The Nobel Peace Prize and World War II

By Asle Sveen

When WW II broke out in Europe in 1939, it created a new situation for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded no prizes before the war ended in 1945. What were the reasons for this?

When the deadline for nominations expired on February 1 1939, there were 24 candidates nominated for the Peace Prize. The most peculiar was Adolf Hitler; a nomination which was quickly withdrawn. (1) Seven candidates had adviser reports written on them. It was Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian fighter for independence, (2) the American peace activist Carrie Chapman Catt, the Swedish pacifist Carl Lindhagen, the French union leader Léon Jouhaux and U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who was nominated by president Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the most interesting were the former president of Czechoslovakia Edvard Benes, who was nominated by Winston Churchill, and the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who was nominated by twelve Swedish members of parliament. The Swedes wrote that Chamberlain deserved the Peace Prize for the Munich Agreement in September 1938. Through this agreement Chamberlain claimed that he had secured "Peace in our Time" by handing over Czech Sudentenland to Hitler´s Germany. (3)

Neville Chamberlain holding the paper with the Munich Agreement into the air at the airport in London, September 1938. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The agreement proved to be a disaster for Edvard Benes. Reacting to pressure from Hitler he stepped down as president and went into exile in Great Britain. In the spring of 1939 Hitler violated the Munich Agreement by occupying the rest of the Czech territory and making Slovakia a German puppet state.

Sculpture of Edvard Benes (1884-1948) in Prag. Photo: Matej Batha. Wikimedia Commons.

It was in the light of these events that the adviser, professor Frede Castberg, wrote the report on both Benes and Chamberlain for the Nobel Committee. It was two comprehensive reports. The one on Chamberlain was delivered to the secretary of the Nobel Committee on August 20 1939, and Castberg made the following concluding remarks:
"Nobody can tell if Chamberlain´s policy of "understanding" will lead to peace or war. Till now it has saved peace by enormous sacrifices, first and foremost the freedom and independence of the Czechs. The 1938 September crisis has painted a grim picture for all small nations. The question is if the brutal annihilation of Czechoslovakia´s freedom by Germany will lead to such a strong alliance against Germany that this country will hesitate to make further territorial changes by threats of the use of force. Whether Chamberlain will succeed in this or not, is impossible to foresee." (4)
However Castberg and the Nobel Committee did not have to wait long for the answer about peace or war. Hitler invaded Poland only eleven days after Castberg had delivered his adviser report. Reluctantly Chamberlain had to declare war on Germany to stand by his promises to Poland. World War II had begun.
We have no reports or diaries telling us about the discussions in the Nobel Committee in the autumn of 1939. Chamberlain´s policy of Appeasement had failed and he was obviously no longer a hot candidate. But the committee had several other worthy candidates, perhaps first and foremost Edvard Benes, Mahatma Gandhi and Cordell Hull. Castberg´s adviser report on Benes was positive, but a Peace Prize to him, who was in exile in London, could be seen as a challenge to Hitler-Germany. This was something the Nobel Committee probably did want to avoid having in mind the conflict with Germany about the Peace Prize to Carl von Ossietzky in 1936. A Peace Prize to Gandhi would also be problematic because it would challenge the colonial power Great Britain. Unofficially the Norwegian authorities, since the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905, had regarded the British Navy as a guarantee against an attack on Norway from a foreign power. And both the Norwegian government and the Nobel Committee surely were aware of Norway´s exposed position as a small state after the outbreak of war. It could be a risky business to challenge big powers like Germany and Great Britain. So Cordell Hull from the neutral USA would seem the most obvious candidate. (5) Disagreement about his candidature in the Nobel Committee and disappointment over the outbreak of war may explain why the Committee decided to award no Peace Prize for 1939. (6)

Even if the war had begun, 37 candidates for the Peace Prize of 1940 were nominated. Shortly before Christmas 1939 President Roosevelt again nominated his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull; and Hull in his turn nominated Roosevelt a few days later. (7)
During the winter of 1940 war raged between Finland and the Soviet Union, which lead to nominations of both the national Finish Red Cross and the International Red Cross by Norwegian representatives of parliament. (8) Former Prime Minister Jens Hunseid from the Farmers Party nominated Nansenhjelpen (the Nansen relief organization), which after the outbreak of the Winter War in November 1939 organised humanitarian aid to Finland. (9) Nansenhjelpen was organised in 1936 by Odd Nansen who was the son of former Peace Prize winner Fridtjof Nansen. The first secretary of the Nobel Committee and Peace Prize winner Christian Lous Lange and Minister of Foreign Affairs Halvdan Koht supported the founding of the organisation. They were then both members of the Nobel Committee. Till 1940 the main task of Odd Nansen and Nansenhjelpen were to help Jewish refugees escape to Norway from Nazi occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia. (10)
The Inter-Parliamentary Union was also nominated in 1940. Well known politicians were behind the nomination; first and foremost the Danish Prime minister and Social Democrat Thorvald Stauning, former Norwegian Conservative Prime- and Foreign minister Ivar Lykke and the Vice-President of Parliament, Magnus Nilsen from the Labour Party. In addition six members of the Norwegian Parliament supported this nomination. Obviously they hoped that a Peace Prize to The Inter-Parliamentary Union, an organisation founded in 1889, which had worked for solving conflicts through arbitration and an international court, would send a strong message to the warring states.


German soldiers marching through Oslo April 9 1940. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Before the Nobel Committee was able to have reports written on some of the nominees, Norway was struck by war. On April 9 1940 the Germans attacked and several of the Nobel Committee members found themselves in the middle of dramatic events. First and foremost this happened to Foreign Minister Halvdan Koht (Labour), President of the Storting (Parliament) Carl Joachim Hambro (Conservative) and the editor of Arbeiderbladet (a Labour Party newspaper), Martin Tranmæl. Koht was not an active member of the committee in 1940. He temporarily stepped down as a member in connection with the Peace Prize to Carl von Ossietzky in 1936. The Storting decided the year after that no member of government could be functional in the Nobel Committee, even if elected, as long as they held government posts. This was to signal the Committees independence. Foreign minister Koht therefore was not an active Nobel Committee member when he on behalf of the Norwegian government turned down the German demands of surrender and followed the King and the rest of the government in their escape northwards through Norway. (11)
President of the Storting, Hambro, was however a newly elected member of the Nobel Committee. Om April 9th he organised the escape of the government and Storting out of Oslo and initiated the empowerment given by the Storting to the government to continue the war against the German invader. Hambro then crossed the border to Sweden to seek support for the Norwegian cause. But the Germans made it clear that if the Swedes allowed the president of the Storting to speak publicly, this would be considered a provocation against Germany. The Swedish foreign minister feared that Sweden could be dragged into the war, and after six weeks in Stockholm, Hambro was told to leave the country. (12). Hambro then joined Koht and the rest of the government in Northern Norway. When both allied and Norwegian forces gave up military resistance in Norway by the beginning of June, Hambro followed the government to London. Shortly thereafter he was sent to the USA with a somewhat unclear mandate to inform about the struggle against the Nazis and gain support for the Norwegian cause. For four years Hambro worked tirelessly for this. He had the advantage that he knew president Roosevelt personally and had access to meetings with him. In the spring of 1941 Koht also came to the USA. He had been forced to step down as Foreign Minister, and Hambro included him in the work for the cause of Norway. (13)
Editor and member of the Nobel Committee Martin Tranmæl also fled with the government and leading Labour politicians and union leaders from Oslo to Northern Norway. Tranmæl did not follow the government to London, but went to Sweden to seek support from the Social Democrat government there. But he experienced the same reluctance to support the Norwegians as Hambro (14). The Labour Party leaders wanted Tranmæl to travel to the USA, but he refused and stayed in Stockholm. In Sweden Tranmæl worked closely with among others, Willy Brandt, (15) making plans both for the Labour movement, Norway and Europe after the war. In addition he kept close connection to the Norwegian authorities in London, the resistance movement in Norway and organized support for Norwegian refugees in Sweden. A historian has labelled Tranmæl "Norway´s most important ambassador in Sweden during the war." (16)

While Koht, Hambro and Tranmæl were escaping northwards in April, another member of the Nobel Committee, Gunnar Jahn (Liberal), was active in Oslo. On April 9th, as the Germans invaded, Vidkun Quisling made a coup by broadcasting a radio speech. He announced a new government and ordered the Norwegian forces to lay down their arms. In an answer to that, and because the King, the Government and Storting had fled the capital, the High Court a few days later appointed members of an administrative board to negotiate with the Germans to secure order and economy in the occupied parts of Norway; and to get rid of Quisling. Gunnar Jahn, who was director of Statistics Norway, became member of the administration board. The board reached an agreement with the Germans, but was dissolved on September 25 1940 together with all political parties except Quisling´s Nasjonal Samling (National gathering). Hitler´s man in Norway, Josef Terboven, signalled a Nazi revolution. Norway was to be governed by the "Fürer-principle" as a one party state under German supervision and control.
What further happened to the Nobel Institute in Oslo and the Nobel Committee during the years of occupation, is made clear by Øyvind Tønnesson in the article With Fascism on the Doorstep: The Nobel Institution in Norway, 1940-45 (17). At first the Germans and then the Quisling government tried to take over the Nobel Institute. Already in April the chairman of the Nobel Committee, professor Fredrik Stang, was paid a visit by Germans who wanted to occupy the building of the Nobel Institute in central Oslo. Stang told them that the building was Swedish property -information that was confirmed to the Germans by the director of the Nobel Foundation, Ragnar Sohlman. Sohlman also arranged for the Nobel Institute to receive money and other supplies from Sweden during the years of occupation, and several times he had meetings in Oslo with the director of the Nobel Institute, Ragnvald Moe, Fredrik Stang and Gunnar Jahn. In addition to Stang and Jahn also another member of the Nobel Committee, Koht´s substitute, Birger Braadland, remained in Norway. The Nobel Committee theoretically could have awarded a Peace Prize, but quite naturally Stang told the Nobel Foundation in November 1940 that a prize for 1940 was out of the question. In the following years it was impossible to award prizes because the Nobel system in Norway was not functional with nominations and adviser reports. The prize money during these years was allocated to the funds of the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm.
During the war years the mandate for several of the members of the Nobel Committee expired, but to prevent the breakdown of the system and make a takeover by the Norwegian Nazi authorities easier, the Nobel Foundation told these members to prolong their membership. Quisling had namely declared that his intention was to replace the Nobel Committee with a new temporarily committee because some members of the Nobel Committee had fled the country and the mandate of others had expired. The Nobel Foundation protested this, and in 1943 some members of the Swedish General Consulate moved into the Nobel Institute building to strengthen the Swedish presence. In late 1941 Fredrik Stang had died, and Gunnar Jahn replaced him as chairman of the Nobel Committee. At the same time Jahn had become a member of the leadership of the Norwegian resistance movement - and the following years he felt that his position became more and more vulnerable. Both he, Moe and Braadland were several times interrogated by the Norwegian Nazi police. Jahn feared that he would be arrested if he refused to step down from the Nobel Committee. In January 1944 both Jahn and Braadland therefore withdrew from the Committee and left the administration of the Nobel Institute and its properties in Oslo to representatives of the Nobel Foundation and Swedish General Consulate. Swedish diplomats also managed to get the Germans to stop further attempts by the Quisling-government to take over the Nobel system in Norway. In the autumn of 1944 Gunnar Jahn was arrested and spent the rest of the war at Grini prison camp near Oslo till the German capitulation the 8th of May 1945.

Vidqun Quisling (left) talking with the real ruler of Norway, Josef Terboven. They both wished to take over the Nobel System in Norway. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

By New Year 1945 it was apparent for most people that the end of the war drew nearer. Already in November 1944 Halvdan Koht wrote a letter to the secretary of the Nobel Committee Ragnvald Moe. In this letter he nominated several allied statesmen for the Peace Prize, among them Josef Stalin; but first and foremost Cordell Hull who Koht regarded as the father of the new world organisation, the UN. (18) Hambro had then already travelled to London to represent Parliament in the preparations for the Norwegian exile authorities to return to a liberated Norway. In London he got the news that the Norwegian Legation in Stockholm had enquired about the Peace Prize to the Norwegian Foreign Department in London. Hambro feared that the heirs of Alfred Nobel should protest the fact that no peace prizes had been awarded since 1938. Like Koht he wished to award the Peace Prize to Cordell Hull. (19) Thus he got one of the most respected advisers of the Nobel Committee, professor Wilhelm Keilhau, who had accompanied the Government to London in 1940, to nominate Hull. (20)
On May 8 1945 the Germans capitulated in Norway. Gunnar Jahn returned from Grini prison camp, Tranmæl arrived from Sweden the next day, and by the end of May Hambro returned from London. All three of them were immediately involved in the discussion about who should lead a temporarily government till a new election could be arranged in September. The mission went first to the leadership of the resistance movement during the war, and Gunnar Jahn was willing to lead such a government. Hambro also wanted him as a government member, although not as Prime minister. (21) While the negotiations about who should govern went on from the beginning of June 1945, Hambro gave priority to a meeting with the director of the Nobel Institute, Ragnvald Moe. Moe explained what had happened to the institute during the war and Hambro "discussed with him the question of an award this autumn." (22) As the discussions about a new government neared an end, Ragnar Sohlman visited Oslo, and on June 20 the Nobel Committee dined with him. (23) Sohlman probably came to Oslo because he wanted the Nobel Committee to be active as soon as possible and appoint new peace prize laureates. According to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation no more than five years should pass between prizes awarded. Sohlman himself had The Red Cross nominated. (24)
Two days after the dinner with Sohlman, Parliament appointed a new Nobel Committee, and all the old members were re-elected except Halvdan Koht who the Labour Party replaced with a younger party member, Halvard Lange. (25) At the constituent meeting of the Nobel Committee on June 30, Gunnar Jahn was re-elected as chairman. He had however joined the new unity government lead by Einar Gerhardsen (Labour) as Minister of Finance after the resistance movement had given up to form a government. As government member Jahn was temporarily excluded from the meetings of the Nobel Committee. Thus it was the re-elected President of the Storting, Hambro, who functioned as a chairman at the constituent meeting. (26)
In September the Labour Party won the election and formed a new majority government with Gerhardsen as Prime minister. Gunnar Jahn therefore was back as chairman when the Nobel Committee in November awarded the Peace Prize for 1944 to the Red Cross and the prize for 1945 to Cordell Hull - although not unanimously (27) These prizes were applauded in Norway, also by the Communist Party, even if their main newspaper Friheten (Freedom) wanted a peace prize to a Soviet politician after the victorious struggle against the Nazis. (28) And Norway´s ambassador to Washington informed the conservative newspaper Aftenposten about the Peace Prize to Hull: "I know that the news about this will arouse joy and deep satisfaction in America." (29)

We do not know why the Nobel Committee did not award a Peace Prize for 1939. Probably it feared to provoke the big powers Germany and Great Britain by Peace Prizes to Benes or Gandhi. This even if both the Committee and the Storting had tried to underline that the Nobel Committee was independent of Norwegian authorities. Disagreement within the committee about an actual candidate as Cordell Hull from neutral USA and the disappointment of the outbreak of war in September 1939 also may explain why no Peace Prize was awarded that year.
Then events turned dramatic for the Nobel Committee because war and occupation came to Norway in April 1940. Several of the committee members fled together with the King and government. A majority of the active members remained in occupied Norway, but quite naturally they refrained from awarding a Peace Prize for 1940 and the following war years. Both German and Norwegian Nazi authorities tried to take over the Nobel system in Norway. The director of the Nobel Foundation and Alfred Nobel´s old employee, Ragnar Sohlman, played a crucial role in preventing this. He got the Germans to respect the Nobel Institute as Swedish property, made it economically possible for the institute to keep going and prevented the Quisling regime to take over the Norwegian part of the Nobel system.
Because of this, when the Germans were defeated in 1945, it did not take long before the Nobel Institute and the Nobel Committee were in normal activity. The Storting, leading members of the Nobel Committee and Ragnar Sohlman were eager for this. Sohlman, Koht and Hambro had provided nominations of worthy candidates within the deadline of February 1 1945. And with all formalities in place, the Nobel Committee was able to award the postponed Peace Prize for 1944 to the International Red Cross and the prize for 1945 to the U.S. Secretary of State, Cordell Hull.


1 See article about the nomination of Hitler:

2 The Nobel Institute: Redegjørelser 1939 (Reports 1939) page 13-22. Ole Colbjørnsen from the Labour Party nominated Gandhi, which he also had done in 1937. Gandhi had a report written on him by adviser Jacob Worm-Müller who wrote a thorough but somewhat lukewarm conclusion where he pictured Gandhi as a mixture of Jesus and a cunning parliamentarian.

3 The nomination of Chamberlain was also met with enthusiasm by bourgeois newspapers and parties in Norway. An exception was the Conservative president of the Storting, Carl Joachim Hambro (member of the Nobel Committee from 1940), who strongly criticised the Munich Agreement.

4 Ibid., Redegjørelser 1939. page 56.

5 Stenersen, Libæk, Sveen: The Nobel Peace Prize. One Hundred Years for Peace. Cappelen 2001. Øivind Stenersen´s article on Hull page 134. Hull was nominated already in 1936, and the Norwegian ambassador to the United States energetically advocated Hull´s candidature.

6 The Nobel Foundation in Sweden awarded Nobel Prizes both in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature in 1939. They refrained from awarding prizes in 1940, 1941 and 1942; awarded a prize in physics and medicine in 1943 and to all in 1944.

7 The Nobel Institute archive. In a letter to the Nobel Committee of December 22 1939, Roosevelt nominated Hull for his work with "the good nabour -policy" towards Latin-American countries and his work to reduce custom boundaries of all kinds. This would "play an important part in the ultimate restoration of peace in Europe and in the Far East." In his nomination letter of January 1 1940 where Hull nominated Roosevelt, he wrote that the Nobel Committee surely was aware of Roosevelt´s "constant and world-wide efforts to promote and preserve peace on every continent during the past years."

8 Jakob Ørbæk from the Conservative Party and Olav Vegheim from Labour.

9 Probably it was the help by the Nansenhjelp to Finland and the fight against communist Soviet Union that made Hunseid nominate Nansenhjelpen. During the war the strongly anti-communist Hunseid joined Quisling´s party and in 1945 he was sentenced to prison for treason.


11 Birger Braadland was Koht´s substitute in the Nobel Committee from 1940. He was member of the Framer´s Party. He was Foreign minister in the governments of Kolstad and Hunseid 1931-33, and at the same time he lead the Norwegian delegation to the League of Nations - and to the disarmament conference in 1932.

12 Johan Hambro: C.J. Hambro: Liv og drøm (Life and Dream.) Aschehoug 1984 page 225-230.

13 Ibid., page 213-24. Here is told that Hambro, in spite of strong political criticism of Koht, was eager to get Koht to propagandise for the sake of Norway in the U.S. Being the President of the of the League of Nations, Hambro in 1940 provided the archives of the League transported to the University of Princeton in the USA. Hambro was nicknamed "Mr. League of Nations."

14 More about this in Einar Gerhardsen: Fellesskap i Krig og Fred (Togetherness in War and Peace), Tiden 1970 page 37-40. The Swedish Social-Democrats had sympathy for Norway, but gave priority not to provoke a German attack on Sweden. This created a great deal of bitterness against the Swedes till the tides of war and Swedish behaviour changed in 1943.

15 Knut Einar Eriksen: Arbeiderhistorie 2004 (History of the Labour Movement). Martin Tranmæls utenrikspolitiske syn 1940-45 (Martin Tranmæl´s view on foreign policy 1940-45) Arbeiderbevegelsens arkiv og Bibliotek pages 6, 10, 20-21, 23, 27-28. Willy Brandt fled to Norway from Nazi-Germany in the 1930s, fled to Sweden and became Norwegian citizen in 1940. He regained his German citizenship after the war. He became a leading figure in the Social Democratic Party, was first Mayor of West-Berlin then Chancellor of West-Germany from 1969. He became Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1971 for his policy of détente between East and West.

16 Ibid. page 5.


18 In the letter Koht told that he considered himself still a member of the Nobel Committee since the Storting had been unable to appoint new members since 1940. More about Kohts´ letters and nominations:

19 Johan Hambro: C.J. Hambro. Liv og drøm page 266. Hambro is supposed to be shocked because the Foreign Department had not informed him about the inquiries from the Norwegian Legation in Stockholm.

20 The Nobel Peace Prize. One hundred Years. Stenersen about Hull, page 135.

21 C.J. Hambro. Dagboksblade (From my Diary), Gyldendal 1964 page 26. Hambro wanted Jahn as Minister of Finance in a new government lead by the leader of the Home Front, Chief Justicearius Paal Berg.

22 Ibid., page15. The meeting with Moe took place June 4 1940 - only five days after Hambro arrived in Norway.

23 Ibid., page 48. Hambro does not mention other members of the old Nobel Committee who were present at the dinner with Sohlman except Gunnar Jahn. Probably both Tranmæl and Braadland attended. Koht was still in the USA.

24 Tønneson, page 9.

25 More about Koht´s destiny in the Nobel Committee:

26 Ibid.

27 The Nobel Institute. Gunnar Jahn´s Diary. Report from the meeting in the Nobel Committee November 12 1945. Jahn was a sceptical about a peace prize to Hull, but was persuaded by Hambro. Tranmæl alone was against. Jahn was against the prize to the Red Cross - without explaining why in his diary.

28 Friheten, November 13 1945. In 1945 Friheten was one of the main newspapers in Norway due to the prestige of the Soviet Union and the Norwegian communists after the defeat of Nazi Germany.

29 Ambassador Wilhelm Morgenstierne to Aftenposten November 13 1945.