Fridtjof Nansen


Fridtjof Nansen : biography

10 October 1861 – 13 May 1930

Within a few months of the war’s end in November 1918 a draft agreement had been accepted by the Paris Peace Conference to create a League of Nations, as a means of resolving disputes between nations by peaceful means.Pollock, pp. 88–89 The foundation of the League at this time was providential as far as Nansen was concerned, giving him a new outlet for his restless energy.Huntford, p. 583

He became president of the Norwegian League of Nations Society, and although the Scandinavian nations with their traditions of neutrality initially held themselves aloof, his advocacy helped to ensure that Norway became a full member of the League in 1920, and he became one of its three delegates to the League’s General Assembly.Reynolds, p. 216; , Royal Norwegian Embassy in London, 18 August 2010.

In April 1920, at the League’s request, Nansen began organising the repatriation of around half a million prisoners of war, stranded in various parts of the world. Of these, 300,000 were in Russia which, gripped by revolution and civil war, had little interest in their fate. Nansen was able to report to the Assembly in November 1920 that around 200,000 men had been returned to their homes. "Never in my life", he said, "have I been brought into touch with so formidable an amount of suffering."Reynolds, p. 221 Nansen continued this work for a further two years until, in his final report to the Assembly in 1922, he was able to state that 427,886 prisoners had been repatriated to around 30 different countries. In paying tribute to his work, the responsible committee recorded that the story of his efforts "would contain tales of heroic endeavour worthy of those in the accounts of the crossing of Greenland and the great Arctic voyage."Reynolds, pp. 222–223

Even before this work was complete, Nansen was involved in a further humanitarian effort. On 1 September 1921, prompted by the British delegate Philip Noel-Baker, he accepted the post of the League’s High Commissioner for Refugees.Huntford, pp. 599–603 His main brief was the resettlement of around two million Russian refugees displaced by the upheavals of the Russian Revolution. At the same time he tried to tackle the urgent problem of famine in Russia; following a widespread failure of crops around 30 million people were threatened with starvation and death. Despite Nansen’s pleas on behalf of the starving, Russia’s revolutionary government was feared and distrusted internationally, and the League was reluctant to come to its peoples’ aid.Reynolds, pp. 224–229 Nansen had to rely largely on fundraising from private organisations, and his efforts met with limited success. Later he was to express himself bitterly on the matter:

There was in various transatlantic countries such an abundance of maize, that the farmers had to burn it as fuel in their railway engines. At the same time the ships in Europe were idle, for there were no cargoes. Simultaneously there were thousands, nay millions of unemployed. All this, while thirty million people in the Volga region—not far away and easily reached by our ships—were allowed to starve and die.Reynolds, p. 230

A major problem impeding Nansen’s work on behalf of refugees was that most of them lacked documentary proof of identity or nationality. Without legal status in their country of refuge, their lack of papers meant they were unable to go anywhere else. To overcome this, Nansen devised a document that became known as the "Nansen passport", a form of identity for stateless persons that was in time recognised by more than 50 governments, and which allowed refugees to cross borders legally. Among the more distinguished holders of Nansen passports were the artist Marc Chagall, the composer Igor Stravinsky, and the dancer Anna Pavlova.Huntford, p. 638 Although the passport was created initially for refugees from Russia, it was extended to cover other groups.Gibney & Harrison, pp. 441–442 After the Greco-Turkish wars of 1919–1922 Nansen travelled to Constantinople to negotiate the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees, mainly ethnic Greeks who had fled from Turkey after the defeat of the Greek Army. The impoverished Greek state was unable to take them in, and so Nansen devised a scheme for a population exchange whereby half a million Turks in Greece were returned to Turkey, with full financial compensation, while further loans facilitated the absorption of the refugee Greeks into their homeland.Reynolds, p. 241 Despite some controversy over the principle of a population exchange, the plan was implemented successfully over a period of several years. In November 1922, while attending the Conference of Lausanne, Nansen learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1922. The citation referred to "his work for the repatriation of the prisoners of war, his work for the Russian refugees, his work to bring succour to the millions of Russians afflicted by famine, and finally his present work for the refugees in Asia Minor and Thrace".Huntford, pp. 649–50 Nansen donated the prize money to international relief efforts.