have argued for broader interpretations of Nobel’s mandate. Some have noted that today’s peacemakers are hardly carbon copies of the award’s first intended recipient, Bertha von Suttner, whose primary focus was ending war via global disarmament. (You can read more about the disputes that erupted when Suttner was overlooked for the first few prizes in my previous post, “The Red Cross Controversy.”) Even so, any world leader who is currently expanding military budgets and promoting new weapons programs is likely to be quickly and easily dismissed as the committee prepares its short list and discusses the finalists.

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Kaci Five, former chairperson of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee prefers the word “laureate,” not “winner,” to describe the recipients. The award, after all, is an honor, not part of a competition, despite what many would-be medalists may believe. When asked about other contenders for the prize in 2016, Kaci Five, then chairperson of the Peace Prize Committee (and, sadly, deceased now), kindly refused to name or discuss them. “The award is intended to focus attention solely on this year’s laureate,” she replied before once again citing the statutes: “Investigations and opinions concerning the award of a prize may not be divulged until at least fifty years have elapsed.” 

So, while we can all debate who should or should not be considered for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, don’t pay much attention to whatever claims you may read in the press. This year’s committee will convene behind closed doors and make its decision with the same three questions firmly in mind: Who has done the most to promote friendship and cooperation among nations? Who has done the most to eliminate or reduce armies and/or weapons stockpiles in the world? Who has done the most to bring people together to promote and work effectively toward global peace and unity? 

No matter what the committee’s final decision may be, we might all benefit from asking ourselves this related question: What have I done recently to promote the cause of peace in my part of the world?

A Response to Anti-Semitic Violence

Like many U.S. citizens, I’ve been watching the daily news with shock and horror as the country endures yet another wave of hatred and violence, with the most recent deadly attack taking place at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the same time, I’ve been revising scenes in my historical novel Peace at Last that address the spread of anti-Semitism throughout Europe in the 1890s.

As you might imagine, the parallels are frightening, both in terms of the actions themselves and the responses from across the political spectrum. 

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Artur Gundaccar von Suttner established the first anti-anti-Semitism group in Vienna.

The roots of contemporary anti-Semitism extend beyond 20th-century Nazi Germany to the late 1800s. Just months before Bertha von Suttner founded her first peace society in 1891, her husband Artur convened the Union for Resistance to Anti-Semitism in Vienna in response to spikes in violence against Jewish people. Both of them strongly and publicly condemned such prejudice, despite repeated warnings from allies and adversaries to avoid the subject altogether. Editors often rejected their articles on the grounds that the issue was “unpleasant” and that such hostilities would simply “fade away like influenza.” Bertha described hateful anonymous letters sent by readers as “usually permeated with anti-Semitic spirit…and, along with that, always the friendly advice to return to the cooking pot and knitting needle.”

In her book The Machine Age, Bertha asked, “How is this possible in our humanitarian and enlightened century? It’s a disgrace, a remnant of barbarism, of religious mania.” Later, she reflected on her response to anti-Semitism in her memoirs, writing, “One must always resist injustice. There is no alternative. Silence, even though it intends to express disdain, is itself disdainful. It’s not enough for those affected to react; those who are unaffected must also revolt against injustice wherever they see it. Their silence is complicity, motivated by the same emotion as the victims’ silence—namely, fear.”

I’ve been rereading the correspondence between Bertha and her friend Bartholomaus Carneri, an Austrian statesman who lost his 1891 re-election bid to one of the newly emboldened anti-Semitic candidates. As a philosopher, Carneri was one of the first to apply Darwin’s theories of evolution to moral and ethical thinking. Though both he and Bertha firmly believed in evolution, he warned her that evolution in a positive direction—toward “the ideal,” as Alfred Nobel would have put it—could not be taken for granted. 

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The Austrian parliamentarian and philosopher Bartholomaus Carneri applied Darwin’s theories of evolution to moral and ethical thinking.

In dramatizing their conversations, I paraphrase Carneri’s elaboration on the English biologist Herbert Spencer’s notion of the “survival of the fittest,” often mistakenly credited to Darwin and over-simplified as “only the strongest survive.” In fact, a creature’s ability to adapt to—or fit—its environment, not its strength or stubborn adherence to old ways, provides a far better indicator of its chances at survival. Carneri tells Bertha, “Toxic environments may favor toxic creatures, not necessarily the most decent and just. With that in mind, we must not merely be messengers of peace; we must create and preserve a culture of peace to ensure its survival.”

These days, I fear the resurgence of toxic sociopolitical environments around the world. I also worry that the peace movement has not been proactive enough in establishing and maintaining a healthy culture capable of countering that regression. In short, it needs help, yours and mine alike.

When I tell people that I’m writing about the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and one of the most influential and popular writers of her time, many people ask, “Why haven’t I ever heard about her?” Anti-Semitism forms a large part of the answer. In book after book, Bertha advocated a noble and idealistic society in which science and the arts flourished alongside rational political discourse and diplomacy. She railed against the prevailing militarism and nationalism of her day, both of which fostered conflict and contempt for “the other.” After taking on the related issue of anti-Semitism in all its permutations, critics labeled her “JudenBertha,” a Jew-lover, and she was eventually considered an enemy of the state.

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Austrian writer Hertha Pauli, who met Bertha von Suttner as a child, wrote one of the first biographies of the Peace Prize recipient.

Bertha’s books were among the first targeted for burning by the Nazis, and few original copies exist. Luckily, two first editions of her landmark novel Lay Down Your Arms! in Alfred Nobel’s possession have survived the purges. In 1940, the writer Hertha Pauli, who had written some of the earliest biographies of both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner, was forced to flee her Vienna home in advance of the Nazi occupation. She and her family later emigrated to the United States from France to escape further persecution. Upon her return to Austria, she wrote, “I found that the Suttner memoirs, diaries, and letters I had drawn upon had been destroyed by the Nazis. Then I knew that her life must not be forgotten.” Slowly, researchers and writers such as the late Brigitte Hamann, who wrote a biography of Hitler as well as the definitive book on Suttner, have been rediscovering and preserving the previously lost and scattered remnants of Bertha’s life.

It took decades for European anti-Semitism to reach its most horrific levels during the Holocaust. Sadly, like racism and other barbaric forms of prejudice, it has survived into the present, with various political figures adapting its message of intolerance to suit their own needs and desires. The ability of today’s social media platforms to amplify and escalate such hateful messaging shortens the time frame in which more rational and reasonable responses might triumph. Despite the increased challenge, the “most decent and just” among us have an even greater responsibility to act. 

As Bertha firmly believed, silence is not an option.

Bertha’s 175th Birthday Party!

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A surprise gift from Graz: A replica of a new bust was delivered to the Bertha von Suttner Peace-Institute in The Hague

On June 8th and 9th, dozens of peace-lovers from around the world gathered in The Hague to celebrate Bertha von Suttner’s 175th birthday and her enduring legacy. Following a day of presentations at the Bertha von Suttner Peace-Institute and an evening recalling Korea’s controversial presence at the 1907 Hague peace conference, the group gathered at the nearby Peace Palace for more formal tributes.

During the morning, historian Peter van den Dungen invoked the spirit of Bertha’s many friends and fellow pacifists in a tour of the Peace Palace and a subsequent lecture in the historic reading room. In the afternoon, Dr. Heinz Fischer, former president of Austria, and Marzhan Nurzhan of the International Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN, the recipients of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize), addressed the attendees and emphasized connections between the peace movements of the past and the present. During a reception, Bertha herself (as portrayed by actress Anita Zieher of Austria) joined the group for cake and champagne as well as an informative and entertaining interview with Dr. Susanne Jalka of Austria.

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IMG_7020For Bertha and her colleagues, the 1899 and 1907 conferences in The Hague laid the foundation for the impressive Peace Palace, both figuratively and literally. With major funding for its construction from the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the building provided a permanent home for the newly formed Permanent Court of Arbitration and the International Criminal Court. Carnegie had become one of Bertha von Suttner’s most prominent supporters following the death of Alfred Nobel. For many activists today, the Peace Palace embodies both the strength of her convictions and the beauty of her idealistic vision.

You can learn more about the Peace Palace here: https://www.vredespaleis.nl/?lang=en

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Bertha von Suttner arrives at the opening of the Peace Palace in 1913.

A few other images from the weekend’s events:

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Morning reception at the Peace Palace

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Former president of Austria Dr. Heinz Fischer offers some remarks before unveiling the new bust of Bertha von Suttner.

 

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The new bust of Bertha von Suttner, created by Lia Krol of The Netherlands

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Verdiana Grossi of Switzerland, Behnaz Manfared of Iran, Maynard Yost and Hugh Coyle of the United States of America, and Dr. Ali Ahmad of Austria display one of Behnaz’s posters to promote peace in Iran.

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Thoughts on the 2017 Peace Prize

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Congratulations to this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the members of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)! This organization, which successfully led fifty nations to sign the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in September, fulfills many of the ideas and obligations expressed in Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament. These include disarmament and greater cooperation between nations, both having been strongly advocated by Bertha von Suttner as she created and promoted pacifist societies throughout Europe in the 19th century. Today, ICAN continues to work toward a more peaceful world free of the specter of nuclear armageddon. Beatrice Finn, ICAN’s executive director, said of the recent UN treaty, “This is what a real step looks like. And for our shared human society, this is a step for the better.”

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Supporters of the UN treaty gather together on the day of its passage. (Photo courtesy of ICAN)

At a meeting in Zurich with Suttner in 1891, Nobel predicted, “On the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.” As we are now painfully aware, the development and deployment of nuclear weaponry did not result in a world liberated from the constant threat of war. Instead, the idea of nuclear deterrence has become a cornerstone of foreign policy for many weapons-rich nations, leaving the world’s citizens fearful of irrational leaders with itchy trigger fingers.

The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas also reminds us that man’s hunger for more and more powerful weapons continues unabated on the individual as well as the international level. (I’ve used the gendered word intentionally, as the majority of most mass murderers and terrorists are, by far, male.) In the United States, the proliferation of automatic and semi-automatic guns, along with the devices that can transform one into the other, have led to a citizenry that lives in constant dread of the next attack. News reporters exacerbate our anxieties by documenting how global terrorists have “weaponized” everything from automobiles to social media posts.

In the 1890s, anarchist bombings throughout Europe created a similar sense of panic in many cities, especially Paris, where Nobel maintained one of several homes. An explosion at the Café Terminus near the opera house targeted civilians for the first time in a symbolic attack on the bourgeoisie. (For more on this, check out John Merriman’s deeply researched and suspenseful book, The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siècle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror.)

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New York Times artist’s rendition of Turpin’s machine, described as “a wonderful invention” by the newspaper.

Several years later, French residents received a shock of a different kind when the explosives manufacturer Eugene Turpin announced his invention of a doomsday machine that could destroy all of Paris within the course of an hour. Turpin envisioned mounting his “engine of destruction” on a locomotive with ammunition-filled railroad cars trailing behind. With its rotating rapid-fire cannons, this so-called “Angel of Death” could discharge 25,000 poison-filled projectiles and obliterate everything within 22,000 square meters.

We might imagine that peace-seeking idealists of the day would have been horrified by this proposed weapon of mass destruction. On the contrary, Suttner wrote to Nobel, “What is your opinion of Turpin’s machine? This invention fills me with joy, for if it delivers what its inventor promises, it would make war almost impossible. Yet…I would have preferred that you had invented it.” Nobel dismissed Turpin’s plans as impractical “balls of soap” but went on to praise its inventor’s imagination. Somewhat annoyed, Suttner wrote back to clarify her position. “If you had invented such a machine,” she told Nobel, “it would have been for the sole purpose of rendering war impossible. But Turpin and his friends weren’t thinking of peace; they wanted to act like treacherous parasites and use their infernal machinery to profit from the fears and prejudices of the day. What a blessing that they have not succeeded!”

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Protesters in New York City’s Central Park prior to the UN treaty adoption in September. (Photo courtesy of ICAN)

Today we celebrate ICAN’s success toward rendering nuclear war impossible. In announcing this year’s Peace Prize, the Nobel committee noted, “We live in a world where the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater than it has been for a long time. Some states are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and there is a real danger that more countries will try to procure nuclear weapons, as exemplified by North Korea. Nuclear weapons pose a constant threat to humanity and all life on earth. Through binding international agreements, the international community has previously adopted prohibitions against land mines, cluster munitions, and biological and chemical weapons. Nuclear weapons are even more destructive, but have not yet been made the object of a similar international legal prohibition.” We can hope that the symbolic support of the Nobel Peace Prize will help ICAN and all of the UN treaty’s signatories achieve that prohibition.

Click here for more information about the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Response to a Demagogue

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General Georges Boulanger, who served for many years as France’s Minister of War

During this U.S. presidential election cycle, I’ve been working on a section of Peace at Last that features General Georges Boulanger, a handsome and charismatic French demagogue from the late 1800s who rallied the French public to take up arms against Germany in the hopes of avenging the nation’s prior defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. On election night in January of 1889, emboldened mobs took to the streets of Paris and exhorted Boulanger to seize control of the government and establish a new, populist, authoritarian regime. Instead, and quite unexpectedly, Boulanger chose to pass up the opportunity and spend the evening with his mistress.

Perhaps because of his businessman’s knowledge of each country’s military capabilities, Alfred Nobel strongly believed that Germany would have readily defeated France if Boulanger had initiated a second war between the nations. He also clearly understood the dangers of demagoguery and how a man such as Boulanger could incite and inflame the vengeful sentiments of the uneducated masses. A resident of Paris at the time, Nobel noted in a letter, “In former days, governments used to be more narrow-minded and aggressive than their subjects. Nowadays, it seems as though the governments endeavor to appease the idiotic passions of a public roused into hysteria by pernicious newspapers.”

In 1892, shortly after Nobel and Bertha von Suttner had discussed the idea of establishing a global prize for peacemakers, he shared his darkening cynicism about mankind in a letter to the Baroness. “A new tyranny—that from the lower strata—stirs in the darkness,” he wrote, “and one can hear its distant rumble.”

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Just months after the death of his mistress, General Boulanger went to her grave with a pistol in hand and took his own life.

In the United States, that rumble no longer sounds in the distance. Unlike France in the late 19th century, it appears that the demagogue will have his day. Though the origins of Donald Trump’s electoral appeal may differ somewhat from Boulanger’s, the parallels are hard to ignore: a sensationalist press, an ill-informed public, and a list of grievances that have remained unresolved for decades.

Throughout his final years, Nobel found it difficult to overcome the growing sense of despair and depression he felt on reading the daily news. To her credit, Suttner remained an uplifting influence in his life, nursing his wounded idealism despite the mounting evidence of bigotry, prejudice, and nationalism spreading throughout Europe. When he revised his will shortly before his death, Nobel finally followed through on his promise to fund the peace prize that he and Suttner had envisioned.

From a period of turmoil and adversity, then, at least one great and affirming good emerged. I remain hopeful that peace-affirming beliefs such as those embodied by both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner will guide the world in its responses to the unfolding events of our own time.

“Koppargruva”

koppargruva6The first excerpt from the novel, “Koppargruva,” is now available for download as part of the Ploughshares “Solos” series. Here’s a slightly amended description from the journal’s Web site:

“Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and inspiration for the Nobel Peace Prize, visited the United States twice. ‘Koppargruva,’ from Hugh Coyle’s forthcoming book Peace at Last, is a fictionalized account of one of those excursions. Dubbed a killer by American journalists because of recent accidental nitroglycerin blasts in Panama and San Francisco, Nobel faces his tarnished reputation head on while searching for any sliver of redemption.”

The Solo includes a question and answer section following the excerpt in which I discuss the evolution of this particular chapter as well as the novel itself.

In the days ahead, I’ll be posting more information about “Koppargruva” and explain why it means so much to have it appear in Ploughshares. I’ll also provide links for interested readers to download the book via various digital platforms, such as Amazon and iTunes, once they are available. For now, you can purchase and download a copy (suitable for either Kindle or iBooks) on the journal’s Web site here and/or subscribe to the entire “Solos” series of publications, which features ten titles per year: https://www.pshares.org/solos/koppargruva-solo-52

Feel free to send along any questions you might have about this particular chapter as well. I’d be happy to answer them as much as possible without giving away too many details and surprises from the rest of the book!

 

 

The Path Toward Peace

 

ADNBogotabigThe recipient(s) of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize will soon be announced (October 7), and this week’s news offered strong support for the negotiators who have solidified the Colombian peace treaty, which, if it stands, would mark the end to a war that has lasted nearly half a century. In addition, as Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker noted in a recent co-authored op-ed piece, the western hemisphere will have reached a more far-reaching milestone: “Today, there are no military governments in the Americas. No countries are fighting one another. And no governments are battling major insurgencies.”

This historic moment barely registered in the lists of most-shared news stories. Instead, countless doom-and-gloom fears and anxieties continued to dominate social media from nearly every point on the political sphere. Some of my most well-intentioned pacifist friends continue to bemoan the “fact” that our world is more violent and war-torn than ever before.

51t3xTY8DQLIn fact, the “facts” don’t support such pessimism and cynicism.

As Steven Pinker pointed out in his well-researched book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, “Violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” Rather than recognize and build on this moment of hope and optimism, many have sought to rebut his claims and focus attention on recent horrific instances of terrorism or the loudest voices of hatred, contempt, and intolerance in our society. Some have also attempted to redefine the word “violence” to include a broader range of complaints and offenses that can justify their own dire perspectives.

I won’t take up those arguments here or attempt an explanation of why they persist in our culture despite evidence to the contrary. Truth be told, I struggle with these same issues every day in my own dark-leaning psyche. Regardless, I won’t allow the lure of negativity to detract from the hopes of a fully peaceful South America, especially not in this end-of-summer moment while the positive glow of the Rio Olympics still shines from Brazil.

I will, however, argue that we need to make such stories of peace more popular and share them more widely when they occur. To explain why, I offer this short yet inspirational excerpt from Pinker’s book: “Peace first became a popular sensation with the publication of two bestsellers. In 1889 the Austrian novelist Bertha von Suttner published a work of fiction called Die Waffen Nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!), a first-person account of the gruesomeness of war. And in 1909 the British journalist Norman Angell published a pamphlet called Europe’s Optical Illusion, later expanded as The Great Illusion, which argued that war was economically futile.”die-waffen-nieder-072396855

I had never heard about Bertha von Suttner upon reading this, but I was greatly intrigued, and so I began doing some research into her life and works. Every book opens another, and this certainly held true here: Pinker’s book led me to seek out and open Suttner’s book, which led me to open up biographies of Alfred Nobel, which led me to begin writing my own historical novel, Peace at Last. This project seemed the most viable path to employ my own talents and interests in the hopes of promoting and perpetuating global peace.

Such a stance doesn’t come without its detractors, and the voices of yesteryear still echo too loudly today. As Pinker wrote, “For all its literary popularity, the antiwar movement seemed too idealistic at the time to be taken seriously by the political mainstream. Suttner was called ‘a gentle perfume of absurdity,’ and her German Peace Society ‘a comical sewing bee composed of sentimental aunts of both sexes.’ Angells’ friends told him to ‘avoid that stuff or you’ll be classed with cranks and faddists, with devotees of Higher Thought who go about in sandals and long beards, and live on nuts.’”1200x630bf

Nay-saying and name-calling is nothing new. The pessimists continue to challenge the idealists; those who seek to profit from war continue to rail against those who continue to point out the proven and vastly greater economic benefits of peace. Luckily for all of us, the trend over time continues toward peace. The news from South America this week supports that momentum, and so we should all celebrate the Colombians’ efforts and work with them toward preserving our newly war-free western hemisphere.