It’s just a prize, right? Maybe so, but the Nobel Prizes have a way of sparking ferocious debate about whether the winners were worthy or whether the judges’ decisions were politically biased.
Prize founder Alfred Nobel gave only vague instructions on how to select winners, leaving wide room for interpretation by the prize committees in Stockholm and Oslo.
Ahead of this year’s prize announcements, which begin Monday with the medicine award, here’s a look at some of the most controversial winners since the first Nobel Prizes were handed out in 1901:
1935 PEACE PRIZE
In hindsight few would question the rightfulness of honoring Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist writer who was imprisoned by the Nazis for exposing Germany’s secret rearmament.
At the time, though, the award was highly controversial and seen as interfering with Germany’s internal politics and provoking the Nazi regime.
Two committee members resigned and Norway’s royal family didn’t attend the award ceremony, probably because of pressure from the Norwegian government, which feared German repercussions.
Adolf Hitler was furious. Not only was Ossietzky refused permission to receive the prize, but the Nazi leader prohibited all Germans from receiving any Nobel Prizes during his rule.
1970 LITERATURE PRIZE
Giving the prize to Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at the height of the Cold War was bound to spark a political reaction, even though the prize judges have always insisted their decisions are based only on literary merit.
Solzhenitsyn, who exposed the horrors of Soviet slave labor camps, was seen as an enemy of the regime in Moscow, which denounced the prize as a hostile act.
Solzhenitzyn decided not to leave the Soviet Union to receive his prize, fearing authorities wouldn’t let him back in. He accepted the award four years later after he was exiled from the Soviet Union.
1973 PEACE PRIZE
U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho were honored for their efforts to achieve a cease-fire in the Vietnam War in what’s become one of the most contentious awards in Nobel history.
The Vietnamese leader refused to accept the award, Kissinger asked the U.S. ambassador to Norway to accept it for him, and the war dragged on for three more years.
The prize was heavily criticized, particularly by those who opposed the Vietnam War and associated Kissinger with it.
Two members resigned from the Norwegian Nobel Committee in protest.
1976 ECONOMICS PRIZE
Hundreds of demonstrators protested in Stockholm when influential economist Milton Friedman collected his award – one of the most controversial prizes in the economics category.
Friedman was a proponent of free markets who saw the government’s main role as to stabilize the supply of money. His views were controversial among those who believed the government should play a bigger role in the economy.
Left-wing protesters were also angered by Friedman’s visit to Chile where they said the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet had been inspired by Friedman’s economic theories.
1994 PEACE PRIZE
The award to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres was meant to give a boost to peace efforts in the Middle East.
It didn’t. The process collapsed and Rabin was assassinated the following year by an ultra-nationalist Israeli who opposed his peace moves.
The committee’s choices were controversial from the onset, with committee member Kaare Kristiansen stepping down saying it was wrong to award Arafat, a man he branded a ”terrorist.”
Another committee member later said she wished Peres’ award could be revoked because of an Israeli offensive.
2004 LITERATURE PRIZE
”Elfriede who?” was how many reacted when the Swedish Academy chose feminist Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek for the 2004 award.
Largely unknown outside the German-speaking world, Jelinek was cited for the ”musical flow of voices and counter-voices” in novels and plays.
Her left-wing views prompted criticism that the prize was politically motivated, which the academy rejected.
But the judges didn’t agree on the quality of her writing. One member resigned after describing Jelinek’s work as ”a mass of text that appears shoveled together without trace of artistic structure.”
2009 PEACE PRIZE
President Barack Obama had been in office less than a year when the peace prize committee decided to give him the prestigious award.
The decision sparked criticism and ridicule – critics joked that he won the award for not being George W. Bush, his predecessor who was deeply unpopular in much of Europe.
The Nobel judges argued that Obama had already accomplished a lot, listing his emphasis on international diplomacy and nuclear disarmament.
But even they noticed that Obama didn’t look too thrilled to get the award. In a recent book, the panel’s former secretary, Geir Lundestad, admitted that the committee hadn’t anticipated the negative reaction to the prize even among Obama’s supporters.
2011 MEDICINE PRIZE
The medicine prize to Jules Hoffman, Bruce Beutler and Ralph Steinman would have been uncontroversial except for one thing: Steinman had died just days before the award was announced.
Under Nobel statutes, the prizes cannot be given posthumously. If a laureate dies after the announcement but before the awards are physically handed out at the annual Dec. 10 prize ceremony, the award stands. But this was a different situation: The committee wasn’t aware that Steinman, a scientist at New York’s Rockefeller University, had died prior to the announcement.
After an emergency meeting Nobel officials decided to make an exception, saying ”The Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel laureate was alive.”
Steinman’s wife collected the award at the ceremony.
THE PRIZE THAT NEVER WAS
The fact that Mahatma Gandhi never got the Nobel Peace Prize is considered one of the great blunders in the history of the Nobel Prizes.
It’s hard to think of anyone in modern history who symbolizes non-violent struggle better than the Indian independence leader.
Gandhi was nominated five times but never won.
The Nobel committee later admitted that this was an omission, and in 1989 the chairman of the Nobel committee paid tribute to Gandhi as he presented that year’s award to the Dalai Lama.