- Armenian Literature, History, Religion
Fridtjof Nansen



Fridtjof Nansen, famous Arctic explorer, athlete, author, statesman and humanist was born in the suburbs of Christiania (now Oslo). His father, a well-to-do lawyer, was a religious person “with a clear conception of personal duty and moral principle” [1].

Fridtjof's mother who herself was a keen skier, encouraged her children to love nature, to get involved in sports and outdoor activities . Young Nansen spent a lot of time outdoors. Sometimes he even stayed with his brother in woods for several days. In winter they used to go fishing and hunting. Moreover, Nansen became the winner of the national cross-country skiing championship twelve times in a row. This experience came handy later during his Arctic expeditions.

In 1880* he entered the University of Oslo. He decided to major in zoology, which would give him an opportunity to spend more time outdoors. Two years later he signed a contract with a trade ship “Viking” which was sailing to the Arctic Ocean. At last Nansen saw the ice-covered mountains of Greenland with his own eyes and soon he came up with the idea of an expedition — the first crossing of the Greenland inland ice.


* According to [1] it was in 1881.

Nansen decided to sail as close as possible to the desert east coast of Greenland, then leave the ship on the edge of the ice fields and advance to the west through ice caps and mountains. For the long period of time Nansen could not find financing for his expedition. But then he managed to impress a philanthropist from Copenhagen who agreed to sponsor the trip.

In May 1888 Nansen and five members of his crew started the expedition. They arrived at the ice fields and left the ship there but it turned out that the ice had slid south for many miles. The participants of the expedition had no choice but to walk North which took lots of time and prevented them from reaching their destination before the start of the Arctic winter. Mountains, glaciers and cold weather complicated the trip; yet in 37 days they reached an Eskimo village at the west coast. However it was the end of September, and navigational season was over. Having to stay in the village for a winter, Nansen devoted himself to learning how Eskimos lived. Based on his experience and observations he created a classic methodology for Arctic skiing and dog sledding. In May 1889 they returned to Norway and were welcomed as heroes.

That same year he was appointed curator of Zootomical Institute at the University of Oslo. He also wrote two books about his adventures: “The First Crossing of Greenland“ ("Pa ski over Gronland", 1890) and “Eskimo Life” ("Eskimoliv", 1891). Meanwhile he started planning another Arctic expedition hoping to be the first person to reach the North Pole. Reading the reports about an American vessel being caught in the ices and drifting for more than a year, Nansen came to the conclusion that a specifically designed ship could get to the pole drifting with polar ice. With financial support of the Norwegian government he built a round-bottomed ship called “Fram” (“Forward”) which was designed to be able to stand the ice pressure.

Nansen and a crew of 12 people departed in the summer of 1893. “Fram” managed to get as close to the pole as 450 miles but then it got stuck in the ice. In March Nansen and one companion proceeded to the pole on dog sleds. Despite the incredible difficulties they were the first who got to the point of 86o 13,6’ Northern latitude thus becoming the first humans to get this close to the North Pole. The travelers had no idea of Fram’s whereabouts, so they decided to winter in Franz Josef Land. In May 1896 they met an English expedition and later in August were able to return to “Fram”. Nansen described the history of the expedition in a two-volume work named Farthest North (1897).

In 1908 thanks to the scientific observations made during the Fram expedition Nansen was appointed head of a newly created oceanography faculty in the University of Oslo. While in this position he helped to establish International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and managed its laboratories in Oslo. He also took part in several Arctic expeditions.

In 1905 Nansen participated in negotiations concerning the independence of Norway from Sweden. Sweden strongly opposed the idea of breaking off the union. Nansen visited London where he asserted rights of Norwegians for independence. After the peaceful separation he became Norway’s first ambassador in Great Britain (1906 to 1908). Meanwhile he worked on a book called “In Northern Mists” (“Nord I tackenheimen”, 1910-1911).

With the beginning of the WWI Nansen joined the state service again. “For almost a year in 1917-1918, as the head of a Norwegian delegation in Washington, D. C., Nansen negotiated an agreement for a relaxation of the Allied blockade to permit shipments of essential food.” [1]

Meanwhile Norwegians strongly supported the idea of creating a League of Nations and Nansen, who headed the Norwegian Union for the League of Nations, became the first official representative of Norway in it.

That very year Nansen was invited by Philip Noel-Baker to organize the repatriating of 500,000 German and Austrian prisoners of war from Russia. That was an extremely difficult task because of chaos accompanying the Russian revolution and the decision of the Soviet government not to recognize the League of Nations. However the international respect towards Nansen along with his ingenuity allowed him to convince Bolshevik leaders to bring the prisoners to the borders of Russia and then he evacuated them from the Soviet ports using German ships captured by British Army. Thanks to Nansen nearly 437 thousand prisoners returned home by September 1921.

At the same time he was working on accommodating 1.5 million Russian emigrants, who fled from the Bolsheviks. The majority of those people did not have any identification documents and were moving from one country to another, being settled in miserable camps where thousands of them starved and died from typhoid. Nansen came up with an idea of a special document for refugees which would be accepted worldwide. Eventually 52 countries acknowledged those documents, which were named “Nansen’s Passports”. Thanks to his efforts most of the emigrants were able to get some kind of shelter.

During the famine in Soviet Russia (summer, 1921) Nansen, who was appointed High Commissioner for Refugees by the League, appealed to the governments with a request to provide help to the Soviets while putting away all the political disagreements. The League of Nations declined his appeal for credit but the USA, for example, provided 20 million dollars for these purposes. Those funds saved 10 million lives. He also organized the process of resettling refugees during the Greek-Turkish War of 1922: one million Greeks living in Turkey moved to Greece, and 500,000 Turks living in Greece resettled in Turkey.

In recognition of his humanitarian work he was honored with the 1922 Nobel Prize for Peace. “Nobel prizes are given to very different people, “— a Danish journalist wrote, — “but it is the first time when it was given to someone who achieved this kind of outstanding success in such a short period of time”. Professor Fredrik Stang, the chairman of the Nobel committee, mentioned his ability to “appeal to world opinion with brotherly love as the driving and animating force” [2]

In his Nobel lecture [3] Nansen described desperate conditions that were a result of the World War and spoke of the League of Nations as a sole power having ability to prevent future tragedies. “… it is because of blind fanaticism for and against - especially against - that conflicts come to a head and lead to heartrending struggles and destruction; whereas discussion, understanding, and tolerance might have turned this energy into valuable progress. … In my opinion, the only avenue to salvation lies in cooperation between all nations on a basis of honest endeavor. I believe that the only road to this goal lies through the League of Nations.” — Nansen said during his Nobel lecture. It probably did not come as a great surprise that he gave away all the money received from the Nobel committee to help refugees.

In 1925 the League of Nations appointed Nansen to organize the settling of the Armenian refugees. He went to Armenia to investigate the possibilities of organizing irrigation in Armenia which would allow the creation of conditions for resettling Armenian refugees from Turkey to Eastern Armenia. Nansen worked in close cooperation with the Soviet committee for the improvement of the land, which was situated in Yerevan. He reported the results of his trip to the League of Nations. “At this time the only place where it is possible to settle Armenian refugees is Soviet Armenia. Several years ago devastation, poverty and famine were prevailed here, yet now peace and order are established and the population even became prosperous to some degree”. Although the League failed to implement its plan in general, he still managed to resettle 10,000 people in Armenia and about 40,000 in Syria and Lebanon.

After returning to Norway he wrote a book full of sympathy and respect for the Armenian people — “Armenia and the Near East”, which since then has been published in Norwegian, English, French, German, Russian and Armenian languages.

His trip to Armenia was also described in the book “Gjennern Armenia” (“Across Armenia”), published in 1927. Two years later he also referred to the trip of 1925 in another book: “Gjennern Kaukasus til Volga” (“Through Caucasus to Volga”). Nansen continued helping Armenians until the end of his life. In 1928 he went to America with a series of lectures to raise money for Armenians.

Fridtjof Nansen died in Oslo on May 13, 1930 and was buried on May 17, 1930 — Norway’s Independence Day.


Translated from "Fridtjof Nansen. l'Armenie et le Proche Orient", Paris, 1923


Preliminary translation by: Nonna Martirosyan
Adopted by: Karen Vrtanesyan
Edited by: Ruth Bedevian

See also:

More information available on the Russian version of this page

[1] Nansen's biography at Nobel e-Museum
[2] The Nobel Peace Prize 1922. Presentation Speech by Fredrik Stang
[3] Fridtjof Nansen – Nobel Lecture, December 19, 1922

Fridtjof Nansen - man of many facets in in Russian
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