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A Century of Violence

A Century of Violence

A Century of Violence

ALFRED NOBEL believed that peace could be maintained if nations possessed deadly weapons. After all, nations could quickly unite and bring gruesome ruin to any aggressor. “This would be a force that would make war impossible,” he wrote. According to Nobel’s view, no sane nation would provoke a conflict if the consequences to itself would be devastating. But what has the past century revealed?

Less than 20 years after Nobel’s death, World War I broke out. This conflict saw the use of new deadly weapons, including machine guns, poison gas, flamethrowers, tanks, airplanes, and submarines. Nearly ten million soldiers were killed, and more than twice that number were wounded. The barbarity of World War I caused renewed interest in peace. This led to the formation of the League of Nations. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, a prominent figure in this cause, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.

Yet, any hopes that war would end once and for all were dashed when, in 1939, World War II broke out. In many respects this was even more horrendous than World War I. During this conflict Adolf Hitler expanded Nobel’s factory in Krümmel into one of Germany’s largest ammunition factories, with over 9,000 employees. Then, at the end of the war, Nobel’s factory was completely annihilated by an Allied air raid that dropped more than a thousand bombs. Ironically, those bombs were developed with the help of Nobel’s own inventions.

The century that elapsed after Nobel’s death saw not only two world wars but also countless smaller conflicts. Weapons proliferated during that period, and some of them became even more sinister. Consider a few of the military devices that have been prominent in the decades since Nobel’s death.

Small arms and light weapons. These include handguns, rifles, grenades, machine guns, mortars, and other portable devices. Small arms and light weapons are inexpensive, easy to maintain, and even easier to use.

Have the presence of these weapons​—and the threat they bring to civilians—​been a deterrent to war? Hardly! In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Michael Klare writes that light weapons have become “the principal tool of combat in the overwhelming majority of conflicts in the post-Cold War era.” In fact, up to 90 percent of casualties in recent wars have been the result of small arms and light weapons. More than four million people were killed by these devices during the 1990’s alone. In many cases, light weapons are wielded by youths who have no military training and no qualms about violating traditional rules of war.

Land mines. By the close of the 20th century, about 70 people on the average were being maimed or killed by land mines each day! Most of them were civilians, not soldiers. Often, land mines are used, not to kill, but to maim and spread fear and terror among those who experience the cruel damage that they inflict.

Granted, much effort has been made in recent years to clear mines. But some say that for every mine cleared, 20 more are planted and that there may be 60 million land mines buried across the globe. The fact that land mines cannot tell the difference between the footfall of a soldier and that of a child playing in a field has not deterred the manufacture and use of these hideous devices.

Nuclear weapons. With the invention of nuclear weapons, for the first time an entire city could be obliterated within seconds, without a single skirmish between soldiers. For example, consider the horrendous destruction that resulted when atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Some people were blinded by the intolerable light. Others were poisoned by radiation. Many were killed by fire and heat. The combined death toll for these two cities is estimated at nearly 300,000!

Of course, some would argue that the bombing of those cities prevented many deaths that would have occurred had the war continued by conventional means. Nevertheless, appalled by the tremendous loss of life, some began to lobby for worldwide control over this gruesome weapon. Indeed, many began to fear that man had developed the capacity to destroy himself.

Has the development of nuclear weapons made peace more likely? Some say yes. They point to the fact that these powerful weapons have not been used in warfare for over half a century. Nevertheless, Nobel’s belief that weapons of mass destruction would cause war to suffocate itself has not proved true, for wars with conventional weapons continue. Besides, at any given moment, says the Committee on Nuclear Policy, thousands of nuclear devices are on hair-trigger alert. And in this age when terrorism is a grave concern, many fear what would happen if nuclear material fell into the “wrong” hands. Even in the “right” hands, there is concern that a single accident could plunge the world into a thermonuclear catastrophe. Clearly, when it comes to destructive weapons, this is not the peace that Nobel envisioned.

Biological and chemical weapons. Germ warfare includes the use of deadly bacteria, such as anthrax, or a virus, such as smallpox. Smallpox is particularly dangerous because it is highly communicable. Then there is the threat of chemical weapons, such as poison gas. These toxic substances come in many forms, and though they have been outlawed for decades, this has not deterred their use.

Have these gruesome weapons and the threat they bring caused people to react as Nobel predicted​—to “recoil with horror and disband their troops”? On the contrary, they have only heightened the fear that one day these weapons might be used​—even by amateurs. More than a decade ago, the director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency stated: “Chemical weapons can be manufactured in almost anybody’s garage, as long as you have a little high-school chemistry behind you.”

There is no question that the 20th century was marked by wars more destructive than those of any other era. Now at the beginning of the 21st century, the prospect of peace seems even more illusory​—especially after the terrorist attacks that took place in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. “Virtually no one dares ask whether the balance of technology might tilt too far toward empowering the evil,” writes Steven Levy in Newsweek magazine. He adds: “Who would have a clue of how to address that situation? Human beings have a track record of pursuing what they see as progress and asking questions later. While refusing to think the Unthinkable, we create the circumstances that allow it to occur.”

Thus far, history has taught us that the invention of terrible explosives and deadly weapons has not brought this world any closer to peace. Is world peace, then, just a dream?

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Taming Nitroglycerin

The Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero discovered nitroglycerin, a heavy, oily explosive liquid, in 1846. The substance proved to be hazardous. Sobrero was badly cut in the face by glass splinters from an explosion, and eventually he gave up working with the substance. Moreover, there was a problem with the liquid that Sobrero could not solve: If poured out and hit with a hammer, only the part of the liquid that was hit by the hammer exploded, without affecting the rest of the oil.

Nobel solved the problem when he invented a practical detonator, using a small quantity of one explosive that could ignite a large quantity of another explosive. Then, in 1865, Nobel invented the blasting cap​—a little capsule containing mercury fulminate that was inserted into a container of nitroglycerin and then ignited by a fuse.

However, working with nitroglycerin was still hazardous. In 1864, for example, an explosion in Nobel’s workshop outside Stockholm killed five people​—including Nobel’s youngest brother, Emil. Nobel’s factory at Krümmel, Germany, was blown up twice. Then, too, some people were using the liquid as lamp oil, as shoe polish, or as a lubricant for wagon wheels​—with serious consequences. Even when mountains were being blasted, excess oil could seep into cracks and later cause accidents.

In 1867, Nobel converted the oil into a solid by mixing nitroglycerin with kieselguhr, a nonexplosive, porous substance. Nobel coined the name dynamite from the Greek dynamis, which means “power.” Although Nobel later developed even more advanced explosives, dynamite is regarded as one of his most important inventions.

Of course, Nobel’s explosives have also had noncombat uses. For example, they played a prominent role in the construction of the St. Gotthard tunnels (1872-82), the blasting of underwater cliffs in New York’s East River (1876, 1885), and the digging of the Corinth Canal in Greece (1881-93). Nevertheless, from the time of its invention, dynamite quickly gained a reputation as a tool of destruction and death.


Colombian police station destroyed by dynamite-rigged explosives

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© Reuters NewMedia Inc./CORBIS

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Less than 20 years after Nobel’s death, World War I saw the use of new deadly weapons

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U.S. National Archives photo

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Victims of land mines in Cambodia, Iraq, and Azerbaijan

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UN/DPI Photo 186410C by P.S. Sudhakaran

UN/DPI Photo 158314C by J. Isaac

UN/DPI Photo by Armineh Johannes

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At any given moment, says the Committee on Nuclear Policy, thousands of nuclear devices are on hair-trigger alert

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The hideous nature of chemical weapons gained wide publicity when sarin was used in the Tokyo subway system in 1995

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Asahi Shimbun/Sipa Press

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UN/DPI Photo 158198C by J. Isaac