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.)
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.