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Photograph of Carl von Ossietzky taken in 1915.

Carl von Ossietzky (October 3, 1889 – May 4, 1938) was a radical German pacifist and the recipient of the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize. He was convicted of high treason and espionage in 1931 after publishing details of Germany's alleged violation of the Treaty of Versailles by rebuilding an Air force, the predecessor of the Luftwaffe and training pilots in the Soviet Union. In 1990 his daughter, Rosalinde von Ossietzky-Palm, called for a resumption of proceedings, but the verdict was upheld by the Federal Court of Justice in 1992 in a decision that is final.


Ossietzky was born in Hamburg, the son of Carl Ignatius von Ossietzky (1848–1891), a Protestant from Upper Silesia, and Rosalie née Pratzka, a devout Catholic who wished for Carl to become a monk. His father worked as a stenographer in the office of a lawyer and senator, but died when Carl was two years old. Carl was baptized in the Catholic church Kleine Michel in Hamburg on 10 November 1889, and confirmed in the Lutheran Hauptkirche St. Michaelis on 23 March 1904.

Despite his failure to finish the Realschule, a German secondary school, Ossietzky succeeded in embarking on a career in journalism, with the topics of his articles ranging from theatre criticism to feminism and the problems of early motorization. He later said that his opposition to German militarism during the final years of the German Empire under William II led him, as early as 1913, to become a pacifist. That year he married Maud Lichfield-Wood, a Mancunian suffragette, born as a British colonial officer's daughter and great grand-daughter of an Indian princess in Hyderabad. They had one daughter, Rosalinde. During the years of the Weimar Republic (1918 – 1933), his political commentaries gained him a reputation as a fervent supporter of democracy and a pluralistic society. Also, he became secretary of the German Peace Society (Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft). In 1927 he became the successor to Kurt Tucholsky as editor-in-chief of the periodical Die Weltbühne. In 1932 he supported Ernst Thälmann's candidacy for the German presidency, still a critic of the actual policy of the German Communist Party and the Soviet Union.

Ossietzky had been a constant warning voice for many years when, in January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Reichskanzler and the Nazi dictatorship began. Even then, Ossietzky was one of a very small group of public figures who continued to speak out against the Nazi Party. On 28 February 1933, after the Reichstag fire, he was arrested and held in so-called protective custody in Spandau prison. Wilhelm von Sternburg, one of Ossietzky's biographers, surmises that if Ossietzky had had a few more days, he would surely have joined the vast majority of writers who fled the country. In short, Ossietzky underestimated the speed with which the Nazis would go about ridding the country of unwanted political opponents. He was detained afterwards at the concentration camp Esterwegen near Oldenburg, among other camps.

Carl von Ossietzky Memorial in the Berlin district Pankow

Ossietzky's international rise to fame began in 1936 when, already suffering from a serious tuberculosis which was not being treated, he was awarded the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize. The Nazis had been unable to prevent this, but they now refused to release him so that he could travel to Oslo to receive the prize. In a remarkable act of civil disobedience, Ossietzky issued a note from the hospital saying that he disagreed with the authorities who had stated that by accepting the prize he would cast himself outside the deutsche Volksgemeinschaft (community of German people):

After much consideration, I have made the decision to accept the Nobel Peace Prize which has fallen to me. I cannot share the view put forward to me by the representatives of the Secret State Police that in doing so I exclude myself from German society. The Nobel Peace Prize is not a sign of an internal political struggle, but of understanding between peoples. As a recipient of the prize, I will do my best to encourage this understanding and as a German I will always bear in mind Germany's justifiable interests in Europe.

In May 1936 he was sent to the Westend hospital in Berlin-Charlottenburg because of his serious tuberculosis, but resting under Gestapo surveillance. He died in the Nordend hospital in Berlin-Pankow, still in police custody, on May 4, 1938, of tuberculosis and from the after-effects of the abuse he suffered in the concentration camps.

In 1991, the University of Oldenburg was renamed Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg in his honor.

Further reading

  • Burger, Felix: Carl von Ossietzky (Zürich, 1937)
  • Singer, Kurt: Carl von Ossietzky: Fredshelten i Koncentrationslejren (1937) (online text, in Danish)
  • Sternburg, Wilhelm von: "Es ist eine unheimliche Stimmung in Deutschland." Carl von Ossietzky und seine Zeit (Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1996).

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