Nansen Wins the Nobel Peace Prize Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Fridtjof Nansen won the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work, including arranging prisoner-of-war repatriation after World War I and assisting famine victims and refugees in the early 1920’s.

Summary of Event

On December 10, 1922, Fridtjof Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for humanitarian work that included organizing prisoner-of-war repatriation and aiding victims of the Russian famine. At the time of the award, Nansen held the post of high commissioner for refugees at the League of Nations. In this role, he helped thousands of uprooted people rebuild their lives and also laid the legal and institutional foundations for future international refugee assistance efforts. Peace activism Humanitarianism Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Prize recipients;Fridtjof Nansen[Nansen] [kw]Nansen Wins the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1922) [kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Nansen Wins the (Dec. 10, 1922) [kw]Peace Prize, Nansen Wins the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1922) [kw]Prize, Nansen Wins the Nobel Peace (Dec. 10, 1922) Peace activism Humanitarianism Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Prize recipients;Fridtjof Nansen[Nansen] [g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1922: Nansen Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[05640] [c]Human rights;Dec. 10, 1922: Nansen Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[05640] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 10, 1922: Nansen Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[05640] [c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;Dec. 10, 1922: Nansen Wins the Nobel Peace Prize[05640] Nansen, Fridtjof Noel-Baker, Philip J. Johnson, Thomas Frank

Fridtjof Nansen.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Nansen can be described as both a doer and a thinker. After earning a doctorate in zoology, he initially achieved fame as a polar explorer. In 1888, he led the first expedition to cross Greenland successfully. Five years later, Nansen organized an even more adventurous project. In a specially built ship, the Fram (meaning “forward”), he and his companions set out across the frozen north. Soon the Fram became locked in the polar ice cap. The ship and its crew returned home three years later. Nansen’s observations during this time confirmed his ideas about Arctic drift. During this journey, Nansen left the ship and attempted to reach the North Pole. Even though the effort failed, Nansen traveled farther north than had any other explorer before him. He received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Norway.

Although Nansen always thought of himself as a scientist, his sense of duty and patriotism led him toward new challenges. In 1906 and 1907, he served as the first Norwegian ambassador to Great Britain. In 1917, Nansen interrupted his experiments once again to head a Norwegian commission charged with negotiating a food import agreement with the United States. Nansen’s commitment to public service increased during World War I, as the death and destruction accompanying the conflict profoundly affected him. He believed that fundamental corruption in European civilization had caused the war, and that traditional methods of solving international problems needed to be changed. Nansen became a strong advocate for the League of Nations League of Nations;refugee aid and served as the Norwegian delegate to it throughout the 1920’s.

In 1920, the Council of the League of Nations called on Nansen to investigate the possibilities for prisoner-of-war repatriation in Europe. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period At that time, thousands of prisoners were stranded in the former Russian Empire and in Central Europe. Nansen persuaded governments to contribute funds and supplies, arranged for shipping, and coordinated the efforts of private agencies. He even negotiated with the Soviet Union at a time when mutual hostility existed between it and the members of the League. By the time Nansen finished his task, he had supervised the repatriation of about 425,000 prisoners at a cost of less than five dollars per person.

Nansen had then planned to retire, but he changed his mind in response to a series of tragic events. In the summer of 1921, it became obvious that a catastrophic famine Famines;Russia was sweeping parts of Russia and Ukraine. In August, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other voluntary agencies asked Nansen to take charge of relief operations. He accepted this challenge and immediately set up offices of the Nansen Mission in Berlin and in Moscow. At the Assembly of the League of Nations in September, 1921, Nansen, speaking as the delegate from Norway, made an impassioned plea on behalf of the famine victims. The government representatives, however, refused to grant official sanction to relief operations because the operations might inadvertently help the Soviet government. Undaunted, Nansen began raising funds from private sources. Although the assistance operations he directed are less well known than those conducted under the supervision of Herbert Hoover, they helped to save thousands of lives.

In the autumn of 1921, the Council of the League of Nations asked Nansen to take on one more humanitarian project. At the time, approximately one million White Russian refugees were scattered around the periphery of the former Czarist empire. Russian Revolution (1917);refugees Refugees;Russians These refugees lacked food, clothing, and shelter; many lived in desperate poverty. Moreover, they could not easily return to their home country because of the Russian Revolution, civil war, and famine, and legally they could not travel to another country. At the urging of officials in the League of Nations Secretariat, Nansen gave up his retirement to become the League’s high commissioner for refugees. In doing so, he became the first international civil servant to be charged with refugee assistance.

As high commissioner, Nansen was responsible for providing legal protection for and arranging either the repatriation or the employment of the refugees. His first task was to establish an organization capable of assisting one million refugees without exceeding tight budgetary constraints (the League of Nations allocated only twenty thousand dollars for refugee assistance). Nansen began by recruiting a small staff, including Philip J. Noel-Baker and Thomas Frank Johnson, to run the Geneva office and to keep in contact with donor governments. He also appointed delegates in host countries and created an advisory committee of voluntary agencies. Through these varied sources, the Nansen organization benefited from the input of government officials in host and donor countries, refugees in host countries, and volunteers engaged in refugee aid.

Shortly after assuming his post as high commissioner, Nansen faced a major refugee crisis in Constantinople (now Istanbul). This city, then under Allied control, had become a dumping ground for the defeated White Russian forces and the civilians under their protection. In September, 1921, almost thirty-five thousand refugees, many on the brink of starvation, had been left there. Although the League of Nations had not authorized Nansen to provide material assistance to refugees, he decided that it would be useless to find jobs for the refugees while they still needed food and shelter. Using his skills as a fund-raiser, Nansen secured enough money from governments and private organizations to evacuate more than twenty thousand refugees to forty-four different countries. Almost a year later, in October, 1922, Nansen responded to the refugee crisis produced by the Greco-Turkish war. In this case, Nansen helped to coordinate relief efforts for more than one million refugees in Greece and Turkey.

Nansen was concerned not only with the emergency needs of refugees but also with their long-term problems. Paramount among these was their lack of passports and other documents that would provide them with a secure legal position in host countries. In July, 1922, Nansen called an intergovernmental conference to examine the legal status of Russian refugees. As a result of this conference, a special certificate of identity for refugees, commonly called a “Nansen passport,” Nansen passports came into being. Although this document was not an official passport, it gave refugees a legal identity and made it easier for them to travel internationally in order to join friends or accept jobs. Eventually, more than fifty countries accepted this system. Its provisions expanded to cover other refugee groups, including Armenians (1924), Assyrians, Assyro-Chaldeans, and Turkish refugees (1928), and Saarlanders (1935).

After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in December, 1922, Nansen focused his efforts on helping Russian and other refugees to find permanent homes. Until 1924, he retained hope that many Russian refugees would return to their home country, even though many émigré organizations opposed repatriation. Despite his efforts to arrange repatriation, only about six thousand refugees returned to the Soviet Union before a deterioration in relations with the government ended negotiations. After the Greco-Turkish war, Nansen proposed that an international loan be used to help Greece deal with the more than one million refugees who had recently arrived on its shores. This suggestion became the embryo that eventually grew into the Greek Refugee Settlement Commission, a joint venture between the Greek government and the League of Nations. By the time it had concluded its work in 1930, about six hundred thousand rural and urban refugees had been given new homes. During the last years of his life, Nansen attempted to arrange a major settlement project for Armenian refugees in Erivan (Soviet Armenia). In this case, Western opposition to any projects inside the Soviet Union rendered Nansen’s pleas on behalf of the Armenian cause useless.

In May, 1930, Nansen died while reading a newspaper at his home in Norway. The League of Nations created the Nansen International Office and charged it with carrying on his work. Although this organization won the Nobel Prize in 1938 for its refugee assistance programs, it did not provide the world with Nansen’s moral leadership or his creative approach to problem solving. In the words of Lord Robert Cecil, Nansen’s friend and a British delegate to the League of Nations, “It was a bad day for Peace, Humanity and the League when he died at a comparatively early age. He has left no successor.”


Nansen’s humanitarian career had both immediate and lasting impacts on the cause of human rights. First and foremost, his work was of a practical nature, aimed at improving the lives of people who were in prison, homeless, starving, insecure, or poor. As a leader who organized several international assistance efforts, he saved and improved the lives of thousands of people. Nansen’s contributions to human rights, however, go beyond the immediate impact he had in the 1920’s.

Nansen’s work for the League of Nations showed that an international organization could be effective in carrying out humanitarian work. Although this may be taken for granted in the twenty-first century, at that time many believed that the League should confine itself to military and political issues and leave “charity” to private groups. The success of prisoner-of-war repatriation and refugee assistance programs helped to change attitudes about what constituted the proper scope of international cooperation.

As high commissioner for refugees, Nansen established an institutional structure that would later be adopted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR also has a high commissioner in Geneva, delegates in host countries, and close relations with international nongovernmental organizations. From a human rights perspective, the delegates in host countries are especially important: They help to ensure that the human rights of refugees actually are protected at the local level. Many of Nansen’s delegates were familiar with the languages and cultures of the people they helped because they were refugees themselves. Unfortunately, this opportunity for refugee participation in decision making was lost after Nansen’s death. In 1938, the League of Nations fired all refugee employees in response to pressure from the Soviet Union.

In addition to establishing institutions, Nansen is known as the founder of international refugee law. Although the tradition of asylum has a long history in international law, it was not until the 1920’s that governments reached formal agreements about the legal status of refugees. Although the Nansen passport system initially was not binding, it became codified in the 1933 Refugee Convention, Refugee Convention (1933) the first comprehensive treaty dealing with refugees. This document, in turn, served as the basis for the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Fridtjof Nansen left a legacy as well in the personal example he set for all leaders in the humanitarian field. Nansen never accepted any salary as high commissioner; he shunned the frills associated with public life. Characteristically, he donated the monetary award from the Nobel Prize to Greek refugees and to an agricultural research station in the Soviet Union. His approach to helping refugees resembled his approach to life. Instead of seeing problems, he saw opportunities for the improvement of the world. Nansen’s idealism sometimes led him to underestimate the political obstacles to particular projects; the Armenian settlement scheme is a case in point. More often than not, however, his creative approach to providing durable solutions for refugees met with positive results. Consequently, Nansen made a lasting contribution to the cause of human rights. Peace activism Humanitarianism Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Prize recipients;Fridtjof Nansen[Nansen]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holborn, Louise W. Refugees, a Problem of Our Time: The Work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1951-1972. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1975. History of the UNHCR covers Nansen’s role as high commissioner and the early days of refugee assistance at the League of Nations. Assesses both the strengths and the weaknesses of the League’s refugee programs and evaluates the contribution of Nansen and the League of Nations to the refugee work of the United Nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoyer, Liv Nansen. Nansen: A Family Portrait. Translated by Maurice Michael. London: Longmans, Green, 1957. Very personal account of Nansen’s life, written by his daughter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huntford, Roland. Nansen: The Explorer as Hero. London: Duckworth, 1997. Biography focuses primarily on Nansen’s life and importance as an explorer but also addresses his many other interests and pursuits, including his humanitarian work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Thomas F. International Tramps: From Chaos to Permanent World Peace. London: Hutchinson, 1938. Johnson’s own account of his fifteen-year career with the refugee agencies of the League of Nations. Provides personal insights about Nansen and the League of Nations not available elsewhere.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marrus, Michael R. The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. Comprehensive summary of the plight of European refugees from the early twentieth century through the Cold War era. Discusses Nansen and others who contributed to the refugee work of the League of Nations. Excellent resource for historical information, although based largely on secondary rather than primary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nansen, Fridtjof. Adventure, and Other Papers. London: Hogarth Press, 1927. Collection of several of Nansen’s most famous speeches, including the one he gave on acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. Provides important insights into Nansen’s views on human nature and on the issue of war and peace.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Russia and Peace. London: Allen & Unwin, 1923. Presents Nansen’s controversial ideas about the role of the Soviet Union in the post-World War I era. Argues that the newly formed country should be encouraged to become an integral part of Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simpson, John Hope. The Refugee Problem: Report of a Survey. London: Oxford University Press, 1939. Presents the results of an extensive survey undertaken by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, on the refugee problem in Europe. Includes valuable information about Nansen as high commissioner and the institutions that carried on his work after his death. Also presents comprehensive statistical data on the major refugee groups of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skran, Claudena M. “Profiles of the First Two High Commissioners.” Journal of Refugee Studies 1, nos. 3/4 (1988): 277-296. Focuses on Nansen’s role as high commissioner and evaluates his contributions to the development of international refugee assistance programs. Based on archival and other primary sources of information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sörensen, Jon. The Saga of Fridtjof Nansen. Translated by J. B. C. Watkins. London: Allen & Unwin, 1932. One of the best biographies of Nansen available. Includes information on his career as an explorer and on his humanitarian work.

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Categories: History