Give Peace a Chance, man

Imagine arbitration, discussion and negotiation replacing warfare as the primary means of settling differences and disputes between nations. The notion seems both obviously reasonable, and still oddly alien in this war-torn beginning of the third millennium AD. It was the cause for which Fredrik Bajer, who received the 1908 Nobel Prize in Peace, spent most of his life working.

The Danish pacifist politician Fredrik Bajer, born Fredrik Beyer on April 21st 1837, is probably most well-known for his monumental amount of peace work. Well, that, and his last name is a word for "beer" in Danish. He was the son of clergyman Alfred Beyer (who appears to be of German descent), and adopted the alternate spelling of his surname in 1865. At the time, there were pretty bad sentiments between the Danish and the Prussian peoples because of war over border disputes, so one could imagine that he had his name changed to make it spell in a more conventionally Danish way. Presumably Danes of that time didn't call a beer a 'bajer'; if they did, it might be reasonable to assume that Fredrik had lost some beer hall bet.

From Army Commander to Peacenik

He went to school at the Sorø Academy, a former monastery turned school, in 1848. The Academy was closed one year later, unfortunately, and eventually Fredrik ended up in a military school. In 1856 he joined the army as a lieutenant in the Dragoons, first stationed in Næstved and later in Holsten. He was a commander during the war between Denmark and Prussia/Austria, in charge of troops in northern Jutland. He gained the attention of his superior officers because of his military ability as well as good conduct, and was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant near the end of the war. He was honourably discharged from the army in 1865, when the number of troops was being reduced because the war was coming to an end.

A pretty unusual background for a pacifist who found himself receiving a Nobel peace prize, wouldn't you think? Near the end of Fredrik Bajer's military career, he was beginning to realize that the life he wanted was that of a philosopher rather than that of a soldier. After his discharge, he decided to study linguistics, gaining fluency in French as well as the two Scandinavian tongues most closely related to Danish; Swedish and Norwegian. He worked as a professional translator in Copenhagen from around 1868, and supplemented his income through some writing and some speeches. He ended up in the Danish political scene in 1872, and in the same year, he was elected to the Folketing (the Danish Parliament, roughly equivalent to you Americans' House of Representatives). He would keep his seat there until 1895. Politically, he always displayed a strong left-wing liberal leaning, but never actually joined a party, saying that he wasn't fond of party discipline. Ah, to think of a time where independent candidates actually had a chance in parliamentary politics! It seems almost surreal today. Bajer was also a staunch republican. "A liberal republican?! That's nonsense!" I hear the Americans shouting. In European use, "republican" most often means "in favour of abolishing constitutional monarchy", and indeed, many Danish republicans are on the political left wing.

The causes that became his main political interests were those he had already become thoroughly identified with in his time as a writer: Women's rights, Scandinavian unity, Danish neutrality in wartime, international peace and education (he maintained his academic interest in linguistics throughout his life). Curiously, he took an active part in founding Dansk Kvindesamfund ("Danish Women's Society") in 1871. In his parliamentary work, he proposed and supported legislation in favour of equality for women.

Unite Scandinavia! Abolish the Army!

One of his central ideas in foreign politics was the ideal of a united Scandinavia. He founded Nordisk Fristatssamfund ("Society of Nordic Free States") in 1870, attempting to promote Nordic cooperation and unity. Later, he would found the Danish Interparliamentary Group in 1891, which eventually led to the Scandinavian Interparliamentary Union in 1908. His vision was not Scandinavia as a great economic or military power, but as a bastion of peace that would take an active hand in preventing the outbreak of war in Europe. This brings me to what he was most known for: After his ended military career, he had become quite the vocal peace activist. Well, an 1800's style peace activist, anyway. They didn't wear berkies, smoke ganja and grow long hair while listening to scratched Grateful Dead records back then.

So how would a fat, bearded, suit-wearing proto-beatnik get introduced to the peace movement anyway? Curiously, through his study of languages. While studying French he had stumbled on some writings of the French peace leader Frédéric Passy (who, incidentally, would eventually become the 1901 Nobel Peace Prize winner) and the Ligue Internationale et Permanente de la Paix ("International and Permanent League of Peace"), and helped it distribute its writings. Bajer believed that one tenet of international peace was for nations to remain neutral in wartime, and with this goal, he founded Foreningen til Danmarks Neutralisering ("The Society for Promotion of Danish Neutrality" -- actually, it can also translate to "The Society for the Neutralization of Denmark", although I'm sure he didn't mean that....) in 1892. This would become the first Danish peace organization, and was eventually renamed to Dansk Fredssamfund ("Danish Peace Society"), which still exists today, as a part of a Danish pro-UN peace organization called "FN-Forbundet".

The Peace Movement Forms

From distributing French peace writings, Bajer quickly became a major figure in the rapidly growing international peace movement. He attended the first World Peace Congress in Paris 1889 representing the Danish Peace Society, and at the subsequent congress in London 1990, Bajer proposed creating a permanent peace bureau seated in Bern, to act as a central focus for the peace movement and a central distributor of pacifist literature and information. At the third congress in Rome 1891 his proposal was approved, and Bajer became the first president of its governing board. The reward for his long career of peace work was when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1908. Bajer had a quirky sense of humour in his peace speeches, and because his military past was well-known, he often amusingly used military jargon in his speeches. He was more of an organizer working behind the scenes than a propagandist, however.

At the time he received the prize, his health had started to seriously deteriorate. He was 71 years old, and his age was showing. The year before, he had resigned from the Peace Bureau because of his failing health, and would eventually leave the last of his interparliamentary duties behind in 1916. While his body was rapidly decaying (eventually leaving him an invalid), his mind remained sharp to the end. In his old age, he kept himself informed of world events, and he maintained his strong pacifism even as Europe collectively descended into the total barbary that was World War I. He died in Copenhagen in 1922, 85 years old.

He has a street named after him in Horsens, the town from which he was elected to the Folketing, as well as one in Aalborg. The one in Aalborg is incidentally the site where Aalborg University's institute of computer science is located.

"Waging war we understand, but not waging peace, or at any rate less consciously so. It should, however, be better understood, and we should direct the attention of states to the matter of waging peace with other states."
--Fredrik Bajer, 1908, during his Nobel Prize lecture


  • (Danish language)

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