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Liu Xiaobo Isn't the First Nobel Laureate Barred From Accepting His Prize

Nov 18, 2010 – 11:08 AM
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Paul Wachter

Paul Wachter Contributor

(Nov. 18) -- The Nobel Peace Prize committee announced today that it would likely not be able to present its award to Liu Xiaobo at next month's ceremony, because neither the Chinese dissident nor any of his family members will likely be able to attend. Liu, a dissident writer and activist, is in jail in China and his wife, Liu Xia, is under house arrest.

Liu "is one of three people to have received the prize while incarcerated by their own governments. The others are the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991, and the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky in 1935," The New York Times reports. And it comes as little surprise that previous Nobel winners -- and not just winners of the peace prize -- who have not been able to accept the award have been prevented from doing so by oppressive, often totalitarian regimes. (The first Nobel Prize was handed out in 1901.)

Like many bad things, it began with Adolf Hitler. In 1936, the Nobel committee awarded its peace prize to Carl von Ossietzky, a German critic of the Nazi movement, though Ossietzky is considered the 1935 winner on account of a technicality. Subsequently, Hitler issued a decree forbidding German nationals from accepting any Nobel Prize. Three scientists were affected: Gerhard Domagk (winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine), Richard Kuhn (winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in chemistry), and Adolf Butenandt (winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize in chemistry). And while they later received their awards, the prize money reverted back to the Nobel committee's funds.

Not to be outdone by the Third Reich, the Soviet Union continued the tradition. In 1958, while Nikita Khrushchev was first secretary, the Nobel committee tapped Boris Pasternak for the prize in literature. But, citing the dissident politics of his novel, "Doctor Zhivago," the Soviet authorities forced Pasternak to decline the award.

There are also a few instances of laureates turning down the prize voluntarily. The 1964 literature prize was awarded to Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher and writer. Sartre explained: "It is not the same thing if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre or if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner. A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form."

The only other recipient to voluntarily turn it down was North Vietnamese general and chief negotiator Le Duc Tho, who, along with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, was awarded the peace prize in 1973 for the Paris Peace Accords, which brought a ceasefire to Vietnam. But Tho declined to accept the prize on the grounds that the United States had violated the ceasefire and his country was still at war.

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