In 1936, German journalist Carl von Ossietzky was under heavy pressure from the Nazis to turn down the Nobel Peace Prize; Hitler and his cronies saw the award as a slap in the face to the regime because Ossietzky had dedicated his career to exposing German rearmament and militarism. He rejected the government’s contention that he was essentially excommunicating himself from German society by accepting the award, writing a letter from his hospital bed (where he was confined as a result of tuberculosis and the torture he had endured in prison) that read, in part, “The Nobel Peace Prize is not a sign of an internal political struggle, but of understanding between peoples.”
Ossietzky comes to mind as this year’s prize ceremony is held Friday in Oslo because of a historical echo. The 2010 recipient, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, cannot attend because he is being held in prison, and the Chinese government is also preventing his wife and other family members from accepting the award. This marks the first time since Ossietzky in 1936 that neither the Nobel recipient nor a family member has been present.
The Nazi regime has become an all-purpose symbol of evil these days, frequently invoked to demonize one’s political opponents regardless of where they stand on the ideological spectrum. China’s Communist Party leadership does not represent the threat to world peace that the Nazis did, and it’s naive to compare China’s suppression of certain religious minorities or political dissidents to the Holocaust. Yet in one area — propaganda — it’s striking how little the methods of dictators have changed between 1936 and 2010.
The Nazis pressured the Nobel Committee to not give the award to Ossietzky; Beijing warned the committee that giving it to Liu would seriously damage relations between China and Norway. After Ossietzky’s award was announced, the Nazis forbade German newspapers from reporting on it; similar constraints were placed on the Chinese media. Hitler created a competing award, the German National Prize for Art and Science; the Chinese did the same, calling it the Confucius Peace Prize and giving it to a Taiwanese leader who favors warm relations with China.
Such efforts at misdirection notwithstanding, Ossietzky had it right. This year’s prize is a recognition by the rest of the world that the struggle between Liu and Beijing represents something bigger than Chinese politics: Liu has sacrificed his freedom in the fight for universal human rights, which are denied the citizens of many countries besides China. Oslo is shining a light on shameful conduct that even the world’s mightiest oligarchs can’t extinguish.