Geir Lundestad – a nobel messenger of peace
“It is rather a pity that Alfred Nobel died on the 10th of December.”
Geir Lundestad looks out from his top floor window at the Nobel Institute in Oslo.
“If he had died in the summer, we could have arranged fantastic parties outdoors.”
When Nelson Mandela’s secretary arrived in Norway from South Africa for the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in 1993, she had never seen snow before. She was horrified to see such large, white snowflakes drifting down onto the head of the Nobel laureate. Spending 27 years in prison had left Mandela with health problems. The menacing cold, wet flakes drifting down would probably not make his health any better.
This is Geir Lundestad
Lives: Frogner in Oslo
Family: Married to Aase; two children and five grandchildren
Career: Professor of history, former director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, and secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
Education: Cand.philol. (MA), PhD
Academic career: Professor at the Universities of Tromsø and University of Oslo; has written many books and held research positions including at Harvard University.
One year earlier, Rigoberta Menchú Tum’s retinue from Guatemala was also shocked by the cold. Director Geir Lundestad and his tiny staff had to rush home to fetch extra boots and winter clothing for the guests. On our TV screens, we saw the tall Norwegian guiding this symbol of the K’iche’ ethnic group into the ceremony in Oslo City Hall. Menchú Tum was wearing a gray Norwegian overcoat, far too big for her, over her beautiful Guatemalan outfit. But she looked warm and cozy.
Nobel’s wish to make the peace prize Norwegian
The Nobel Institute is situated on the sunny side of the street opposite the heavily guarded US Embassy in Oslo. Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist who invented dynamite, watches over his own building. When he wrote his will at the Norwegian-Swedish Club in Paris in 1895, he left instructions that Swedes should use his enormous fortune for the scholarly Nobel Prizes in literature, medicine, physics and chemistry. Junior partner Norway was to award the peace prize. Five people, chosen by the Norwegian Parliament, were to decide the winners.
“It may seem like a strange division today,” Lundestad says. “But we must remember that Sweden had a stronger tradition in science. At the same time, Nobel was aware of the interest in peace efforts in Norway through his friendship with the peace campaigner Bertha von Suttner.”
There are hundreds of peace prizes around the world, but the most prestigious of all is the Nobel Peace Prize, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Contemporary History. It has been presented in Oslo on December 10 each year since 1901. Or to be more precise, almost every year. Because on 17 occasions, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has concluded that no one deserved the prize in that particular year, most recently in 1972. Some people say this should have been done more often.
Geir Lundestad has hosted the past 25 award ceremonies. He has greeted some of the most famous individuals on the planet and propelled the most unknown peace campaigners into the camera-flashing limelight. Lundestad himself was the first person to phone the winners with the incredible news, having spent months reading advisory statements, writing notes, and listening to every single confidential discussion on the candidates.
Each October, he has stood in front of the Nobel door when the chair of the Nobel Committee announced the name of that year’s prizewinner. While the world held its collective breath in anticipation, the guardian of the secret prepared for all the reactions, from dropped chins to ecstasy.
“I have not called and woken up the likes of Barack Obama and Kofi Annan to tell them they have been awarded the prize – they can handle it,” he says. “But less well-known individuals must be warned: their lives are going to change forever. The happiest winner in my time was probably Kim Dae-jung of South Korea. The one I really had my work cut out persuading was the scientist Joseph Rotblat in London. He simply refused to believe it.”
‘The world outside thinks Sweden and Norway are very similar. But Sweden has an aristocracy. We abolished that as soon as we could’
Kim Dae-jung, Asia’s equivalent to Nelson Mandela, happened to get stuck in the old elevator at the Nobel Institute for more than 20 minutes with Lundestad. They were able to get to know each other a bit better. He’s met stars like Oprah Winfrey and Sharon Stone in his role presenting the popular Nobel concert at the Oslo Spektrum Arena. The Peace Center in the former Vestbanen railway station is another of Lundestad’s cherished projects, and concrete evidence of what he has achieved in his time as director of the Nobel Institute.
Obama borrowed his office
The historian is not retiring – far from it. He intends to walk from his apartment near Frogner Park each morning to his new office on the top floor of the Nobel Institute to continue his writing and research. At least until the end of the year. A disagreement with the committee after his book came out made Lundestad also lose his office.
At noon he will eat his packed lunch of Norwegian goat’s cheese brought from home before enthusiastically getting back to work in the afternoon.
He happily handed over his former office, the holiest of holiest places, to Barack Obama when he was in Oslo. The US president needed to keep in touch with the White House while he was in Norway to receive his controversial peace prize. As a thank you for his hospitality, the director of the Nobel Institute was presented with a tiny silver tray with an American eagle. It now serves as a pen rest.
Here on the top floor there is no wall of fame. No gold medals or signed photographs of the prizewinners – those kinds of things are a few floors below. All you can see is bookshelves packed with history books, analyses, and notes from a spectacular life.
Even the legendary AFP photograph of Obama and Lundestad from the presentation ceremony itself is conspicuous by its absence. In the photo, Lundestad appears to be wagging his left index finger at the president, as though the director of the Nobel Institute is giving the US president a firm lesson in ethics.
You cannot see from the image that Lundestad is missing his right index finger. But Obama probably noticed, because Geir Lundestad is missing his right middle finger, too. He lost the two fingers one summer day in a childhood wood-chopping accident. He was putting a log on the chopping block when a friend swung his axe. His handshake was never the same again.
Of all those with whom Lundestad has shaken hands, he says Kofi Annan is the one most charismatically good at treating all humans well. However, Barack Obama’s Nobel speech is by far and away Lundestad’s favorite through the years.
“No one will beat Obama’s speech,” he says. “Of course, there was a great deal of controversy over awarding him the peace prize. But Obama took this seriously in his Nobel speech. How could he accept the peace prize when he was engaged in two wars? His response to this was magnificent. Unfortunately, the prize was too controversial. The expectations were not met. It did not give him the traction we thought it would at the time.”
Other controversial prizewinners include the European Union, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, and Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai. Lundestad is proudest of the first two. He thinks the most embarrassing omission from the peace laureate list is Mahatma Gandhi.
When asked what he will be doing on December 10 this year, Lundestad says, “I don’t know. I hope I will be invited to the award ceremony, but I do not have any official role now. Perhaps they will send me to Stockholm.”
No stranger to controversy
You might think that someone who has been a peace secretary for a quarter of a century would be of a modest and diplomatic disposition. Geir Lundestad is neither. At 1.93 meters tall, he is a highly vocal tower of knowledge and opinions. A man who does not hide his light under a bushel and writes book after book, who travels the world presenting his unique analysis of conditions in the US and Europe during the Cold War and who delivers unforgettable one-liners in every interview and lecture. One of his followers on Twitter said that even Lundestad’s tone of voice was the equivalent of a master’s degree program.
This year, the Nobel mouthpiece has caused a hullabaloo with his new book Peace Secretary – 25 years with the Nobel Peace Prize, in which he reveals the backstage stories and his opinions and analysis of the history of the prize, and the way the Norwegian Nobel Committee works.
Last year, he created mayhem in the media just before Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi were due to come to Norway to receive their peace prize. Lundestad argued that the Nobel Committee should be subject to new requirements to ensure its independence. Members should not be former government ministers or foreign affairs ministers. They should speak good English, be very knowledgeable about international relationships, and they should be Norwegian. An international committee would face far too many practical problems.
This angered many people who felt that Lundestad was attacking the chair of the committee, Torbjørn Jagland, who is a former prime minister of Norway and whose English has been criticized.
“It came across as terrible timing,” Lundestad says. “I sent my regrets to the Nobel Committee, the content of which I had already explained to them. My intention was to present my principal views while I was still working there. It was absolutely not a personal attack on Jagland. However, I can see that it could have ended really badly. I came in for some serious criticism. Fortunately, once Malala had landed, all the focus shifted to where it should be – on her and Satyarthi.”
‘I hope I will be invited to the award ceremony, but I do not have any official role now. Perhaps they will send me to Stockholm’
A few months later, in February this year, Lundestad went a step further in the TV program “Skavlan.” With Benny Andersson from ABBA by his side, he said the greatest threat to the independence of the Nobel Peace Prize was Sweden. Swedish comments came thick and fast on Twitter: “One of the world’s most self-righteous individuals,” said one. “What a joke,” screamed another.
Marie Simonsen, a political commentator for the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, called Lundestad the academic equivalent of Swede-baiting Norwegian skier Petter Northug.
What kind of relationship do you have with Swedes?
“A perfectly fine one. I have nothing against them, and I have had three wildly different experiences with Swedish Nobel directors. But I have to admit that things have been tough in the last few years.
“The committees used to play a key role in the Nobel system, but now we have adopted a group model that gives Stockholm a bigger say. The relationship with Sweden has become tense because the Swedish Nobel Foundation wants to centralize more and more activities and build a large new building in Sweden. As luck would have it, we discovered that the contract stipulates that the Institute in Oslo cannot be sold.”
Lundestad believes that the way Sweden and Norway award the Nobel prizes reflects a difference between the two countries. In Sweden, the king presents the Nobel Diplomas and hosts a banquet that is highly exacting in terms of style and etiquette. In Norway, the peace prize is presented by the chair of a committee consisting of five ordinary former politicians, or ‘the nutty five’ as Karl Rove, the so-called brain of the George W. Bush administration, called the committee after it gave the prize to Barack Obama.
“Sweden is a more hierarchical country,” Lundestad says. “We put more emphasis on equality. Our events should be open and accessible to children, organizations, and most members of the community, not a ceremony for posh people. The world outside thinks Sweden and Norway are very similar. But Sweden has an aristocracy. We abolished that as soon as we could. Having said that, we are starting to become more like each other.”
When Lundestad was thanked by the Norwegian Nobel Institute this year for his record-breaking service, he was presented with a T-shirt with the words “Peace at last.”
His colleagues could not have been more mistaken.
Lundestad has no intention of winding down. Although he has been offered both professorships and political positions, he is concentrating on writing yet another book about the Nobel Institute. His handwritten outline is already sitting on his desk.
“In your recent book you presented your evaluations of the Nobel committee members, chairs, and Nobel Peace laureates. What kind of character assessment would Alfred Nobel give you?”
“Nobel was an inscrutable person, an incredibly complicated man. He would probably have viewed me as a bit of an arrogant type from northern Norway. He described himself as a social democrat, but he was neither a social person nor a democrat. Nobel was rich and clever, but very depressed. There is only one photograph in existence of him smiling.”
What do you feel is your proudest achievement over the past 25 years?
“That I have been involved in the entire process of making this prize global. I don’t think people realize how miraculous this is: that the world has become so preoccupied by this peace prize. And that it actually can lead to good things afterward. That is two miracles in one.”
Text: Kristin M. Hauge Photos by Geir Dokken
Published: October 22, 2015
Last edited: February 10, 2016