Why is the Nobel Peace Prize kind of ironic?

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi poses in Yangon, Myanmar. Before her release from house arrest on Nov. 13, 2010, the laureate had been detained for 15 of the past 21 years.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi poses in Yangon, Myanmar. Before her release from house arrest on Nov. 13, 2010, the laureate had been detained for 15 of the past 21 years.

More than a century after Alfred Nobel established the peace prize in his will to honor whomever accomplished "the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the promotion of peace congresses," conflict still rages around the world. The prize's greatest irony is that its recipients, like Nobel himself, sometimes contribute to that strife.

Nobel grew up working with his father to supply the Russian army with mechanical equipment, torpedoes, and land and sea mines during the Crimean War. As part of their research, Alfred solved the problem of nitroglycerin's instability by mixing it with diatomaceous earth (a soft sedimentary rock full of fossilized hard-shelled algae called diatoms). He dubbed his innovation dynamite [source: Lemmel]. He also used nitroglycerin to create a smokeless gunpowder called ballistite. From the Franco-Prussian War onward, armies put both inventions to deadly use [source: Tagil].

Although Nobel intended dynamite for constructive purposes such as blasting tunnels and bridge footings, the inventor didn't hold back when it came to perfecting weapons. Indeed, the closing decade of his life was devoted to advancing weapons technologies, including rockets, cannons and progressive powder (a slow-burning explosive) [source: Tagil].

At the same time, the industrialist and philanthropist contributed financially to the cause of peace. This seems a bit ironic until you consider two factors. First, Nobel arguably lived in an age when scientists didn't consider themselves responsible for how others used their inventions [source: Ringertz]. Second, he believed that a sufficiently terrible weapon might bring about peace among nations. As he told Bertha von Suttner, his longtime correspondent and author of the famous anti-war novel "Lay down Your Arms": "Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: On the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops" [source: Tagil].

Whether his philosophy was earnest or merely a justification, it represented but one aspect of a talented and multifaceted person, someone who loved literature, wrote poems and plays, and believed in the transformative power of science. If there's a moral to Nobel's story, it's that people are complex creatures with many facets, not all of them pretty or universally popular.

As we'll see in the next section, the same could be said of several Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

Laureates Create Conflict of Their Own

Critics can spout a litany of reasons why a particular laureate falls short of the award's prestige. Often they argue lack of achievement. Sometimes they list uglier reasons. Honoring one person above others, especially a polarizing figure, naturally engenders conflict. This is the Nobel Peace Prize's second irony.

President Barack Obama belongs to the first category. Even ignoring the two wars he was embroiled in when selected, the timing meant that his nominations were submitted between two months before and two weeks after his election [source: CNN]. Some people wouldn't eat a banana that green.

Sometimes it's the achievement, not the laureate, that is too unripe. When Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin were honored in 1994, David Horovitz of the Financial Times said the honor was about "hopes of peace rather than peace itself" [source: BBC]. Events bore him out. Along similarly premature lines, North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho invaded South Vietnam just two years after sharing the award with Henry Kissinger in 1973.

Arafat and Kissinger also illustrate how laureates' checkered pasts incite controversy. A Nobel Committee member resigned over Arafat's selection, saying the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader was "too tainted by violence, terror and torture" [source: BBC]. When Kissinger received the award, musical satirist Tom Lehrer pronounced satire "officially dead" [sources: Frost, Thompson].

Although the prize committee chooses laureates based on singular accomplishments, the world tends to hold honorees to a higher standard. Kofi Annan's shared prize with the United Nations in 2001 rekindled criticism of their handling of Rwanda [source: Dallaire]. In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first female African laureate, and received a thrashing for accusing scientists of creating HIV for biological warfare [source: ABC/AFP]. Rigoberta Menchú Tum received the prize in 1992 for casting light on the plight of Guatemalan indigenous peoples with her memoirs, which some argue were false [source: Horowitz].

There is always a group, internationally or at home, that considers a laureate a troublemaker -- or worse. Some would call Menachem Begin, Yasser Arafat, Henry Kissinger, Nelson Mandela, Shimon Perez and the fourteenth Dalai Lama terrorists, occupiers and/or war criminals. However, had the prize committee been influenced by such criticism, it might never have honored human rights activists like Albert Lutuli (1960), Martin Luther King Jr. (1964), Andrei Sakharov (1975), Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (1980), Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) or Liu Xiaobo (2010).

The fact that the committee did honor them is largely thanks to Carl von Ossietzky. During the run-up to World War II, many opposed honoring the anti-Nazi pacifist because it meant meddling in German internal affairs. However, many of the same people who balked at honoring Ossietzky supported Neville Chamberlain's nomination in 1938 for his appeasement of Germany, which left Czechoslovakia defenseless and opened the door to further Nazi aggression.

Now that's irony.

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