Thankfully, Hitler didn't win

The Nobel Peace Prize remains one of the world's most prestigious awards but its selectors have made some bizarre decisions in the past.

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Cynics who instinctively prepare to snigger at this time of year when the Nobel committee announces the winner of the Peace prize will be delighted to hear of the internet-based campaign to secure the laurel for Michael Jackson.

Thousands of bereaved fans of the King of Pop have put their names to the on-line campaign urging Scandinavians to show solidarity at this moment of global grief. But there is a snag. Over the years, the Nobel Peace committee, a collection of obscure Norwegian former legislators who assemble each year in conditions of great secrecy, have chosen a number of bizarre winners. They have shown they do not discriminate against the fashionable or the politically correct; they have proved remarkably forgiving, too, of those who have actually prosecuted wars.

But they do discriminate against one group - the dead - which means that barring the miracle that legions of Jackson's fans still pray for, he will not be named the Nobel Peace laureate in Oslo on Friday. Being dead is the formal explanation for why Mahatma Gandhi, who otherwise would appear to have been amply qualified, failed to secure his medal. The lesson to be learned by any wise politician from Gandhi's exclusion is to get the Nobel prize on his CV early in his career, just in case of future assassination.

There are 205 Peace nominees this year, a record number, the committee declares as it drums up the annual media interest in advance of the announcement. The names of the nominees are not formally released, a rule which appears to stem from a public relations embarrassment in 1939 when Adolf Hitler was put up for the Peace prize, presumably in recognition of his brisk settlement of border disputes around the Sudetenland the year before.

But if the names are not officially released, some are selectively leaked, so that media speculation can begin. This year Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy are said to be in the running, even though the former has not had enough time in office to do anything yet, and the latter's claim would seem to be tenuous at best. But Mr Sarkozy should not be entirely eliminated from the speculation because even if his peace credentials are not overwhelming, his wife, Carla Bruni, would bring unparalleled glamour to the annual Peace concert in Oslo in December when the winner receives the prize, and the Nobel movement basks in all its international kudos.

This year's concert will be co-hosted by the Hollywood actor Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith who, the Nobel committee says, together have "had a global impact on the arts and philanthropy and will be excellent ambassadors for peace". For their part, the Smiths say they are "both humbled and honoured" to have been invited to host "the historic evening with artists and humanitarians from across the globe".

It is precisely this marrying of the celebrity to the political which has been at the heart of the Nobel Peace prize experience in recent years as it seeks to maintain its global profile and expand its reach. Last year, when a worthy but dull Finnish ex-president turned UN functionary called Martti Ahtisaari won the prize, the dreariness of his selection was offset by the celebrity and glamour of those who hosted the party - Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson.

Aside from this pandering to the international celebrity circuit, the central charge against the committee is that it bends in the wind according to prevailing fashions. No one argues that the Nobel medals given for proper science in chemistry and medicine are anything other than soundly based and well merited, but the Peace laurels are frequently dubious, sometimes bizarre. When Al Gore, the former American vice president, won it two years ago for publicising the case for man-made climate change, the committee's citation was a masterpiece of tortured logic. Climate change, the citation said, "may induce large scale migration and lead to greater competition for the Earth's resources", which in turn, "may" increase the "danger of violent conflicts and wars".

In other words, the committee was rewarding a man with the Peace Prize for possibly preventing hypothetical wars of the future, not for resolving defined conflicts that have actually started. By choosing Mr Gore, the Nobel committee was in truth merely tying its brand to a fashionable cause, and basking in the reflected glory and publicity of his success of his film about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth.

Thus, the prize has strayed far from the grandeur of the original intentions laid out in Alfred Nobel's will that the winner is the person who has "done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses". Under the terms of the will, the science prizes are made by the Swedish committee, while the Peace prize is separately decided by Norwegians.

Many of the selections have conspicuously failed to stand the test of time. In 1937, when appeasement of Hitler was all the rage in Scandinavia, the Peace committee selected Lord Edgar Algernon Robert Gascoyne Cecil, a hapless British aristocrat and politician who was wrong about everything, particularly in his demand that Britain disarm itself in response to the Nazi threat in mainland Europe. Other choices have seemed bizarre even when they were made. Tom Lehrer, the great American comic song writer and mathematician, famously complained that satire died the day Henry Kissinger was awarded the 1973 Peace prize, for there was nothing left to satirise.

To be fair to Mr Kissinger, he was somewhat bemused himself to have been honoured, and wisely decided to plead a prior commitment when summoned to Oslo to pick up the award. He was co-winner that year with Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese chief negotiator in ending the war. Mr Tho didn't think sharing a prize with Mr Kissinger was funny at all, and turned it down completely on the grounds that his co-winner had secretly ordered that Cambodia be bombed by B-52s when a truce was supposed to be in force.

Too often, the committee is deferential towards the political elite, rather than to those who grind out the settlements that actually bring conflicts to an end. Few would begrudge Nelson Mandela his Peace prize in 1993, though some would grumble that he had to share it that year with South Africa's last white president, FW De Klerk. Both men showed steel and generosity of spirit in the negotiations dismantling apartheid, but they were the figureheads. The hard graft of getting Afrikaners and black nationalists to talk was done by lower level officials who magnificently managed to raise themselves out of their country's rancid racial past. But these mid-level figures, brave, dedicated men and women, lack the glamour of Mr Mandela and the circle of supermodels and American celebrities who attach themselves to his global celebrity and bring wider glory to the Nobel ceremonies.

Indeed, a tension has been apparent in the handing out of the Peace prize ever since 1901 when the prizes were first inaugurated. There was a profound contradiction, too, running through the life of the award's inventor, Alfred Nobel. Though his father made a fortune providing tsarist Russia with landmines, and he built a separate, larger fortune through his numerous patented inventions in explosives, he regarded himself as a nineteenth century peace activist before such causes became fashionable.

Like many Swedes, Nobel was introspective and prone to bouts of depression, though highly educated. He never married or had children, so settling his vast fortune became the obsession of his latter years. The Nobel foundation is seen by many Scandinavians as a form of collective national atonement for the "dirty" origins of Nobel's vast industrial fortune. For Nobel, the sense of atonement was much more personal. He was obsessive in his chemical experiments as he rushed to secure a patent for stabilising the production of nitroglycerine, which was later to be adapted as dynamite. One of these experiments went disastrously wrong, and Alfred succeeded only in blowing his younger brother Emil to pieces, which was to have profound psychological consequences for him.

This dark sense of atonement is still detectable in the formality in which the committee meets to make its decision before Friday's announcement. The tendency in recent years has been to avoid echoes of the Kissinger controversy in 1973, and to go more with the flow of good causes which will not arouse any reasonable person's indignation. Indeed, the very concept of "Peace" has been re-defined. Alfred Nobel meant Peace as the pursuit of an end to war. In the 113 years since his death, Peace has come to mean something good or fashionable, such as reducing carbon emissions, or, in the case of the 2004 Kenyan winner Wangari Maathai, taking a "holistic approach to sustainable development" and for "thinking globally and acting locally".

Some say this is reducing the grand global ambitions of Alfred Noble's mission into empty slogans. Michael Jackson may be out of the running, but the online betting companies report late money flowing in the direction of two possible winners who would guarantee a splendid turnout at the Oslo party in December. They are Bono and Bob Geldof, and is that the sound of Alfred Nobel spinning in his grave?

* The National