When he died in 1896, Alfred Nobel was one of the richest men in the world. People responded with both kudos and criticism when they learned that he had assigned much of his fortune to the establishment of various prizes. Hjalmar Branting, an emerging political leader in Sweden and editor of a Stockholm newspaper, praised the “magnificent intentions” of Nobel’s will but followed up his assessment with the headline “Magnificent Blunder.”
In his analysis, Branting attacked Nobel’s will on philosophical grounds, arguing that “the only road (to peace) is through a merger of the working masses in all countries.” In other words, peace was a goal for common and democratic endeavor, not something to be determined in autocratic fashion by a millionaire. Branting concluded his lengthy critique by saying, “A millionaire might personally be worthy of esteem, but it is better to avoid both the millions and the donations.”
Even so, what else was Nobel to do with his fortune? A bachelor throughout his entire life, he had no sons or daughters of his own. His brothers (and, by extension, their families) had already filled their own coffers to overflowing as leaders in Europe’s growing oil industry. Despite their financial security, they launched one legal battle after another in the courts of several countries, eager (along with the tax collectors) to grab up their share of Nobel’s lingering millions.
In her memoirs, Bertha von Suttner wrote that Nobel felt it was “improper for rich men to leave their property to their relatives,” insisting that “he regarded great inheritances as a misfortune, for they have a paralyzing effect.” Branting would have agreed, arguing that fortunes passed down among family members could lead to a lazy class of men and women who had neither the need nor the motivation to work toward the common good. According to Suttner, Nobel believed that “great accumulations of property should go back to the community and common purposes,” toward “the renewed enrichment of the world.”
Even today, some of the wealthiest individuals in the world pick and choose their charities, endowing a favored few while leaving others to struggle. The so-called “billionaire class” may pick up the slack when and where governments falter, but they risk enabling and prolonging political weakness in the process, compromising the ideal role of government in general. As the “father” of social democracy in Sweden, Branting worked to empower the common, working-class citizen, favoring a “grass-roots” approach to politics over the growing influence of industrial (i.e. corporate) concerns. This may have put him at odds with Nobel’s intentions, but blunder or not, both men had their beliefs validated: The Nobel prizes were finally instituted in 1901, and Branting’s idealism and achievements would earn him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1921.