World War I and the Peace Prize

By Asle Sveen

From Ypres in Belgium 1917. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
In 1914 the Nobel Committee decided not to award the Peace Prize - and nor did it award prizes in 1915, 1916, 1918 and 1919. The committee does not give written records of it´s decisions - so we can only speculate why it refused to award prizes during these years. The exception is 1919. For this year we have knowledge of the discussions because one of the Nobel Committee members wrote a diary from the meetings. In 1914 the Nobel Committee could choose between several good candidates - three of them being the Swedes Hjalmar Branting, Carl Sundblad and Edvard Wavrinsky. They were all unproblematic because Sweden was a neutral nation. Branting had an earlier nomination and the advisers report lauded him for his role in the peaceful dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden in 1905 (1). Sundblad also had supported Norway´s right to cede from the union - and besides that he had been the architect behind a Swedish peace and arbitration committee - a committee that had developed into a popular movement. In addition it was Bernhard Hansen, member of the Nobel Committee, who nominated Sundblad in 1914. Wavrinsky had for a long time been central in Swedish and international work for peace and he also supported Norway in 1905. In 1914 he was nominated by the Danish Peace Prize winner, Fredrik Bajer (1908), and Wavrinsky had earlier received positive reports from advisers (2). Could not a peace prize to Branting, Sundblad, or Wavrinsky, be a signal to the warring nations that there were other means than war to solve conflicts?
In the first decades the Nobel Committee made public the winner of the Peace Prize in December, not in early October as in our days. When war broke out in August 1914, most people reckoned that it would be over by Christmas. But when the Nobel Committee should make it´s decision in the late autumn, it was apparent to everyone that they witnessed a new type of war: an industrial mass slaughter where hundred of thousands were mowed down in a few days. It was a brutal war without hope of peace in the near future. The chairman of the Nobel Committee, Jørgen Løvland, was deeply shocked. Like so many others he had been an optimist on behalf of mankind - with faith in negotiations and arbitration as the future means of solving conflicts. In a letter to a friend he described the war as "the most horrible since the creation of the earth" (3). Most likely Løvland and the rest of the Nobel Committee were so shocked that they meant that it would be inappropriate to award a peace prize for 1914.

There was no common policy between the Nobel Committee in Norway and the Nobel Foundation in Sweden about not awarding prizes during the war. The Swedes awarded Nobel Prizes in medicine, chemistry and physics in 1914 - and continued to do so as well as in literature during the remaining years of the war.

1915 - Criticism from Sweden
In Sweden Carl Sundblad was not satisfied with the decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. In May 1915 his periodical, Fredsfanan,(the Peace Banner) the voice of the Swedish peace and arbitration committee, asked the question: "Why is not a Peace Prize awarded?" The article stated that the warring nations had ammunition in abundance while the peace movement lacked the spiritual ammunition a peace prize could provide.

Having in mind the 1915 Peace Prize Fredsfanan pointed to the International Congress of Women against war that just had taken place in The Hague with thousands of participants from neutral and warring states. Especially Jane Addams from the USA and the Hungarian peace activist Rosika Schwimmer "ought to attract attention by the Norwegian Nobel Committee (4)."

None of these however were nominated for the Peace Prize of 1915. The Nobel Committee chose to abstain from awarding a prize even though Bernhard Hansen once again nominated Sundblad. A possible reason for this was that Sundblad in earlier advisory reports had been labeled a naive idealist and in addition was a disputed person in Sweden (5).

Two later Peace Prize winners, the French Leon Bourgeois (1920) and the British Norman Angell (1933) were also nominated in 1915. But a Peace Prize to one of these, or both of them, could be interpreted as a hostile act against Germany - which the chairman of the Nobel Committee, Jørgen Løvland, surely was eager to prevent. After all he had several years behind him as Foreign minister and Prime minister and had just been appointed Cabinet minister when the decision was taken not to award the 1915 Peace Prize.

Jane Addams as Peace Prize Candidate

Jane Addams was the main architect behind the peace conference in The Hague. At the same time she managed to establish the Women´s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). The conference was labeled a success even if the authorities in the warring states did everything to prevent it. The reason given was that all the peace talk by women would harm the moral of the fighting soldiers. At the end of the conference Addams sent delegations to both neutral and warring states to persuade them to take peace initiatives. Her closest friend, Emily Greene Balch (Peace Prize 1946), came to Norway. According to reports she sent to Jane Addams (6), her delegation had talks with king Haakon, Prime Minister Gunnar Knudsen and Foreign Minister Nils Ihlen. In Parliament they met Jørgen Løvland, then President of Parliament and chairman of the Nobel Committee. In addition they had talks at the Nobel Institute with former secretary of the Nobel Committee and present secretary-general of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Christian Lange (Peace Prize 1921). According to Balch the peace message of the delegation was well received both in Norway, the other Scandinavian countries and in Russia.

In 1916 Jane Addams was nominated for the Peace Prize. She was on the short list and had an advisory report written on her. The report had a positive conclusion. Jane Addams was labeled the central driving force behind the work for peace without being a naive idealist. She was a friend of peace and a person "who is not praising a doctrinaire anti-militarism" (7).

Why not a Peace Prize to Addams in 1916?

In 1916 USA still was outside the war - and one should think that Jane Addams would be an ideal Peace Prize winner. Some of the bloodiest battles were fought that year, and all warring parties used poison gas. The members of the Nobel Committee, Jørgen Løvland, Hans Jacob Horst, Carl Berner and Bernhard Hanssen from the Liberal Party and in addition Francis Hagerup from the Conservative Party, were all supporters of Jane Addams´ main message: conflicts ought to be solved by arbitration and an international court. So why not award a woman from the neutral big power, USA, a respected woman who used all her strength to end the ongoing madness?

Ford Peace Ship 1915. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Several explanations are possible. Maybe the Nobel Committee associated Jane Addams with Henry Ford´s failed peace mission to Europe in late 1915. Ford rented the Danish ship Oscar II and filled it with profiled peace activists who were supposed to persuade European governments to the cause of peace. Jane Addams was meant to be a front figure, but she fell ill. The expedition was soon met with ridicule by the international press and labelled as naïve idealists, the reason why being violent quarrels among the participants about tactics. Ford himself fell ill, and when the ship visited Oslo, Norway, he left the expedition after a few days in bed at the Grand Hotel (8).

But most likely was Jane Addams not awarded the Peace Prize because the peace work done by women was not taken seriously. When one of the Nobel Committee´s most prominent advisers, later Foreign Minister, Halvdan Koht, wrote an article in early 1917 summing up peace initiatives, he mentioned Henry Ford and the peace ship in rather positive terms, but not a word about Addams or her peace conference in The Hague in 1915 (9). And Koht knew Jane Addams well. Before the war he had visited her and had talks with her in the social center for poor immigrants she had established in Chicago (10).

The chairman of the Nobel Committee, Jørgen Løvland, supposedly did not have his eyes on the peace work of women. From 1915 he was chairman of the Norwegian branch of an organization for lasting peace established in The Hague in spring 1915 (11), and as member of Cabinet he was surely occupied by securing Norwegian neutrality in dangerous international waters. The result was that no Peace Prize was awarded in 1916.

For Jane Addams the next years became a great disappointment. USA joined the war, and as a pacifist in opposition to this, she was labeled unpatriotic. She was harassed by media and supervised by the authorities. But after the war was over, she regained her position as "The Mother of Peace." Jane Addams was even nominated for the Peace Prize by President Woodrow Wilson. But she had to wait until 1931 to win the prize - then supported by Halvdan Koht.

Why a Peace Prize in 1917?

American Red Cross Poster from 1918. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1917 the Nobel Committee was back on track by awarding the Peace Prize to the Red Cross. The background for this is made clear in an article by Ivar Libæk: The Red Cross: Three Time Recipient of the Peace Prize (12). In 1917 each side of the warring parties had a great number of prisoners of war, and the Red Cross tried to secure that they were properly treated according to international law. The secretary of the Nobel Committee, Ragnvald Moe, met in Paris with the chairman of the French branch of the Red Cross, Louis Renault (Peace Prize 1907). Moe informed Renault that he had discussed the Red Cross as a candidate for the Peace Prize with the chairman of the Nobel Committee, Jørgen Løvland. The result was that both the Swiss government and several former Peace Prize winners nominated the Red Cross (13). Ragnvald Moe himself wrote the report and not surprisingly he concluded that the Red Cross "had shown a will to act in the right moments; it had been quick to react and organize what was needed to solve present problems."(14) For the Nobel Committee it must have been nice finally to award a Peace Prize. And it was unproblematic to award an impartial international organisation with it´s headquarter in neutral Switzerland.

Why not prizes in 1918 and 1919?

In the next two years the Nobel Committee found no worthy candidates. In 1918 there was all together nominated 21 persons and organisations for the Peace Prize, but they were all turned down. When the committee was ready to make it´s decision, the war was recently brought to an end. One might think that the president of the USA, Woodrow Wilson, would be a proper candidate because earlier that year he had proposed a just peace with honour in Europe and the establishment of a new world organisation. Two French professors nominated Wilson, but he was not put on the short list or had a report written on him. On the other hand another report was written on the tireless Carl Sundblad who got the following depressing conclusion: "None of his articles are above the most banal mediocrity (15)."

In 1919 Woodrow Wilson was again nominated, this time also by Bernhard Hanssen, member of the Nobel Committee. Ragnvald Moe wrote the report on him, and despite some critical remarks, he concluded that Wilson ought to be lauded for bringing USA on the international scene through the establishment of a new world organisation, the League of Nations

But when the Nobel Committee was to make it´s decision in December 1919, the results from the negotiations in Versailles were clear. Many were of the opinion that Wilson had not achieved a just peace. France and Great Britain forced humiliating terms on Germany and Wilson had not yet managed to persuade the US Senate to join the League of Nations.

Halvdan Koht was then a recent member of the Nobel Committee. He kept a diary and according to this, chairman Løvland proposed to postpone the decision to the next year. This became the result when the Conservative member of the committee, Francis Hagerup, threatened to step down from the committee if a majority voted for a Peace Prize to Wilson (16).

The result was that Wilson had to wait till 1920 to get the postponed prize for 1919. In 1920 the Norwegian Prime Minister Gunnar Knudsen nominated Wilson. And Wilson was awarded even if Ragnar Moe gave him a negative report and Hagerup again threatened to step down from the committee in protest. The problem was solved when a deputy stepped in for Hagerup at the decisive meeting, and then a majority finally voted for the postponed Peace Prize for 1919 to Woodrow Wilson (17).

"The Big Four" at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. From the left David Lloyd George (Great Britain), Vittorio Orlando (Italy), Georges Clemenceau (France) and Woodrow Wilson (USA). Photo: Edward N. Jackson, U.S. Army Signal Corps, Wikimedia Commons.


There was no policy from the Nobel system to abstain from awarding Nobel prizes during World War I and the following peace negotiations. The fact that the Red Cross was awarded in 1917 and that the Nobel Foundation in Sweden awarded prizes in all categories during all these years, are proofs of this.

The reason why it was not awarded a Peace Prize in 1914 most probably was the result of the shock the outbreak of the war created and the nature of the new industrial war.

In 1915 the Nobel Committee did not find any worthy candidates because the two most obvious candidates came from one side of the warring parties.

In 1916 they had a worthy candidate in Jane Addams, but most likely she was not chosen because the Nobel Committee did not take peace work done by women seriously.

The exception, the prize to the Red Cross in 1917, was to a great degree was the creation of Nobel Committee secretary, Ragnvald Moe. The prize to an impartial international committee based in neutral Switzerland posed no complications for the Nobel Committee towards the warring parties.

In 1918 the Nobel Committee found no worthy candidates, while President Woodrow Wilson was the hottest candidate in 1919. Nevertheless he had to wait one year to be awarded because his candidacy created such discussions in the Nobel Committee that there was a risk of a member stepping down from the committee with full publicity.


1) This was also stressed when Branting was awarded the Peace Prize in 1921

2) A report on Wavrinsky was written in 1906 by secretary of the Nobel Committee, Christian Lous Lange and by Halvdan Koht in 1907 and 1912. Both lauded his international peace work and underlined the fact that Wavrinsky had been important for Norway during the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905. Bajer continued to nominate Wavrinsky during WWI (in 1916, 1917 and 1918)

3) Per Eivind Hem: Jørgen Løvland: Vår første utenriksminister (Our first Foreign Minister). Samlaget 2005 s. 469

4) Fredsfanan nr 5 Maj 1915 s 175. Written by Emil Larson.

5) Redegjørelse for Nobels Fredspris 1911-1920. The secretary of the Nobel Committee, Ragnvald Moe, wrote the report on Sundblad in 1913, page 60-62. He praised Sundblad for his commitment, but Moe stressed that Sundblad had rather sectarian religious opinions and "the political and juridical work which is necessary for a stable international society is far beyond his horizon." In 1914 Sundblad had a short report written on him by the historian Edvard Bull. He pointed to the naivety in Sundblad´s work and supported the views in Moe´s earlier report.


7) Redegjørelser 1911-20. Report was written by first-archivist Karl Vilhelm Hammer in Redegjørelse 1916 page 15.


9) Halvdan Koht i Syn og Segn nr 1 1917: "Fredsvoner og fredskrav" (Peace hopes and Peace demands) 10/1-1917. USA had not yet joined the war and Koht had great hopes for peace initiatives from President Woodrow Wilson - as did Jane Addams. During 1915 she visited Wilson six times in the White House, and in 1916 she campaigned for his re-election.

10) From Halvdan Koht: Minne fra unge år (Recollections from Early Years) page 410. Aschehoug 1968.

11) Løvland had Christian Lange as secretary in this organization.


13) The Institute of International Law (1904) and baron d´Éstournelles de Constant (1909).

14) Redegjørelser 1916 page 45.

15) Redegjørelser 1918 page 31. Adviser Edvard Bull.

16) Halvdan Koht´s diary: Report from the meeting in the Nobel Committee December 3 1919.

17) Ibid. Meetings in the Nobel Committee November 5,6 and 28 1920. W. Konow was deputy for Hagerup in the last meeting. He and Koht voted against Wilson, but Wilson was secured the Peace Prize by the votes of Løvland, Horst and Hanssen.