Finest Hour 178, Fall 2018
By Svante Janson
Svante Janson is Professor of Mathematics at Uppsala University in Sweden. He is grateful to the staff of the Churchill Archives Centre and its director Allen Packwood for assistance in research for this article.
One of the most impressive objects on display at Chartwell is Winston Churchill’s 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature and the accompanying certificate. I have in my home in Sweden a typewritten copy of the letter nominating him for the prize that year. This letter is signed Birger Nerman, and my copy has a handwritten dedication to Gerda Serrander, my great-grandmother. It appears likely that, as nowadays, those making nominations were asked to keep their nominations secret, but that after the prize had been awarded, Nerman could not resist giving copies of his successful nominating letter to some of his close friends. We know, moreover, that Nerman also sent a copy to Churchill.
I spent the autumn of 2016 as a visiting Fellow at Churchill College in Cambridge, and I took the opportunity to contact Allen Packwood, the director of the Churchill Archives Centre, which is located in the college, and inquire about Churchill’s Nobel Prize. He found in the Archives a letter from Nerman to Churchill dated 19 December 1953, a week after the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony on 10 December, where Nerman explains that he has had “for some years the honour of suggesting your name for the Nobel Prize in Literature,” and that several persons, including Churchill’s Swedish publisher Captain Bertil Sterner, had encouraged Nerman to send the nomination to Churchill; Nerman enclosed a copy of the nomination letter together with an English translation of it. Churchill’s private secretary Anthony Montague Browne forwarded the letter to Churchill, together with a draft of a reply, which Churchill signed on 25 December, thanking Nerman for the copy of “your letter to the Nobel Committee in which you express yourself in such flattering terms.”
The nomination letter is three pages long and begins by saying that Nerman has had the honour of nominating Churchill since 1948 and now repeats his nomination. Nerman praises Churchill’s vast production, commenting in some detail on his early works The Malakand Field Force and The River War (which “extend far beyond the range of mere war stories”), his great biography of his ancestor Marlborough (“universally acclaimed as a masterpiece”), the sketches in Great Contemporaries (“as psychologically pertinent as they are chivalrous”), his history of the First World War (“the most distinguished account of that war ever written”), and also on Churchill’s political speeches before and during the Second World War (“expressive of the eternal heroism of the human spirit”). There are also added enthusiastic comments on The Second World War, of which five volumes had appeared since Nerman’s first nomination (“there is not a single work in the entire world of literature in which a writer with so supreme a mastery of language has described a course of events of such a significance”).
Nerman concluded his nomination by saying that Churchill’s writings exhibited “those high, inalienable human virtues of courage, chivarly and truth.” Nerman also wrote: “The fact that Churchill in action has played a greater part than any other person of our times in rescuing humanity from the barbarism of the dictatorships and in preserving the Western world’s system of law and justice should not, of course, in any way detract from his purely literary merits.” Thus Nerman succeeds both in reminding the reader of Churchill’s enormous political importance and in denying that this was a factor in awarding the Nobel Prize to him.
But who was the nominator Birger Nerman? He was a well-known Swedish archaeologist born in 1888. He had been a professor of Archaeology in Dorpat (Estonia), 1923–25, and director of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm since 1938. As a member of the Swedish Academy of Letters (an academy for the humanities), he was invited to submit nominations for the Nobel Prize in literature, which is awarded by the Swedish Academy (an academy for Swedish language and literature). Nerman died in 1971.
Birger Nerman had two brothers who were also well known. His twin brother Einar (1888–1983) was a famous artist. His older brother Ture (1886–1969) was a politician and journalist and may possibly have influenced Birger’s nomination. Ture Nerman was before and during the Second World War one of the leading anti-Nazi politicians in Sweden. He had been one of the founders of the Swedish Communist Party in 1917 and was a Member of the Swedish Parliament for the communists, 1931–37. In 1939, however, he left the Communist Party and returned to the Social Democratic Party. During the Second World War, when Sweden was neutral but surrounded by countries occupied by or in alliance with Germany, Ture Nerman published the fiercely anti-Nazi weekly newspaper Trots Allt. The government tried (successfully) to keep Sweden out of the war and did not want to irritate Germany. It therefore tried to stop Ture Nerman in various ways, including a jail sentence in 1940 for “endangering Sweden’s relations with Germany” when Ture published an editorial on “Hitler’s hellish machine.” After the war, Ture Nerman was back in Parliament, 1946–53, as a Social Democrat friendly to the West.
Nominations for the Nobel Prizes are kept secret for fifty years, but the Nobel Prize website now contains a database of older nominations with names of nominators and nominees. The database shows that there were thirty-four nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, for twenty-five different persons, and that Birger Nerman was the only person who nominated Churchill this year, so it was really his nomination that gave the prize to Churchill. Among the twenty-four other nominees that year deemed less worthy of the prize than Churchill by the Swedish Academy was Ernest Hemingway (who got the prize the year after). The database also shows that Churchill had previously been nominated in 1946 by Axel Romdahl (1880–1951), a Swedish professor of art history and museum curator in Gothenburg. Furthermore, from 1948 to 1952 several others in addition to Nerman had nominated Churchill. (Churchill had also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 and 1950, but as we know, he did not get it.)
The digitized archives of the Swedish newspapers Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet show that the Swedish Academy made their decision on Thursday, 15 October 1953. The news, however, had already leaked the day before. On 14 October the Swedish papers reported that according to Reuters, Churchill would get the prize; this was also reported in the British newspapers the same day. After the official announcement, Churchill was honoured and grateful and hoped to come to Stockholm to receive the award. Gustaf VI, the King of Sweden, invited Churchill to stay at the Royal Palace. Ultimately, though, Churchill’s duties as Prime Minister took precedence, and he went to a summit in Bermuda, while his wife Lady Churchill and their daughter Mary went to Stockholm and accepted the Nobel Prize on his behalf.
The comments on the Nobel Prize in the Swedish newspapers were, with few exceptions, very positive. The Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy stressed that the prize was a literary award and that one reason for not giving it to Churchill earlier was that it then might have been seen as a political award.
The official citation for Churchill’s Nobel Prize is “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”