This year's Nobel Peace Prize generated an unusual amount of attention, from scores of commentaries on the meaning of Liu Xiaobo's selection, to intensive coverage of the Chinese government's often paranoid reaction to his win, to live-blogging of the dramatic ceremony that just took place. Now, as that ceremony shifts quickly from the status of current event to that of historical moment, history can help us place what has happened into perspective -- and give us a sense of how Liu, his prize, and the empty seat held for him in Oslo may come to be remembered. Three parallels from the past -- one German, one Polish, and one American -- stand out as particularly revealing:
The German Analogy. Much has been made of the parallels between Liu Xiaobo's award and that given to the anti-Nazi journalist Carl van Ossietzky. The most obvious basis for this is that 1936 was the last time that neither a prizewinner nor a close family member was able to be present to receive the Peace Prize.
One novelty with the Nobel Peace Prize controversy has been that even many people, myself included, who in the past have objected to and still question the validity of sweeping uses of the Nazi analogy and who have criticized such specific things as the tendency to overstate the similarities between the 1936 Berlin Olympics with the Beijing Games, found the allusions to Hitler's German compelling in this particular instance. The New Yorker's Evan Osnos makes this point in a moving post for his "Letter from China" blog drafted as the Prize ceremony was ending. "Chinese leaders know," he wrote, "that they are harming their reputation around the world," in responding to the Prize this way, "but they are calculating that the damage is temporary, and that they will ride it out. Perhaps, but the harm is substantial this time. China is not Hitler's Germany," he emphasizes, but "now the comparison will endure in history." He's right on target, both in stressing the limits of the parallel and in implying that the van Ossietzky and Liu peace prizes are likely to be grouped together routinely as a stand-alone pair in the future, in a way that the Berlin Olympics/Beijing Olympics, for all the efforts some made at the time to brand the latter the "Genocide Games," will not.
A Polish Example. This said, some Chinese official actions paralleled those of authoritarian leaders far less nakedly brutal than the Nazis. When Solidarity leader Lech Walesa won the Prize in 1983, for example, while Warsaw did not create a competing award, it did something that had a surreal aspect to it not far removed from that of the recent inaugural Confucius Prize award ceremony, which featured an angelic figure appearing on stage with cash to give to the winner (who didn't show up). Namely, the Polish government proclaimed that "the music of Norway" would be banned from state radio. [SEE NEW COMMENTS ON THE CONFUCIUS PRIZE ADDED 12/12/10 BELOW]*
The Polish case is also worth remembering now because Liu has said his award honors the victims of 1989's June 4th Massacre. One reason the Chinese government carried out those killings was a fear that, as workers joined students on the streets, something comparable to Solidarity was emerging. And, ironically, June 4, 1989, was not just the day that workers and students were slain in Beijing but the day as well that Solidarity won its first Polish election.
An American Case. The Chinese media claims that the Nobel committee has a pro-American bias. Without giving this notion more credence than it deserves, it's certainly true that some past awards to Americans have been baffling, including last year's selection of Barack Obama (in spite of how little he'd done) and the much earlier selection of Henry Kissinger (in spite of how much he had done -- that didn't promote peace in any way shape or form). There's another U.S. Nobel Peace Prize winner, though, more pertinent to remember just now: 1964 Laureate Martin Luther King, Jr..
Children now grow up being taught that King was a virtuous patriot. But when he won the prize, some Americans viewed him, as Beijing would like all Chinese to view Liu, as a traitor to his country and its core beliefs. The FBI sought to destroy him. Some critics on the Left chastised him as insufficiently militant. Some citics on the Right decried him as dangerously radical and un-American. Will Herberg, for example, wrote of King's "rabble-rousing demagoguery" and blamed him for outbreaks of inter-racial violence.
Liu should keep King's subsequent apotheosis in mind. For in addition to being denounced by the government, he's been chided by a few dissidents-in-exile for being too moderate, thanks in part to his powerful "I Have No Enemies" commentary, which was just read by Liv Ullman in Oslo. Looking back to King's Nobel moment and his later apotheosis reminds us of something important: how dramatically the reputation of a person who insists he has "no enemies"--even when he is being vilified--can change over time.
* The Confucius Prize may not have been as directly linked to the Chinese government as early reports in the international press and this blog post when it first appeared suggested. As of now, much about the prize remains murky. What we do know is that the head of the prize committee is reported to have told an AP reporter that, while his group was not an official organization, it "worked closely with the Ministry of Culture," and that the idea for the prize was floated in mid-November in the Global Times newspaper, an officially endorsed organ tied to People's Daily. The light coverage of the Confucius Prize in the Chinese press after it was awarded suggests that it may have had only limited official support from the beginning, or that efforts were made to downplay its importance once it became clear it was turning into a public relations fiasco.