In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Norway in July 2011, apparently by a man angered and alienated by the multicultural changes in the country, I had been impressed to see Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg saying “We must never cease to stand up for our values. We have to show that our open society can pass this test too. And that the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity, but never naïveté.”
Today has a special significance. Apart from being my father’s 79th birthday, the European Union (all 500 million of us) will receive the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. According to Alfred Nobel’s will, the Peace Prize is awarded to “the person who shall have done 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.” The winner is selected by a 5-person committee nominated by the Norwegian Parliament. They noted that “The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”
The EU’s Nobel Peace Prize comes at a time when parts of Europe are descending into Nationalism. In 1916-17, during the First World War, not long after winning his Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore gave a series of speeches criticising Nationalism . He observed that:
“… the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes, the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion, in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is pointed out. …
“When we are fully human, we cannot fly at one another’s throats; our instincts of social life, our traditions of moral ideals stand in the way. If you want me to take to butchering human beings, you must break up that wholeness of my humanity through some discipline which makes my will dead, my thoughts numb, my movements automatic, and then from the dissolution of the complex personal man will come out that abstraction, that destructive force, which has no relation to human truth, and therefore can be easily brutal or mechanical.”
Audrey Hepburn, who was born in Brussels, witnessed this type of inhumanity at first hand at the age of 11, after Germany occupied the Netherlands in 1940. “I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped on to the train. I was a child observing a child.” [Source: Wikipedia]
Audrey Hepburn’s wartime experiences sparked her devotion to the international humanitarian organisation UNICEF (winner of the 1965 Nobel Peace Prize), for which she became a Goodwill Ambassador. Her friend Gregory Peck recited her favourite poem, Tagore’s Unending love, in an interview soon after her death in 1993 (from 1:35 in this clip).
Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”, was finally able to receive it in June this year having spent decades under house arrest. As I mentioned in my post ‘If, hearing your call, no-one comes, then go on alone‘, in a message to a gathering of all living Nobel laureates to mark the 10th anniversary of her winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she said, “During my years of house arrest I have learnt my most precious lesson from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, many of whose verses reach out to that innermost, elusive land of the spirit that we are not always capable of exploring ourselves.”
Similarly, Nelson Mandela, who won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize together with Frederik Willem de Klerk, had ended a letter to the Secretary of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations by saying “We join with you, the people of India, and with people all over the world in our striving towards a new tomorrow, tomorrow making a reality for all mankind the sort of universe that the great Rabindranath Tagore dreamed of in Gitanjali:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls; where words came out from the depths of truth; where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; where the mind is led forward by these into ever widening thought and action into that haven of Freedom, My Father, let my country awake.”
For centuries before it actually happened, the idea of unifying Europe was associated with preventing a recurrence of war. Large areas of Europe had previously been united by empires built on force, such as the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Frankish Empire, Holy Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire, the First French Empire and Nazi Germany. In the 17th Century, there had been the fairly unsuccessful Peace of Westphalia – parodied here in a clip sent to me by a friend from Luxembourg.
The calls for unity became louder after the First World War but it was only after the Second World War that the first real steps were taken towards creating the European Union.
Even during the Second World War, French politician Robert Schuman had been convinced that Franco-German and European reconciliation had to take place after the war ended. As Prime Minister of France (1947-48), he laid the foundations for the Council of Europe and what is now the European Union. As Foreign Minister in 1949, he said “We are carrying out a great experiment, the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream that for ten centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe: creating between them an organization putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace.” [Source: Wikipedia]
So here we are, over 60 peaceful years later. Sadly, countries like the UK have forgotten why they joined the European Union and have succumbed to their nationalist tendencies, preferring only economic unity. The absence of peace in Europe is now taken for granted.
Perhaps another problem is that peace has no value as far as economic measures like GDP and GNP are concerned. Maybe a more useful statistic in our connected and globalised times could be the Gross National Happiness index developed by Bhutan since 1972. Futurist Gerd Leonhard explains why in this recent TEDx talk.
Back in 2008, France’s then President Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned a report on measuring economic performance and social progress from Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, as well as French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi. Of course, Amartya Sen has been strongly influenced by Tagore’s philosophy and is one of the products of Tagore’s school in Santiniketan.
Earlier this year, the UN added happiness to the global agenda. As the Economist reported, an international survey of happiness showed “the highest levels of self-reported happiness not in rich countries, as one would expect, but in poor and middle-income ones, notably Indonesia, India and Mexico. In rich countries, happiness scores range from above-average—28% of Australians and Americans say they are very happy—to far below the mean. The figures for Italy and Spain were 13% and 11% (Greece was not in the sample). Most Europeans are gloomier than the world average. So levels of income are, if anything, inversely related to felicity. Perceived happiness depends on a lot more than material welfare.”
So I hope that the EU’s Nobel Peace Prize will be a reminder to many in Europe, not only in the UK, who seem to have succumbed to “one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented”: Nationalism. The official EU delegation that collects the Nobel Peace Prize includes four young European citizens – Ana from Spain, Elena from Italy, Ilona from Poland and Larkin from Malta – who won a drawing and writing contest organised by the EU institutions together with the European Youth Forum. They were asked to answer the question: what does peace in Europe mean to you?
In Brussels, at 6pm, some have called for a flash mob in front of Robert Schuman’s statue near the parc de Cinquantenaire – those attending are asked to bring a candle and something to light it. Being in London for my father’s birthday, I will miss the gathering. That is why, in the absence of any UK celebrations of the Prize (celebrations are planned around the world, including in the US), I am celebrating it with this post. After all, it’s not every day we get to be a Nobel laureate.