Schweitzer Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

The award to Albert Schweitzer of the Nobel Peace Prize symbolized the near-universal admiration he attained through his life of devotion as a medical missionary in Africa.

Summary of Event

On December 10, 1953, Gunnar Jahn, the president of the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian parliament, awarded the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize to Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer was unable to attend the ceremony, so he delivered his acceptance speech, “The Problem of Peace,” “Problem of Peace, The” (Schweitzer)[Problem of Peace, The] on November 4, 1954. Like Jahn’s presentation, Schweitzer’s talk was delivered in the auditorium of the University of Oslo. Nobel Peace Prize;Albert Schweitzer[Schweitzer]
[kw]Schweitzer Is Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1953)
[kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Schweitzer Is Awarded the (Dec. 10, 1953)
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[kw]Prize, Schweitzer Is Awarded the Nobel Peace (Dec. 10, 1953)
Nobel Peace Prize;Albert Schweitzer[Schweitzer]
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Schweitzer, Albert
Jahn, Gunnar
Nobel, Alfred

The Nobel Prizes are awarded each year through a bequest from the will of Alfred Nobel. Nobel, a Swedish engineer, invented dynamite; as a result of this and other inventions, he became enormously wealthy. In spite of the character of his most famous invention, Nobel was devoted to peace and left money in his will to be distributed to worthy recipients in the areas of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace; economics was added as a category in 1961. The prizes, which have been awarded each year since 1901, are under the jurisdiction of the relevant Swedish academies, with the exception of the prize for peace, which is awarded by the Norwegian parliament. The prizes have come to be regarded as the highest tributes that persons working in their subject fields can receive.

As Jahn made clear in his address, the award to Schweitzer was made not for a single achievement but for the sum and substance of his life. Schweitzer was born in 1875 in Alsace, which had been annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Schweitzer’s family had been devoted to scholastic pursuits for several generations, and he proved no exception to the family pattern. He was a child prodigy who played the concert piano and organ before reaching his teens.

Schweitzer achieved international recognition in several disciplines while he was still in his twenties. In Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesus Forschung
Quest of the Historical Jesus, The (Schweitzer) (1906; The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1910), he summed up a century of scholarly research on the New Testament Theology;Christian . He concluded that the Gospels provided little material for an accurate portrayal of the life and teachings of Jesus. From the available sources, Schweitzer argued, one could reasonably conclude that Jesus expected the end of the world to occur within a short time after his life. Jesus taught an “interim ethic” that was to apply only for the few years before the world came to an end. Schweitzer’s conclusions aroused considerable controversy, as it was clear that he did not accept the orthodox Christian account of Jesus. Subsequently, his book was recognized as a landmark of New Testament studies.

Although Schweitzer’s views differed from Protestant orthodoxy, he was clearly committed to a religious point of view. As he made clear in Kulturphilosophie II: Kultur und Ethik
Philosophy of Civilization, The (Schweitzer) (1923; The Philosophy of Civilization: Civilization and Ethics, 1946), Philosophy his position was based on the conviction that the key to history was the development of the spirit. By “spirit,” Schweitzer meant a realization that all life was a unity. When one realized the meaning of spirit, a new ethical system would immediately become plausible.

Schweitzer termed this ethics “reverence for life.” The phrase, if not the underlying rationale for it, became famous. Schweitzer meant by it that instead of concentrating exclusively on human welfare, as most ethical systems do, one must take the interests of all life into account. This does not imply that one must always refrain from violence, even to the extent of refusing to kill an insect. The popular caricature of Schweitzer as someone who deplored swatting a pesky mosquito ignores the fact that he held that the interests of life as a whole must be taken into account, rather than simply the interests of individual living beings. In appropriate circumstances, violence could be acceptable, Schweitzer believed. In “The Problem of Peace,” Schweitzer referred to the view that war has been an instrument of human progress. Although he rejected that view of twentieth century wars, his remarks suggest that he believed it to be true of the wars of certain eras.

Why did Schweitzer espouse “reverence for life?” He devoted little formal argument to establishing his view, although he drew on his wide learning in history to provide illustrations of his system. He based his view on a mystical intuition of the oneness of life. This illumination was not susceptible to rational analysis, and critics have sometimes contrasted the rationalism of Schweitzer’s biblical studies with his ethical mysticism. Because he based his ethics on intuition rather than logic, his moral system has not attracted much attention from philosophers. The real significance of Schweitzer’s ethics emerged in his life.

Schweitzer believed that he was required to abandon his scholarly career and devote himself to work as a medical missionary Christianity;missionaries . In 1913, he traveled to French Equatorial Africa, where he set up a settlement at Lambaréné. He divided the remainder of his long life between Europe and Africa, campaigning for money in Europe to support his African work. He died in Lambaréné in 1965 at the age of ninety. The principal reason Schweitzer aroused near-universal admiration was his abandonment of an eminent scholarly career for difficult service as a medical missionary. Before moving to Lambaréné, Schweitzer had qualified as a medical doctor, and he devoted almost all of his attention when he arrived in Africa to providing medical care for the native population. He established a hospital, which he supervised himself throughout his years in the settlement.

Although he still considered himself to be a Protestant pastor and preached weekly sermons, Schweitzer did not spend much time on efforts to convert the natives to Christianity. Jahn maintained that the spirit of service manifested in Schweitzer’s life offered a key to world peace; it was for this reason that Schweitzer had been awarded the Nobel Prize. Schweitzer’s own views about the importance of reverence for life emerged with full clarity in his acceptance speech.

Schweitzer began his talk with a historical perspective on the rise of Europe. Migration and invasion had interfered with the permanent settlement of southern and eastern Europe on a peaceful basis. The conflicting interests of the various nationalities in these areas threatened the peace of Europe. The appalling massacres and dislocations of people following the two world wars made it clear that violence was no longer available as a solution. What then was to be done?

Schweitzer reviewed attempts to end war through alliances or leagues of states. Beginning in the sixteenth century, these proposals culminated in the eighteenth century with the plans of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, and Immanuel Kant. Schweitzer did not reject such leagues altogether: On the contrary, he noted, the League of Nations and the United Nations had accomplished considerable good. A league of states alone was not sufficient to attain peace, though. It was essential, Schweitzer said, to transform human nature through the general adoption of reverence-for-life ethics. The realization of the oneness of life would ameliorate ethnic tensions and rivalries inimical to world peace.

Critics sometimes dismissed Schweitzer for “head-in-the-clouds” thinking, but much of his advice was down to earth. He called for the abolition of nuclear weapons, since their unparalleled destructive power threatened the collapse of civilization. He did not favor undue emphasis on self-determination of colonial peoples, since in his view national rivalries were the principal threat to peace. Instead, the civilized peoples had the duty of caring for their primitive brethren. Although one might dismiss this view as paternalistic and racist, Schweitzer’s good faith was difficult to fault. The award of the Nobel Prize encapsulated the worldwide admiration he received for his life of dedicated service to others.


After the end of World War II in 1945, the peoples of the world looked forward to a new era of peace. The Axis Powers had been defeated at the cost of millions of lives and untold misery. Perhaps the world could turn away from violence and develop civilization on a peaceful footing. This hope proved unfounded. The Cold War, a struggle between the United States and its allies on one hand and the Soviet Union and its satellites on the other, soon erupted. The development of atomic weapons made the peace of the world more precarious than ever before. The Cold War became quite hot with the onset of the Korean War in 1950. In these circumstances, there was a widespread feeling of despair.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Albert Schweitzer signified that perhaps a better way of attaining peace than traditional power politics could be found. Schweitzer’s reverence-for-life philosophy sought to overcome conventional antagonisms through a recognition of spiritual unity. Few proved able to accept fully either the mystical foundation or the radical implications of Schweitzer’s philosophy. Schweitzer’s life was nevertheless viewed with widespread admiration. His receipt of the Peace Prize met with near-total acclaim in the United States and elsewhere. The New York Times devoted an editorial to praising Schweitzer (November 1, 1953), while Newsweek (November 9, 1953), hardly a bastion of starry-eyed idealism, noted that admirers of Schweitzer considered him among the world’s greatest men. The Christian Century (November 3, 1953), the leading voice of American liberal Protestantism, saw in Schweitzer a veritable superhero. He was treated as an example of the heights human beings were capable of achieving.

The impact of the prize consisted of more than idealistic outpourings of support. The award gave impetus to Schweitzer’s campaign against nuclear weapons. He initiated an international letter-writing campaign aimed at banning the testing and use of nuclear weapons Nuclear weapons;disarmament . The campaign tried to secure the signatures of prominent people in the hope that sufficient public support would be generated to attain its goals. Schweitzer had the support of his friend Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review, in this endeavor. The campaign resulted in a break in the universality of praise for Schweitzer, the first since his emergence early in the century as a New Testament critic. Many supporters of United States foreign policy viewed the disarmament campaign as a Soviet ploy: They saw in Schweitzer an unwitting tool of the Communist Party. His admirers sharply counterattacked, seeing in his antinuclear efforts a characteristic manifestation of his lifelong efforts at goodwill.

The prize also had a material impact on Schweitzer’s activities. He expanded his medical facilities at Lambaréné, using the $33,000 he received from the Nobel Committee for the construction of a leprosarium. Although the attendant publicity stemming from the award increased even further the means at Schweitzer’s disposal, he refused to modernize his equipment. Schweitzer believed it was necessary to adapt Western techniques to the mentality and customs of the Africans among whom he worked. This attitude brought him some criticism, most notably from the journalist Gerald McKnight, who in Verdict on Schweitzer
Verdict on Schweitzer (McKnight) (1964) termed Schweitzer a racist and paternalist, as well as a colossal egotist. Most observers found the criticism vastly exaggerated. The award of the Peace Prize enhanced the fame of an already much-admired man, and Schweitzer’s few detractors were unable to dent his significance as a symbol of hope, whether before or after his death in 1965. Nobel Peace Prize;Albert Schweitzer[Schweitzer]

Further Reading

  • Brabazon, James. Albert Schweitzer: A Biography. 2d ed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000. Lengthy study of the entirety of Schweitzer’s life and work, published on the occasion of his 125th anniversary. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Clark, Henry. The Ethical Mysticism of Albert Schweitzer. Boston: Beacon Press, 1962. A sympathetic study of Schweitzer’s ethics of reverence for life. His notion of a mystical intuition of unity among all living beings is carefully explained. Clark stresses Schweitzer’s early writings in his exposition. The relation between Schweitzer’s ethical views and his work on Christianity is explored.
  • Franck, Frederick. Days with Albert Schweitzer. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1959. The memoirs of an American artist and dentist who worked with Schweitzer in the hospital at Lambaréné. Franck gives a good portrayal of Schweitzer’s personality and methods of work. The book provides important source material for critical evaluation of the charges brought by Gerald McKnight in Verdict on Schweitzer.
  • McKnight, Gerald. Verdict on Schweitzer. New York: John Day, 1964. The most negative full-length assessment of Schweitzer. McKnight claims that Schweitzer’s radical methods were outdated and his techniques of sanitation inadequate and primitive, and argues that Schweitzer was a racist and paternalist.
  • Marshall, George, and David Poling. Schweitzer: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. The most comprehensive biography of Schweitzer, offering extensive discussion of Schweitzer’s activities and ideas. Marshall is extremely favorable to Schweitzer and devotes considerable attention to refuting McKnight and other critics. The book includes a bibliography and a critical discussion of books about Schweitzer.
  • Nies-Berger, Edouard. Albert Schweitzer As I Knew Him. Hillsdale, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 2003. Memoir by Schweitzer’s close assistant of fifteen years; in addition to describing his humanitarian career, the book includes some discussion of Schweitzer’s contributions to musicology and the study of Johann Sebastian Bach. Index.
  • Schweitzer, Albert. Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography. Translated by C. T. Campion. New York: Henry Holt, 1933. Schweitzer’s autobiography. Although it deals with his life only to age sixty, it covers the principal events of his career. Schweitzer depicts his hospital at Lambaréné and gives an account of the local population and their reactions to him.

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