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Address by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the death of Fridtjof Nansen, 13 May 1955

Speeches and statements

Address by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the death of Fridtjof Nansen, 13 May 1955

13 May 1955
Nansen's polar adventuresDiplomat and League of Nations delegateWork for Russian and Armenian refugeesHC has instituted a medal in Nansen's honourA model to the youngThe only true way to honour his memory is to try to follow his great example

Fridtjof Nansen: 10 October 1861 - 13 May 1930

The visitor to Oslo can still see with his own eyes that strange ship, the "Fram", now resting on solid Norwegian soil, in which on the 21st of July 1893 Fridtjof Nansen with a crew of thirteen members, started his historic voyage to the North Pole. The Fram - a name which simply means "Forward" - was build according to Nansen's own ideas. The unorthodox principle of it was that it should get stuck in the ice of the Polar sea and be carried by the icemasses; then, Nansen had figured out, ice and ship would by nature itself be driven towards the Pole. He had very good reasons for that assumption. Five years earlier Nansen had gathered a mass of information about the gulfstreams and the movements of Polar ice by making a trip, at least as adventurous as the famous one he made in the Fram. Together with Otto Sverdrup and two Lapps he had, on skis, crossed the whole of Greenland in a direct line, from east to west, and one of his main discoveries had been that the wreckage of a ship which had been lost south-east of Greenland, was to be found on the west coast. It was this discovery that became an essential element of the Fram-theory. Nearly three years were involved in that terrible adventure. The Fram did exactly what Nansen had predicted. But her master was not satisfied when in the spring of 1895, nearly two years after his departure, his ship started to be carried southward. Then Nansen took another one of his extraordinarily courageous decisions. Together with Hjalmar Johansen he left the Fram and started out on an unending journey over the Polar ice by sledge and kajak. On the 7th of April 1895 he reached latitude 86' 14" degrees North. Never before had any man been able to achieve this. Nansen turned back, spent another winter in the Polar ice, and in the middle of June 1896 he met, by accident, the British expedition under Jackson, which was searching for the two men. Then he and Johansen were safe. He returned to Oslo and in the summer of that year the Fram, with Otto Sverdrup in command, came safely back to Tromsö. The wealth of information, biological, meteorological and oceanographical which Nansen had collected gave his country a first place in these fields of science. Nansen became a professor at the University of Oslo and, even if this had been the final stage of his career, the world would still have remembered him for all time.

Fridtjof Nansen however was a man with many sides to his character. When in the first years of this century Norway and Sweden neared their separation it was he who played a major role in the peaceful settlement of that issue. It is still a great pleasure to read his patriotic articles, written in those somewhat hectic years. The explorer had become a politician.

And so it was that the biologist Nansen, famous for his polar research, became the first Minister of Norway to the Court of St James. He held the post for two years returning thereafter to his scientific work at Oslo. But still the end of his career had by no means come. After the first world War, he became a delegate of his country to the Assemblies of the League of Nations and, in 1920, the world's central figure for humanitarian work. No single man has done more for Russian and Armenian refugees. No man can equal him in concern for the misery of refugees. No man can reach his level in the work which he did as High Commissioner of the League. When, 25 years ago today, he died in his beloved Oslo, in addition to being an international hero, he was also a figure dear to the hearts of countless human beings.

The United Nations cannot carry out any programme for refugees without being inspired by and constantly reminded of Nansen's spadework. Many times I look up at his picture on the wall in my office, in particular when I am inclined to feel discouraged because we do so little and because there is so much to be done. I have taken the initiative of establishing a medal in his honour and I am proud of counting amongst my personal friends Nansen's son, Odd, who is himself deeply interested in refugee problems and who is also the Norwegian member of the Nansen Medal Committee.

When, in September of this year, the first two Nansen medals will be awarded you will see on them the worlds which Nansen spoke many years ago in Geneva when defending his refugee programme: "Love of Man is practical policy". It is one of those simple phrases which only a truly great man would think of. His greatness was in his character, even more than in his intellectual gifts. He was hard on himself; he had toughened himself to endure the unimaginable strain of the trips which made him famous, but at the same time he had a very soft and warm heart for people in need as well as a strong feeling for justice.

"Love of Man is practical policy" - Fridtjof Nansen

Young people of all nations should read the story of his life. It will inspire them to give to humanity the best they have. It will teach them that greatness is only achieved through hard and steady work. It will make them feel that there is more between heaven and earth than H-bombs and cold wars.

Twenty-five years ago today Norway paid its highest tribute to Fridtjof Nansen. The Norwegian flag covered his coffin, which was placed on the steps of Oslo University. On either side stood Nansen's two lifelong friends and comrades, Sverdrup and Werenskjöld, while thousands of children from the schools of Oslo passed by. The last speaker quoted from a poem of Anders Hovden: "My life and all I ever had I gave with unflinching courage". Then all present, and they were tens of thousands, sang the Norwegian national anthem:" Ja, vi elsker dette landet" (yes, we love this country).

Twenty-five years have gone by. None of Nansen's big problems have been completely solved, neither the mystery of the North Pole nor the miseries of the refugees. For us the only thing to do seems to be what he himself would have done on this day. He would, most certainly, have started on the solution of his problems with boundless energy, never ready to admit that any job was too difficult for men with courage and strong will. The only true way to honour his memory is to try to follow his great example.