"Dear Fredrik, Last Friday I went to an event organized by the
Carnegie Corporation on the anniversary of the end of WWI. I was struck
by how similar Andrew Carnegie's ideas, as well as his philanthropy,
were to Alfred Nobel's. Do you know whether they were ever in contact?
All best, Peter [Weiss].
"These are Peter's questions: Why the similarities? Were Carnegie and Nobel ever in contact? And this is mine: Why is the connection so interesting -- and consequential? --Fredrik S. Heffermehl."
The above was the announcement of a contest at NobelWill.org that I just won with the following:
We do not know of, but also cannot exclude, a meeting face to face, or an exchange of letters, between Alfred Nobel and Andrew Carnegie that can explain how strikingly "similar Andrew Carnegie's ideas, as well as his philanthropy, were to Alfred Nobel's." But the similarity is partially explained by the culture of the day. They were not the only tycoons to fund war abolition, just the wealthiest. It may be further explained by the fact that a primary influence on both of them in their peace philanthropy was the same person, a woman who met them both in person and was in fact very close friends with Nobel -- Bertha von Suttner. Further, Nobel's philanthropy came first and was itself an influence on Carnegie's. Both offer fine examples for today's super-rich -- far richer, of course, than even Carnegie, but none of whom have put a dime into funding the elimination of war. They also offer excellent examples for the legally mandated operation of their own institutions which have strayed so far off course.
Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) and Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) lived in an era with fewer super-wealthy individuals than today; and even Carnegie's wealth did not match that of today's wealthiest. But they gave away a higher percentage of their wealth than today's wealthy have done. Carnegie gave away a higher amount, adjusted for inflation, than all but three living Americans (Gates, Buffett, and Soros) have thus far given.
No one in the Forbes list of top 50 current philanthropists has funded an effort to abolish war. Nobel and Carnegie funded that project heavily while they lived, and engaged in promoting it apart from their financial contributions. Before they died, they arranged to leave behind them a legacy that would continue funding efforts to reduce and eliminate war from the world. Those legacies have done a great deal of good and have the potential to do a great deal more, and to succeed. But both have survived into an era that largely disbelieves in the possibility of peace, and both organizations have strayed far from their intended work, changing their missions to match the times, rather than resisting a militarization of culture by sticking to their legal and moral mandates.
What is interesting and consequential about the similarities between Nobel and Carnegie is the extent to which their philanthropy for peace was a product of their time. Both became engaged in peace activism, but both favored the abolition of war before becoming so engaged. That opinion was more common in their age than now. Philanthropy for peace was also more common, though usually not with the same scale and consequence that Nobel and Carnegie managed.
What is most interesting is that the consequences of what Nobel and Carnegie did remain to be determined, by the actions living people take to fulfill the promise of the Nobel Peace Prize and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as by the actions we take to pursue the peace agenda outside of those institutions, and perhaps by current philanthropists who might find ways to emulate these past examples. In 2010, Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates encouraged billionaires to donate half their wealth (not up to the Nobel-Carnegie standard, but still significant). Buffett described the first 81 billionaires' signatures on their pledge as "81 Gospels of Wealth," in tribute to "The Gospel of Wealth," an article and book by Carnegie.
It would be hard to prove that Carnegie and Nobel never corresponded. We are dealing here with two prolific letter writers in an age of letter-writing, and two men whose letters we know have vanished from history in huge numbers. But I have read a number of biographical works of the two of them and of friends they had in common. Some of these books refer to both men in such a way that if the author knew them ever to have met or corresponded it certainly would have been mentioned. But this question may be a red herring. If Nobel and Carnegie came into contact with each other, it was clearly not extensive and certainly not what made them similar in attitudes toward peace and philanthropy. Nobel was a model for Carnegie, as his peace philanthropy preceded Carnegie's in time. Both men were urged on by some of the same peace advocates, most importantly Bertha von Suttner. Both men were exceptional, but both lived in an era in which funding progress toward the elimination of warfare was something that was done, unlike today when it is something that just isn't done -- not even by the Nobel Committee or the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
One could list a hundred similarities and dissimilarities between Nobel and Carnegie. Some of the similarities that might have a slight bearing here include these. Both men had immigrated in their youth, Nobel from Sweden to Russia at age 9, Carnegie from Scotland to the United States at age 12. Both were sickly. Both had little formal schooling (not as rare back then). Both were longtime bachelors, Nobel for life, and Carnegie into his 50s. Both were lifelong travelers, cosmopolitans, and (particularly Nobel) loners. Carnegie wrote travel books. Both were writers of numerous genres with a wide array of interests and knowledge. Nobel wrote poetry. Carnegie did journalism, and even happened to remark of the power of news reporting that "Dynamite is child's play compared to the press." Dynamite was of course one of Nobel's inventions, and also a product someone once used to try to blow up Carnegie's house (something one historian I asked pointed to as the closest connection between the two men). Both were in part but not primarily war profiteers. Both were complex, contradictory, and certainly to some extent guilt ridden. Nobel tried to rationalize his manufacture of weapons with the thought that extreme enough weapons would persuade people to abandon war (a somewhat common idea up through the age of nuclear nations waging and losing numerous wars). Carnegie used armed force to suppress workers' rights, had got his break running telegraphs for the U.S. government during the U.S. Civil War, and profited from World War I.
The argument that those who grow rich will know best what to do with their hoarded wealth is actually supported by the examples of Nobel and Carnegie, although they are in this regard -- of course -- exceptional cases rather than the rule. It is very hard to argue with the general thrust of what they did with their money, and the assignment that Carnegie left behind for his Endowment for Peace is something of a model of morality that puts any professor of ethics to shame. Carnegie's money was to be spent on eliminating war, as the most evil institution in existence. But once war has been eliminated, the Endowment is to determine what the next most evil institution is, and begin working to eliminate that or to create the new institution that would do the most good. (Isn't this what any ethical human being should be engaged in, whether paid for it or not?) Here's the relevant passage:
"When civilized nations enter into such treaties as named or war is discarded as disgraceful to civilized men, as personal war (dueling) and man selling and buying (slavery) have been discarded within the wide boundaries of our English-speaking race, the trustees will please then consider what is the next most degrading remaining evil or evils, whose banishment -- or what new elevating element or elements if introduced or fostered, or both combined -- would most advance the progress, elevation and happiness of man, and so on from century to century without end, my trustees of each age shall determine how they can best aid man in the upward march to higher and higher stages of developments unceasingly, for now we know that as a law of his being man was created with the desire and capacity for improvement to which, perchance, there may be no limit short of perfection even here in this life upon earth."
Here's the key passage from the will of Alfred Nobel, which created five prizes including:
"one part to the person who shall have 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."
Both Nobel and Carnegie found their way to opposing war through the general culture around them. Nobel was a fan of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Carnegie's notion quoted above of progress in overcoming slavery, dueling, and other evils -- with war to be added to the list -- could be found in early U.S. abolitionists (of slavery and war) like Charles Sumner. Carnegie was a 1898 anti-imperialist. Nobel first raised the idea of ending war to Bertha von Suttner, not the other way around. But it was the relentless advocacy of von Suttner and others that moved the two men to engage as they did in what was a very top-down, respectable, not to say aristocratic peace movement that advanced through the recruitment of VIPs and the holding of conferences with high-level government officials, as opposed to marches, demonstrations, or protests by anonymous masses. Bertha von Suttner persuaded first Nobel and then Carnegie to fund her, her allies, and the movement as a whole.
Both Nobel and Carnegie viewed themselves as a bit heroic and viewed the world through that lens. Nobel established a prize for an individual leader, though it has not always been administered as intended (sometimes going to more than one person or to an organization). Carnegie similarly created a Hero Fund to fund, and to make the world aware of, heroes of peace, not war.