Alfred Nobel wasn’t noble: the origins of the Nobel Peace Prize

Last year, there was a lot of talk in the Bangladeshi press about whether microfinance pioneer Professor Yunus deserved to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Was he a hypocrite or a hero? It seems that every year, the Nobel Prize stirs up some sort of controversy.  This year is no exception.  The International Peace Bureau has described awarding the 2012 prize to the European Union (EU) as “unlawful” and is calling on Sweden’s Nobel Committee to withhold the US$1.9 million cash award.

In an open letter to the Norwegian foundation, the bureau said: “The European Union … clearly is not one of ‘the champions of peace’ that Alfred Nobel had in mind…”

Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and philanthropist who died in 1896, said in his will that the award should go to the “person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” However again and again, the world conveniently ignores the fact that the prize’s founder, the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, was actually not a person you would want your offspring to emulate (to put it mildly).  This is chiefly, but not wholly, because the founder of the world’s most prestigious peace prize is also the inventor of dynamite.

Some believe that Alfred Nobel’s deadly invention was brought about by a factory explosion that killed his brother.  A month or so after the death, Alfred Nobel began developing more stable ways of handling the highly volatile nitroglycerine – and eventually came up with dynamite.  In order to regain public trust in his explosives business, he toyed with the idea of calling it “Nobel’s Safety Powder,” but eventually settled on “dynamite” – which means “power” in Greek.

Whilst dynamite facilitated the construction of tunnels, railroads and canals, its capacity for destruction was equally understood by Alfred Nobel.  Yet strangely, he believed this latter characteristic would confer a benefit on humankind.

He said: “My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace.”

One wonders if he’s turning in his grave. He died in 1896 – long before dynamite was used during the blood bath that was the First World War… and every that followed it and those that lie ahead.

Furthermore, Alfred Nobel profited heavily from this invention and others like it – he founded 16 explosive plants in 14 countries and held more than 300 patents.  His will left the equivalent of 250 million US dollars in 2008 to the Nobel Prize trust.

Why did he leave so much cash to a trust rather than loved ones?  Historians contend that Alfred was shocked when he read his own obituary in a French newspaper.  The obituary itself had been published by mistake; it was actually another of his brothers who had died whilst on holiday.  The newspaper described Alfred Nobel as “The merchant of death” and said that he “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.”  Apparently, this triggered a great deal of anxiety in Alfred Nobel.  So he went and bought a new reputation.

Unconvinced?  Take it from Einstein, a Nobel Prize winner himself, who said, “Alfred Nobel invented an explosive more powerful than any then known – an exceedingly effective means of destruction.  To atone for this ‘accomplishment’ and to relieve his conscience, he instituted his award for the promotion of peace.”

Whether or not Professor Yunus or the EU are worthy recipients, there have been others surely less deserving. Alfred Nobel’s former secretary and girlfriend-of-sorts, a countess called Bertha von Suttner, was thought to have influenced his sudden and final foray into encouraging peace.  But ought she really have won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905?  Despite the fact that Alfred was dead by this stage, it still seems rather convenient…

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3 Replies to “Alfred Nobel wasn’t noble: the origins of the Nobel Peace Prize”

  1. There was a real problem he solved by stabilizing nitroglycerin, before you would “have to” get railway workers (slaves) to pour nitro into holes and they’d get blown up as often as not. I like Nobel, much better to leave something promoting good and peace than to not, especially if your technology may become used for bad things.

    His quote there only shows that he was hopeful that the increasing terribleness of war would stop nations from engaging in war, he was wrong that dynamite would do it, it 2 more wars and 2 nuclear bombs to get nations to think twice but his theory is still sound.

    Seems to me like there’s many less Noble people out there than Nobel.
    (politicians mainly)

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