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An Excerpt from:

An Illustrated Biographical History 1901-2001
Centennial Edition

By Irwin Abrams


It all began when a publisher proposed a biographical reference book of Nobel peace prize winners. As a historian who had studied the development of the peace movement, I was less interested in this encyclopedic approach than in the challenge of giving such a subject historical focus. I did do biographies but I also wrote about the origins of the prize and told how over the years the Norwegian Nobel committees expanded Alfred Nobel’s conception of peace, reflecting its changing definitions as the times changed.

And I left myself in the story, in telling of interviews and in not concealing my point of view. In my teaching I have always felt that it was the lives of individuals that made history real to students, and in researching the biographies of the laureates I was especially interested in their personal stories and why they did what they did. I wrote critically, not as a simple admirer, but a chief motive for me was to portray the best of the choices of the committees as examples for the rest of us, especially young people, to try to emulate.

The book was the first such general account by a scholar not connected with the Nobel prize establishments in Stockholm and Oslo, and it did seem to meet a need. It was selected by the American Library Association as one of “the outstanding reference works of 1989.”

The subject continued to fascinate me. Each year there was one or more new laureates, new lives of unusual individuals to study, new countries to learn about, My education was considerably furthered. Starting out as an historian of modern Europe, I was globalized as the prize itself was globalized, having to familiarize myself, for example, with East Timor, a country I had never heard of before.

I have met and/or interviewed 22 of the 87 individual winners, most of them since I began to write my book. The most outstanding interviews were with Linus Pauling, Willy Brandt and Alva Myrdal. A number of the laureates I met in attending the award ceremonies in Oslo on eleven different occasions. But in my imagination I have been living with these remarkable people all along.

Interest in the peace prize has grown, as can be seen in the increase of the number of nominees proposed to the Norwegian Nobel Committee. This has brought me new assignments. In 1990 I edited for Newmarket Press The Words of Peace, an anthology of selections from the speeches of the prize winners, with a foreword by President Jimmy Carter. This was republished in a paperback in 1995 and in a third edition in 2000. For IMG Publishing I wrote essays on the peace prizes in the series, The Nobel Prize Annual, for each of the years from 1988 to 1997. Then I edited the Nobel speeches 1971-1995 for World Scientific of Singapore, adding introductions and reading suggestions to make the volumes more useful for peace studies courses.

I have now agreed with World Scientific to do the years 1996-2000.

There have always been lectures and interviews, often with the request to predict the next winner, which I always decline, knowing very well the unpredictability of the decision-making of the committees. I am excited about an upcoming television program which I am doing using postage stamps to illustrate aspects of the history of the peace prize.

I waited to revise The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates until I could publish this Centennial Edition, presenting the opportunity to take the long view on one hundred years of peace prizes. The committees have changed more than has my view of them. In recent years they have granted more human rights awards and more often used the prize to help further an on-going political peace process, as in South Africa, the Middle East, Northern Ireland and Korea. I prefer the former to the latter, as I explain in the book. As I have concluded, however, Alfred Nobel knew what he was doing when he chose the Norwegians to administer his peace prize. They have made his prize the most prestigious in the world for those who have, in his words, conferred “the greatest benefit on mankind” in the area of peace, as the Norwegian Nobel committees have broadly conceived of this.

I want to thank Professor Geir Lundestad, Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and Secretary of the Nobel Committee, for his kind assistance all along my way to the completion of this book. Not only was I the fortunate beneficiary of his advice as to content, but on numerous occasions in Oslo he arranged for me to use the special facilities of the institute’s research section,

Moreover, in 2000 Professor Lundestad brought me to Oslo to participate in sessions of the institute’s research seminar when the topic was the history of the peace prize. This gave me the opportunity for very helpful discussions with the following members of the seminar about what we were all writing: Olav Njolstad, research director of the institute; Øyvind Tonnesson, editor of the peace section of the Nobel Electronic Museum; Asle Sveen, Ivar Libaek and Øivind Stenersen, Nobel Institute Fellows and authors of the just published popular book with an English translation, The Nobel Peace Prize: 100 Years for Peace: Laureates 1901-2000 (Oslo: Cappelen, 2001) and Dr.Peter van den Dungen, Department of Peace Studies, Bradford University, Nobel Institute Fellow. Dr. van den Dungen has been of much help to me on other occasions as well.

I am much in debt to Anne C. Kjelling, Head Librarian of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, who read manuscript with an eagle eye and at the other end of an internet connection answered unanswerable questions and supplied desperately needed materials.

I want to thank again Joe Cali and his associates of the Olive Kettering Library at Antioch College, who showed what dedicated persons in a small library can do. For secretarial assistance in the early going I want to thank Madeline Lance. I am also grateful to my grandson, Scott London, for his moral support and translation of Norwegian materials.

Scott Sanders, Antioch University Archivist, was the one who worked most closely with me and whose cooperation was invaluable. He prepared the appendices, handled many communications with the outside world, read proof, skillfully performed other tasks, and was always there when I needed him.

Finally, I want to thank my publisher, Neale Watson, for his vision, his resourcefulness and his extraordinary patience, and Warren F. Freeman, who diligently presided over the copy reading, somehow managing to put in good order the pieces of a resistant puzzle.

For any lingering errors in this book, none of the persons mentioned above has the slightest responsibility.