The Merchant of Death is Dead!

Alfred Nobel did not think of himself as a merchant of death. He thought of himself as a pacifist and a humanitarian. But he was really just a war profiteer and a narcissist, whose legacy of misery and death live on to this day.


Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden on October 21, 1833. But when he was only four, his father Immanuel moved the family to Saint Petersburg. There he set up a factory developing torpedoes and explosives. He also produced the first central heating equipment in Russia. And he also invented the veneer lathe, which was instrumental in the production of plywood.

As a child, Alfred Nobel had only eighteen months of formal schooling. But with private tutors, he learned to speak English, Russian, French and German. He was unusually intelligent, but sickly and brooding. To compensate for his weak physique, he memorized dictionaries and translated Voltaire. He particularly loved the English poets, Byron and Shelley. However, poetry was not a manly enough occupation for the son of Immanuel Nobel. So, in 1850, at the age of 17, Immanuel sent Alfred to Paris to study chemistry with Ascanio Sobrero. A few years earlier, Sobrero had invented nitroglycerin, a powerful, but incredibly unstable explosive. As a result of his fear of nitro, he kept his discovery secret for over a year. And when he finally did share his secret with Alfred, he insisted that he leave it alone.

Armaments and Oil

Alfred Nobel did leave nitro alone, at least for a few years, while he went to America to further his studies in chemistry. During his four years in America, his family made armaments for the Crimean War, in which over 300,000 people died. After the war ended, the family business went under. But his older brother, Ludvig Nobel, started a new business producing cast iron shells, rifles and gun carriages for Russia. Ludvig sent their brother Robert out to purchase wood for gunstocks, but Robert invested the money in oil, instead. Thus, Robert and Ludvig became pioneers in the Russian oil industry. At one point, their Branobel Company, in Baku, Azerbaijan, produced 50% of the world’s petroleum, giving Rockefeller a good run for his money. At least until the Bolsheviks arrived, when the Nobel family was forced to sell out quickly to their nemesis Rockefeller, and his Standard Oil Company.

Passion for Explosives

Alfred became a shareholder in the family oil business, but his real passion was explosives. So, he began experimenting with nitroglycerin in his family’s old armaments buildings. In 1863, he invented a detonator and blasting oil, a mixture of nitroglycerin and black powder. It was somewhat less dangerous than pure nitro and demand was high. But delivery of the stuff was risky. Deadly explosions were common. Often, the wagons were driven by drunk farm boys. To address this problem, Alfred built them one-legged stools to sit on during transport so they wouldn’t fall asleep. And to reduce casualties at work, production was done in wooden sheds, separated by earthen walls. Only one or two men were allowed to work in each shed, so that accidents couldn’t kill more than two people. Yet, in 1864, an explosion killed five employees, including his kid brother Emil.

Undeterred, Alfred continued his experiments, developing the blasting cap in 1865. In 1866, his German factory had a serious accident. However, during the clean-up process, he discovered a stable mixture of nitroglycerine and a local sand that didn’t explode when dropped or heated. He called his new invention dynamite. It quickly became key to the rapid expansion of mining and railroads and, of course, the brutal exploitation of the working class. And this, in turn, led the rapid acquisition of Gilded Age wealth.

Nobel the Traitor

In 1875 Nobel invented gelignite and in 1887, ballistite, a predecessor of cordite. He was living in France at the time and offered to sell the rights for the new explosive to the French government. But they declined, choosing to go with Poudre B, which had been invented by French scientists. So, he sold his ballistite to Italy. France promptly accused him of High Treason and he fled, like a thief in the night, to Sanremo, Italy.

Le marchand de la mort est mort!

One day, while Alfred Nobel was relaxing over breakfast, he read the following headline: “Le marchand de la mort est mort! The merchant of death is dead!” He nearly choked on his biscotti. It was a mistake, of course—it was his brother Ludvig who had died, not he. Yet the implications were obvious. The world saw him as a death monger, a murderer, not as the brilliant scientist, inventor and pacifist he thought he was. So, he decided to rewrite history. He bequeathed his entire fortune to a foundation that would award scientists, authors and do-gooders who conferred the “greatest benefit on mankind.” And for that, when most people hear his name, they think of the Nobel Prize.

Not Your Typical Peacenik

During his lifetime, Alfred Nobel did indeed donate money to peace groups, but he never participated in their activities. He was friends with peace activists, like Bertha von Suttner, herself a future Nobel Peace Prize winner. But he consistently ridiculed them for being impractical and idealistic, for talking too much and doing too little. He insisted that the best strategy for creating an everlasting peace was to produce a weapon so devastating that war itself would no longer be possible. “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 civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”

Nobel’s Legacy

Almost fifty years after Nobel’s death, the first nuclear bomb was created in the U.S. Within a few years, the USSR had their own. Soon the UK, France and China had nuclear bombs, too, making the threat of mutual annihilation a reality. Yet wars still continued, even between nuclear powers. Right now, the U.S. military is preparing for a potential nuclear conflict with China, and possibly Russia. Thanks in part to its nuclear arsenal, Israel can bomb Palestinian civilians and assassinate Arab and Persian diplomats and scientists without fear of serious reprisals. Pakistan and India have routine and deadly skirmishes along their border, in spite of their nuclear weapons. Nobel was wrong: the threat of mutual annihilation is not bringing us closer to peace.

The IgNobel Peace Prize

The same could be said for his peace prize, particularly when it’s given to people like Henry Kissinger (1973), who facilitated bloody dictatorships in Chile and Argentina, genocides in Bangladesh and East Timor, and carpet bombing of Cambodia. Or Elihu Root (1912), the U.S. Secretary of War who oversaw the brutal repression of the Filipino independence movement. And let’s not forget Shimon Peres, Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat (1994), who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize despite their histories of human rights abuses. Or Aung San Suu Kyi (1991), who has denied the genocide against the Rohingya. Or Cordell Hull (1945), who, in 1939, led the opposition to accepting a boatload of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany into America. As a result, the boat was redirected back to Germany, where one quarter of its passengers were exterminated.

A Few More Peace Hawks

And there are so many other recent examples, like Barack Obama (2009), who did virtually nothing for world peace prior to becoming president, but after the prize began assassinating civilians with his drones and arresting more immigrants than his predecessor, George W. Bush. Or Mikhail Gorbachev (1990), who sent tanks into the Baltic republics less than a year after winning his “peace” prize, killing numerous civilians.

And older examples, like Woodrow Wilson (1919), who sent troops to occupy Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, and to “intervene” in Cuba, Honduras and Panama. He also oversaw the Palmer raids that led to over 10,000 arrests and over 500 deportations of union leaders, peace activists, socialists and anarchists. And he was an outright racist and apologist for slavery. Or Menachem Begin (1978), who four years after receiving his “peace” prize launched the bloody invasion of Lebanon, and who refused to fire Ariel Sharon, even after the Kahan Commission found Sharon culpable for the Sabra and Shatila massacre and recommended that he be removed from office.

It is also worth mentioning that Nobel owned Bofors, which he converted from a steel producer to an armament’s manufacturer, and which continues to make heavy weaponry to this day. It is now a subsidiary of United Defense Industries, an American corporation. And Dynamit Nobel, a descendant of a company Nobel created during his lifetime, continued to make weapons well into the 1990s.

Nobel’s Death

Alfred Nobel died in Sanremo, Italy, in 1896, alone and depressed, not surprising for a man who valued profits and weapons over human relationships. During his lifetime, he travelled a lot for business, but despised and mistrusted his business associates. As a result, he developed few, if any, lasting friendships. Victor Hugo called him the wealthiest vagabond in Europe. He was worth $250 million at the time of his death. His Paris estate had an enormous library, stables for his collection of Russian horses, and greenhouses for his orchids. Yet he seldom seemed happy. He suffered migraines and illness throughout his life and he never got married.

Some said he was a misanthrope, possibly a misogynist. Supposedly, he didn’t think much of democracy, either, and he opposed women’s suffrage. Nevertheless, people still seem to associate his name more with peace and scientific progress than with death and warfare. In this respect, Nobel was a booming success.