Alfred Nobel's Letters Reveal His anti-Semitic, Chauvinistic Side

For 15 years, the man behind the Nobel Prize exchanged letters with his Viennese mistress, a flower girl called Sofie Hess. The Nobel Foundation kept the contents of these letters under wraps for almost a century, for fear of tarnishing his name

Portrait of Alfred Nobel (1833–1896) by Gösta Florman.
Gösta Florman / The Royal Libra

Alfred Nobel’s letters to his Viennese mistress between 1877 and 1896 reveal the chauvinism and anti-Semitism of the Swedish tycoon behind the prestigious prize that bears his name.

Some 221 letters from Nobel to Sofie Hess, and 41 of her letters to him, were recently published for the first time in English in “A Nobel Affair: The Correspondence Between Alfred Nobel and Sofie Hess” (University of Toronto Press).

The letters were written in German and sent from various locations across Europe – mostly places where Nobel was staying while conducting business for his explosives company and other areas in which he had interests, and spa towns where Hess was staying for various treatments and therapies (and for which Nobel footed the bill).

After Nobel’s death in 1896, the Nobel Foundation purchased the letters from Hess for the respectable sum of 12,000 Hungarian florins (some $300,000). In return, Hess agreed to the foundation’s demand not to publish anything about her relations with Nobel. It was only in 1976 that the Swedish National Archives finally granted access to the letters – and even then only to scholars. Erika Rummel, an esteemed writer and historian, has translated and annotated the entire correspondence.

The cover of 'A Nobel Affair: The Correspondence Between Alfred Nobel and Sofie Hess.'

According to Rummel, the very fact the Nobel Foundation acquired the letters and kept them under lock and key for decades is an indication of their historical importance. The foundation wanted to preserve Nobel’s image as a visionary and a philanthropist, while his correspondence with Hess reveals disagreeable aspects of his character that had not been previously known.

The letters reveal that Nobel was obsessive about his many and exhausting business endeavors, which exacted a price on his physical and mental health: He was paranoid, irascible, sarcastic, intolerant, racist – and this is just a partial list.

The Nobel Foundation’s imposition of secrecy on the letters also helped nurture the sense that Nobel had merely conducted a platonic relationship with Hess – but the letters refute this outright. Moreover, the scholars who were not permitted to examine the letters tended to minimize the importance of Nobel’s relations with Hess to the point of ignoring them entirely.

Nobel first met Hess in 1876 in the spa town of Baden bei Wien, where she worked in a flower shop. He was 43; she was 26. Nobel never married and Sofie became his mistress for 15 years, until she became pregnant by another man.

A general view of the Swedish Academy's annual meeting at the Old Stock Exchange building in Stockholm.
\ TT News Agency/ REUTERS

Even then, out of a sense of responsibility toward her, Nobel continued to support her financially (he would also leave her 6,000 florins in his will). But in the summer of 1894, Sofie was staying with her 3-year-old daughter at a hotel in Vienna and wrote Nobel:

“I am fed up living a life like a dog. It’s not enough that you don’t give me enough to survive; I have to beg for the money and am exposed to scandal. For example, the headwaiter at the hotel made a fuss because I didn’t immediately pay, so that a gentleman in the hotel had pity on me and couldn’t understand why I am in this miserable position. ... You wouldn’t recognize me the way I look now, and because the physicians insist on an operation, I would have to go to a hospital for eight days. That’s the position I’m in since I have no home, dear Alfred. The whole world scorns me because I am not married and have a child. You know what the Austrians are like, a stupid people. If you don’t have a marriage certificate tacked to your back, they believe you are a common whore. The married women sell themselves to the first-comer for a dress or a hat and cheat on their husbands, but a minister or a priest has presided over their wedding. Therefore I am determined to give a name to my poor child and to marry her father.”

The father of Hess’ daughter was Nikolaus Kapy von Kapivar, a nobody who had helped her through the hard times when she was far from her patron, when her health was fragile and her economic situation shaky. Shortly after she married Kapy, he abandoned her and disappeared from her life. The single mother’s criticism of the cruelty with which Austrian society treated mothers like herself is a recurrent theme in her letters.

Be that as it may, Rummel mentions in a footnote that the percentage of children born out of wedlock in Austria was among the highest in Europe – 27.8 percent in 1870.

Hess had apparently never heard the name Karl Marx, but her denunciations of the institution of bourgeois marriage are actually quite close to Marx’s observation in “The Communist Manifesto” a few decades before she articulated her complaints: “Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.”

Israeli Professor Ada E. Yonath, left, receives the Nobel Prize in Chemistry from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden during the Nobel prize award ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 10, 2009.
AFP PHOTO / SCANPIX SWEDEN / PONTUS LUNDAHL / POOL

Crude racism

Especially striking in Nobel’s letters to Hess is the chauvinism, misanthropy and crude racism of a man who was the benefactor behind the global prize that symbolizes universal values, progress and peace for all.

Sofie was a Jewish woman who had converted to Christianity, while Nobel was an atheist and unashamed anti-Semite who wrote her: “In my experience, Israelites [Jews] never do anything out of good will. They act merely out of selfishness or a desire to show off – and how can they understand a trait in another person that they absolutely lack themselves? The Israelites have some very good traits, which I always acknowledge, but among selfish and inconsiderate people they are the most selfish and inconsiderate. For them it is ‘self and family’ – all others exist only to be fleeced. Perhaps they are right to act thus, but then they shouldn’t be surprised if they are treated as they treat or want to treat others.”

The Alfred Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden.
AFP

Hess was young, attractive and vivacious, but she also lacked the wit, ostentation and social prominence that characterized the famous courtesans of the time (such as Lillie Langtry or Cora Pearl). Nobel wanted Hess to provide him with a serene and comfortable atmosphere of both domesticity and joie de vivre, which would to some extent alleviate his increasing gloom, as his letters show. He was attracted to her yet also scorned her, writing in letter number 35: “You neither work, nor write, nor read, nor think.” Yet he makes it clear in letter 94, “And that’s the nice thing about you – the complete absence of reason.” He also saw their relationship as destructive, as seen in letter 43: “I have for years now sacrificed out of purely noble motives my time, my duties, my intellectual life, my reputation ... my whole interaction with the cultured world.”

Though Hess had no income of her own and was financially dependant on Nobel, their relationship cannot be defined simply as an exchange of sex for money. The Swedish explosives tycoon continued to support her not only after their sexual affair had concluded, but also after he declared a formal end to their relationship. Hess, for her part, remained connected to Nobel, appreciating and cherishing his financial support – yet always complaining that it was insufficient, until his death in 1896.