The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted

A Review by Scott London

The Norwegian Nobel Committee is no stranger to controversy. Throughout its long history, the independent committee that awards the annual Nobel Peace Prize has often come under intense fire. Not surprisingly, the criticism has focused mainly on specific laureates that, for one reason or another, are thought to be undeserving of the honor. Critics rarely miss an opportunity to bring up names like Henry Kissinger or Yasser Arafat, or even Barack Obama, to discredit the institution. Over the years, the committee itself has also been faulted on occasion for the way its decisions are made, the way its members are selected, or the ill-defined and shifting criteria it uses in picking the winners.

What Nobel Really Wanted
By Fredrik S. Heffermehl
Praeger, 2010. 239 Pages. $34.95.

But only rarely has the committee been criticized on legal grounds. In 2008, Oslo lawyer and activist Fredrik Heffermehl ignited some controversy and ruffled a few feathers with the publication of Nobels vilje. It was a hot-tempered polemic accusing the committee not only of misinterpreting Nobel's wishes, but of violating the actual terms in the will. In conjunction with the release of the book, he went so far as to file a case in a Stockholm court alleging that the committee's actions contravene Swedish and Norwegian inheritance laws. [The court rejected the complaint in 2009, and a subsequent one is pending as of March 2012.]

Nobels vilje failed to generate the attention Heffermehl had hoped for. In this expanded English version of the book, he says that the original Norwegian edition was mostly met with cold silence on the part of Norway's academic and political establishment. "The committee refused to discuss it publicly or heed the content in the secluded committee room," he complains. "The same happened with Parliament." He says it was a classic case of stonewalling.

Here he presents his argument with renewed vigor, charging that the prize is "increasingly grandiose, pompous, and remote from its original purpose," that it's "completely off-track" today, that it's been co-opted by business and "ruinously corrupted by commercial thinking." He faults the committee for "gross neglect" and an "astounding decline in loyalty toward Nobel," insisting that the causes of legitimate peace champions have been "wronged" by their decisions.

The key argument rests on an exegesis of Alfred Nobel's famous will of 1895. The peace prize should go to the person who had done the most in the preceding year to 1) organize and promote peace congresses, 2) eliminate or reduce standing armies, and 3) contribute to fraternity between nations, Nobel wrote. But peace congresses are mostly a thing of the past, and though there are still important disarmament efforts going on today, most of them are carried out by organizations and governments, not individuals. That means that the majority of the awards now go to those doing "the most or the best work for fraternity between nations." But Heffermehl takes issue with the committee's free interpretation of this clause, arguing that Nobel had very different ideas in mind when he penned those words.

The trouble here is that to bolster his case, Heffermehl has had to overlook a fair amount of historical evidence — letters Nobel wrote and accounts of the man by those who knew him. For example, we know from the sworn testimony of an associate of Nobel's — someone who had worked closely with the benefactor and witnessed the signing of his final testament — that he never intended "that the will be unconditionally enforced according to its strict literal meaning. On the contrary, the fact that he omitted detailed instructions is evidence that, on the matter of enforcement of the will, he wanted to allow the greatest possible freedom to those in question. This is also completely consistent with his character, because once he trusted people, he trusted them wholly and completely, without meanwhile confining them to detailed instructions." Heffermehl neglects to mention this testimony, and other evidence like it, in his book.

The executors of Alfred Nobel's will were painfully aware of its shortcomings as a legal document. That it even survived the examination of the courts and the opposition of Nobel's heirs has been described by historians as something of a miracle. This is why it took several years to establish the institutions and craft the necessary bylaws to carry out his wishes, vague and impractical as they were. Nobel's wishes were modified in the very act of drafting the statutes of the Nobel Foundation. To argue today, as Heffermehl does here, that the guardians of the peace prize have betrayed Nobel's intentions — and that numerous awards are therefore illegitimate under Swedish and Norwegian law — is both inaccurate and far-fetched.

Heffermehl goes on to level other charges against the committee. He says, for example, that the Norwegian parliament has, especially since the end of World War II, elected members on the basis of their party affiliation rather than their expertise in matters of peace and international affairs. He also deplores the practice of having an impartial non-voting secretary influencing committee decisions when that same secretary is also in charge of extracurricular activities such as the Nobel Peace Center and the internationally-televised Nobel Peace Prize concert — profit-making ventures that depend on the popular appeal of the award and the publicity it generates each year.

He also makes reference to the diaries of Gunnar Jahn who joined the Nobel committee in 1937 and chaired it from 1941 to 1966. Like the personal notes of Halvdan Koht, who served on the committee from 1918 to 1936, these journal entries provide new insight into the confidential discussions — and occasional disputes — of the committee during the first half of the 20th century. Heffermehl includes a number of previously unpublished passages from Jahn's diaries in a special appendix. But for all their historical value, these entries do little to support the general thesis of the book as a whole. And coupled with the inaccuracies and omissions scattered throughout the text, to say nothing of the strident tone of the argument, this book has little to recommend it as a work of scholarship or historical analysis.

Let it be said that some of Heffermehl's criticisms are valid and deserve a wider hearing. And in fact, several former committee members and secretaries have already gone on record with concerns like those mentioned here. But he seems less concerned with specific problems — the composition of the committee, for example, or conflicts of interest on the part of its secretary — than with the broader overarching accusation that the committee is failing in its duty to carry out Nobel's vision.

The Nobel committee may be justly accused of many things, but not of misinterpreting the will of its founder. The executors were able to get a loosely drawn will through probate by showing that Nobel was accustomed to make a general decision about a course of action and then leave it to others to implement it and work out the details. Broadening the definition of peace work, as successive Nobel committees have done, is perfectly consistent with Nobel's way of doing things. Over the past century, it has also gone a long way toward establishing the award's undeniable prestige and authority. The fact that the committee has made some unfortunate choices — even outright blunders — does not change that.

An abbreviated version of this review appears in the March 2011 issue of Journal of Peace Research. For more of my writings and links on this topic, see The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates