Wars, diplomatic rows and the scandals that rocked the Nobel Prize

Wars, diplomatic rows and the scandals that rocked the Nobel Prize
A Nobel Prize banquet in Stockholm in happier times. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT
The coronavirus pandemic stopped the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm from going ahead this year, but it is not the first time in history that the Nobels don't go as planned.

Wars, jailed laureates and diplomatic rows have occasionally put the brakes on the Nobel prizes through the years. This time it is the coronavirus pandemic that has thwarted plans, and while prize announcements will go ahead this week, December festivities will be scaled back.

The traditional December 10th awards ceremony and banquet in Stockholm honouring the laureates in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and economics has been replaced by a televised event where the winners will receive their prizes in their home countries.

The Oslo ceremony for the peace prize, held on the same day, will meanwhile go ahead on a smaller scale, and that banquet has also been cancelled.

Here are some previous occasions when the Nobels didn't go as planned.

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Prizes not awarded

The committees tasked with selecting Nobel laureates in the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics can refrain from awarding the prize. The Nobel Foundation's statutes say this is possible when no work or research is deemed worthy.

Not awarding the prize can also be an honour. In 1948, several months after the death of Mahatma Gandhi, the Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded, a homage to the Indian pacifist who never won the prize – widely considered a historic omission. The committee at the time 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.

That was the case in 2018, when a man with strong links to the Swedish Academy – which selects the literature prize winner – was found guilty of rape. The case sparked an row within the Swedish Academy, which in the end decided to instead award the 2018 prize the following year, to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk.

Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the 2018 prize in 2019. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

World wars

While Sweden remained neutral during the two world wars, the Nobel committees often refrained from awarding the prizes, especially during World War Two. 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, though the prize ceremony in December was cancelled.

Swedish royals at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 1938. Photo: NTB/TT

Absent friends

In 1924, organisers cancelled the formal prize 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 10th 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 her prize 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.

The image shows the first time the Nobel Prizes were handed out in 1901. Photo: NTB/TT

Declined prizes

Several laureates have declined their prizes, including two who did so of their own 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 meanwhile 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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