August 29, 2009
By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, approximately 60 to 100 million mines are still scattered throughout 69 countries. These weapons kill or maim more than 25,000 people a year –equivalent to a victim every 22 minutes. Thanks to the tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997, the evil effects of land mines finally received centre stage.
It is quite ironic that the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize went to campaigners against landmines. A Nobel Peace Prize is worth over a million dollars, and is one of the world’s top awards. Yet the founder of the Peace Prize, Alfred Nobel, earned his multi-millions by selling armaments and explosives throughout the world.
Alfred Nobel has been described as the Lord of Dynamite, because he both invented and named Dynamite, taking it from the Greek word ‘dynamos’, meaning ‘power’. World War One and Two devoured millions of lives, indirectly due to the technological advances in Alfred Nobel’s laboratories. In the past, the gunsmoke from cannons used to stop battles, because the massive clouds of smoke blocked the view of the generals.
Alfred Nobel, however, invented smokeless gunpowder, enabling the slaughter at Flanders Fields to go on hour after hour without ceasing. In many ways, Alfred was just following in his father Immanuel’s footsteps. Immanuel Nobel, a loyal Swede, invented land and sea mines as a cost-effective means of protecting Sweden’s roads and beaches. The Swedish government, however, showed no interest; so he moved to Russia, where he helped the Russians beat back the English and French fleets with the use of mines. English Admiral Napier recorded in his famous diary: ‘The Gulf of Finland is full of infernal machines.’
How ironic that the Nobel fortune is now being used this year to combat the spread of these very mines! The Nobel family made millions by manufacturing nitroglycerin, a useful but unstable explosive. After Alfred’s 20 year-old brother Emil was tragically killed in a nitroglycerin explosion, their father Immanuel had a crippling stroke.
In response, Alfred devoted himself to discovering a new safe explosive. By combining nitroglycerin with kieselguhr clay, Alfred created a stable, transportable explosive, which he called dynamite. England, being cultural conservative, would have nothing to do with dynamite. So instead the Scots cornered the dynamite market.
North America, which always loves a new fad, went crazy over dynamite. At one point, North Americans were even using dynamite as a new ‘humane way’ of killing cattle for the meat industry! In the 1880’s, the great railway engineer William Cornelius Van Horne built three Nobel Dynamite factories in Canada. That very dynamite made it possible for the Canadian Pacific Railway to be blasted through the mighty Rockies all the way to the West Coast. It would not be far off to say that without Nobel’s dynamite, B.C. would probably be part of the United States today.
Alfred Nobel never wanted dynamite to be used for other than peaceful purposes. He was thrilled when his dynamite blasted a path for the Panama Canal in 1914. Sadly enough, his dynamite also blasted countless lives from 1914- to 1918, including the lives of my great-uncles William and Harry.
All his life, Alfred Nobel loathed war. He considered war to be ‘the horror of horrors and the greatest of all crimes’. “For my part,” Nobel said, “I wish all guns with their belongings and everything could be sent to hell, which is the proper place for their exhibition and use.”
In many ways, Alfred Nobel is a symbol of the fact that it is never too late to change, never too late to start again. When Alfred’s older brother Ludwig died, one newspaper accidentally printed Alfred’s obituary instead. The obituary described Alfred as a man who became rich by enabling people to kill each other in unprecedented numbers.
Deeply shaken by this assessment, Alfred Nobel resolved, from then on, to use his fortune in awarding accomplishments that benefited humanity. In his will, Alfred designated five annual awards to benefit leaders in physics, chemistry,medicine, literature, and peace. The Nobel Peace award was for ‘the person who shall have done the most or the best work to promote fraternity between nations, for the abolition of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses…’
Twelve out of his twenty relatives were so incensed that they launched lawsuits to try to reverse the terms of his philanthropic will. In contrast, Emanuel Nobel, the spokesman for the Russian branch of the family, supported the generous intentions of the will. King Oscar II of Sweden, in a personal audience with Emanuel, said: “Your Uncle Alfred has been influenced by peace fanatics, and particularly by women.” Emanuel replied that he would not care to expose his sisters and brothers to the risk of being reproached in the future by distinguished scientists for having appropriated funds that properly belonged to them. After his bold comments to the king, Emanuel followed his lawyer’s advice and immediately fled from Sweden back to Russia, to avoid arrest by the disgruntled king.
It’s remarkable when you think of all the intriguing people who have received the Nobel Peace Prize, and whose lives have been radically changed by that very act. The names have become part and parcel of our recent history, names like Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, F.W. De Klerk, Albert Schweitzer, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Andrei Sakharov, Yitzhak Rabin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Elie Wiesel, Lech Walesa, Mother Teresa, Anwar Sadat, and Menachim Begin. The first Canadian to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize was the much-loved Prime Minister Lester Pearson, for his role in helping to end the Suez Canal crisis. The first person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize was Jean Henri Dunant, the founder of the International Red Cross Society, back in 1901.
My prayer is that Jesus the Prince of Peace may raise up many such Champions of Peace in the 21st Century. Blessed indeed are the Nobel Peace-makers (Matthew 5:9).