The stubbornly inspiring tale of forgotten Nobel Peace Laureate Carl Von Ossietsky

The well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize for writer and human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo is a poignant tale, and reason enough for Americans to occasionally quit taking our freedoms for granted and pause to reflect that there may worse problems to live through than a stagnating economy. (Note to the the liberty-loving American right: Taxes are low in China, but freedom is not high.)

Carl von Ossietzky
Wikimedia Commons
Carl von Ossietzky

One small sidebar to the story is that 1935 peace laureate Carl von Ossietzky got a few mentions out of the deal because he shares, with Liu Xiaobo the distinction of being the only two peace prize honorees unable to attend the award ceremony, nor even have a family member present. (In both instances, the award was laid on an empty chair.)

Personally, I had never heard of Ossietsky, but the side references to his case inspired me to look him up. His story is worth a moment’s contemplatio, for sheer stubborn non-violent heroism and as a reminder of how bad things can get.

Ossietsky was a journalist and a pacifist in pre-World War II Germany. Long before the Nazis came to power, he had violated German laws to publish evidence that Germany was rearming in violation of the limits imposed on German militarism in the post-World War I Versailles Treaty. (Worth remembering, perhaps, that this didn’t start under Hitler, although it certainly accelerated.)

Still pre-Nazi era, the German government prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned Ossietsky for revealing state secrets. Unrepentant and declining suggestions that he seek asylum abroad, Ossietsky was released in 1932. Then, in 1933, the Nazis did take power with an even dimmer view of pacifists, troublemakers and those who sought to expose German rearmament. Ossietsky (no, he was not Jewish) was rearrested and became one of the first inmates in the new-style prisons known as concentration camps.

Scott Horton, who wrote about Ossietsky in Harper’s last year when the peace prize was awarded to Pres. Obama (the connection between those two laureates was much thinner than this year’s), says that in the camps, Ossietsky soon contracted tuberculosis “possibly as a result of medical experiments performed by Nazi doctors.”

Ossietsky was not world famous yet, but in the fall of 1935, while he was sick and suffering the effects of Nazi brutality (bear in mind, this is still four years before the war), he was visited by a Swiss diplomat. As retold by Horton, the diplomat, Carl Jacob Burckhardt, “reported the encounter with a ‘trembling, deadly pale, broken creature, who seemed to be without feeling, one eye swollen over, and his teeth bashed in.’” Burckhardt reported this comment from the fading journalist: “Thank you. Tell my friends that I have come to the end. Soon it will be past, and that is good… I only wanted peace.”

The scene and the quote must have created a sensation in a world that worried about what the Nazification of Germany might bring, because soon after that the committee chose the dying German for the peace prize. The Britannica article on Ossietsky says: “The award was interpreted as an expression of worldwide censure of Nazism. Hitler’s reply was a decree forbidding Germans to accept any Nobel Prize.”

Ossietsky died in 1938, the year before World War II began. He was 47.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/13/2010 - 04:47 pm.

    Indeed, we take much – too much – for granted.

  2. Submitted by Jesse Mortenson on 12/13/2010 - 05:24 pm.

    1935 – Journalist awarded Nobel prize for exposing state secrets of the preparations for war.

    2009 – US President awarded Nobel prize while overseeing multiple wars, later to condemn and seek criminal charges against a journalist who exposed state secrets around those wars.

    Not that there haven’t been less-than-peaceful Peace Prize recipients before, but the gulf between the the commitment and ideals of someone willing to risk prison (and eventual death) and Obama is on a continental scale. Hard not to read the above tale (interesting, thanks for sharing) without thinking of Mr. Assange and Wikileaks.

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 12/14/2010 - 10:01 am.

    “We cannot appeal to the conscience of the world when our own conscience is asleep”, Carl Von Ossietzky

    Thanks Eric Black for the reminder of one rare individual and Harpers point-of-reference.

    As a book collector, I can only reflect on the harsh absurdities of those times/these times while looking at an old copy of “Mentor World Traveler”, a monthly magazine of the twenties, thirties; a less successful offshoot of then arts and literature monthly “The Mentor”.

    With Mentor Traveler Crowell publications attempted to stretch its readership to world-wide status; socially focused, and in the process probably effected its demise?

    In this issue its gossip columnist, Lady Drummond-Hay tells of meeting Hitler, 1931; chattering extensively with him in a house in Munich and was so impressed…”Adolf Hitler gives the impression of standing aloof in the isolation of his idealism.”

    Yup, one can say Lady D-Hay was sold in her prose on the man celeb of the hour, “Herr Hitler”…”With three million unemployed, possibly five million before the winter is over; with half a million communists and over eight million socialists, with tremendous unbearable burden under the Young plan, Herr Hitler believes that it is his mission as is Mussolini’s in Italy “To save Germany from the red fate”, Lady D-Hay, New York gossip columnist January 1931.

    I can only reflect on the gullibility of the press then/now; too often sucked in by celeb status of individuals and ignoring their potential to deconstruct our democracy.

    Was there a parallel among the German people then, like our own T-Party mentality now …angry romantics which Hermann Glaser in his out-of-print book calls “Spiesser Ideologues” in “Cultural Roots of Socialism”?

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 12/14/2010 - 11:04 am.

    Correction: Hermann Glaser’s book title is “The Cultural Roots of National Socialism’…’National Socialism’ being not ‘Marxism-socialism’, but Fascism.

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