You may never know the effect you really have on someone. Austrian novelist, daughter of a field marshal and avowed peace activist Baronness Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914), fell in love. It was not a match approved by her family. Another novelist! In keeping with the times, her family forbade the union.
So grief stricken Bertha answered an ad for a secretary-housekeeper in Paris and lasted there but a week before she returned to Vienna to secretly marry her beloved Arthur. But in that week, Baroness Bertha von Suttner, novelist, daughter of a field marshal, and peace activist, was employed as secretary-housekeeper to Alfred Nobel, who'd made a fortune from inventing dynamite. Through that small beginning the Nobel Peace Prize was born.
In his will leaving money to commend those extraordinary women and men making discoveries in physics, chemistry, medicine and economics, as well as honouring the accomplished doyens of literature, Alfred Nobel also decided to leave an amount "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 list of Nobel Prize winners is humbling. Martin Luther King Jnr was awarded the Peace Prize in 1964, for his demonstration that nonviolence could work to overthrow the equivalent of apartheid in the United States. George Marshall received the Peace Prize for the Marshall Plan, a picture of generosity and forgiveness. Back in 1901, Henry Dunant became a prize laureate for establishing the Red Cross, bringing a modicum of humanity to battlefields. The Nobel Peace Prize brings to light people you may have never heard of, such as Jane Addams and Emily Greene Balch, who were separately recognised for their practical peace advocacy, much associated with their work with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
The most notable omission is that 20th century prophet of peace and justice, Mahatma Gandhi, who was nominated several times but was never selected to be laureate. Following his assassination in 1948, a repentant panel announced it would not grant a prize that year, because "there was no suitable living candidate".
There have been controversial awards, such as that to President Theodore Roosevelt, whose invading American army was reducing the Filipino island of Samar to a "howling wilderness" around the time he mediated a ceasefire between the Russians and the Japanese. And while it is an urban myth that comic songwriter Timothy Lehrer stopped writing when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Peace Prize during the Vietnam War, (because life had replaced satire), it is less well known that a couple of Prize panelists resigned to emphasise their disgust at this travesty of that year's award.
But much more frequently, the choice of Nobel Peace Prize winners is inspirational. Whether it be mothers Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan trying to stop the bloody fight in Northern Island, Mother Teresa causing us to think of the value of attending to the dying, Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin for negotiating practical peace between Egypt and Israel through the Camp David Agreement, trade unionist Lech Wa__sa struggling for freedom in Poland, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk finding ways to peace past institutionalised racial hatred in South Africa, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War documenting the barbarities inherent in planning to make cities and the planet uninhabitable, the 14th Dalai Lama for his message of tolerance and mutual respect.
Or Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, whose leadership brought about a peaceful change in his own country and arms reduction between two superpowers preparing to incinerate the other, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, resolutely kind under house arrest while a corrupt Burmese junta try to make the freedom movement cower, Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos Horta labouring to peacefully settle the Indonesian genocide in East Timor, Jody Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations, either through its refugee agency or Dag Hammarskjold humbly renewing the United Nations...each person now laureate has an inspiring story all of their own. Together, the names on the roll of honour represent a formidable picture of how astonishing the human spirit can be when we dare to be our best.
Which brings us to the latest award: Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States, not a year into his first term. But in that time, for any shortcomings, Obama has renewed the vision for a world free of nuclear weapons. That caught the panel's special attention. Of course, this man who confesses his own unlikely name to be American president, and yet has drawn his country and the world to hope for a new way, this man has moved his country away from torturing war captives, signed up to multilateral approaches to making peace, declared in Cairo there should be a new relationship with Islam, played a blessedly constructive role in meeting the great challenges coming from climate change, and connected with the values and attitudes shared by the majority of the world's population. It is a unique combination.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee understands the historic opportunity to limit, if not abolish, nuclear weapons. For while nuclear weapons are obscene, they have a cruel logic of their own. They apparently bestow a sense of enormous privilege and bizarre self importance to those countries claiming nuclear weapons as their right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, despite that same treaty obliging these same nuclear powers to eventually disarm. For one of these five signatories to stand up and say, "Yes We Can," is of towering significance.
Australia supports Obama's new direction. Addressing the 64th General Assembly of the United Nations on September 24, our Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared, "the only path to safety is through the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons."
There may be no Cold War, but the quietude after the menace has not reduced the ferocity of nuclear weapons. These are, according to the World Court, weapons of genocide, and a potential crime against humanity. The environmental impact of a nuclear war is unspeakable. But it does not need war, or a third nuclear weapon (remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
The mere production of these weapons has meant that you, me, every unborn foetus, and every human over the next tens of thousands of years will carry radioactive elements created by nuclear tests, research and deployment. Work in a weapons plant and you will have elevated levels of at least 22 kinds of cancers. Live in Iraq and you will breathe in depleted uranium vaporised in ammunition. Be born in Basra and your chance of congenital malformation is now 18 out of 1,000 births, not two.
We might weep for this. If we were in fullest connection with the planet, and each other, we might. But with or without tears, at least we can hope. That is what President Obama has offered to do for us. Given us hope. A world free of the threat of nuclear weapons.