Pire Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

Belgian priest Georges Pire was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his work to improve the lives of displaced persons in Europe.

Summary of Event

On December 10, 1958, in Oslo, Norway, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a little-known Belgian priest, Father Georges Pire. Father Pire, at age forty-eight, was one of the youngest people to receive the prize and one of the few recognized for work with refugees. He was born Georges Charles Clement Ghislain Eugene François Pire on February 10, 1910, in Dinant, Belgium. In 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, the young Pire saw his grandfather murdered by German soldiers and his house set on fire. His family was displaced to France to live until the war’s end in 1918. These experiences cultivated a sensitivity that would direct the course of his life. Nobel Peace Prize;Georges Pire[Pire]
[kw]Pire Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1958)
[kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Pire Is Awarded the (Dec. 10, 1958)
[kw]Peace Prize, Pire Is Awarded the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1958)
Nobel Peace Prize;Georges Pire[Pire]
[g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1958: Pire Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[05970]
[g]Belgium;Dec. 10, 1958: Pire Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[05970]
[g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1958: Pire Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[05970]
[c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;Dec. 10, 1958: Pire Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[05970]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Dec. 10, 1958: Pire Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[05970]
[c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 10, 1958: Pire Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize[05970]
Pire, Georges
Squadrille, Edward F.
Kildal, Otto
Jahn, Gunnar
Ernst, Hans

Pire had an early love of classics and philosophy, and decided at the age of sixteen to become a priest. He entered the Dominican monastery of La Sarte in Huy, Belgium, took his final vows and the name Henri Dominique Pire in 1932, and was ordained in 1934. During the next decade, he continued his studies toward a doctorate in theology and taught moral philosophy and sociology at the Huy monastery. In 1938, Pire founded the Service d’Entr’aide Familiale (Mutual Family Aid Service Mutual Family Aid Service ) to help indigent families and the Stations de Plein Air de Huy (Open Air Camps of Huy Open Air Camps of Huy ), a program providing vacations for city children. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Open Air Camps were converted to missions that fed thousands of French and Belgian children.

After meeting Gerard Tremerie Tremerie, Gerard , a member of the Air Cadets Association and a secret agent of the Belgian Resistance Belgian Resistance , Pire became a chaplain and operative in the movement. Sitting along the river Meuse with a little boy and a fishing pole, Pire secretly kept track of traffic along the Liège-Namur road. He helped organize an escape network for downed Allied airmen to return to their forces. After the war, Pire was recognized for his service to the Resistance and Allied efforts with the Belgian Military Cross with Palms, the Resistance Medal with Crossed Swords, the 1940-1945 War Medal, and the Medal of National Gratitude. In 1946, he was appointed Curé of the La Sarte Monastery.

Pire’s life work, and the work for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize, began in 1949. On February 27 of that year, he attended a speech by Edward F. Squadrille, an American colonel, regarding the work of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the International Refugee Organization International Refugee Organization (IRO). Pire was fascinated with Squadrille, and the two men became close over the following months. Pire immersed himself in the current refugee Refugees;World War II[World War 02] situation, realizing that thousands of Europeans displaced after World War II were still living in temporary camps; that the 1935 racial laws in Germany and the Spanish Civil War of the mid-1930’s had dispersed thousands more; that nations contributing to the IRO welcomed healthy, educated refugees but were not interested in the orphaned, the old, or the infirm; and that the Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe had created swarms of refugees.

Pire and Squadrille drafted a plan of action that involved propaganda, adoptions, and the establishment of homes for elderly refugees. Pire developed a sponsorship plan to connect refugee families in Eastern and Southern Europe with “godparent” families who would send them letters, gifts, and money. Over the next ten years, the sponsorship plan matched up more than fifteen thousand sets of private and refugee families in more than twenty countries.

In April of 1949, Pire journeyed to witness the refugee situation firsthand. Based at IRO headquarters in Salzburg, Austria, he visited twenty-four refugee camps, two hospitals, an orphanage, and more than twenty-five thousand refugees. He saw people living in huts, caves, and ruined buildings. He was most affected by those whose age or health left them little hope, the so-called hard-core cases. A report from the general director of the IRO in late 1949 estimated the number of hard-cores across Europe at 161,000.

After seeing the camps, Pire became determined to establish homes for elderly refugees. He founded L’Aide aux Personnes Déplacées (Aid to Displaced Persons Aid to Displaced Persons ), through which he raised funds from municipal and private sources to rent a vacant house in Huy. Squadrille traveled to Germany and Austria to find elderly refugee couples to bring to the new home. By 1954, four homes provided hard-core refugees with shelter, clothing, food, medical care, and a place to live—and die—in peace.

While establishing the homes, Pire envisioned a more ambitious project that would offer displaced persons fuller lives and greater self-sufficiency. He proposed buying land on the outskirts of industrial European cities and establishing refugee communities whose residents would have space, jobs, and civic and economic structures. In 1955, he traveled to Aachen, Germany, an industrial city near the French and Belgian borders, to inspect it as a prospective site for the first European Village European Villages (refugee settlements) .

In Aachen he met a local market owner named Hans Ernst who took a strong interest in the project. Ernst helped locate land, arrange transactions, obtain government permits, and combat community skepticism. Frau von Wussow Wussow, Frau von , a wealthy woman from Munich, heard about the proposed community, met with Pire, and generously provided funds for the purchase of the land. In May of 1956, building construction began, and by November the community received its first inhabitants, including refugees fleeing the recent Soviet invasion of Hungary. Meanwhile, with von Wussow serving as the president of Aid to Displaced Persons and Ernst continuing to play a major role in the organization, more European Villages were established.

Finances were perpetually difficult. Funding was insufficient for the village at Wuppertal, which was to be dedicated to Anne Frank, Anne Frank Village the Dutch girl whose diary documented her life in hiding in Amsterdam before she was sent to her death in a German concentration camp. Pire unsuccessfully sought grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. He then applied to the Nobel Committee, but was told that grants were awarded only with the prizes themselves. The committee noted that the Peace Prize had been awarded for refugee work in the past. Pire sent the committee a booklet describing Aid to Displaced Persons, under a cover letter by the secretary-general of the European Council, his friend Lodovico Benvenuti Benvenuti, Lodovico . Pire was not selected as the Peace Prize winner but was urged to resubmit the following year.

On March 30, 1958, at the opening ceremony of the Fridtjof Nansen Village Fridtjof Nansen Village in Berchem-Sainte-Agathe, Pire met Otto Kildal, the Norwegian ambassador to Belgium. Kildal was impressed with Pire and invited him to Brussels to discuss his work. There he met Rolf Stranger Stranger, Rolf , the burgomaster of Oslo. Through Stranger, he was invited to speak in Oslo on October 21 as a guest of the Norwegian branch of the European Movement European Movement , an organization promoting European unity. He was received by Norway’s King Olaf V Olaf V[Olaf 05] in the afternoon, and the king was at the well-attended and enthusiastically received address that evening. Pire spoke of his work simply and directly, stressing his humanitarian viewpoint and his refusal to adopt a particularly religious or nationalistic agenda. Weeks later, the Nobel Committee sent a telegram to Belgium to inform Pire that he had been chosen for the Peace Prize.

Ironically, the telegram had the wrong address, and as Pire was not well known in Brussels, the telegram was returned to Oslo unopened. On November 10, a reporter from the Belga News Agency called Pire’s mother with the news; Pire himself first learned of his award from his brother-in-law Abel Berger, a newspaper reporter, who found him at a retreat at the monastery. On December 10, Pire returned to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize from Gunnar Jahn, chairman of the Nobel Committee, and to deliver his Nobel lecture.


The most immediate and tangible effect of Pire’s Nobel Peace Prize was the cash award of approximately $41,250 that accompanied the prize. Although more than $10 million had been spent through Pire’s refugee relief activities by 1958, the prize money was sorely needed for completion of the Nansen Village and construction of the Anne Frank Village. In addition, the Peace Prize brought Pire instant international recognition; greater notoriety and visibility facilitated Pire’s constant fund-raising activities.

Pire considered the Nobel Peace Prize both an honor and a challenge, and it spurred him personally to continue and broaden his work. He began to travel widely, lecturing on his beliefs and activities, and served as a consultant to various European governments on refugee issues. In 1957, Aid to Displaced Persons became L’Europe du Coeur au Service du Monde (Europe of the Heart Serving the World Europe of the Heart Serving the World ), a movement devoted to increasing unity and goodwill among people across national, social, religious, and linguistic barriers. Europe of the Heart incorporated Pire’s previous projects—the sponsorship service, the homes for the elderly, the European Villages—under one title.

In June of 1959, Pire established Coeur Ouvert au Monde (Heart Open to the World Heart Open to the World ), a geographical and intellectual extension of Europe of the Heart. Pire’s previous efforts had been confined to the European continent, but Heart Open to the World sought to help people in other parts of the world. Pire conceived the Fraternal Dialogue, a philosophy of social interaction that stressed mutual understanding of thought and feeling. Amitiés Mondiales (World Friendships) was a correspondence network established to spread the Fraternal Dialogue.

Parainages Mondiaux (World Sponsorships) was developed on the model of the European sponsorship plan, linking individuals and families in Europe with refugees in places such as Rwanda, Angola, and Tibet for correspondence, gifts, and financial support. On April 10, 1960, Pire founded the Université de la Paix (University of Peace) at Tihange-lez-Huy, Belgium. This institution was devoted to peace studies and development of the Fraternal Dialogue. More than five hundred individuals from approximately forty nations attended courses in peace during the university’s first five years.

Another program of Heart Open to the World was the creation of Iles de Paix (Islands of Peace), international communities devoted to the Fraternal Dialogue. The first was founded in Gohiri, East Pakistan, in February of 1962 and was followed by a second in Kalakad, India, in 1968. By the end of the decade, Pire’s influence was felt by individuals across the globe.

The announcement of Pire’s Peace Prize in 1958 also sparked discussion about the prize itself. The Eastern European press was critical of the selection, primarily because Pire’s activities sought to help many refugees fleeing repressive Soviet bloc regimes. Other observers objected that refugee relief was not what Alfred Nobel had intended when he created the Peace Prize. Many, while acknowledging Pire’s intentions, questioned whether his modest accomplishments truly merited the Nobel Peace Prize. Pire was barely known, and though he had worked arduously to build homes and communities, those directly affected numbered several thousand at best. Critics thought that the Nobel Committee could have recognized a statesman or peace worker whose accomplishments were more far-reaching, if less dramatic.

Jahn countered such criticism implicitly in his presentation speech by asserting that it was the quality and not the quantity of work that mattered in the selection. Pire’s work, while statistically small, was spiritually monumental; it could provide an example and inspiration to all. Thus, his Nobel Peace Prize affirmed the value of individual effort and initiative in a world where individuals all too often felt impotent to effect meaningful change.

Pire’s award set a precedent for such future choices as Mother Teresa, the social worker among Calcutta’s impoverished who was the Peace Prize recipient in 1979, although her work had reached hundreds of thousands of people by the time of that award. The Nobel Committee’s recognition of Pire validated such grassroots enterprises and, in a sense, expanded the scope of the Nobel Peace Prize and the definition of peace. Nobel Peace Prize;Georges Pire[Pire]

Further Reading

  • Fullerton, Maryellen. “The International and National Protection of Refugees.” In Guide to International Human Rights Practice, edited by Hurst Hannum. 4th ed. Ardsley, N.Y.: Transnational, 2004. Examines the international community’s role in protecting political and other refugees. Recommended for study of the legal implications of refugee status and human rights.
  • Holborn, Louise W. Refugees: A Problem of Our Time. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1975. A massive 1,500-page work that examines the refugee issue from 1951 through 1972, with an emphasis on the work of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Extensive charts and statistics make this an excellent reference work. The latter two-thirds consists of nation-by-nation analyses.
  • Houart, Victor. The Open Heart: The Inspiring Story of Father Pire and the Europe of the Heart. Translated by Mervyn Savill. London: Souvenir Press, 1959. An imaginatively dramatized narrative of Pire’s work through Europe of the Heart. The focus is on Pire, but Houart interweaves personal histories of individual refugees Pire encountered. Visually rich and poetic, this account includes more than thirty photographs of Pire and his projects.
  • Marrus, Michael R. The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century. 2d. ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002. Combines historical detail, political theory, statistical analysis, and specific anecdotes to portray both the causes of the refugee problem since the late nineteenth century and the solutions that have been attempted. Accessible reading. New foreword.
  • Pire, Dominique. The Story of Father Dominique Pire, Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, as Told to Hugues Vehenne. Translated by John L. Skeffington. New York: Dutton, 1961. Vehenne, a friend and colleague of Pire, provides an inside view of Pire’s activities and the development of his beliefs and strategies. Anecdotal information provides a clear character profile.
  • Schechtman, Joseph B. Postwar Population Transfers in Europe, 1945-1955. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962. Schechtman views postwar migration in terms of minority groups, primarily in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, and both home and host government policies. This book maintains objectivity and avoids sensationalism.

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