December Marks Nobel Prize Awards: The Woman Behind Alfred Nobel
With the time of the December presentations of the Nobel Prizes upon us, it is interesting to note the influence a woman had on Alfred Nobel, to motivate him to initiate these prizes.
Alfred Nobel, born in Sweden in 1833, moved with his parents and three older brothers to Russia when he was nine. He became a chemist and learned to speak several languages. At twenty-three he was back in Sweden working on several scientific experiments. In 1866 at the age of thirty-three, he developed dynamite from nitroglycerin. (The word dynamite derived from the Greek word, “dynamis,” for strength.)
By nature he was a shy, idealistic and melancholy dreamer, who aspired to the use of his dynamite for civilian advantage such as building bridges, railways, tunnels, and canals. He hoped that when the destructive potential of dynamite was noted, people would be too horrified to use it as an instrument of war. He loved literature, even writing poetry and plays of his own. He neither married nor sought the company of women. His macabre sense of humor was that of a cynic who was aware of the fragility of human beings. He was a man of paradox who, although he optimistically hoped that his invention would improve conditions of life, pessimistically watched the frequent follies of mankind. He became wealthy and famous. Although a constant traveler, in 1873 he eventually began to settle down in a villa in Paris.
A few years later, in search of a secretary, mature and proficient in foreign languages, Nobel placed an advertisement in newspapers throughout Europe and received a response from Vienna. It came from a Countess Bertha Kinsky, a woman of high culture, but low economic station, who at the time was working as governess and affectionate companion to the four daughters of the wealthy von Suttner family.
Meanwhile Bertha and the youngest of the von Suttner sons, Arthur, had fallen passionately in love. Arthur, a law student, at 25 was seven years her junior, and according to his concerned family, somewhat immature. Bertha’s relationship with Arthur caused her employment to be in jeopardy. With the encouragement of the von Suttner parents, she answered Nobel’s advertisement.
During the several weeks before she was offered and accepted the position, she and the writer of the advertisement had become involved in lively and mutually satisfying correspondence. The writer was of course the eccentric loner Alfred Nobel. Distraught, Bertha tearfully packed her belongings, and boarded the train for Paris. Nobel, ignoring standard protocol, met her at the station himself and took her elegantly on an introductory carriage ride around Paris, and then installed her in a comfortable suite of rooms. Having hired a woman of mature intelligence, little did he expect also to be somewhat beguiled by her feminine charm.
It was barely eight days after Bertha began her new job, that a telegram arrived for her from Arthur in Vienna saying “I cannot live without you.” Overwhelmed, she returned to Vienna immediately. She left a note of apology and appreciation for Nobel, explaining her emotional dilemma. She and Arthur secretly married and moved to Russian Georgia. They lived there extremely modestly and worked as Viennese journalists, writing about the local, exotic culture, for Vienna’s newspapers. There were frequent clannish wars and skirmishes. It was while reporting these, that her empathy with the victims grew and she became devoutly pacifist. It was one of the ironies of her life that she as a young girl had aspired to parties, hairdos and pretty dresses, and now in her forties, the entire focus of her life would become that of outstanding and assertive motivator for peace.
The von Suttners returned to Vienna in 1885. Bertha, with Arthur’s ardent support became one of the fiercest organizers of antiwar congresses in many major European cities. Over the years, since Bertha’s misbegotten endeavor to become helpmate to a strange and powerful man, she and Nobel remained in friendly contact, and remained informed of one another’s activities and achievements. They corresponded regularly since their first meeting in 1876.
Without feeling any resentment about her loss to another man, Nobel cautiously embraced and even underwrote many of Bertha’s pacifist efforts. When her antiwar novel “Lay Down Your Arms” was published to worldwide acclaim in 1889, Nobel was one of its committed champions.
In 1892 Bertha and Arthur visited Nobel in Zurich. Bertha tactfully suggested that Nobel make provisions for the eventual distribution of his fabulous wealth. Bertha was apparently a good saleswoman and Nobel always respectful of and hopeful for her ideals did finally formulate a means in his will, to bestow cash prizes and incentives on persons of science, literature and surely for peace.
The Prize was established in 1901, five years after Nobel’s death and after understandable family opposition and necessarily complex committee considerations. Fittingly, the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was Bertha von Suttner in 1905. Ironically, when she died nine years later, it was exactly one week before the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which was the spark that began World War I. Few today realize that this decorated peace-loving woman, through her ingenuous devotion to a cause could win the trust and admiration of one of the richest men in the world and be responsible for the most prestigious Prize in the world. She remains in our memory by dint of the fact that she is engraved on the 2-Euro coin.#
Barbara Lowin is a former opera singer, who is presently a vocal instructor at the City College of New York/CUNY.