A personal ad and an erroneous obituary: just a few lines were all it took to alter the destiny of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite and went on to create the world’s most prestigious peace prize.
“A very wealthy, highly educated, elderly gentleman, living in Paris, seeks a lady, familiar with languages, also of mature years, as secretary and overseer of his household.”
This small personal ad in a French daily brought into Nobel’s life an Austrian pacifist named Bertha von Suttner, who would become his greatest inspiration in creating the peace prize and who herself would be the first woman to ever win the award.
The year was 1876, nearly 20 years before Nobel drew up his will stipulating the creation of his now famous prizes for medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and peace.
The bachelor millionaire, who contrary to the impression given in his ad was just 43, was living the high life in Paris off earnings from his inventions.
In private however, Nobel was uncomfortable with his looks and tormented by the possible deadly uses of his discoveries.
“He was a man full of self-hatred. He didn’t think he was worthy of a woman and he thought he was very ugly,” said Scott London, an American journalist and expert on the Nobel Peace Prize.
Bertha, a destitute Austrian countess 10 years his junior, only worked for him for a week before suddenly rushing back to marry.
But their strong friendship lasted until Nobel’s death in 1896.
“Many have wondered whether he was in love with her and whether that love, in turn, was the inspiration behind his conception of the peace prize,” London told AFP, pointing out “It is, after all, a thrilling liaison: a munitions tycoon and a peace champion.”
Most Nobel experts however consider the idea of a love affair “far-fetched,” he said, adding that it was also exaggerated to say the Swede had created the prize because of Bertha von Suttner.
“But she was certainly the key influence in helping Nobel understand what was emerging as a bona fide peace movement in Europe,” he said.
It was London’s grandfather, Irvin Abrams, who in 1962 first showed how important Bertha von Suttner was for Nobel through study of the correspondence between them.
“Inform me, convince me, and I’ll do something great for the movement,” Nobel writes to his Austrian friend, signing the letter: “Yours for ever and more than ever.”
Bertha, who herself became famous in 1889 with her best-selling pacifist book “Lay Down Your Arms!”, was also clearly fascinated by the complex figure of Alfred Nobel.
In an 1895 letter to Nobel, she described her first impression of him as “a thinker, a poet, a man bitter and good, unhappy and gay, given to superb flights of mind and to malicious suspicions, passionately in love with the far horizons of human thought and profoundly distrustful of the pettiness of human folly, understanding everything and hoping for nothing.”
“So you seemed to me. And 20 years have done nothing to efface this image,” she added.
In 1888, another coincidence also made a deep impression on Nobel.
A French newspaper mistook the death of his brother Ludvig for his, headlining his obituary “The merchant of death is dead.”
“Dr Alfred Nobel, who made his fortune by finding a way to kill the most people as ever before in the shortest time possible, died yesterday,” the newspaper wrote.
“Alfred was horrified when he read this and later became obsessed by his posthumous reputation,” London explained.
“He subsequently changed his will, bequeathing most of his fortune to the establishment of a series of prizes, so that no future obituary writer would have any doubt as to his yearning for peace and progress,” he added.
Eight years after his devastating obituary, Nobel died and his famous will was unveiled, laying the foundation for what today are considered some of the world’s most prestigious prizes.
Bertha, who won the Peace Prize in 1905, died in 1914, just three months before the First World War began.