Wars, rows and scandals: When the Nobels didn’t go as planned
Over the years, the glittering award ceremonies of the prestigious Nobel prizes have occasionally been overshadowed by wars, jailed laureates and diplomatic rows.
This year, it is the coronavirus pandemic that has thrown a spanner in the works, with the traditionally lavish banquets in Stockholm and Oslo -- held on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death on December 10 -- replaced by online events and the winners awarded their trophies at home.
Here are some of the previous occasions when the Nobels did not go as planned:
- Prizes not awarded -
Nobel prizes are awarded every year in a number of categories -- medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.
But under the Nobel Foundation’s statutes, the different committees tasked with choosing a winner can also decide not to award a prize if no work or research is deemed good enough.
In 1948, for example, several months after the death of Mahatma Gandhi, the peace prize was not awarded.
That was because, in what is widely considered a historic omission, the Indian pacifist was never picked during his lifetime.
That year, the committee said “there was no suitable living candidate”.
In total, 49 prizes have not been awarded since the first Nobels in 1901, most of them in the field of peace (16 times).
The prize can also be postponed, as was the case in 2018, when a scandal engulfed the Swedish Academy that selects the literature prize winner. That year’s prize was awarded instead the following year to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk.
- World wars -
While Sweden remained neutral during the two world wars, the Nobel committees often refrained from awarding the prizes, especially during World War II.
Both moral and logistical reasons were cited, as well as the fact that the committees in Stockholm no longer had access to scientific publications.
Norway, which awards the peace prize, was meanwhile occupied by Nazi Germany from April 1940.
The peace prize was not awarded between 1939 and 1945, when the 1944 prize was awarded retroactively to the Red Cross.
In Stockholm, the prizes were awarded again from 1944, although the December award ceremony was cancelled.
- Absent friends -
In 1924, organisers cancelled the ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo because of a combination of ailing laureates -- including Polish writer Wladyslaw Reymont -- and the fact that the chemistry and peace prizes were not awarded. That was the only time the ceremonies have been cancelled in peacetime.
Meanwhile, the celebratory banquet traditionally held after the December 10 prize ceremony at Stockholm’s City Hall was cancelled in 1956 to avoid inviting the Soviet ambassador because of the repression of the Hungarian Revolution. An unofficial, smaller dinner was organised instead.
Several laureates have over the years been unable to attend the Nobel ceremony for political reasons.
German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky was detained in a Nazi concentration camp and was unable to receive his peace prize in 1936. He died two years later.
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest when she won the peace prize in 1991 and was unable to accept the award in person until 2012.
In 2010, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was in prison when he was awarded the peace prize. His chair remained empty, where the prize was placed. He died in 2017.
In the case of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet writer was forced to decline his 1970 literature prize, fearing that he would not be able to return to his country should he travel to receive it. He finally accepted the award four years later.
A similar dilemma faced trade union leader and later president of Poland, Lech Walesa, who won the 1983 peace prize and instead sent his wife to collect the award.
- Declined prizes -
Several laureates have declined their prizes, including two who did so of their own free will.
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre turned the literature prize down in 1964, and although Russian author Boris Pasternak accepted it in 1958, Soviet authorities later forced him to decline it.
In 1973, Vietnam’s peace negotiator Le Duc Tho refused to share the peace prize with US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, arguing that the ceasefire ending the Vietnam War was not being respected.
Kissinger, for his part, refused to travel to Oslo for the prize ceremony because of the risk of protests and was replaced by the US ambassador.
In the 1930s, three German scientists were awarded Nobels: Richard Kuhn (1938) and Adolf Butenandt (1939) in chemistry, and Gerhard Domagt (1939) in medicine.
But Hitler -- outraged over the prize to von Ossietzky -- barred any German from accepting a Nobel, and they were forced to decline their prizes.
They received their Nobels after the war.
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