Nobel Nuggets, Part I

Alfred Nobel


Friends, I’ve been talking about the Nobel Peace Prize, before various audiences. The reason: I have a new book on the subject: Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World.

In Impromptus this week, I’m going to offer some nuggets — some impromptus, actually — concerning the prize and its history.

People have asked, “Why did you write the book?” Well, the subject is terribly interesting — quite apart from my book and its qualities, whatever those may be. The subject is so good, a writer can only mess it up.

When you study the prize, you revisit the 20th century, because the prize begins in 1901. You go through World War I, the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, apartheid, environmentalism, the War on Terror, the Age of Obama . . .

The Nobel Peace Prize has its finger in almost every pot.

Plus, the cast of characters is vast and fascinating. I’m speaking of the laureates, mainly — some 120 of them. As I was writing my book, some people said to me, “Concentrate on the interesting ones. Skip over the uninteresting ones.” Truth is, there are no uninteresting ones. Dullards don’t win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Finally, you have to confront some of the biggest issues: concerning war and peace, freedom and tyranny, disarmament and armament, etc.

The Nobel Peace Prize is a feast, I found — often vexing, but a feast.

The subtitle of my book calls the Nobel Peace Prize “the most famous and controversial prize in the world.” I’m certainly comfortable with the “controversial” part: Almost every peace-prize selection stirs controversy, and the question of peace is a slippery one: What is peace, anyway, and who deserves to be crowned a “champion of peace”? The world’s foremost one, at that!

But the “most famous” business — that may be a bit of a fudge. The truth is, the Nobel Peace Prize might be tied with, or even a little surpassed by, the Oscar. I’m not sure how you’d measure this on a global scale.

And in one year — 2007 — one man won both prizes: both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Oscar. That was Al Gore. That’ll never happen again, almost surely.

If you have to lose the presidency in such a hard and awful way, the Nobel and the Oscar provide some solace. Gore said as much, in his Nobel lecture.

The Nobel Peace Prize can be a weapon — oh, yes. Giving the prize to Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias in 1987, the committee told him that they were handing him a weapon to use against President Reagan. Some years later, Arias commented to Robert Kagan, “Reagan was responsible for my prize.”

Lech Walesa told me that, without the Nobel, his Solidarity cause in Poland could never have succeeded. “There was no wind blowing into Poland’s sail. . . . The Nobel prize blew a strong wind into our sail.”

Alfred Nobel, the testator — the writer of the will — was a formidable man. As a chemical engineer, he was brilliant, possibly a genius. Over the course of his career, he amassed 355 patents. He could have had many more, if he had devoted full time to inventing.

His most famous invention is dynamite. But, according to the experts, that is not his most impressive, scientifically.

He was also a brilliant entrepreneur and manager. He presided over an empire of 90 factories and other facilities, traveling between them constantly. Victor Hugo called him “Europe’s wealthiest vagabond.”

Moreover, Nobel was a superb writer — maybe no Hugo, but superb. He carried on one of the most prolific correspondences of the age. He wrote and spoke in any number of languages, fluently and idiomatically. He almost always wrote to a person in that person’s native tongue.


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