The Nansen Pass(port)

Nansen passport
French Nansen passport 1947

Fridtjof Nansen passport
In the wake of the First World War, circa 1920, a sweeping wave of displacement swept across nations, uprooting a staggering number of people—up to 9.5 million souls, including a substantial cohort of Russian refugees. This human exodus posed profound challenges for Europe, grappling with the unprecedented influx of displaced individuals.

Amidst this turbulent landscape, Fridtjof Nansen, a distinguished Norwegian diplomat entrusted with the mantle of High Commissioner for Refugee Affairs at the League of Nations, ardently championed the cause for an internationally recognized travel and identification document. The culmination of his tireless efforts materialized on that momentous day, July 5, 1922, when the League of Nations, convening in the hallowed chambers of Geneva, officially ushered in a remarkable document of hope—the renowned “Nansen Passport.” Fridtjof Nansen passport

Vladimir Nabokov

famously referred to it as a “highly inferior document of sickly green hue.” The Russian writer arrived in Berlin in 1922 and experienced the arduous burden associated with applying for this document:

“Its possessor was little more than a criminal on probation, burdened with immense difficulties whenever he wished to travel abroad – the smaller the countries, the more obstacles they presented.”

While the Nansen Passport did not guarantee its holder a permanent residence, it did afford certain rights and consular assistance, such as the official certification of their identity or marital status. Thus, it served as an initial supranational solution for an internationally recognized proof of identity and a travel document.

However, how did the Nansen Passport come into existence? Fridtjof Nansen passport

Following the February Revolution, the abdication of the Tsar, and the Bolsheviks’ rise to power in October 1917, numerous societal groups found themselves subjected to persecution, confiscation, and repression. The subsequent Civil War and the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922 further exacerbated the situation. A direct consequence of these developments was the emigration from Russia: well over a million people—some estimates even suggest up to two million—were forced into exile.

After the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922, all individuals who had previously left the country were rendered stateless in a formal sense. In response to this predicament, the renowned Norwegian polar explorer and then High Commissioner for Refugee Affairs at the League of Nations, Fridtjof Nansen, spearheaded the introduction of the so-called Nansen Passport in 1922 as an international travel and identification document.

The objective was to provide individuals without citizenship with a minimum degree of protection and freedom of movement. Although the passport had to be renewed annually and did not grant permanent residency, it did allow for re-entry into the issuing country.

The officials at the League of Nations Fridtjof Nansen passport

initially anticipated eventual repatriation, but this assumption proved to be an illusion. Many refugees were unable or unwilling to return to their countries of origin. For instance, the Russian emigrants found themselves without citizenship after the establishment of the Soviet Union, unable to have their identities authenticated by a recognized state.

The Passport

initially intended solely for Russian emigrants, gradually expanded its reach to include other refugee groups: Armenians in 1924 and other Christian minorities from the former Ottoman Empire in 1928. Fridtjof Nansen, the visionary behind this initiative, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 in recognition of his humanitarian endeavors. Fridtjof Nansen passport

Fridtjof Nansen passport
Here is a pretty example of a Estonian Nansen passport 1933 from my collection. Isn’t Tamara a beautiful 19 yo girl?



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FAQ Passport History pasaporte passeport паспорт 护照 パスポート جواز سفر पासपोर्ट

1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...

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