Albert Schweitzer: Peace or Atomic War?

Albert Schweitzer (January 14, 1875-September 4, 1965) was born into an Alsatian family which for generations had been devoted to religion, music, and education. His father and maternal grandfather were ministers; both of his grandfathers were talented organists; many of his relatives were persons of scholarly attainments. Schweitzer entered into his intensive theological studies in 1893 … Continued

Albert Schweitzer (January 14, 1875-September 4, 1965) was born into an Alsatian family which for generations had been devoted to religion, music, and education. His father and maternal grandfather were ministers; both of his grandfathers were talented organists; many of his relatives were persons of scholarly attainments.

Schweitzer entered into his intensive theological studies in 1893 at the University of Strasbourg where he obtained a doctorate in philosophy in 1899, with a dissertation on the religious philosophy of Kant, and received his licentiate in theology in 1900. He began preaching at St. Nicholas Church in Strasbourg in 1899; he served in various high ranking administrative posts from 1901 to 1912 in the Theological College of St.Thomas, the college he had attended at the University of Strasbourg. In 1906 he published The Quest of the Historical Jesus, a book on which much of his fame as a theological scholar rests.

Meanwhile he continued with a distinguished musical career initiated at an early age with piano and organ lessons. Only nine when he first performed in his father’s church, he was, from his young manhood to his middle eighties, recognized as a concert organist, internationally known. From his professional engagements he earned funds for his education, particularly his later medical schooling, and for his African hospital. Musicologist as well as performer, Schweitzer wrote a biography of Bach in 1905 in French, published a book on organ building and playing in 1906, and rewrote the Bach book in German in 1908.

Having decided to go to Africa as a medical missionary rather than as a pastor, Schweitzer in 1905 began the study of medicine at the University of Strasbourg. In 1913, having obtained his M.D. degree, he founded his hospital at Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa, but in 1917 he and his wife were sent to a French internment camp as prisoners of war. Released in 1918, Schweitzer spent the next six years in Europe, preaching in his old church, giving lectures and concerts, taking medical courses, writing On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, Civilization and Ethics, and Christianity and the Religions of the World.

Schweitzer returned to Lambaréné in 1924 and except for relatively short periods of time, spent the remainder of his life there. With the funds earned from his own royalties and personal appearance fees and with those donated from all parts of the world, he expanded the hospital to seventy buildings which by the early 1960’s could take care of over 500 patients in residence at any one time.

At Lambaréné, Schweitzer was doctor and surgeon in the hospital, pastor of a congregation, administrator of a village, superintendent of buildings and grounds, writer of scholarly books, commentator on contemporary history, musician, host to countless visitors. The honors he received were numerous, including the Goethe Prize of Frankfurt and honorary doctorates from many universities emphasizing one or another of his achievements. The Nobel Peace Prize for 1952, having been withheld in that year, was given to him on December 10, 1953. With the $33,000 prize money, he started the leprosarium at Lambaréné.

Albert Schweitzer died on September 4, 1965, and was buried at Lambaréné.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1952

Peace or Atomic War?
Reviewed Edition:  Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1958

This book contains the text of three appeals by Albert Schweitzer broadcast from Oslo, Norway, on April 28, 29 and 30, 1958. The appeals were rebroadcast and reprinted in many countries. The first calls for a halt to nuclear tests, the second concerns the immense danger of atomic war, and the third prescribes the process to be used in getting nuclear powers to abandon nuclear weapons.

At that time, many people in the free world were being assured of the harmlessness of the radiation produced by above-ground nuclear testing. In his first appeal, Schweitzer uses his prestige to draw attention to scientific findings of the danger of radiation, and the immorality of inflicting this danger on all the peoples of the world during nuclear weapons testing. The next two appeals deal with the inherent danger of policies of mutually assured destruction and the importance of nuclear disarmament. As is typical of Schweitzer, his hope for the future lies not solely in political maneuvering, but rather in the development of a spirit of love and respect in and for all the people of the world.

Quotes from Peace or Atomic War?

“Of course, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union is thinking of producing this less effective [clean] bomb for use in a possible war. The U.S. Department of Defense has quite recently declared that the irradiation of whole areas has become a new offensive weapon.

The clean hydrogen bomb is intended for window display only, not for use. The bomb is to encourage people to believe that future nuclear tests will be followed by less and less radiation, and that there is no argument against the continuation of these tests.”

“We are constantly being told about a ‘permissible amount of radiation.’ Who permitted it? Who has any right to permit it?”

“This propaganda [about the safety of nuclear tests] will continue to set the tone in certain newspapers. But beside it the truth about the danger of nuclear tests marches imperturbably along, influencing an ever-increasing section of public opinion. In the long run, even the most efficiently organized propaganda can do nothing against the truth.”

“Past, too, is the time when NATO generals and European governments can decide on the establishment of launching sites and the stockpiling of atomic weapons. The dangers of atomic war and its consequences are now such that these decisions have ceased to be purely matters of politics and can be valid only with the sanction of public opinion.”

“The fact is that the testing and use of nuclear weapons carry in themselves the absolute reasons for being renounced. Prior agreement on any other conditions cannot be considered. Both cause the deepest damage to human rights. The tests, in that they do harm to peoples far from the territories of the nuclear powers and endanger their lives and their health–and this in peacetime; an atomic war, in that the resulting radioactivity would make uninhabitable the land of peoples not participating in such a war. It would be the most unimaginably senseless and cruel way of endangering the existence of mankind. That is why it dare not become reality.

The three nuclear powers [U.S.A., Soviet Union, and England] owe it to themselves and to mankind to reach agreement on these absolute essentials without first dealing with prior conditions.”

“But we live in a time when the good faith of peoples is doubted more than ever before. Expressions throwing doubt on the trustworthiness of each other are bandied back and forth. They are based on what happened in the First World War when the nations experienced dishonesty, injustice, and inhumanity from one another. How can a new trust come about? And yet, it must.

We cannot continue in this paralyzing mistrust. If we want to work our way out of the desperate situation in which we find ourselves, another spirit must enter into the people. It can only come if the awareness of its necessity suffices to give us strength to believe in its coming. We must presuppose the awareness of this need in all the peoples who have suffered along with us. We must approach them in the spirit that we are human beings, all of us, and that we feel ourselves fitted to feel with each other; to think and will together in the same way.

The awareness that we are all human beings together has become lost in war and through politics. We have reached the point of regarding each other only as members of a people either allied with us or against us and our approach; prejudice, sympathy, or antipathy are all conditioned by that. Now we must rediscover the fact that we–all together–are human beings, and that we must strive to concede to each other what moral capacity we must have. Only in this way can we begin to believe that in other peoples as well as in ourselves there will arise the need for a new spirit which can be the beginning of a feeling of mutual trustworthiness toward each other. The spirit is a mighty force for transforming things. We have seen it at work as the spirit of evil which virtually threw us back from striving toward a culture of the spirit into barbarism. Now let us set our hopes on the spirit’s bringing peoples and nations back to an awareness of culture.”


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