HOSSFELD, Uwe; OLSSON, Lennart; Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena; Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena: Ernst Haeckel and the 1908 Nobel Prize for Literature

The Jena zoologist Ernst Haeckel became very disappointed when he heard that the Nobel prize for Literature in 1908 had not gone to him, but to his colleague in Jena, the philosopher Rudolf Eucken (1846-1926). French and Italian newspapers had announced that Haeckel was to be given the prize, and Haeckel had also received telegrams and postcards congratulating him. German newspapers, however, either said just that the prize had gone to Jena University, or named Eucken as the laureate. It is clear from his correpsondence that Haeckel thought he deserved the prize. Interestingly, he thought the reason for awarding Eucken the prize was that he was an idealist and Christian, while Haeckel´s materialism blocked him from obtaining it. Haeckel was, however never suggested for a Nobel prize. In 1908, Eucken got it as a compromise solution when no unity could be reached for any of the top candidates, Selma Lagerlöf and A.C. Swinburne. It is actually stated in the will of Alfred Nobel, that the Literature prize should go to a work "with an idealistic tendency", and awarding it to a philosopher was nothing new (Mommsen got the 1902 prize). But the literature Nobel to Eucken in 1908 has been described as ”the biggest faux pas” in the history of the Literature Nobel prize. Haeckel´s conviction that his materialism was unpopular among leading members of the Swedish Academy receives support in a letter from the Director of the Academy, Harald Hjärne, to academy member Esaias Tegnér dated November 27, 1908. Hjärne wrote that Eucken is needed ”… as a counterweight to the demonstrations in support of his Jena colleague Haeckel at the Linnaeus celebration here in Uppsala”. This was the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Linnaeus, and Haeckel had lectured to an enthusiastic audience.