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Alfred Bernhard Nobel and the Peace Prize

30-06-2001 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 842, by Peter Nobel


Peter Nobel
is a descendant of Alfred Nobel's brother Ludvig Nobel. He was Sweden's first Ombudsman against Ethnic Discrimination (1986-1991) and Secretary-General of the Swedish Red Cross (1991-1994). — Unless stated otherwise, translations of quotations into English are by the author. 

Alfred Nobel died on 10 December 1896. His last will and testament is dated 27 November 1895. This famous document is drafted in Swedish and includes inter alia the following provisions:

“…one part [one fifth of the annual returns on the assets of the Foundation ] [shall be apportioned ] to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abol-ition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. (...)

The prize (...) for champions of peace (...) [shall be awarded ] by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting.

It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.”

The will is a remarkable document in many respects, considering that it was written at a time when nationalism was at its peak. As we shall see, it was certainly a provocation to Swedish national feelings at the time.

Alfred Nobel was not a happy person. His many private letters confirm the picture of a lonely, ascetic man in bad health, burdened with work and hypochondria. He was a man of high morals, often helpful but never showing off. He shunned high society, and ridiculed vanity and outward fineries. Politically and in religious issues, he was a radical. He considered himself a social democrat. He was fluent in five languages and was often drastically outspoken. His relatives remembered him as a warm-hearted uncle, generous, and thoughtful in his choice of gifts. He appreciated a joke and enjoyed a good meal. Sometimes he expressed envy at the harmonious family life of his brothers.

I shall dwell on two questions: Why did the donator institute a peace prize and why was it to be awarded by a body of the Parliament of Norway, whereas the other prizes were entrusted to non-political Swedish institutions? These questions have given rise to much speculation. There are a few clues that may help to draw con-incing conclusions.



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