Alfred Nobel’s thoughts about war and peace

by Sven Tägil*

When Alfred Nobel’s will was made known after his death in San Remo on 10 December 1896, and when it was disclosed that he had established a special peace prize, this immediately created a great international sensation. The name Nobel was connected with explosives and with inventions useful to the art of making war, but certainly not with questions related to peace.

peace doves

Alfred Nobel’s will prescribed that the Peace Prize was to be awarded by a committee of five persons chosen by the Norwegian Parliament (Storting) and should go to the person who accomplished “the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the promotion of peace congresses.”

In the literature on Alfred Nobel, there exist different interpretations of his ideas and involvement in the peace question. In some works it is claimed that the interest in peace accompanied Alfred Nobel since his youth, in others that he did not come to reflect over questions of mankind’s fate until quite late.

Nobel's will and Nobel Prize medals

Alfred Nobel had a clear view of what was happening in international politics during the second half of the 19th century. His own activity as an industrialist was to the utmost degree, international and it was vitally necessary for him to follow this development carefully. Important portions of his inventions and business activity were connected with conditions which affected war and peace.

As a young man, Alfred was present when his father, Immanuel Nobel, constructed on the Russian Czar’s account the first truly usable sea mines which came into use in mid-century during the Crimean War. Alfred’s own great invention, dynamite, had not been developed with the idea of using it in war. However, this did not prevent it from soon being put to use in such a context as well. Dynamite was used, for example, in the Franco-Prussian War first by the Prussians, and later also by the French.

sea mines

Illustration made by Immanuel Nobel on how ships are blasted with mines, here being demonstrated in his presence and that of the Tsar of Russia.

Of more direct military importance was another of Nobel’s inventions, which he developed in the 1880s. Nobel originally offered to the French government, ballistite or “smokeless powder”, but due to certain complications, it came to be sold to Italy instead. Nobel later declared that it was the problem’s theoretical aspects which made him tackle the task.

During the last decade of his life, Alfred Nobel came to engage himself in the development and exploitation of different weapons technology inventions, for instance rockets, cannons and progressive powder. Bofors, in central Sweden, became a center for this work.


Towards the end of his life, Alfred Nobel acquired the company “AB Bofors” in Karlskoga, Sweden. At Björkborn, a property on the Bofors estate, Björkborn Manor became his last home in Sweden.

Alfred Nobel’s direct involvement in the war materiel sector did not come about until during the later stages of his life. It was also at this time that his interest in the question of peace came into practical expression. His thoughts on war and peace were set out in many years of correspondence with the Austrian peace partisan and authoress of the famous anti-war novel “Lay down Your Arms”, Bertha von Suttner.

Bertha von Suttner

Bertha von Suttner

According to the Austrian countess Bertha von Suttner, Alfred Nobel, as early as their first meeting in Paris in 1876, had expressed his wish to produce material or a machine which would have such a devastating effect that war from then on, would be impossible. The point about deterrence later appeared among Nobel’s ideas. In 1891, he commented on his dynamite factories by saying to the countess: “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.” Nobel did not live long enough to experience the First World War and to see how wrong his conception was.

One could of course say that Nobel’s view on the war deterring effect of weapons and explosives — what would be later called the balance of terror — was a comfortable way for him to defend his own activity. His understanding of conflict was not a structural one, but rather what one would characterise in modern terminology as actor-oriented, i.e. wars did not arise through structurally determined processes or contradiction of interests, but as a result of human acting, through different kinds of “accidents.” War between nations was thus, to Nobel as a rule, nothing else than “enforced collective mise-en scène of individual battles for power.”

Nobel’s contact with Bertha von Suttner obviously had its impact on his thinking, at least to a certain point. The countess was a driving force in the international peace movement which developed in Europe during the latter part of the 19th century, and she tried energetically to get Nobel to engage himself in this activity, but with limited success. To be sure, he became a member of the Austrian Peace Association and supported it with money. But, as he frankly wrote to her, it was not money which was most needed, but a realistic program. In his own words: “Good wishes alone will not ensure peace.” Despite his pronounced scepticism towards peace associations and peace congresses, Alfred Nobel continued to observe the peace work in Europe. He even employed a former Turkish diplomat, Aristarchi Bey, with the main task to keep Nobel au courant with the activities of the peace movements, including the study of new procedures of conflict resolution, for instance establishing some sort of international court. Some of these ideas have later recurred in international politics, then under the comprehensive designation of “collective security”.

 signature of Alfred Nobel

Even if Alfred Nobel for a long time maintained a certain cool distance to the international peace association’s methods, his interest in a donation to the promotion of world peace was influenced by Bertha von Suttner. In his last will, signed on November 27, 1895, we find the well-known prize formulation “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the aboliton or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Alfred Nobel promptly informed Bertha von Suttner of his decision, and she expressed her delight: “Whether I am around then or not does not matter; what we have given, you and I, is going to live on.”

pyrotechnic mines

Illustration made by Immanuel Nobel on how to lay pyrotechnic mines in ports and narrow waterways.

During the 1890s, Alfred Nobel devoted much of his time to weapons technology development, but there exists nothing which points to the fact that he saw anything problematical here. About a year before his demise he asked his nephew Emanuel, to sound out the possibilities of acquiring the majority stock in a well-known Swedish evening paper. The intention of the acquisition was not accordingly, to promote his own business interests, but to “use its influence against armaments and such medieval survivals.” “But,” he adds, “if armament still occurs, the operation ought to take place within the country. For if there is one branch of industry which should not be dependent in any way upon imports from abroad, it is surely the armaments industry.”

Evidently, Alfred Nobel did not consider his involvement in the war materials industry and in the work for world peace as incompatible elements. Rather he gave expression to the prevalent 19th century understanding which maintained, that the scientist was not responsible for how his findings were used. Each scholarly discovery is neutral in itself, but can be used both for good and bad objectives. And when it was applied to weapons, Nobel held firm to his old opinion that this had a deterrent effect above all.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

The problem of the inventor’s and scientist’s social responsibility was taken up by Albert Einstein in a speech in 1945, after the atom bombs were dropped over Japan in August of that year. Einstein pointed out that the physicists in 1945 were in a situation which much resembled that in which Alfred Nobel once found himself. Einstein drew his conclusion from this: “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 Alfred Nobel really felt that in the same way, neither we nor Einstein could really know for sure. Alfred Nobel in any case never gave outward expression to any such sentiments. If he hid them deep in his heart, we shall never get to know.


The main source relating to Alfred Nobel’s thoughts on war and peace is his own archive, kept in the Swedish National Archives, Stockholm, and catalogued in 1972 by Robert Svedlund. Here, one can study Nobel’s extensive correspondence, which includes originals of the letters he received and copies of his own letters – sometimes of a technical quality that renders them partly illegible. Of use for the present paper, have primarily been the letters sent from Bertha von Suttner to Alfred Nobel: seventy or so letters, as well as cards, clippings and brochures from the period 1891-1896. Of interest also are about sixty letters, reports and press clippings from the former Turkish diplomat, Gregoris Aristarchi Bey, from 1891 to 1892, the time when he was employed by Nobel to keep a special watch over the development of the peace question.

In the Swedish Academy’s library, there exists a catalogue of Alfred Nobel’s technological-scientific library, prepared in 1937 with, among other things, a register of his collection of papers and brochures on the peace question. This material has since been transferred to the Nobel Archive in the National Archives. On the other hand, there remains at the Swedish Academy a not wholly complete series of the periodical, “Die Waffen nieder”, which was published by Bertha von Suttner through a Berlin publishing house. The copies are only partly opened, but here and there can be found articles that are marked. Some of the marks in the brochure material have been made by Bertha von Suttner, others with additional comments by Nobel himself.

Considering the importance of the correspondence between Nobel and Bertha von Suttner, it can be noted that in her private archive, kept in the League of Nation’s library archive in Geneva, there exist more original letters in Nobel’s hand than can be found in his book of copies. Several of the letters are published in her book “Memoiren” (1909), which is also based on the diaries kept in the Geneva archives. An interesting portrait of Alfred Nobel can also be found in Bertha von Suttner’s “Stimmen und Gestalten” (1907).

In the abundant international literature on Alfred Nobel, much has also been written about the Peace Prize and the history of its creation. This literature is of varying quality, with a number of works not resting on any thorough archive study. An initial work based on original research is that of Henrik Schück, “Alfred Nobel och hans släkt” (Alfred Nobel and His Family, 1926). Schück did not understand Nobel’s interest in peace, which he characterised throughout as fanaticism. In Schück’s view, it was the British poet Shelley’s utopian pacifism which was the basis for Nobel’s interest in peace, and Bertha von Suttner’s and Aristarchi Bey’s importance in this context is reduced. Even Erik Bergengren, in his “Alfred Nobel. The Man and His Work” (1962), rejects the thought that Bertha von Suttner could have played a decisive role in Nobel’s thoughts on peace.

Other works, on the other hand, have underlined Bertha von Suttner’s influence. This is particularly true of Irwin Abrams article in the Journal of Central European Affairs (1962) entitled “Bertha von Suttner and the Nobel Peace Prize.” Here, Abrams made use of von Suttner’s archive in Geneva.

Alfred Nobel’s activity within the weapons industry has been treated by among others, Birger Stecksén, “Bofors, En kanonindustris historia” (The History of a Cannon Company, 1946), and Rolf Wünnenberg, “Alfred Nobel. Dynamit und Frieden” (1972). Among the works which have focused their interest on Nobel’s peace ideas can be cited Robert Chaplen, “Alfred Nobel. Adventures of a Pacifist”, New Yorker (1958). The problem of the scientist’s responsibility for war and peace has been analysed by R.W. Reid, “Tongues of Conscience. War and the Scientist’s Dilemma” (1909).

* Sven Tägil was born in 1930. Historian, professor of Empirical Conflict Research at the Council for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences and at the University of Lund, Sweden. Has published inter alia,”Studying Boundary Conflicts” (editor and co-author, 1977), “Regions in Upheaval” (editor and co-author, 1984), “Ethnicity and Nationbuilding in the Nordic World” (editor and co-author, 1995), “Aschehoug’s Verdenshistorie/Bra Böckers Världshistoria” (1982 ff)/”Memoires du Monde” (1996), co-editor and co-author.

First published 20 November 1998

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