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Fredrik S Heffermehl, The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted

Praeger 2010; 239pp; £23.70

I’m a terribly picky reader and my PN reviews can be a little, shall we say, critical? So it’s a delight to be given a book that deserves the plaudits it has received from the likes of Mairead Maguire Corrigan, Daniel Ellsberg and Bruce Kent.

Reading What Nobel Really Wanted reminded me of a great Polyps cartoon – Jesus’ Last Words. As Jesus hangs on the cross the caption reads, “And I don’t want anyone to go twisting what I’ve said into an excuse for a load of right wing bullshit…You got that?” The premise of Heffermehl’s book is somewhat similar. Nobel didn’t want us to go twisting his legacy – he wanted to give the prize to the people who spend their lives doing everything they can to end war.

The book begins with a fascin-ating account of the end of Nobel’s life. Nobel had houses in several European countries, and a family desperate to get hold of his money from an industrial empire. As a result, his executors had a fight on their hands to make sure his estate was settled in Sweden as he had wanted. Thanks to the strenuous efforts of Ragnar Sohlman, Nobel’s co-worker, not only was this achieved, but the family were pacified and the bills paid without bankrupting the fund for the famous prizes. From this satisfying resolution, Heffermehl undertakes an analysis of the exact meaning of Nobel’s will. Interestingly Nobel never described the Peace Prize as such, but rather as a reward for those who worked for the brotherhood of nations, the abolition of armies, and the development of peace congresses – the “champions of peace”.

Unfortunately, as Heffermehl clearly demonstrates, over time this aim has been subverted. Although the early Nobel Committees often gave awards to people who didn’t quite deserve them, recent decades have seen a staggering 60% of “unjustified” recipients.

It is no coincidence that things changed once the Norwegian Parliament (who were given oversight of the prize in the will) voted to take control of membership of the Committee. Since then its members have frequently voted for people or organisations who generally do good (Mother Teresa, Al Gore, the Red Cross) but often for people who work for peace through the use of state-sponsored violence (Arafat, Peres, Rabin, Sadat, Obama).

Heffermehl is one of the few people who has actually bothered to read Nobel’s will, which is why he is so sure its message has been distorted. In many ways this is a lament for what might have been, what the peace movement could have done with the publicity and money if the prize had gone where it should have. It’s a travesty that this important prize was awarded to Kissinger but not Gandhi and that the author’s challenge to the Norwegian Establishment has fallen on deaf ears. Is it too much to hope that this book might create an international storm to influence them in the future?

What Nobel Really Wanted is an excellent book which has a lot to say about the prize and the way international politics works. Highly recommended.

Topics: War and peace