An Unknown Hero – Carl von Ossietzky

Carl von Ossietzky

“Send the Nobel Peace Prize into the Concentration Camp.”

The Nobel Peace Prize may be the world’s greatest honor. The list of recipients glitters with the names of some of the most important peacemakers of the 20th and 21st centuries. But you may never have heard of Carl von Ossietzky – the man who won the award while awaiting death in the Nazi concentration camps.

This is the story of a courageous whistle blower, a journalist and a little-remembered hero of enormous moral courage. He defied first the German Army and then Adolf Hitler and vainly tried to turn Germany and the world away from war.

Blowing The Whistle

Carl von Ossietzky (1889 – 1938) was a small, rather obscure man until his hatred of war led him to defy the law. He’d been an unwilling soldier in the First World War, then a reporter for a small paper. However, he became obsessed with a hatred of war. Defying generations that had glorified soldiers, Carl von Ossietzky was a pacifist who believed there was “nothing heroic” about killing and came to see soldiers as “murderers.”

As his belief deepened, he took several symbolic but not terribly meaningful steps to turn Germany away from another war. He was a founder of the “German Peace Society” and the international “No More War Society.” Carl von Ossietzky led a small, unsuccessful movement to proclaim a new holiday to be called “Anti-War Day.” In all of these actions he was determined, tireless and had no real effect on the opinions of the people of Germany, let alone its government.

In 1929, Carl von Ossietzky published an article exposing deeply held German state secrets. Under the terms of the Treaty Of Versailles, Germany was to drastically cut its military, effectively making it incapable of starting another war. Carl von Ossietzky discovered Germany waylaying about its compliance. He wrote an article revealing that a secret army and air force was being built in Germany. The government was furious at the whistleblower. His articles blasting Antisemitism and condemning suppression of liberal protests had upset them. But now they had reason to arrest him. Ossietzky was arrested and charged with treason for revealing state secrets. He was sentenced to two years in jail.

Jail was extremely hard on Ossietzky. He had weak lungs due to the early onset of tuberculosis that would eventually kill him, and his health rapidly declined. But his concerns were greater than his own health. So long as he was a prisoner of the state, Carl von Ossietzky could not speak, organize or write against Germany’s increasing militarization. He watched helplessly from a jail cell as Adolf Hitler became the leader of Germany.

Not Giving Up

As soon as he was released from prison, Ossietzky took up his pacifist cause again. As everybody in Germany cheered Hitler, he obsessively warned his countrymen against the new Chancellor. On the night of the Reichstag Fire (Feb.1933), Hitler ordered the regime to shut down opposition publications and arrest political dissidents without a charge. By turning the people against the media and removing political opponents, Hitler solidified power. Carl von Ossietzky refused to flee Germany. He was sent to Esterwegen-Papenburg Concentration Camp where he was tortured.

Carl von Ossietzky – Nobel Peace Prize 

Almost immediately, anti-Nazi and pacifist leaders began calling on the Nobel Committee to award Carl von Ossietzky the Peace Prize. Alfred Nobel’s will called for annual Peace Prize to be given to:

“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.” 

However, the Norwegian selection committee (rightfully) feared that if they honored Carl von Ossietzky, the Germans would turn their wrath on Norway. The next year, 1935, letters of support for Carl von Ossietzky flooded the Nobel offices. Jane Addams, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann supported him. Despite the resignations of two members of the selection committee and threats from the Hitler regime, Carl von Ossietzky was awarded the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize while he was in a concentration camp.

Accepting The Nobel Prize

Mindful of the negative publicity, Hitler had Carl von Ossietzky moved to a hospital. The Nazis forbid him from leaving the country to accept the award. He was relentlessly pressured not accept the award, but defied the Nazis once again:

After much consideration, I have made the decision to accept the Nobel Peace Prize which has fallen to me. I cannot share the view put forward to me by the representatives of the Secret State Police that in doing so I exclude myself from German society. The Nobel Peace Prize is not a sign of an internal political struggle, but of understanding between peoples. As a recipient of the prize, I will do my best to encourage this understanding and as a German I will always bear in mind Germany’s justifiable interests in Europe.

He died not long after. His prize money was embezzled from a Berlin bank. When Hitler’s troops invaded Norway, they immediately arrested the Nobel committee. Carl von Ossietzky was dead, but the spirit of the “little man” standing up to oppressive government power and secrecy lives on in the spirit of this man as well the university, parks, monuments and books written in his honor.


In 1935, Time Magazine wrote an excellent piece about Carl von Ossietzky at the time of the Nobel Prize. Click the link!

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