In the beginning of the Peace Prize there was an idea. In 1949, the writer Hans Schwarz convinced a group of German publishers and booksellers with his idea to establish a foundation for a Peace Prize, to be awarded for the first time to Max Tau and subsequently to other humanists and writers. The founders' hope was that the prize might help to lift Germany out of its cultural isolation and to reintroduce humanist thought into society.
In the statute of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, they put this mission into words: “The foundation is committed to peace, humanity and understanding among all peoples and nations of the world. This is done by awarding the Peace Prize to personalities who have contributed to the idea of peace through their exceptional activities, especially in the fields of literature, science and art. Prize winners are chosen without any reference to their national, racial or religious background.“ The wording is inspired by Immanuel Kant's views on human beings, individual freedom and universal human rights and his deliberations of a peaceful coexistence between states that he introduces in his essay “Perpetual Peace“.
Max Tau was awarded the “Peace Prize of German Publishers“ in a private home in Alsterdorf near Hamburg in May 1950. This first award, with general director of the Northwest German Broadcasting Corporation, Adolf Grimme, acting as laureator, was received with unexpectedly great interest not only in Germany but also in Scandinavia and other countries. On the initiative of Friedrich Wittig, who would later become president of the Börsenverein, the private foundation of Hans Schwarz and the 15 publishers and booksellers was embraced by the entire book trade: The Börsenverein (German Publishers and Booksellers Association) took the prize under its wings.
Albert Schweitzer received the prize in September 1951 – for the first time in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt and under the new name “Peace Prize of the German Book Trade“. Due to the international prominence and esteem the laureate and his laudator, Federal President Theodor Heuss, enjoyed, the Peace Prize in its second year had already developed into the most important German prize for peace and culture, and the award ceremony has been broadcast on television and radio since. From this time on, the Peace Prize has been a sign of hope and encouragement of a newly developed self-confidence achieved through critical reflection for the isolated Germany, humbled by its own history.
The message of the laureates is the lifeblood of the Peace Prize. Their names represent the most important currents in cultural and intellectual history of the 20th and 21st century. With their acceptance speeches the laureates provide an intellectual and artistic debate about the current political situation, involvement in peace policy and historical responsibility.
Not for the first time did a Peace Prize speech give rise to a major debate in society when Martin Walser spoke about the handling of German history in 1998. Controversial disputes about Karl Jaspers (1958), Ernst Bloch (1967), Léopold Sédar Senghor (1968), Ernesto Cardenal (1980) and Annemarie Schimmel (1995) as well as heated discussions about Günter Grass' laudatory speech for Yasar Kemal (1997) have made the Peace Prize an award that is considered to be a significant, if not the most important platform for the discussion about peace and the understanding between people. Thus, in October 2001, three weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, Jürgen Habermas has tried to find a first explanation model for religious fanaticism. In 2003, Susan Sontag has conveyed her view on the “clash between cultures“ which had led to the “modern wars“. In 2009, Claudio Magris has warned against the growing populism in politics and against regarding war as a matter of course.
Moving were the awards for Saul Friedländer, who read from the last letters from his family before they were brutally murdered at the concentration camps of the Nazis; and for David Grossman, who, in his acceptance speech in 2010, spoke about his son's death in the war between Israel and the Lebanon and at the same time explained why he nevertheless stands up for a peaceful solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
“The citizen's crown of humanity“ is how Carlo Schmid, former Federal Minister and laudator for Gabriel Marcel (1964), named the Peace Prize, it is unique in the world due to the great importance of the speeches that are held. For the Börsenverein of the German Book Trade as its founder, the Peace Prize is a commitment to freedom of expression and peace in the world.
1950 – 1959: Beginnings of the Peace Prize under Nuclear Threat
The first decade in the history of the Peace Prize is overshadowed by the Second World War and the crimes perpetrated by the Nazi regime. However, the Cold War between the superpowers plays an ever-increasing role in the prize winners' speeches. The divided Germany is pivotal in the dispute about a new world order, and is a recurrent theme in the speeches held by the award winners and their laudators.
A glance at the group of the first ten laureates illustrates that, from the very beginning, the Peace Prize was intended to be an award for those who contribute towards peace, freedom and understanding, in their different positions. The award rapidly develops from its beginnings as a private initiative into an internationally recognised cultural event, helped by the high public profile of the prize winners and close relations between the Peace Prize and the Federal President.
1960 – 1969: The Peace Prize becomes international
The second decade of the Peace Prize is characterised by the internationalisation of the award - both in terms of the choice of prize winners as well as the issues that are addressed in the speeches. The focus is on discussions on the past and its consequences for the present – Cuban Missile Crisis, Cold War, the arms race, violation of human rights.
The Peace Prize decade ends in dispute with the student movement and with the values and social change that it propagates; a dispute that was by no means deliberate. Harsh criticism of the prize and of the choice of prize winners leads to changes in the statute and in the procedure of the ceremony. The Board of Trustees becomes more independent, and there is yet greater focus on the laudatory and acceptance speeches.
1970 – 1979: The Establishment of the Peace Prize
Many people remember the 1970s first of all as a colourful decade - and indeed, this is also true for the Peace Prize. The ten prize winners, viewed as a heterogeneous group, illustrate that the Peace Prize has arrived in the present and is dealing with current themes and problems: development policy, environmental and religious thinking, children and young adults and their education, the emancipation of women, terrorism and the politicisation of society that goes along with it.
This decade sees the signing of treaties with Eastern bloc countries which helps to ease political tensions between the two German states and within Europe. The slogan "Risk more democracy!" shapes West German domestic politics. At the same time terrorism by the Red Army Faction reaches a sad peak with the "German Autumn" in 1977, which also has an impact on the Peace Prize.
1980 – 1989: New Conflicts
Societal debates in the 1980s focus on the peace movement and its campaigns such as human chains, Easter marches and mass demonstrations. In their speeches, the laureates draw attention to the imbalance that is caused by technology and the fraught arms race of the superpowers on the one hand and social development in the world on the other. The disaster at the nuclear power station in Chernobyl, forest decline (“Waldsterben“), the rising numbers of infections with HIV and the first alarming reports about climate change strengthen the awareness of how vulnerable the earth and mankind are.
The choice of laureates from Eastern Europe at the beginning and the middle of the century is a response to the first signs of political changes in the Eastern bloc countries. In 1989, only a few months before this upheaval radically changes the hitherto bipolar world, the Board of Trustees takes a very timely and politically charged decision by honouring Václav Havel with the Peace Prize.
1990 – 1999: Radical Change in Europe
In the fifth decade of the Peace Prize, the choice of award winners and their speeches provoke great public debates about the understanding and coexistence of religions and cultures; about the social interaction with foreigners and asylum seekers in Germany; and about the coming together of Germany and Europe.
More than four decades after the end of the Second World War, wars are again being waged in Europe. The unified Germany has to find its place in the world community, and German soldiers are deployed in crisis areas worldwide. At the end of the 1990s the so-called “Schlussstrich“-debate or concluding debate about the holocaust and crimes committed by the NS regime reaches its climax. This is also commented upon by the Peace Prize winners.
2000 – 2009: The Globalised World
The first decade of the new millennium is being shaped by globalisation, rapid technological developments and – at the end of the decade – a worldwide economic crisis, the consequences of which are, as yet, unforeseen.
The attacks of 11 September 2001 against the centres of power in the USA, illustrate that violence transcends all boundaries. Religion and politics are inextricably and dangerously linked and thus become a central theme for the prize winners. Moreover, a new, second reality emerges in a virtual internet-based world devoid of physical boundaries. The reaction of the real world to this new development will be an important theme of the future.
The selection of ten laureates from eight different countries illustrates these developments and shows that there are no more isolated cultures in the world. Mutual understanding and learning from one another are of increasing importance for peace in the globalised world.