Fridtjof Nansen (1861 - 1930)
Many consider Fridtjof Nansen to be one of the greatest men Norway has ever nurtured. Even during his lifetime he became a legend; he was the personification of a great hero; the first among sportsmen, explorers, research workers, statesmen and humanitarians. Long after his death millions continued to remember him as the foremost exponent of human compassion.
As a young man he led courageous expeditions to arctic climes. The first when he was 27 years old, when he crossed the inland ice of Greenland on ski, and then five years later when he sailed over the Polar Sea with the polar ship Fram. As a scientist he was a pioneer in a number of fields within the spheres of zoology and oceanography. During the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden in 1905, his qualities as a respected statesman emerged. After the First World War he devoted his energies to people in need in a way which gave humanitarian relief work a new dimension. Wherever Nansen turned his attention, there were lasting traces of his efforts.
Fridtjof Nansen lived in a time which needed a man of his stature. Through the different phases of his life he developed the skills necessary for the tasks which confronted him. It was as if he was called by time to answer the challenges which lay in wait for him.
In the years of his youth a widespread appreciation for nature developed in Norway - the mountain kingdom was discovered once and for all. Outdoor life became fashionable and those who developed physical fitness and stamina were the ideal. These were times which needed new ideals. Heroes no longer wore uniform or shining armour, but the white coat of the scientist or the worn furs of the polar explorer. Undiscovered areas of the globe were waiting to be conquered, unknown seaways charted. This was a time for individual courage, stamina and will-power. For a man of Nansen's aptitudes it was impossible to remain unaffected by the challenges.
Some will say that ambition drove him and he would not have denied this himself. He did not consider ambition a lesser motive, but something which would facilitate human progress. His ambition was not for personal, material gain, or for the sake of power; he had no time for these things. His was the ambition which leads to new possibilities for the greater happiness of humanity, a richer quality of life, deeper insight, understanding and broader knowledge - it was an incentive one should appreciate. If through the example of his life and work he could awaken such ambition in others, he was happier and in greater harmony with himself. This was his appeal to youth whom he urged to seek the spirit of adventure in life, to listen to the call of constant challenge. «It is within us all, it is our mysterious longing to accomplish something, to fill life with something more than a daily journey from home to the office and from the office home again. It is our ever present longing to surmount difficulties and dangers, to see that which is hidden, to seek the places lying away from the beaten track; it is the call of the unknown, the longing for the land beyond, the divine power deeply rooted within the soul of man; it is this spirit which drove the first hunters to new places and the incentive for perhaps our greatest deeds - the force of human thought which spreads its wings and flies where freedom knows no bounds».
The Years of his Youth
Fridtjof Nansen was born in Christiania, later called Oslo, on the 10th of October 1861. His father was a lawyer in private practice. Both his parents had been married before and each had children from their previous marriages. These half brothers and sisters, who were many years older, looked after Fridtjof and his younger brother, Alexander, during their childhood. The older half brothers especially, played a major part in laying the foundation for the love of and affinity to nature which Fridtjof developed, and which followed him throughout his life. Their home lay at the edge of Nordmarka - an expansive area of forests and open countryside, with streams and fishing waters. This natural environment where he spent his childhood and youth helped to form his character. The group of youths to which he belonged organised sports competitions both summer and winter, and he quickly learned that his physical strength won the respect of others. The Nansen family had restricted economic resources which gave cause for continuous anxiety in relation to financing the children's education. When Fridtjof had completed his schooling at the gymnasium, his father, therefore, advised him to apply to the Officers' Academy, where education was free and where his son, as an officer, would be afforded ample opportunity to roam in nature just as he wished. However, it transpired that Fridtjof began to study zoology at the University in 1881. Soon after he began his studies he received an offer which was to bring about a complete change in the direction of his career. A friend of his father's needed a zoology student for a whale and seal hunting expedition in the Arctic Ocean. The ship had a crew of 62 -and the student Nansen became its only passenger. On this voyage Nansen made his first acquaintance with the Arctic. Already then he became so fascinated by this hostile, savage part of the world that he knew he must return. Each day presented new challenges in the struggle for existence, both for animals and man. The young scientist found inspiration in the study of animal life, of temperature conditions, sea currents, ice formations, northern lights - many kinds of natural phenomena every single day. At the same time the arctic environment appealed to his artistic sense, as he experienced the play of colour and light, extraordinary ice formations, the animal life and the unusual types of the human race. His sketch book was constantly in use, and he photographed incessantly. He was struck by the compulsion to return, he had to test his strength in the Arctic, but he understood that this always involved working with nature, never against it. This was a conviction he reiterated on many occasions.
Even though the scientific results of this expedition were not immediately significant, it was during this voyage that Nansen made the first observations of the sea currents which run from Eastern Siberia over the Polar Sea towards Greenland. He found drifting timber which he originally believed to be American pine, but which he later realised must have drifted with the ice from Siberia. He found grey, organic spillage on the ice, and after his return home it was proved that this came from the land near the Bering Straits. This and other finds would be amongst the evidence which indicated that the ice constantly drifted over the Polar Sea from the sea north of Siberia. On this voyage the seed of an idea began growing in him that a vessel would be able to withstand lying frozen in the ice if it was suitably constructed. In the autumn of 1882 he began his scientific studies at the Bergen Museum, where he had been appointed curator. There was a very rich research environment here, the leading source of inspiration being Daniel C. Danielssen, who had been the zoologist with the Norwegian Arctic Ocean expedition 1876-78. Another prominent personality was Danielssen's son-in-law, Dr Armauer Hansen who in 1873 had discovered the leprosy bacillus which made him world famous. Nature research workers from many countries resided for shorter or longer periods at the Museum in Bergen. Visits from, for example, Louis Pasteur (1884) illustrate the high standing which the research environment in Bergen had with contemporary scientists. This was at a time when the theories of Darwin began to receive recognition. Bergen afforded ample opportunity to study sea animals - Nansen declared that the ocean currents off the west coast of Norway were an Eldorado for zoologists.
One of the Americans who visited the museum wanted Nansen to take up a scientific position under Professor Othniel Marsh at Yale University. This presented a great and challenging opportunity for the young research worker, but instead he chose to complete his studies in Norway. Fridtjof Nansen's plans for his research work were made early and his first dissertation to be presented was highly praised by the experts. The project was a painstaking study of the minute parasites, myzostomida. Nansen's research of the nervous system of these parasites won him a place in the field of international zoology and his paper was published in a German scientific periodical. The next significant paper he produced was a study of the formation of the central nervous system in ascidia or sea squirts, and hagfish, myxina glucinosa. This was a preliminary study prior to his forthcoming doctorate, which he completed after having carried out a study tour to Germany and Italy. His thesis was entitled «The Structure and Combination of the Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System», and was 118 pages in length with 113 diagrams which Nansen had drawn himself on lithographical stone. The thesis was written in English with a summary in German. In order to secure a wide circulation of his results and conclusions, he also wrote two abbreviated versions, one in Norwegian with a summary in French for the Nordic Medical Archives and one in the German periodical «Anathomischer Anzeiger». In addition to completing the work with his experiments, he succeeded in publishing the thesis and abbreviated versions in four different languages in the course of two years. There is no evidence to be found at the Bergen Museum indicating that he received assistance with his work, only encouragement and support. During the course of his work on the thesis, he received another offer from the USA. This time the University of Indiana approached him, but Nansen again declined the offer. He was passing through a major stage of personal development during this time and was basically dissatisfied with his own situation, often having to force himself to continue his studies and to carry out the tedious routine work of the museum. In reality he longed for the Arctic Ocean and the free, wild life of the North. In an article he wrote for a geographical periodical he recounted his observations of the ice formations along the East coast of Greenland, and mentioned that it should be possible to reach land by walking over the ice, pulling the equipment on sledges. One of the few who had succeeded in reaching land on the East coast of Greenland, was the Swedish polar explorer A. E. Nordenskiöld. When Nansen heard this, he became even more eager to attempt it, considering as he did that it must be feasible to cross Greenland on ski from East to West; this idea persisted to preoccupy him. The implication of going in an east-westerly direction was that retreat would be impossible. Even though conditions might indicate that returning to the East coast was the only alternative, this would be precluded by the fact that it would be impossible to make contact with the outside world, and no ship would be able to come to their aid. The attitude of burning one's bridges, leaving only one course available, the way forward, was typical of Nansen both then and throughout his entire life.
The majority of experts initially characterised the plan as the work of a madman. It was not considered possible that a skier without dogs and sledges could cross the inland ice, and it was considered irresponsible not to have a base as a reserve in an emergency. But the 27-year old zoologist had made up his mind and submitted an application to the University for economic support. Characteristically enough the application began with the following sentence: «It is my intention this summer to undertake a journey on ski over the Greenland inland ice from the East coast to the West coast». It was a disappointment to Nansen that he was not granted any money for the expedition but great was his delight when he was offered 5 000 kr from the Danish Councillor of State in Copenhagen, August Gamél.
Fridtjof Nansen and the five members of his expedition were faced with great difficulties and troublesome delays, caused by adverse weather and ice conditions on the sea and land around the East coast, and the ascent of the glacier could not begin until the 15th August 1888. By this time the Arctic summer was already on the wane. It was an extremely strenuous expedition, ascending to over 2 700 meters between perilous crevasses, with temperatures sinking to minus 45 °C and with no other equipment or provisions than what was possible to carry on the ski sledges. They also suffered from an acute fat deficiency caused by an error in the pemmican compound which proved to be fat free. But they reached their destination - because they had to. At the end of September they arrived at the West coast, and at the beginning of October they reached the inhabited area of Godthab, where they received the disappointing news that the boat from Godthab had left two months earlier which was before they had even begun the expedition across the ice.
The expedition had to spend the winter in Greenland and Nansen used this time to study the life of the Eskimo. He sketched and photographed and went hunting - he thus experienced to the full the primitive life which he loved. In his books he tells with sheer delight about some of these hunting trips -far from the worries of civilisation and surrounded by a feeling of complete freedom. Fridtjof Nansen wrote the book «Eskimo Life» (1891) after his return, in which he described vividly his love for Greenland and its people. The material he published played its part in increasing the knowledge of Eskimo life and culture, and established beyond doubt his ability to carry out systematic studies in the field of ethnography.
The six man expedition crossing the Greenland inland ice will always be regarded as a heroic achievement. In order to endure and accomplish such a feat in one of the world's most inaccessible areas, using only the primitive equipment available at that time, required a high personal level of self-discipline and an iron will. Assistance from others was out of the question, there was no possibility for retreat, and no means of communication with the rest of the world; at all times they were dependent on their own strength, capabilities and judgement. The men who carried out this remarkable feat were completely aware of the fact that the effort could cost them then-lives. The expedition was of vital importance to our knowledge of inland Greenland, which several experts had thought was ice free, and it also provided overwhelming publicity all over the world for the sport of skiing. Nansen and his men received an enthusiastic welcome in Denmark and Norway when they arrived with the first boat in the spring of 1889, and their safe return was celebrated widely in many other countries.
Women were attracted to Fridtjof Nansen. He made an impression on them by his seriousness and by his helpless, often boyish charm. One of those who were impressed by him was the singer Eva Sars. She was born on the 7th of December 1858 and was the daughter of the pastor Michael Sars who was a pioneer in the field of marine zoology and who had been appointed professor of this subject at the University. Eva's mother, Maren Sars, formerly Welhaven, was sister of the famous Norwegian poet Johan Sebastian Welhaven. Two of Eva's brothers, the historian Ernst Sars and the zoologist Georg Ossian Sars, were also professors at the University. A sister, Mally, was married to the composer Thorvald Lammers. Eva was everyone's favourite. She was distinctly artistic, and could both draw and paint, but it was music which lay nearest to her heart. In May 1887 she made her debut as a romance singer and received great acclaim from the critics. Eva and Fridtjof Nansen became engaged on 1 August 1889 and were married in September. The couple soon moved into their new home in Lysaker in Bærum and at the initiation party Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson the writer, named the house Godthåb. Here Nansen worked intensely to complete his book on the Greenland expedition, interrupted by several extensive lecture tours to many parts of Western Europe.
Towards the North Pole
In the summer of 1891 Nansen commenced the preparations for a courageous expedition by ship over the Polar Sea. The plan was based on the theory that strong ocean currents from the areas north of Siberia, flowed in the direction towards Greenland and Alaska. Wreckage from the American Jeannette expedition which had floundered in the ice north of Siberia in 1879-80, was found on the south-west coast of Greenland several years later. This proved that the theory of the ocean currents was correct.
Nansen believed that if ice floes could drift right across the polar area, an expedition must be able to use the same route. In order to do this, however, it would be necessary to obtain a ship constructed in a way which would enable it to withstand the strain of becoming frozen fast in the ice. The principle to be adopted was to shape the ship's hull so that when the might of the ice pressed itself against the ship's side, the vessel would not be forced down, but upwards. It would then be able to remain relatively stable, until the flow of the ice had carried it into warmer waters.
When this plan was presented it was met with numerous objections. These only made Fridtjof Nansen even more determined and self-assured. He was not, however, unaffected by what the older experts had to say. Several good points of advice emerged, notably from experienced Norwegian seafarers, who knew the dangers of the ice. A strong incentive to this plan was Nansen's earnest wish that it should be a Norwegian expedition that pioneered the way over the Polar Sea. He also hoped that the Norwegian flag would be the first to fly at the Pole. The many expeditions which had attempted to reach the Pole during the middle of the 19th century had all failed. Many countries had placed considerable investments in these ventures, notably Great Britain and the USA. Under the leadership of naval officers, onslaughts into the icy wastes were launched which were more comparable to military campaigns than to research expeditions. Several hundred men participated in these unsuccessful expeditions and such large numbers obviously required enormous amounts of food and equipment.
Nansen chose quite another point of departure. He said himself that he would «... build a vessel as enduring and as strong as possible; it shall be just big enough to carry supplies of coal and provisions for 12 men for 4 years. A vessel of approximately 170 tons (gross) would probably be adequate. It will have an engine strong enough to be able to operate at a speed of 6 knots, but in addition will also have a full rig of sails ...». Originally it was envisaged that the ship, which Eva named Fram - meaning forward - would follow the same route as the Jeannette through the Bering Straits. He abandoned this idea, however, because it meant that the duration of the voyage would be too long. The Fram would have had to sail through the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and the Pacific Ocean and up through the Bering Straits. Instead he chose to follow the same adventurous route which Nordenskiöld had taken along the Siberian coast into the Kara Sea towards the New Siberian Islands.
The ship was built by the famous shipbuilder Colin Archer in Larvik, who together with Nansen planned and designed everything down to the smallest detail. The Norwegian state granted economic support and other financial contributions were also raised in Norway, but the finances for the expedition were not finalised until two weeks before departure.
On the 24th of June 1893 the expedition departed and after one month left Norwegian waters turning eastwards from Vardø. After having sailed along the whole of the Northern Siberian coast, they reached the area around the New Siberian Islands at the end of September. It was here that the Fram froze fast in the ice. The construction proved itself to be correct, the vessel was pressed up onto the ice and in this way the lethal grip of the ice which had crushed so many vessels previously, was averted. The slow passage across the Polar Sea now began.
Sometimes they drifted southwards and at other times they advanced relatively quickly towards the north, only to drift back again. The current was not particularly strong and it was a mental strain for the small crew of 13 men to endure the passivity on board. At Christmas time they had passed 79° N and the speed was so slow that Nansen calculated that it could take 6-7 years to drift over the entire Polar Sea. In his most pessimistic periods prior to the commencement of the expedition he had estimated that it could, perhaps, be a voyage of about 4-5 years' duration. On the 2nd of February they passed 80° N and the temperature was down to under -50 °C. On the 28th of May the Fram reached 81° 34' N. At this position Nansen began to realise that they would not drift as far north as he had originally hoped nor would they drift over the actual pole point. For a time he struggled with his innermost self: Should he try to reach this point, or should he be satisfied with what he had achieved up to now? The scientific investigations carried out each day on temperature, ocean currents, ice conditions, etc. were excellent, but to be the first to reach the North Pole was an increasingly tempting challenge.
Finally he made the courageous decision to attempt to reach the pole on ski. He knew he could entrust the ship in Captain Otto Sverdrup's safekeeping and the crew had enough provisions of every kind to last them for years. He took with him one man, Hjalmar Johansen, and left the Fram on the 26th of February 1895. They lashed their equipment to six dog sledges and would, of course, be completely self-reliant during the whole expedition. No communication with the outside world or retreat was possible, and they would have no chance of finding the Fram again. They were left completely to their own devices on the path into the unknown. After they had reached the North Pole, they would have to try and return southwards in the direction of Spitsbergen or Franz Josef Land. In order to succeed, ice and weather conditions would have to be favourable; delays would mean that by the spring the ice would probably be impassable and then they would have little chance of survival, even though they had their self-made kayaks lashed to the sledges.
The first attempt failed. The sledges were too heavy and the ice conditions too difficult so they turned back in order to reduce the equipment load. The sledges were improved and a new attempt was made but this also failed. Finally on the 14th of March they left the Fram at 84° 4' N in a temperature of -32 °C and turned their course northwards. It was an inhuman struggle through the ice masses. The many dogs which for so long had been bound and confined on board the Fram, behaved in a way which caused delays. They fought each other, and continually bit through the traces which had to be knotted again - this was not easy when the temperature was at around -40 °C.
At the beginning of April Nansen realised that in all probability, it would be impossible to continue right to the point of the pole. The ice conditions were too difficult; because of open water they were forced to make long detours, and the incidence of screw-ice meant that they had to lift the sledges. Sometimes they struggled for 20 hours without stopping. On the 7th of April they were forced to admit that it was not possible to advance any further towards the north. They were then 86° 14' N, the farthest north any person had reached until then. Their own calculations lead them to believe that they were at position 86° 13.6' N.
We can only imagine what these two men felt when they were forced to abandon the direction of their journey, so near to the very point of the North Pole. In their books they say very little. Hjalmar Johansen says laconically: «Should have liked it if we could have got further. It is our consolation that we have done what we could and that we have even lifted a little more of the veil which conceals this part of our planet».
The return journey was, if possible, even more dramatic than the expedition northwards. During the first days they pressed themselves hard in order to advance as far as possible before the ice began to give way to more open water. Once they travelled 36 hours without resting. By the 14th of May they were managing with just two sledges and 12 dogs of the original 28 with which they had set out. Each of the two remaining sledges weighed over 250 kilos.
At the beginning of June they were forced to take longer rests. They were somewhat despondent, because they had long expected to see land lying to the south. There were also only six dogs left. In front of them lay long stretches with open water or slushy ice. There was little food left and for several days they had only eaten some gulls which they had been lucky enough to shoot. On the 220th of June they had to use the kayaks and they lashed the sledges across them. On top of this load sat the two remaining dogs.
It was a hard struggle as each time they had negotiated a stretch of open sea, they had to pull the kayaks up on to the ice, hitch themselves to the sledges and continue on ski or on foot through the slushy ice to the next stretch of open water. Their lives were in peril several times. On the 5th of August Johansen was attacked by a polar bear in an area which was so full of ice hummocks that there was not even enough space for the small tent. They were just about to launch the kayaks onto the water, and Nansen stood holding onto his sledge to prevent it from sliding in, when he heard Johansen shout behind him: «Get the gun!» Nansen turned and saw the bear throw itself over Johansen, who fell backwards. Nansen failed to reach the gun at once, as it was lying in the front of the kayak which by now had slipped into the water. He heard Johansen's calm voice politely saying: «You had better hurry, otherwise it will be too late»! Johansen had received a blow on the head from the bear, and even though he had been knocked over he did not faint, but lay right between the bear's legs. With both hands he had grabbed the bear's throat and was hanging on fast. The bear that had been momentarily distracted by the dogs strode over Johansen and struck out against the dogs with his huge paw, sending them rolling and howling across the ice. Nansen then shot at close range and killed the bear. Johansen was unhurt, but the bear's claws had grazed his face and white stripes appeared in the layers of grime and grease on his cheeks. «Everything thus turned out well, even though it could have ended so sadly», wrote Johansen in his diary later that evening.
Not until the 15th of August did they have land beneath their feet. They had reached Franz Josef Land, on the northern tip of the island. It had become late in the year and they realised it was becoming urgently necessary to prepare to spend the winter here. First, they had to build a shelter for their winter quarters. They hacked away at the surface to make a hollow and then surrounded this area with stone walls which they filled as best they could with moss. A long pine-log which had been washed ashore served as the ridge-piece, and over this they laid walrus skin. There were many walruses near the hut and they shot several in order to make use of the skins, blubber and meat. They were also able to shoot a number of polar bears and seals, which would provide a food reserve during the long polar darkness. They used the skins to make warm clothing and covered the floor of the hut with polar bear skins. In order to preserve warmth, they refashioned the woollen sleeping bag, so that both of them could creep into it. Here they remained for most of the day and night while the storm raged in the darkness outside. Water was scarce, and soot from the primitive oil lamps gradually blackened their faces. But the friendship between them was good, and they even had enough strength to make plans for a new expedition after their return to civilisation.
It was a long winter in the «den», as they called the stone-hut. There was little to do, they missed having reading matter, but amused themselves as best they could with their almanac. They were also very homesick, especially at Christmas time and in this diary Nansen writes: «Now the bells of home are ringing the feast of Christmas in. I can hear the peal of the bells swinging through the air from the church steeples. How beautiful it sounds... Now the candles on the Christmas trees are being lighted, the children are allowed in and dance round in joyous delight. I must give a Christmas party for the children when I return. This is the time of rejoicing, and there is feasting in every cottage at home... But we are celebrating in our modest way. Johansen has turned his shirt inside out, and is also wearing his outer shirt underneath. I have done the same; but I have also changed my under-pants and put on the others which I had wrung out in warm water. I have also had a complete wash down in a quarter of a cup of warm water using my discarded under-pants as sponge and towel. I now feel like a completely new man - my clothes do not stick to my body as much as they did».
Not until the middle of May was it light enough or spring-like enough for them to leave the hut to make their way towards Spitsbergen. In the beginning it was difficult for them to cover long distances each day. During the long winter there had been little opportunity for exercise and their physical condition was not at its best. Most of the journey southwards was made by kayak. They experienced several dangerous incidents on their way - on one occasion their kayaks floated a long way off while they were on an ice floe but Nansen succeeded in swimming after them in the cold arctic waters. Without these flimsy vessels they were doomed.
On the 17th of June 1896, quite by coincidence, they came upon members of a British expedition which was on Franz Josef Land. It was a dramatic meeting, which can best be compared to the meeting between Dr. David Livingstone and the American Henry Stanley at Lake Tanganyika in 1871. Nansen and Johansen were received warmly by Frederick G. Jackson, the leader of the British expedition. It was agreed that the two Norwegians should accompany the British expedition ship to Norway.
Such a long time had elapsed since the Fram expedition started, that many had begun to believe that the whole expedition had perished in the ice. There had, of course, been no possibilities for any form of communication with the outside world since they became locked in the ice.
Just after Nansen and Johansen arrived in Norway in August 1896, the news was received that the Fram too was safe. She had drifted across the Polar Sea towards Spitsbergen, and as soon as the ship had cleared the ice, she set course for Norway. The Fram and her entire crew arrived in Norway only five days after Nansen and Johansen - a truly amazing coincidence. The members of the Fram expedition were given a hero's welcome in Norway and Fridtjof Nansen became world famous. Letters and telegrammes arrived from every corner of the globe. People worshipped this new hero from the icy wastes. Institutions and Societies from many countries had to wait their turn for him to come and give lectures about his experiences.
For the people of Norway such international recognition at this time was very welcome. The conflict over the Union with Sweden had erupted in the middle of the 1890s and many Norwegians felt the Union was a national humiliation. A strong wave of national pride swept across the country. Fridtjof Nansen naturally became a central figure in connection with this national feeling, he was one of the leaders the people needed. Here was courage, strength and endurance in abundance - a man who could undoubtedly meet the challenges and conquer the strongest forces around him.
It took some time before Fridtjof Nansen could settle down after his homecoming. He attempted to withdraw from public life with his wife, Eva, and their daughter Liv, who was born just before the commencement of the Fram expedition, but people would not leave him in peace. The Fram expedition had attracted enormous attention throughout the world and awarded Nansen a reputation such as no other polar explorer of his time had enjoyed. His history-making ideas and plans, the results of his research, his abilities as organiser and leader, his courage, resoluteness and physical feats in the struggle with the relentless challenges of the elements, were all equally admired. The scientific new ground which he had covered was of great significance, and to some extent of a revolutionary nature, for on the basis of the expedition's observations - expounded and published in a scientific work of six volumes - it was proved that the Arctic Ocean was several thousand meters deep, and completely devoid of islands. Previously many scientists had believed that this ocean was shallow and that relatively large areas of land-mass were to be found there. The scientific material was of far-reaching significance in the study of earth magnetism and the northern lights, for arctic meteorology, oceanography, zoology etc.
Nansen, who in 1897 had become professor of Oceanography at the University of Oslo, gradually became more and more interested in marine research and became holder of the Chair in Oceanography in 1908, a scientific sphere which he pioneered. His written account of the voyage and exploration of the Fram, «Farthest North», directed towards a wide public, was a universal success and he was invited to give lectures about the expedition in all the distinguished geographical societies. The fame he had earned, and the authority he commanded, were to be of the greatest value to him in solving the important tasks which lay ahead, but which would be of quite another nature compared with those with which he was occupied at the turn of the century.
The most striking thing about Fridtjof Nansen was his impressive physique; athletic, strong and vigorous. Then there was the scientist - intellect coupled with the burning desire to carry out research work and abilities far above average. There was another side to him too - the artist. His diaries reveal the thoughtful, often meditative philosopher. In his own written accounts of his travels, the often factual, prosaic style occasionally soars to heights of inspired lyricism. Throughout his life he was fond of poetry and already as a young man had an extensive knowledge of both Norwegian and foreign poets. Of the English poets he was perhaps especially fond of Lord Byron and Lord Tennyson and as an older man he referred to «the love of my youth, Lord Byron».
During the time Nansen studied in Bergen, he took lessons in drawing and water colour painting and for a time his ambition was to become a painter. His teacher, Franz W. Schiertz, greatly encouraged him in this direction; but ultimately Nansen decided painting should remain just a useful hobby. In the 1880s he taught himself lithography which he was to find very useful when preparing the thesis for this doctorate.
There was a gentle, mild, wistful, dreaming air about the man which dominated the artistic side of his nature, and this dualism remained a part of him throughout his life.
The choice of a Monarch
When the conflict concerning the question of the Union between Norway and Sweden began to unfold at the beginning of 1905, Fridtjof Nansen found his place at the forefront of public opinion. Through writing and speeches he agitated for the dissolution of the Union; the ultimate aim was an independent Norwegian foreign service lead by a Norwegian Foreign Minister. The crisis reached a peak in May-June 1905, when the Norwegian National Assembly formally ceased to recognise the King of the Union and began to explore the possibilities for obtaining a new monarch for Norway alone.
Fridtjof Nansen was appointed by the government to undertake a secret mission to Copenhagen to enquire whether the Danish Prince Carl would consider coming to Norway as King. After several meetings and conversations with the Prince, Nansen succeeded in persuading him to agree, on the condition that the proposal was unopposed by the Swedish royal household. In the late autumn of 1905 and at the request of Prince Carl, a referendum was held in Norway on the question of the monarchy. A decisive majority of the people were in favour of a monarchy in preference to a republic, and the most popular candidate was without doubt the Danish Prince, with his English born wife Princess Maud, daughter of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Prince Carl subsequently became King Haakon VII of Norway.
Nansen's diplomatic abilities and extensive international prestige resulted in his being appointed by the Government as Norway's first Ambassador in London. He remained there for two years and formed excellent connections with the British royal household and leading British politicians. He himself, however, felt he was unsuited to the role of diplomat and wished to return home to Eva and the children and to his research projects.
The question of Eva and the children joining him in London had never arisen because he had always said that his stay there would be a short one. In November 1906 Eva travelled to London and remained until Christmas. They had an interesting and pleasant time together, attending concerts and the theatre, taking weekend excursions and visiting mutual friends. Eva gave conceits at the Norwegian Embassy and when King Haakon and Queen Maud paid an official visit to London in November, they participated in an active social life. They both travelled home for Christmas at Lysaker, but soon after, Nansen had to return to London.
In the spring of 1907 Eva again went to London and stayed for 7-8 weeks celebrating the 17 May (the Norwegian National Day) together with the Norwegian colony. King Haakon and Queen Maud were also present and Nansen held the main speech at the celebration reception. At this time he finally decided to return home for good at Christmas and a few months later he wrote his formal resignation to King Haakon. He was looking forward to working with other things and to returning to Eva. Alas, this was not to be. In November Eva became ill and before he reached home, she died of pneumonia on the 9 December 1907.
Eva's death affected him deeply. He had five children and after she died he was never able to give them the home he had wished. The children were often placed with friends of the family for long periods of the year, whilst he buried himself in restless research projects. The new, large house, Polhøgda at Lysaker, which was completed at the turn of the century, never became the home for the family which he had dreamt it would be. Instead, it became a fortress for himself where he could shut himself away in his study in the tower and write, carry out his research work and meditate over national and international problems.
Norway succeeded in maintaining her neutrality during the First World War but Fridtjof Nansen was one of the most energetic spokesmen in favour of strengthening the defence programme. He believed that only by having a strong defence would the country be in a position to prevent a greater power from invading Norwegian territory. During extensive lecture tours throughout the country he warned the authorities against a reduction m the appropriation of funds for defence and emergency supplies. In 1917 he led a delegation which negotiated an agreement with the USA to provide food supplies to Norway. This agreement came into effect in 1918 and played a major role with regard to the supplies' situation during the years immediately after the War.
In 1919 Nansen was ready to face the task which henceforth would totally absorb him until his dying day, international, humanitarian relief work. He was enthusiastic about President Wilson's idea of establishing the League of Nations. It is typical of him that, after having been elected Rector of the University of Oslo, he replied that he could not accept the position because of other important commitments. In the main he was referring to his general efforts in support of the League of Nations. He had become President of the Norwegian association which supported the establishment of the League, but he had also received a request to organise aid to the starving people of Russia, who were in dire need following the revolution. Nansen considered it an obvious humanitarian responsibility that such help should be given. He ignored the political complications such action would create, due to the fact that the Western allies had not granted the new communist regime diplomatic recognition.
This first humanitarian aid project was not successful - Nansen met with no understanding from the allies in Paris. Those who had negotiated the conditions of peace with the powers of the Axis, were not interested in extending help to the revolutionaries in the Soviet Union.
Prisoners of War
Despite the fact that his first humanitarian effort was not considered successful, there were those in the newly established secretariat of the League of Nations who believed that Nansen was well suited to undertake another and even more significant assignment. During the war millions of prisoners had been transported to camps all over Europe - even to countries in Asia. There was no central body responsible for the fates of these prisoners, neither was it known how many there were, but it was vital to repatriate them as quickly as possible.
It was relatively simple to send home the prisoners who were in Europe, but from the Soviet Union it was complicated. Rumours which reached the International Red Cross told of almost desperate conditions there. German and Austrian prisoners of war waited in distant camps devoid of contact with their families, whilst many Russian prisoners of war were in the West. Some of them did not wish to return home to the new regime, whilst others tried by all means possible to return to their families. The Red Cross was unable to carry out repatriation alone, despite the enormous efforts of volunteers in many countries.
On the 11th of April 1920 the Council of the League of Nations resolved to ask Fridtjof Nansen whether he could present a proposal setting out a plan to relieve the adverse conditions endured by the prisoners of war and arrange for them to be sent home. He was also asked to suggest how such a proposal could best be financed. Nansen hesitated at first, his scientific work still uppermost in his mind, but eventually he allowed himself to be persuaded to take on this task and was appointed the League of Nations' High Commissioner for Prisoners of War. He decided to accept the task both because of compassion for the prisoners in the camps who were enduring desperate conditions, and also because it was an important factor in attaining confidence in and credibility of the League of Nations. This was the League's first important task on a practical, organisational level which was necessary to solve as quickly and as efficiently as possible and Nansen wished to be associated with it. He also thought that his part in the operation would be relatively short term, in that it would primarily comprise devising a plan which could be implemented by others. He even believed that he would be able to remain in Oslo and continue his scientific work, but to ensure the best possible administration he requested the services of an assistant, as well as a man from the League of Nations.
It soon became evident that Nansen was the right man for the job. In the first place he was an outstanding organiser in practical matters. Secondly he possessed a distinct air of authority due to his own special characteristic abilities, which inspired confidence. This in turn meant that he easily made contacts and was able to negotiate and coordinate cooperation between governments and other groups which had hitherto been enemies. Not least it was important, although difficult, to build up a certain measure of reciprocal trust between the isolated government in the new Soviet Union and the countries in the West. Nansen negotiated, mediated and brought about practical arrangements; he built up an effective administrative apparatus, obtaining money and credit, food, clothing, medicines, ships, etc. and coordinated the operations of the large humanitarian organisations. To begin with there were negative attitudes from many quarters but the USA supported Nansen's plans and undertook the responsibility for the repatriation of the prisoners to and from Vladivostok. This was the longest, most costly and most difficult transportation route and the American support was very effective. 9,600 prisoners were sent from Vladivostok to Europe in 1921. In the course of one and a half years, up to the summer of 1922, approximately 450,000 prisoners of war from 26 different countries were brought home and for many this meant being rescued from certain death.
The administration costs had been minimal, because Nansen was able to utilize the services of the voluntary aid organisations in many countries and he himself received no salary for his work. The collective costs were not higher than approximately £1 sterling per prisoner of war and the modest accounts which Fridtjof Nansen presented to the governments, therefore, made a great impression.
Confidence of the People
For Fridtjof Nansen the international humanitarian effort had been a test of human compassion and solidarity. «It was love of one's fellow man which would one day come to be the decisive factor for the future of mankind», he said. He was, naturally, disappointed that the governments of many countries first and foremost expressed formal reservations and presented counter arguments to the plans. At the same time it was a great inspiration that the people enthusiastically supported his work. They believed in what he was doing and they listened to his deeply felt plea to exercise tolerance, and to be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of one's fellow human beings.
Fridtjof Nansen could never understand or accept that tragedies such as hunger and need, the existence and plight of refugees, prisoners of war and persecution, could be considered anything less than human problems. This belief presented him constantly with new disappointments and defeats. At the same time it was a part of his strength, as it was an expression for something about which no one could fail to be concerned, and more than anything else his belief in goodness was a force which no one or nothing could shake.
In his travels undertaken in connection with the aid to the prisoners of war, Fridtjof Nansen had been deeply affected by the vast need startlingly evident in many parts of Europe, as a result of the aftermath of war. Especially serious were the conditions in the Soviet Union where, as he heard from several sources, there was nothing less than famine gripping large areas. It was, however, difficult to obtain confirmation of this as the communist rulers would not admit that conditions were bad. and they withheld the information concerning the magnitude of this critical situation for as long as possible. The Western powers had introduced a blockade of the Soviet Union, in order to induce a counter revolution. It was a severe strategy with which Nansen was fundamentally in disagreement, in spite of this strong pro-western attitude.
On the 11th of July 1921 the writer Maxim Gorky broke his silence, and directed an earnest appeal to friends in the West to help the many who were starving. A short time later the Soviet authorities themselves declared large parts of the Volga region an area of famine. The truth could no longer be suppressed and two extensive relief operations came underway immediately. One was led by Herbert Hoover in the USA. This was a totally American relief operation under their complete supervision from the outset, and they took control of the distribution of all supplies which were sent. Large resources were mobilised and gradually over 200 Americans were involved in this operation in the Soviet Union. The other relief operation was based on a concerted effort by a number of voluntary aid organisations, first and foremost the Red Cross and the Quakers. The operation, however, lacked a central administrative and coordinating body, and pressure was brought to bear on Nansen to undertake the leadership of these voluntary aid operations. It was also hoped that with Nansen's important influence, it would be possible to persuade the League of Nations to grant funds towards the campaign against hunger. Once again Nansen hesitated for a few days. He had become absorbed in his scientific research work as soon as the work with the prisoners of war was concluded, and had three large projects in hand which he hoped to complete. He felt it was impossible for him to divide himself in this way, but could not ignore his inner voice of conscience. The leaders of the International Red Cross persistently stated that the Soviet Union would only accept a Norwegian, Swede or Swiss as leader of the relief work, and this made it impossible for him to refuse the request. At a meeting in Geneva on the 15th to the 16th of August 1921, 48 delegates from relief organisations and 12 governments were present. They passed a resolution to request that Nansen and Hoover should lead the relief work for the starving in the Soviet Union. Both were appointed as High Commissioners for the operation. Herbert Hoover, who in March 1921 had been appointed Minister of Commerce in the USA, declined the invitation. Nansen accepted and a few days later began work on the practical preparations. The first meetings with the Russians took place in Riga and Moscow in August 1921, and the outcome was that the Russians entered into an agreement with him. «Doctor Fridtjof Nansen, High Commissioner for Relief to Russia, appointed by the Geneva Conference» was the first to be appointed, the other was Foreign Minister Georgy Chicherin. Several other agreements followed, among them one that the Russians should take up a large loan to finance the operation. This, of course, was tantamount to admitting failure, which the Soviet leaders had not found easy to accept. Through the loan agreement the Russians were forced to admit that foreign financial donations were «necessary to prevent a catastrophe which would not only lead to dire need for a large number of Russians, but also have a lasting effect on the economic situation in Europe». This was the wording used when they delegated the authority to Nansen to obtain credit in the West.
Fridtjof Nansen soon discovered that it was very difficult to obtain financial aid equable to the vast amount of the relief required. The Soviet regime was feared and hated in many parts of the world; the communist government was regarded with the deepest mistrust, and many politicians saw the help to the starving Russians as a form of support for bolshevism. This time Nansen was not successful in convincing the League of Nations when he addressed the General Assembly in September 1921 on the subject «Need in the Soviet Union». He gave a gripping description of the crisis threatening millions of people, a catastrophe which was considerably larger than anything Europe had ever before experienced. Using harsh words he criticised the governments who refrained from giving aid, ostensibly because the Soviet authorities could not be trusted. In his opinion no one had the right to react in such a way when it was a question of saving hundreds of thousands, even millions, of lives. He tried to convince the delegates that he could organise the aid so that it really did reach those for whom it was intended; he assured them that several voluntary organisations had achieved this on their own. Fridtjof Nansen concluded by appealing to the General Assembly to request the governments of the member nations to obtain the necessary credit - in addition to prospective gifts. The international community dallied and the suggestion was formally sent to the committees for consideration, in spite of Nansen's request that a decision be reached immediately. The committees expressed great sympathy, but no one would support the request to obtain money. The governments replied that they could not accept the agreement which Nansen had entered into with the Russians. Instead it was suggested that the whole Russian problem should be discussed at a conference in Brussels some weeks later.
In a renewed address to the General Assembly on the 30th of September, Fridtjof Nansen expressed his deep disappointment and criticised the governments' cowardly approach. In his opinion there was not time for new reports and long speeches - even while the delegates were speaking, people were dying of hunger and sickness in the Soviet Union. Was it possible, solely from fear of the Soviet government, to allow perhaps 20 million people to starve to death? «In the name of humanity, in the name of all that is pure and holy, I appeal to you, who yourselves have wives and children at home - think what it means to see women and children die of starvation. From this place I appeal to the governments, to the people of Europe, to the whole world, for help. Hurry - before it is too late to regret». But the governments in the Western European countries remained unmoved to any significant degree. Many of the delegates declared that they supported him, but it was only moral support - money was not forthcoming.
In addition to directing the large organisational apparatus which such an operation demanded, both within and outside Russia, Nansen was also forced to lead the work of fund raising. It was characteristic of him that he did this by appealing directly to the people, over the heads of their insensitive, political leaders. He wrote and gave speeches, he travelled round on lecture tours, he organised the collection of funds, he begged and persuaded. «I see no other way for the salvation of mankind than the rebirth of the attitude - love thy neighbour», he wrote in an article. The people reacted spontaneously, and the money flowed in. There were some who accused him of supporting the bolshevists, but he dismissed such accusations with contempt, and emphasised that politics were immaterial in this case - this was a question of people in dire need, and the responsibility of everyone else was obvious.
By the end of 1922 the relief work was gradually discontinued. This was primarily due to the fact that the Russians themselves claimed that all acute need for aid had been met. Reports began to materialise stating that the Soviet Union had begun to export grain to other countries. For Nansen and his fellow workers, this was incomprehensible. They had seen with their own eyes that the famine continued to rage over large areas. The truth was that the Soviet system could no longer tolerate the damage to prestige by admitting that the supply service to the country's population was so poor and agricultural work so unsuccessful. Lenin and his colleagues were interested in procuring foreign capital for the economy - production should be extended by foreign aid. It was, therefore, inappropriate that famine raged in the rural districts at the same time.
On the 10th of December 1922 Fridtjof Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work. He used half the prize money to establish agricultural stations in the Ukraine and the other half was allotted to Greek refugees in Turkey. The amount of the prize money was doubled by the Danish publisher Chr. Erichsen, as a mark of his admiration and respect for Nansen’s efforts.
Long before the famine relief operation was completed, and while he was still engaged in the repatriation of prisoners of war, Fridtjof Nansen was drawn into a new, enormous humanitarian task. This time it was the refugees. War, revolutions and civil wars had driven several million political refugees from their homes - displaced, distressed, hounded people were spread throughout Europe and Asia; they neither wished nor were able to return to their homelands. They were often completely without the means on which to exist and many had no place to stay, being transported from country to country -lonely, unwanted, unemployed, impoverished. Many lived under the most appalling conditions of want and misery. In February 1921 the International Red Cross Committee and the League of the Red Cross turned to the League of Nations begging for help for these wretched people, and suggesting that a special High Commissioner for Refugees be appointed, who, with a mandate from the League of Nations, could attend to this problem. They wanted Fridtjof Nansen to undertake this assignment and he knew he would be unable to tolerate the responsibility which a refusal of such a request would bring to bear.
Again he declared himself ready to take on the task, even though it was potentially extremely difficult. In the first place it involved a huge number of people, secondly, it was not a question of sending them to their own countries, but finding new homelands for them, and thirdly it was extremely difficult to obtain residence and employment permits for them in countries where economic crises and unemployment were rife. A particular difficulty which also faced them was that many refugees had no passport or other identification papers whatsoever, and this often caused problems in relationship to the authorities. Nansen solved this problem in a simple but radical way: he instituted a new passport, a type of international document of legitimation, which he persuaded more than fifty governments to recognise. This proved to be one of the easiest parts of the exercise. It was more difficult to find places where the refugees could stay permanently, where they could find work and begin a new life. They were met with both inertia and a decided unwillingness to surmount the difficulties on the part of the authorities. Nansen never gave up, it was not his nature. He negotiated with the authorities in country after country, reasoning and persuading; he succeeded in carrying out arrangements under a nerve-racking, never-ending struggle to awaken the world's conscience. The operation constantly suffered from an acute need of funds; certain groups of refugees were starving to death and he could often only save them by using his own money.
There were many «crisis areas», but at an early stage attention was drawn to the situation in Constantinople - or Istanbul as it is known today. From 1919 to 1923 Constantinople had received protection from the Western powers. Over 150,000 soldiers from the Tzar's forces were staying in the town as refugees. Some of them were helped into France, Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria. However, 20, 000 were held in a primitive camp in Gallipoli, where it was difficult to obtain adequate supplies of all kinds. Finally the voluntary organisations were forced to abandon their operations, but Nansen intervened using his authority and brought pressure to bear on governments. Czechoslovakia received 4000, Bulgaria increased her quota significantly, and several hundred were sent to Palestine. Altogether 44 countries received refugees from Turkey after earnest appeals from Fridtjof Nansen. The Russian refugee problem in Turkey, however, was soon to be totally overshadowed by an even greater tragedy. During the Greco-Turkish war the Greek army suffered a decisive defeat in the autumn 1922 in Asia Minor. It was forced to withdraw from Turkish territory and together with it, a stream of Greek refugees flowed towards their homeland; families who had been living in Asia Minor and Turkish Thrace for many generations, had now been driven or were fleeing in panic, unable to take with them anything more than they could carry or drag behind them. About one million people were fleeing in blind desperation to the small country of Greece, without having the means to cover their existence. This could easily have become a new catastrophe, because Greece had no possibility of sustaining all these immigrants who were suddenly descending upon her. In its hour of need the Greek government turned to Nansen and asked him to organise an international relief operation. This he did, this time receiving the support of the League of Nations and a number of European governments who gave money in addition to food supplies, clothing, medicine, etc. Through this operation the immediate need was met, but it was no lasting solution; a million people were affected, torn from their roots, - what was to become of them in the future, and where could one send them? They could not return to their farms and land in Turkey such as the situation was between the two countries. There were also many Turks living in Greece who felt somewhat threatened and wanted to return to Turkey. Nansen reached a bold and highly unconventional decision - he devised a plan to exchange these two groups of people with each other! In the beginning the idea was received with bitter opposition in both countries, and many characterised the plan as irresponsible and impossible to implement. These were reactions which were familiar to Nansen - and just as in his youth when doubts, misgivings and objections could not halt him when he himself was convinced he had found the solution, nothing could stop him now. The plan had the simple expansiveness which was so characteristic of all his undertakings, and he finally succeeded in persuading both the Greek and the Turkish governments to accept it.
This, however, was only the beginning. The plan had to be implemented, and the finances had to be found with which to make this possible. Nansen led the arrangements for both these operations. It was the biggest exchange of peoples in history: 1.5 million Greeks were moved from Turkish to Greek territory, whilst 1.5 million Turks were sent in the opposite direction, in order that they could all start a new life together with their own fellow countrymen. What this meant for these people is easy to imagine. This particular movement of people has undoubtedly had a large, political influence on the relationships between the two countries; they have thereby avoided a series of serious problems with minority groups and conflicts between them, which has poisoned the atmosphere between so many other states.
One of the most difficult problems Nansen encountered still remained. During the work in Greece and Turkey Nansen was confronted with Armenian refugees. These people had already been in almost permanent conflict with the Turks since before the First World War. Hundreds of thousands had settled in countries outside Asia Minor, many had come to the Russian part of Armenia, and others had arrived in Syria, Palestine, Iran and Iraq. Nansen was deeply affected by the tragedy of these people, and devoted many years of his life in an effort to realise President Wilson's vision of providing the Armenians with a land of their own and establish an independent Armenian state. In 1920 The League of Nations had promised to protect the borders of this new State, but neither the Turks nor the Russians would recognise them. It was one of the biggest disappointments in Nansen's life that this problem remained unsolved; the political obstacles proved themselves insurmountable.
The Armenian refugees were stateless. They would not return and they had no other country to go to. Fridtjof Nansen calculated that there were approximately 1/4 million Armenians in Turkey and other countries in 1924, whilst there were 1.4 million in the Soviet Union. The Soviet authorities were willing to accept more, but it was not possible to finance the transportation from Greece, France and other countries.
After lengthy, inconclusive debates in the League of Nations, it was decided that the Armenian refugee problem should be transferred to the International Labour Bureau. It was estimated that there were 1.5 million refugees who needed aid. They were secured legal protection by the High Commissioners Office, but work, accommodation, food and income etc. remained to be found.
Fridtjof Nansen fought continuously for their cause and he literally wore himself out in his efforts to find a solution. It was for him a betrayal that the member states who had solemnly promised help to the Armenians, subsequently «forgot» all their obligations. In speeches and articles Nansen raged against those who had shirked their responsibility. In the 1920s he was the most energetic spokesman for the Armenian cause. Hundreds of thousands of them saw him as their only hope in a desperate time.
Nansen succeeded in obtaining assurances for credit from several European nations, first and foremost form the Nordic countries. Additional means were secured through the special identity papers which Nansen issued to the refugees who did not possess identification papers, known as the Nansen Passport. Such a passport cost 5 francs, and ensured the bearer rights in the countries which had approved this document. Gradually the number of states which had signed the convention recognising the validity of the Nansen Passport increased. After a visit to Armenia in 1925 Nansen wrote a book about her people and their fate. This work was translated into several languages in 1927 and helped to further the knowledge of the situation of the Armenian people.
The Armenians have never forgotten the efforts which Nansen made on their behalf. Streets and places are named after him throughout Armenia and many biographies of Nansen have been written. After the devastating earthquake in 1987, the Armenians received a hospital from Norway; nothing was more natural than it should be named the Fridtjof Nansen Hospital.
The Armenians who succeeded in finding a future in the Western world, have also honoured the memory of Fridtjof Nansen on several occasions. A number of articles about him have been published in Armenian language periodicals and many descendants of the generations from between the two World Wars travel to Norway to visit his grave, where, in deep gratitude, they pay homage to his memory.
Even though he was both robust and hardy and his nerves were strong the enormous burden of work which Nansen bore in the 1920s took its toll. The disappointments tore him apart - the hopes which were dashed, the expectations which were not fulfilled when he appealed to the magnanimity and generosity of politicians and was met instead with intrigues, small-mindedness, heartlessness and indifference, short-sighted national egoism and ordinary human inertia. All this affected him deeply. He knew that he could have achieved so much more for the unfortunate people whom he had pledged to help, if only he had received more help and support from those who had it in their power to give. All too often he had to shoulder the burden alone. Throughout these years he continously longed to return to his scientific work, which he loved, but which he had sacrificed in order to devote his life to the relief of suffering. He sacrificed more: his health. He literally wore himself out with his international work. Therefore, it is not correct to say that he died of heart failure - he died because his heart never failed.
The latter years
New tasks continually awaited Fridtjof Nansen. He was unable to relax with hobbies, holidays or by travelling. He was always intensely immersed in that which occupied him at the time, be it his writing, research, drawing or conversing with the few friends who had access to his study. He always said that the best holiday was «to do something else». Those who knew him say that they cannot remember he rested for longer periods. He was not really a man of the home. The children received a strict, but loving upbringing. He said many times that he himself was weak of nature, and that which he did have of strong character stemmed from his strict upbringing. He therefore brought his children up in the same way. He was deeply affected by the illness and death at the age of 11 of his youngest son, Aasmund, mainly because he felt that he had had all too little contact with his children, and he was filled with remorse and grief. In letters to relatives and friends, and not least in his diaries, he returns again and again to the loss of Aasmund.
The eldest son, Kaare, settled in Canada after having qualified in forestry. His second son, Odd, studied architecture at the Norwegian Technical High School, and later went to the USA. He returned to Norway a short time before his father's death. The oldest daughter, Liv, married and built a house on the estate at Polhøgda, and a little later his youngest daughter, Irmelin (Immi) did the same. In this way he had both his daughters and sons-in-law and later his grandchildren around him.
In 1919 he married Sigrun Munthe, who had previously been married to the artist Gerhard Munthe.
Fridtjof Nansen had a good physique and kept himself in good condition. He was modest in his eating and drinking habits and seldom smoked. His living habits were simple. He stayed away from official functions as much as was possible, living a relatively orderly life - in spite of his many assignments and frequent journeys abroad. In adulthood he cultivated the sport of skiing, was a proficient horse-rider up to his fiftieth year and as an interested hunter was often to be seen in the forest and in the open countryside in the autumn.
Round about 1928 he began to experience minor heart problems as a result of over-exertion and in the winter 1929-30 he suffered a blood clot which weakened his health at the beginning of 1930. He remained in bed for a time and the doctor believed he was in the process of recovery. On the 13th of May 1930, however, whilst sitting on the veranda drinking tea with his daughter-in-law, Kari, Fridtjof Nansen suddenly suffered heart failure and died. Fridtjof Nansen was buried on the 17th of May - Norway's National Day. Everywhere flags flew at half mast and King Haakon decreed this should also be done at the Palace. The entire nation honoured him by observing one minute's silence as the clock struck twelve.
Belief and Vision
In his youth Fridtjof Nansen was strongly influenced by Darwinism and socio-darwinian beliefs. As a natural scientist his view of the universe comprised the presence of a close interrelationship in the ecological chain. The force of nature was a struggle for the survival of the fittest with the largest and strongest having the best chances of surviving. However, the struggle was not decided by physical forces alone - of equal importance were adaptability, flexibility and stamina.
In his younger years he dismissed the metaphysical concept of the soul. Almost as a point of defiance he had, through his choice of theme for this doctorate when a student of zoology, studied the central nervous system of lower animals. He wanted to see whether there was any place where a «soul» could exist. As he became older he gradually changed his view. He was more willing to admit that man was something more than a higher animal, that man had both intellect and intelligence and that man had spirit. Thanks to these characteristics man was superior to all other living beings, despite his physical imperfections - and he drew attention to this presence of spirit and conscience as one of the most powerful forces in the human condition. At times he did this with such enthusiasm that he, understandably enough, was considered to be religious - a believer.
Fridtjof Nansen was an agnostic. He associated himself with the classic ideals of human behaviour and had no difficulty in combining them with Christian morals. It was the actual belief in God which he could never share, and which he sometimes felt restricted the opportunity for a wider outlook on life which he desired. He had grown up in a God-fearing home. His father had brought him up to follow the Christian way of life and while his father lived, Fridtjof Nansen respected this. After his father's death, however, he extricated himself from the concept of religious beliefs, and instead cultivated empirical methods with which to acknowledge truth.
Fridtjof Nansen was, however, never negative in his attitude to the church or the men of the church. Several of them were his close friends. In his student years in Bergen he lived with the pastor, Wilhelm Holdt and his wife Marie, and these two people remained his close friends throughout his life - a touching relationship filled with mutual respect.
In the political arena, Fridtjof Nansen belonged to the liberal side. He viewed with scepticism the gradual growth of the agitating forces of communism and socialism. His first-hand knowledge and experience of the Soviet form of communism had left a deep impression on him but here, as in other fields, he could be unpredictable. When his critics attacked him for wishing to support the starving Russians, and thereby the communist regime, Nansen wrote supportively in justifying the manner of Lenin's government. He stated that it was incorrect to judge the political and economical revolutionary movement too early. Lenin's aim was for better social justice and no one should be opposed to this!
During the last five to six years of his life, Nansen was one of the leaders in a national movement in Norway, which agitated for uniting all the democratic forces against the totalitarian movements. The way in which this new patriotic organisation, «Fedrelandslaget», began to unfold led to its developing the character of an anti-communist movement. This was not something which Nansen had intended, but his name was exploited in the anti-communist agitation. A short time after his death one of his assistants in the relief work in the Soviet Union, Captain Vidkun Quisling, came to the forefront of Norwegian public life with the call to form a party for «national unity». Quisling attempted to win confidence without success, by claiming that he was continuing the legacy left by Fridtjof Nansen.
Several unsuccessful attempts were made to persuade Fridtjof Nansen to head non-socialist coalition governments in Norway, but he was unsuited to politics and declared himself that he had nothing to contribute in this direction.
In the international field there were many who constantly hoped to avail themselves of his enormous working capacity and prestige, and he was generous in his support of individuals, institutions and associations who approached him for advice and help. In this way he took upon himself many extra responsibilities, but this he would rather do than disappoint anyone who had trust in him.
Nansen - the ideal
Even while he was still relatively young Fridtjof Nansen became an idol for hundreds of thousands of people round the world. He was the brave explorer who abandoned the relative security of daily life to discover new lands and increase man's knowledge of the earth. He achieved significant results by apparently simple means. All the expeditions he led comprised only a few men. Their equipment did not appear to be very different from that which the many enthusiastic skiers in Norway used. It was therefore not difficult to identify with him as a hero. Young people especially viewed him with admiration and enthusiasm. It was not surprising that after he returned from his expeditions, a number of Nansen Clubs were established around Western Europe. In these clubs emphasis was placed on physical training and sporting activities and most of all, skiing. His characteristic mode of dress and way of life were copied by many. Several expeditions were organised at the turn of the century, especially to the polar regions. One of his young Norwegian admirers was Roald Amundsen. After Nansen's return from the Fram expedition, Amundsen promised himself he would become a polar explorer, a promise which he kept, and which led to his being first to the South Pole.
Nansen's example had a significant influence on the growing interest in outdoor life, the sport of skiing and physical training. He was recognised as one of the pioneers in these areas and he encouraged youth of all ages to participate in sport and to develop a love of nature. He believed that through these activities man's best qualities could be perfected and strengthened. Fridtjof Nansen enjoyed speaking to young people. He met them at the universities, at the large meetings where they came to hear of his experiences, or through the groups of school pupils who called on him at his home, Polhøgda. He was never tired of encouraging them to «seek adventure», to meet the challenges life afforded and to throw themselves in «at the deep end». He also warned them that nothing was served by poor planning and that preparation was vital in order to succeed. He believed that if confidence was gained through experience, it was easier to improvise in the face of danger. It was important to practice and appreciate the importance of thoroughness and exactitude, before embarking on the daring adventures which always lie in wait for the few.
He could also tell of compassion and love in a way which captured the attention of his listeners. Using graphic language he recounted the suffering he had seen in Eastern Europe or in the Balkans, and he used transparencies to illustrate his words. His speeches were not only a confrontation with inhumanity but an appeal for help. He also wished to illustrate that it is possible to liberate people from their troubles by cooperation across all political and geographical boundaries. This was his real message in the years after the First World War. «It is love for your fellow man which will save the world», he said, «Love thy neighbour is practical policy». Peace and understanding must be built on human compassion. Ultimately, he believed, this fundamental attitude was more important than all political agreements, for it had often been shown that agreements which governments had entered into were broken when it suited one of the parties.
It was difficult to place such a personality as Fridtjof Nansen in the traditional system of working for cooperation between peoples. He was so unconventional, so brutally honest, so direct and forceful that he shattered the conventional forms of diplomacy usually emerging from the Conference Room of the League of Nations. This was the reason why the public in the gallery were more deeply moved by him than the delegates at the plenary sessions. None of the official representatives had instructions from their respective governments on how they should react to Nansen's appeals. It was not usual to speak of compassion as a useful resource, but Fridtjof Nansen did just this - in speech after speech. At the League of Nations he was remembered as one of the central personalities in the colourful gallery of delegates, during its first decade.
It is perhaps tempting to speculate a little as to whether it would be possible for such a person as Nansen to achieve similar results in our own time. What has happened in the world of today where no such personalities emerge or where there appears to be no place for them?
The first thing which springs to mind is that individual and striking personalities seem to be disappearing from the international scene. Those who remain are the representatives of governments who are bound hand and foot by instructions. All eventualities are foreseen. No surprises occur. No attitudes are changed as a result of a brilliant speech, performed with feeling and forceful, personal convictions. Instead, the routine schedule of meetings is followed from day to day.
Something else which is evident is that today's international machinery quite simply has no place for individual personalities. Today the international secretariats draft recommendations and resolutions more often than they did in the years between the two World Wars. The actual tests of strength now take place behind closed doors. What takes place in plenary sessions is a performance, directed towards a public which is beginning to show a diminishing interest in these theatricals.
Finally, it is also a fact that the international scene has become more politicised than it was in Nansen's time. If it is not an east-west problem, it must be a north-south problem and it is no longer possible to ignore such dividing lines. The world has, in a way, become much larger resulting in a tendency for all questions to be globalised. In the 1920s Europe was the arena where battles were fought and that which lay beyond was of lesser concern.
It is obvious that Fridtjof Nansen, through his varied yet dedicated participation in international affairs, should inevitably experience many setbacks. He always regretted that he undertook so many assignments and that he never acquired the tranquility to concentrate on the «one important task». His zest for adventure, his enquiring mind and his courage, drove him as a researcher to seek new horizons, new lands - whether they were viewed through the binoculars or the microscope, as a writer or lecturer.
On the international scene he demolished barriers between peoples. He showed them that on both sides of the fence they shared very similar beliefs in fundamental rights and liberties. It was therefore important to provide the possibilities for participation in the great developmental changes which were taking place in all fields where man was using his abilities. He formulated it thus: «The most important thing is not to reach your goal, but always to be on your way - always on your way». In this respect Fridtjof Nansen was a happy man.
The text is taken from: Fridtjof Nansen, Marit Greve, 1994 (translated by Margaret Ellson Davies).