Nansen - a great humanitarian from a small country

6/15/2011 // On World Refugee Day 2011, Norway celebrates Fridtjof Nansen. As the world's first High Commissioner for Refugees, Nansen saved the lives of countless thousands through his humanitarian work after World War One.

In the summer of 1922, the last of the German and Austria-Hungarian soldiers who had been in Russian captivity after the First World War were shipped home across the Baltic. On the return voyage, the ships carried the last Russian prisoners-of war from Germany. Altogether, over 400,000 prisoners were exchanged in less than two years. The credit for this was given mainly to Fridtjof Nansen. That autumn he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nansen served his country as a politician and diplomat, but he acquired his international renown primarily as a scientist, polar exploration hero, and the altruistic champion of people in times of distress.

Science and Adventure

Fridtjof Nansen was born just outside Christiania (Oslo) and grew up in a rural setting. As a youth he was highly enthusiastic about outdoor life and often went on excursions in nearby wilderness areas. Nansen was fascinated by nature and he chose to study zoology at the university.

After completing his studies he worked as a curator at Bergen Museum, where he dedicated much time to exploring the structure of the nervous system of lower vertebrates. His research ultimately led to a dissertation on the central nervous system of the hagfish. He defended his PhD thesis 28 April 1888, four days before he set off from Oslo to lead the expedition across Greenland.

This made Nansen a national and international celebrity in one stroke. He published two books on the Greenland expedition in several languages with his own photographs and drawings.

Securing food for Norway

Nansen’s hopes of being the first to reach both the North and the South Pole were crushed by Robert Peary in 1909 and by Roald Amundsen in 1911. He therefore decided to devote more attention to his scientific career. But the outbreak of the World War in 1914 drove him back into politics. In 1917, Nansen was sent to the USA to seek the cereals and other supplies Norway was dependent on. The agreement came into effect in 1918 and played a major role with regard to the supplies’ situation during the years immediately after the war.

The war made an indelible impression of Fridtjof Nansen. The mass slaughter of men, the unbelievable material destruction and the deterioration of moral values grieved and appalled him. While in the USA, Nansen became acquainted with President Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” for peace, and when he returned to Norway he became chairman of the Norwegian League of Nations Association. In that capacity, he attended the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919.

The Humanitarian

While the peace negotiations were going on at Versailles, the civil war between Reds and Whites was raging in Russia. It resulted in famine and American politicians wanted to exploit food aid as a means of winning concessions from Lenin’s regime. One American claim was for the release of all Americans in Soviet captivity in return for food aid. They sought Nansen’s help as an intermediary in the negotiations with the Bolsheviks. Nansen was not unwilling, but the plan was abandoned when the civil war ended in a victory for the Reds. Russia was still holding 250,000 prisoners-of-war from the First World War, Germans as well as people of many other nationalities from the dissolved Austria-Hungary. An estimated 200,000 Russians were prisoners on the German side. In the spring of 1920, the League of Nations appointed Nansen as High Commissioner in charge of arrangements for exchanges of prisoners.

The Nansen Passport

Lenin deprived the thousands of Russians who had fled to the West after the civil war of their nationality. Statelessness prevented them from crossing borders. The Red Cross proposed using Nansen’s name on a special passport for refugees. The League of Nations approved the idea in 1922, at the same time appointing Nansen as its first High Commissioner for Refugees. The Nansen passport became very sought-after, and enabled such Russian artists as Igor Stravinsky, Sergey Rachmaninov, Marc Chagall and Anna Pavlova to begin new lives in the West.

By 1922 approximately 450 000 prisoners of war from 26 countries had been exchanged and sent home. In parallel with this work Nansen dedicated himself ever more strongly to other humanitarian efforts. In the newly established Soviet Russia, famine was taking its toll and hundreds of thousands of people were refugees. The historian Carl Emil Vogt estimates that around one million Russians received help through the relief work Nansen initiated in Soviet Russia. Nansen also made formidable efforts to aid refugees, in particular Greek, Turkish and Armenian refugees. In 1922 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian efforts. Through his wide spectrum of accomplishments, Nansen left an indelible imprint on Norway and many other countries. He towers over Norwegian history. Fridtjof Nansen died 13 May 1930 and was buried – symbolically enough – 17 May, Norway’s Constitution Day.

Source: Fridtjof Nansen, Scientist and Humanitarian, A Fram Museum Exhibition 

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