The Nobel Peace Prize: its history and meaning

The world's highest prize for peacemaking has gone to a Polish worker. His name is Lech Walesa. The award, known as the Nobel Peace Prize, was given to Mr. Walesa (pronounced vah-wen-sah, as though his last name had an ''n'' in it) because of his struggles for the rights of workers in Poland, a country under communist rule.

Mr. Walesa, who is easily recognized by his walrus mustache, was out in the woods gathering mushrooms when he heard the news.

He joins a group of prominent organizations and individuals that have been given this great honor in previous years.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees won the award in 1981 for the good work it has done over the years in helping to take care of millions of refugees throughout the world. These refugees had been forced to flee their homelands because of violence, wars, and droughts.

In 1978 the Nobel Peace Prize was shared by the former prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, and Anwar Sadat, the former President of Egypt. They won the award for their efforts to bring about peace and end years of conflict between their neighboring states.

Not all Nobel Peace Prizes are given to people or organizations because they actually helped stopped wars. Very often they have won it because they have struggled peacefully for freedom and justice.

Nobel prizes are not only given for peace. They are also given for excellence in literature, physics, chemistry, economics, and medicine, although the peace award is the most highly regarded.

The prizes are named after Alfred Nobel, a wealthy Swedish chemist and engineer who invented dynamite. He was also a humanitarian, which means he gave away a good deal of his money to benefit mankind. When he died in Italy in 1896, he left behind a will that called for the establishment of these Nobel prizes.

All the awards, except the peace prize, are given out in Sweden. The peace prize is announced and presented in Oslo, the capital of Norway. This year the Nobel Peace Prize will be presented to Lech Walesa on Dec. 10. He will receive a medal and 1.5 million Swedish kronor, which amounts to some $190,000.

We do not know yet whether Mr. Walesa will be able to accept this award in person. Mr. Walesa is highly unpopular with the Polish government, which has strongly resisted his efforts to change Polish society. Because of his opposition, he has spent time in jail and was only recently released. As a result, the government may not let him out of the country to accept the award. Or it may allow him to go out of the country, but not allow him back in.

Mr. Walesa is best known for organizing and leading an independent group of workers, known as a union. It is called Solidarity. Solidarity was established in 1980. It was the first time there had ever been a free labor union in Eastern Europe, which is dominated by the Soviet Union. The government did not like this.

One reason is that Solidarity opposed the existing communist union that supported the government. Another reason is that Solidarity pressured the government to change by holding demonstrations, marches, and strikes.

At first the Solidarity movement made a lot of headway. But the organization is now banned, which means that it cannot operate legally.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.