Carl von Ossietzky Wins a Nobel Prize While in a Nazi Prison Camp
In 1935, Carl von Ossietzky was a prisoner in the Papenburg-Esterwegen Concentration Camp , but he won the Nobel Peace Prize and exposed the Nazi war machine
Although his father, a civil servant, originally came from a village near the German-Polish border, Carl von Ossietzky was born in Hamburg, Germany, on October 3, 1889. Carl’s father Carl Ignatius von Ossietzky worked as a stenographer in the office of a lawyer and senator. His mother Rosalie was a devout Catholic who wanted Carl to become a monk. In 1891, seven years after his father died, Carl’s mother married Gustav Walther, a Social Democrat who shaped Carl’s political ideals.
Since Carl achieved only a checkered academic career, he left school at age 17 to take a job as an administrative civil servant in Hamburg. Soon, he found journalism more to his liking and his first work appeared in The Free People- the weekly newspaper of the Democratic Union. On July 5, 1913, an article that he had written criticizing a pro military court decision in Erfurt caught the attention of the Prussian War Ministry. The War Ministry charged Carl with “insult to the common good” and ordered him to make a court appearance. Carl had married Maud Woods, an Englishwoman, on May 22, 1914, and his new wife secretly arranged to pay his fine. Carl fought briefly in World War I, and returned a firm pacifist.
Carl von Ossietzky Works for Democracy During the Weimer Republic Years
During the Weimar Republic years, 1919-1933, Carl Ossietzky’s political commentaries and newspaper writing established him as a fervent supporter of democracy and peace. In 1926, Siegfried Jacobsohn, founder and editor of The World Stage, offered him a position on his editorial staff. Jacobsohn had become involved in uncovering and publicizing the secret rearmament of Germany and when he died unexpectedly in December 1926, his widow named Carl editor in chief of the newspaper.
Over the next two years Carl published articles exposing the secret German rearmament violating the Treaty of Versailles and revealing that Germany was building an airforce in collaboration with the Soviet Union. In August 1929, the German Government charged Carl Ossietzky with betrayal of military secrets, although German rearmament had been previously documented. He was tried in November 1931, found guilty, and sentenced to 18 months in Spandau Prison. After seven months in prison, he was released in the Christmas amnesty of 1932.
Carl von Ossietzky Fights the Nazis
By early 1933, von Ossietzky, with a clearer vision than his newspaper colleagues, realized that the Nazis were poised for a take over, but he refused to leave Germany, remarking that “a man speaks with a hollow voice from across the border.”
When Adolf Hitler assumed power in 1933, the Nazis controlled less than three percent of Germany’s 4,700 papers. In the following months, the Nazis took over the independent press and put the political measures in place that eradicated civil liberties and democracy. Nazis broke into opposing political party offices, destroying printing presses and newspapers. The Propaganda Ministry took control of the Reich Association of the German Press, and set out to control the content of news and editorial pages.
Fearing imprisonment or death, reputable journalists fled Germany in large numbers. Carl stayed and continued to speak out against the Nazis as he had always done. The morning after the Reichstag fire of February 28, 1933, the German secret police arrested Carl Ossietzky at his home and took him to a Spandau Prison. Carl consistently refused to repudiate his earlier pacifist work in return for freedom. Later the police moved him to the concentration camp at Sonnenburg and then to Esterwegen-Papenburg Concentration Camp near Oldenburg. According to reports from his fellow prisoners, Carl was mistreated and forced to perform heavy labor despite the fact that he had already had a heart attack.
Carl von Ossietzky Wins the Nobel Peace Prize
In 1934, Berthod Jacob, one of Carl’s colleagues, suggested that he be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. His colleagues in the German League for Human Rights and Hellmut von Gerlach, a former associate on the World Stage, nominated Carl for the Nobel Peace Prize. Organizations and famous people in many parts of the world conducted a letter writing campaign for Carl Ossietzky to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. It took a year for the Nobel Committee to summon the courage to award Carl the prize.
Awarding the Peace Prize to Carl was an extremely controversial move, motivating two members of the prize committee to resign. King Haakon VII of Norway boycotted the ceremony, and the award divided public opinion. Conservative forces generally condemned it. The leading conservative Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten argued editorially that Carl Ossietzky was a criminal who had attacked his country “with the use of methods that violated the law long before Hitler came into power” and that “lasting peace between peoples and nations can only be achieved by respecting the existing laws.”
The Nazi regime put heavy pressure on the Nobel Committee not to award Carl von Ossietzky the prize and it pressured him not to accept it. The German press was forbidden to comment on the granting of the prize to Carl, and the German government decreed that in the future no German could accept any Nobel Prize. The German Propaganda Ministry declared that Carl could go to Norway to accept the prize, but secret police documents later indicated that the government refused Carl a passport.
Carl von Ossietzky himself issued a note from the hospital saying that he disagreed with the authorities who said that by accepting the prize he would cast himself outside the community of German people. He said:
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.
In May 1936, the Nazi regime sent Carl von Ossietzky to the Westend Hospital in Berlin-Charlottenburg to treat his tuberculosis, but kept him under Gestapo surveillance. Carl Ossietzky’s last public appearance was at a short court hearing where his lawyer was sentenced to two years at hard labor for embezzling most of Ossietzky’s prize money.
On May 4, 1938, still in police custody, he died in the Nordend Hospital in Berlin- officially from tuberculosis. Privately his friends agreed that the effects of the abuse he had suffered in the concentration camps also hastened his death.
Carl von Ossietzky Is Remembered
In 1991, the University of Oldenburg was renamed Carl von Ossietzky Universitat Oldenburg in his honor and in 1995 an eight volume German edition of his collected writings was published. Carl von Ossietzky’s daughter Rosalinde von Ossietzky-Palm worked for years to overturn his conviction by the German courts, but in 1992 the German Federal Court of Justice upheld the verdict of the earlier courts.
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Grossman, Kurt. Ossietzky: A German Patriot. Munich
Leber, Annedore, ed. Conscience in Revolt. Translated by Rosemary O’Neill. Westport, Conn. Associated Booksellers, 1957
Nathan, Otto and Heinz, Nordan, eds. Einstein on Peace: New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960
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