Alfred Nobel and Posthumous Reputation Management

By Sergei A. Samoilenko

In 1888, a French newspaper published an obituary headlined “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). It stated, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who made his fortune by finding a way to kill the most people as ever before in the shortest time possible, died yesterday.” The newspaper mistakenly took the death of Nobel’s brother Ludvig for Alfred’s passing.

The inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist and businessman who devoted his early years to the study of explosives. Specifically, he was interested in how to control and use nitroglycerin as a commercially-usable explosive despite the dismay and strong opposition of its inventor Ascanio Sobrero. Nobel also owned the Swedish arms manufacturer Bofors, which held 355 different patents, dynamite being the most famous and notable. Despite his pacifistic beliefs, Nobel’s business eventually established more than 90 armament factories.

In 1889, Nobel sold smokeless propellant ballistite to the Italian government that helped Italy modernize M1890 Vetterli rifle cartridges. As Italy was a competing power to France, the French press and the public subsequently accused Nobel of industrial espionage and “high treason against France” which soon prompted Nobel to move to San Remo. When Nobel read the obituary, he was mortified at the idea that he would be remembered as “the ‘merchant of death.” Soon after, he decided to change his will and posthumously donated the majority of his wealth to a series of prizes for peace, literature, and the sciences that now bears his name. The Nobel Prize has been credited at least in part to his desire to leave a behind a better legacy.

The motives of Alfred Nobel suggest they were intended to improve his reputation and defend his name against posthumous character assassination (CA). Postmortem CA is intended to distort any references to former accomplishments of individuals or erase them from the collective memory. Historically, it occurs in various revisionist forms when the biographies of notable public figures (e.g., Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mohandas Gandhi, or Leon Trotsky) were revised in order to discredit their legacy. In recent years, Wikipedia has become a convenient place for this revisionism that may include falsifications of a person’s early biography or contain forged evidence about an individual’s inappropriate social ties or political associations.

In the legal field, there are several principles which typically apply to reputation management, including the right to privacy, the tort of defamation, the right to freedom of expression, and the constitutional right to a good name. However, the application of these principles, when applied to deceased individuals, varies from country to country. For example, in England, the common law position is that a dead person cannot be defamed. The Greek and Dutch codes, however, widely accept post-mortal protection of the personality. Also, the law is not always able to protect individual reputations in societies where the media has enormous power. Specifically, it concerns cases when the media challenges the application of legal principles by putting extra pressure on the judiciary and in the process shapes the public’s perception and understanding of reputational crises. The famous American murder case and trial of former professional football player O. J. Simpson is a good example in this regard.

There are several ways individuals can preventively use the principles of reputation management to minimize the risks of postmortem character assassination.

Write your own biography

It is much harder to smear individuals and distort their histories if there is a detailed and well-written account of their lives. For example, Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays were two influential professional communicators and thinkers whose work made an important impact on today’s society. Despite their multiple merits, their ethics of their early practices supporting corporate interests were often criticized. Bernays was instrumental in increasing sales of Lucky Strike cigarettes in the late 1920s among women who had formerly avoided smoking. Lee’s work on behalf of I.G. Farben, the German Dye Trust, did the most to damage his reputation. He died in 1934, but the stain on his name created by his association with the German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler remained. Unlike Lee, Bernays, who lived to the age of 103, outlived his critics. He gave the new profession of public relations a name and direction by publishing Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel and many other books. In his works, he reminded the public of his role as the pioneer of a new profession who established its ethical principles that had positive impact on social, economic, and political society during three quarters of a century. His book also allowed him to control post-death perceptions of him and his efforts to market tobacco that was later discovered to contribute to cancer.


Support a noble social cause

As the Nobel’s charitable activities demonstrate, social philanthropy can become an important element of strategic reputation management. It helps highlights the human personality traits of consistent and ethical as represented by communal, cultural, environmental, and other societal responsibilities. For example, many charitable acts, such as revitalizing local parks and contributing to the overall safety of a community, help builds respect, a good reputation and, a reserve of goodwill by fellow citizens.


For example, public relations expert Ivy Lee helped American businessman John D. Rockefeller Jr. defend the Ludlow Massacre by opposing the media in a series of newspaper editorials. He also brought the original, unfunded plan for Metropolitan Opera’s expansion to his attention and convinced Rockefeller’s son to rename the center after the family. Described as one of the greatest projects of the Great Depression era, the Rockefeller Center was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987. As a result, Rockefeller’s reputation became transformed from robber baron to eventually an American icon largely through following Lee’s counsel.

Become a cultural icon

Actor and filmmaker John Wayne is remembered as one of the defining Americans of the 20th Century.  From the mid-’40s through the ’50s, Wayne embodied the American Century in all its booming confidence. The dilemma is that one of the greatest artists was also known for his reactionary political views and resolute opinions about social issues and race relations in the United States.

During the McCarthy era, when hundreds of Americans were accused of being communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations, he supported the witch hunt. In addition to acting in several notable films, Wayne was also president of the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and served as an investigator of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating communist influences in the U.S. Wayne took issue with the movie High Noon, and reported it as being very un-American as well as a potential product of “Communist Propaganda.” Despite winning an Oscar for the movie, screenwriter Carl Foreman was sent a subpoena to appear before the House Committee. He was subsequently blacklisted from the industry, forced to become a ghostwriter, and let other individuals receive credit for his Oscar-worthy work.


Although Wayne’s life was far from heroic, his screen roles transformed him into twentieth century America’s idea of the hero. He is still remembered as one of the most persuasive embodiments of the American hero as well as an archetypal icon of masculinity.

Certainly, the above solutions to postmortem character assassination are not ideal. In our global postmodern world, public perception of cultural and social norms shifts more frequently than ever before. In the current climate of political polarization, traditional beliefs and values have become contested more vigorously by ideological opponents. Past historical figures get constantly knocked off their pedestal as attested by recent debates about the heritage of Christopher Columbus or the role and meaning of the Confederate flag. Hence, it has become harder to foresee the nature of postmortem attacks and prepare for the claims of future critics.

This serious issue requires further discussion by historians, jurists, and social anthropologists who will help us better understand the norms and values of next generations.


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