The Nobel Prizes - what you need to know

How much do you know about the Nobel Prizes? DW takes a look at who and what are behind one of the most prestigious awards in the world.

Who was Alfred Nobel?

Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm in 1833. Together with his father, who was an engineer, he developed the explosive nitroglycerine, which proved a commercial success.

Despite the danger of the project — Nobel's brother Emil was killed in an experiment in 1864 — he continued his research, patenting what he called dynamite in 1867. The invention proved very useful in the construction industry and Nobel traveled the world selling his product. When not on the road, he diligently conducted research and registered 355 patents in his name.

Nobel's talent as both a scientist and a businessman allowed him to amass a considerable fortune. He was also fluent in several languages, wrote poetry and drama, and had a deep interest in philosophy and literature.

Read more 

- Controversies that have dogged the Nobel Prize for Literature

- German-language winners of the Nobel Literature Prize 

Nobel is now remembered for more than just his invention

How did the Nobel Prize come about?

After Nobel died in 1896, the opening of his will caused a considerable stir: He had left the majority of his money to the establishment of "prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind" in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.

Family members contested the will. Others were irked by the international nature of the new prizes. The biggest shock, however, was the Peace Prize. The name Nobel had been associated with explosives and weapons — not with peace.

Nobel's friend and former secretary Countess Bertha von Suttner, a vocal pacifist, is credited with having had a significant impact on the millionaire, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.

Von Suttner worked for Nobel for only a few months

"Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses," he wrote the countess in 1891. Two-and-a-half decades before World War One, Nobel couldn't have foreseen just how wrong he would be.

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Because Nobel had not composed his will with the help of a lawyer or specified how the prizes should be awarded, it took five years to sort out the details before the first Nobel Prize could be awarded in 1901.

In 1968, Sweden's central bank established the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. The five original prizes are administered by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm.

The Nobel Peace Prize is one of the most prestigious awards in the world

How are the winners selected?

Candidates are nominated a year in advance by qualified parties in the six relevant fields. Academics, politicians, prominent scientists, previous Nobel laureates and others receive personal invitations each year to nominate a candidate.

The nominators are selected in such a way so that as many different countries as possible are represented over time. Their nominations are kept secret for 50 years.

In his will, Alfred Nobel specifically indicated five Swedish institutions responsible for choosing the prize recipients in each category. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has selected the Economics Prize laureates since 1969.

Nobel Peace Prize - the controversial winners

A longstanding discussion

When the first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Dunant of Switzerland (left) and Frederic Passy of France (right) in 1901, the Nobel Commission was divided. Dunant had founded the International Red Cross and, together with Passy, initiated the Geneva Conventions. The commission's members feared that by making war more humane, the Geneva Conventions could make it more acceptable.

Nobel Peace Prize - the controversial winners

Warrior and peacekeeper

US President Theodore Roosevelt was never seen as a pacifist – he had urged war against Spain. After that, he helped Cubans to free themselves from colonialism, but US troops soon arrived in Cuba, ensuring the island remained under de facto US control. Roosevelt received the prize for another commitment: his peace efforts in the Russo-Japanese war.

Nobel Peace Prize - the controversial winners

The racist peacemaker

The 28th US President, Woodrow Wilson, also received a prize "for his contributions to the end of World War I and the founding of the League of Nations," the precursor to the UN. But he also believed in the superiority of whites and was a supporter of segregation who praised the Ku Klux Klan.

Nobel Peace Prize - the controversial winners

Peace prize without peace

US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese politburo member Le Duc Tho played a decisive role in the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, aimed at ending the conflict. However, Tho refused to accept the prize. While the US largely withdrew after the accords, the conflict in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia would last another two years.

Nobel Peace Prize - the controversial winners

From putsch to Peace Prize

Egypt's President Anwar al-Sadat (left) joined Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin (right) to agree to peace between the two countries. In 1978, they were honored for the Camp David Agreement. But the prize for Sadat caused a stir: He was a senior member of the secret "Free Officers" who had overthrown King Farouk in 1952.

Nobel Peace Prize - the controversial winners

Peacekeeping and dirty business

The blue Helmets are the peacekeeing forces of the United Nations. They were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in 1988. However, they came under massive criticism in subsequent years: the troops were accused of sexually abusing women and children and forced them into prostitution. In the genocide in Rwanda, and in the massacre at Srebrenica, they were blamed for standing idly by.

Nobel Peace Prize - the controversial winners

The man with two faces

Although he was regarded as an advocate of apartheid before his time as a South African president, F.W. de Klerk played a key role in the abolition of racial separation in South Africa. He freed Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress politicians from prison, championed the freedom of the press, and abolished the apartheid laws. In 1993 he and Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nobel Peace Prize - the controversial winners

A terrorist with a Nobel Peace Prize

There was uproar in 1994, when Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat along with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres received the award for their peace efforts in the Middle East. A Norwegian politician resigned in protest from the Nobel Committee, calling Arafat an "unworthy winner."

Nobel Peace Prize - the controversial winners

A 'better and more peaceful world' thanks to the UN?

Both the UN and its Secretary General, Kofi Annan, received the 2001 Nobel Prize – "for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world." But critics accuse the UN of not upholding these ideals and of frequent failure. Individual states are able to block resolutions and joint action in the UN Security Council.

Nobel Peace Prize - the controversial winners

Advance laurels for Barack Obama

Barack Obama had only been US president for nine months when he received the award for his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." Critics thought it came much too early. Later, Obama ordered military intervention – including the mission to kill terrorist Osama bin Laden, which was highly controversial under international law.

Nobel Peace Prize - the controversial winners

'Nonviolent struggle' and a war criminal

Liberia's former President Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes tied to thousands of cases of murder, rape and torture. Critics accuse his successor Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, once Taylor's finance minister, of supporting his violence and corruption. Nevertheless, in 2011 she was honored for her "nonviolent struggle for the safety of women." She claimed the prize during her re-election campaign.

Nobel Peace Prize - the controversial winners

Questionable treatment of asylum seekers

Barbed-wire fences, detention, inhumane conditions in refugee camps: Human rights activists have been criticizing the EU's refugee policies for years. Even so, the European Union was honored in 2012 for its "advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe."

Interesting facts:

- The youngest Nobel laureate is Malala Yousafzai, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at the age of 17 for her activism in the field of children's rights. Before that, the youngest was Lawrence Bragg, who was just 25 when he accepted the prize. He shared the 1915 Nobel Prize in physics with his father.

Malala Yousafzai is also a UN messenger of peace

- Several would-be Nobel recipients either declined to accept their award or were forced to decline for political reasons.

- Jean-Paul Sartre, who consistently turned down all public honors, didn't accept his 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature.

- In 1973, Le Duc - Tho was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for negotiating the Vietnam peace accord. Tho declined the prize due to the situation in Vietnam.

- Three German Nobel laureates — Richard Kuhn, Adolf Butenandt and Gerhard Domagk — were forbidden by Adolf Hitler to accept their prizes. They received their diplomas and medals belatedly, but not the monetary award.

- In 1958, Soviet authorities forced Boris Pasternak to return the Nobel Prize in Literature he had initially accepted.

Literature Nobel Prizes that caused a stir

2018: Resignations over a #MeToo scandal

Until this year, the Swedish Academy's 18 members technically held the position for life. That changed when three group members stepped down in protest against the Academy membership of poet Katarina Frostenson, whose husband is accused of sexual harassment. Academy secretary Sara Danius (photo) and Frostenson also left shortly afterwards, leading to the decision to postpone the 2018 award.

Literature Nobel Prizes that caused a stir

1989: Resignations in support of Salman Rushdie

While the famous author of "The Satanic Verses" never won the Nobel Prize in Literature, some members of the Swedish Academy felt their organization should denounce Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie's assassination in 1989. The Academy refused to do so, and three members resigned in protest.

Literature Nobel Prizes that caused a stir

He didn't comment for weeks: Bob Dylan

He became the first singer-songwriter to obtain the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, shocking quite a few literature purists. Then Dylan didn't even seem that interested by the recognition. He didn't show up at the awards ceremony and simply sent a brief thank-you speech instead of the traditional Nobel lecture. He finally collected his prize in Stockholm in March 2017.

Literature Nobel Prizes that caused a stir

A late tribute to his first novel: Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann received the prize in 1929, but it wasn't for his most recent work, "The Magic Mountain" (1924), which the jury found too tedious. The distinction instead recognized his debut novel, "Buddenbrooks" — published 28 years earlier. Time had apparently added to its value. The jury said, it "has won steadily increased recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature."

Literature Nobel Prizes that caused a stir

Too many people: Elfriede Jelinek

When she was honored with the prize in 2004, Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek also refused to go to the awards ceremony. "I cannot manage being in a crowd of people. I cannot stand public attention," the reclusive playwright said. The Swedish Academy had to accept her agoraphobia, but she did, at least, hold her Nobel lecture — per video.

Literature Nobel Prizes that caused a stir

Couldn't accept the prize: Boris Pasternak

The Soviet author, world famous for his novel "Doctor Zhivago," obtained Nobel recognition in 1958. However, Soviet authorities forced him to decline the prize; he wouldn't be able to re-enter the country if he went to the Stockholm ceremony. Even though he followed his government's orders, he was still demonized afterwards. His son picked up the award in 1989, 29 years after the author's death.

Literature Nobel Prizes that caused a stir

'Not literature': Dario Fo

When Italian comedian and playwright Dario Fo won the prize in 1997, the announcement came as a shock to many literary critics, who saw him as just an entertainer and not a real literary figure with an international standing. The satirist fired back with his Nobel speech, which he titled "Against jesters who defame and insult."

Literature Nobel Prizes that caused a stir

Literature, not Peace: Winston Churchill

Although British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945, he actually obtained the award for his written works — mostly memoirs, history volumes and speeches — in 1953. The jury praised "his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values."

Literature Nobel Prizes that caused a stir

Did he want the money?: Jean-Paul Sartre

The French philosopher and playwright was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, but he declined it, saying that "a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution" by accepting official honors. It was rumored that he later asked for the prize money anyway — but that story was never confirmed.

Literature Nobel Prizes that caused a stir

The youngest winner: Rudyard Kipling

Winning the award in 1907 at the age of 41, British author Joseph Rudyard Kipling, best known for "The Jungle Book" (1894), remains the youngest Nobel laureate in literature to this day. However, his legacy has since been marred by the fact that Kipling, who spent his early childhood and some of his adult life in India, vehemently spoke out in defense of British colonialism.

Four individuals have been awarded two Nobel Prizes:

- John Bardeen (Physics 1956, 1972)

- Marie Curie (Physics 1903, Chemistry 1911)

- Linus Pauling (Chemistry 1954, Peace 1962)

- Frederick Sanger (Chemistry 1958, 1980)

Together, the Curies have collected more Nobel prizes than any other family. Marie Curie shared half of the physics prize with her husband Pierre in 1903. Their daughter Irene shared the chemistry prize with her husband Frederic Joliot in 1935.

Pierre and Marie Curie shared the 1903 physics prize