How The “Merchant of Death” Turned Patron of Peace

And what that means to you

Do you ever wonder will people say about you when you’re gone? Most of us don’t get the chance to find out — but one person did.

In 1888, Ludvig Nobel, the brother of Swedish entrepreneur Alfred Nobel, died. A number of newspapers mistook Ludvig for Alfred and so wrote their obituaries about Alfred instead.

Not all of them were flattering. In fact, an obituary in one French paper stated, “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead.”)

Alfred, who was only 55 at the time, was shocked to see himself described as “the merchant of death.” He was an inventor, and held 355 different patents — the most famous of which was dynamite. And he was instrumental in steering his company, Bofors, from being a simple iron and steel producer into one of the biggest arms suppliers in Europe.

The French obituary held none of its contempt for Alfred back, going on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” And as he read, Alfred was forced to recognize that yes, in fact, his inventions of detonators, dynamite and a string of ever-more deadly explosives were responsible for an enormous number of deaths.

“Merchant of death” was pretty accurate.

But was that what he wanted to be remembered as?

Alfred Nobel decided to rewrite his legacy. Secretly, he changed his will to leave his entire fortune towards a foundation that would fund five Nobel Prizes: A Peace Prize, Literary Prize, and three Science Prizes in physics, chemistry & medicine.

When he died just seven years later, his family were shocked to find he’d given nearly all his fortune away. The Foundation began with 31 million Swedish kronor. Today, that amount has grown through investments 100 times larger to 3.1 billion kronor (US $472 million).

What do The Dalia Lama, Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Kofi Annan, Aung San Suu Kyi, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, have in common?

They are all part of Alfred Nobel’s new legacy. They are all Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, recognized for having “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

“Today I will behave as if this is the day I will be remembered.” ~ Dr. Seuss

Ironically, the money for this prize came originally from the arms trade — yet very few people know that the founder of the Nobel Peace Prize was also the inventor of dynamite.

If you, like Alfred, had an opportunity to read your obituary today, what would it say? Be honest with yourself. What will people remember most about your character and your accomplishments? Are these the things you want to be remembered by?

You don’t need to have lived such a destructive life or made such a deadly mark as Alfred before you decide to make a change. And you certainly don’t need to read an obituary about yourself in order to experience a wake-up call.

Not only did Alfred change the way people would remember him, he did so in a way that was deep and impactful. Over a century after Alfred’s death, his actions are still promoting peace throughout the world.

We will all leave a legacy. And we all have a choice about whether we will leave that legacy to chance, or whether we will deliberately shape it.

Make your legacy deliberate. And start it today.