The Story of Bertha von Suttner
On 21 June 1914, just a few days before the deadly shots fired in Sarajevo set the final stage for World War I, Bertha von Suttner died in Vienna at the age of 71. Having become a well-known figure in the international peace movement after publishing the novel “Lay Down Your Arms,” she was spared not only from living through the horrors and killings of World War I which at its end left around ten million soldiers dead and many more injured, but also from discovering that her long and persistent fight for peace had been, at least as it seemed at that time, futile and pointless.
Bertha von Suttner was born into a noble family in Prague on 9 June 1843 as the daughter of Franz Josef Count Kinsky and his wife Sophie von Körner. Raised by her mother (her father died before she was born), she received an education suitable for a member of the Austrian nobility. She studied languages – in addition to German, she spoke English, French, and Italian fluently – and music, read a lot and traveled quite a bit.
When her mother’s financial means, on which she relied, got less and less (her mother had a gambling habit), she took, at the age of 30, the position of governess and companion at the Suttner household in a small village close to Vienna. Not only was it unheard of that a countess worked for a baron (in fact, the noble title of baron was conferred upon the Suttner family only in 1866), but she also fell in love with Arthur von Suttner, the youngest son of the Suttners and seven years her junior.
The von Suttners opposed the marriage and Bertha left for Paris where she began to work for AlfredNobel, one of the wealthiest men of his time who had become rich by inventing explosives such as dynamite. Bertha, lovesick, did not stay in Paris for a long time. She soon returned to Vienna where she secretly married Arthur with whom she immediately left for the Caucasus. Despite her staying in Paris only for a short time, she remained in steady contact with Alfred Nobel who had taken an immediate liking to Bertha von Suttner until his death in 1896. Arthur and Bertha stayed in Georgia for nine years, until 1885, when they both returned to Vienna.
The years in Georgia had been tough and it had first been by teaching language and music and later on by writing newspaper articles and books that the couple had managed to earn a living on which it somehow succeeded to survive. Back in Austria, Bertha learned about and got involved in international peace activities. In her book “The Machine Age,” originally published under the pseudonym “Jemand” (“Someone”) in 1889 (the same year the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and only son of the emperor, Crown Prince Rudolph, committed suicide), she wrote about her belief that technological and economic progress would bring an end to war which not only destroys human life but also hinders social and cultural progress.
Even though the book was a success, it was her next novel, published later the same year, which brought her international fame and recognition. “Lay Down Your Arms” (which, in its impact, is sometimes compared to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) tells the story of Martha, a woman whose life is shaped by war. Her first husband dies on the battlefields of Solferino in 1859 (the Red Cross was born after Henri Dunant had been a witness to the horrors of the Battle of Solferino), while her second husband, after surviving the wars of 1864 and 1866, is mistakenly killed in Paris in 1870.
The book takes aim at stories of glory and heroism, and criticizes the hypocrisy of society. More or less overnight, Bertha von Suttner became a widely known figure who, from then on, devoted the rest of her life to the idea of peace. She attended peace meetings and international conferences, gave lectures and speeches, and helped set up local or regional peace groups. In 1891, she founded the “Austrian Society of the Friends of Peace” (it still exists today, now called the Austrian Peace Society) which, despite all its good intentions, had a rather weak standing in Austrian society.
Officially established to promote peace and to win over public opinion, the group failed to garner substantial political support as a mainly conservative elite and ethnic tensions dominated the political landscape in Austria. Yet, its monthly journal, “Lay down your arms,” named after Suttner’s 1889 novel and published for the first time in February 1892, was widely read and quickly became an important forum of the Austrian and German pacifist movements.
In early 1893, after having met him anew in Switzerland a year earlier, she got a letter from Alfred Nobel in which he mentioned his idea of establishing a peace prize. In his final will, he stipulated that a peace prize was to be awarded in Oslo by a committee of five individuals elected by the Norwegian parliament. It should be given to “the man or woman 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.”
In 1901, five years after Nobel’s death, the Nobel peace prize was handed out for the first time. But it was not Bertha von Suttner who got it despite all she had been doing up to that moment for the cause of peace. In 1899, she traveled to The Hague Peace Conference as the only woman invited to the conference’s opening. There, she set up a “salon” where pacifists (today, one would probably call them civil society activists) and delegates could meet to discuss and exchange ideas. She wrote articles and organized meetings to agitate for the newly established Permanent Court of Arbitration. And she went on lengthy speaking tours to promote the idea of peace world-wide. In 1904, she participated in the Universal Peace Congress in Boston, MA and held numerous speeches while traveling in the U.S., a country she had always admired. In her novel “High Land,” published in 1886, she had written, “Oh, my land of the star-spangled banner, my great, vigorous, sensible, freedom-loving country!”
She was also received in the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt on October 17, 1904 where he remarked, “World peace is coming, it certainly is coming, but only step by step.” (Theodore Roosevelt would be given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his mediation efforts to end the Russian- Japanese War.) In 1912, at the age of almost 70, she went on a second lecture tour to the United States and spoke inter alia at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. At that time, her view of the U.S. had slightly changed, as expressed in a letter to Alfred Fried (a fellow Austrian and pacifist who received, together with the Dutch lawyer Tobias Asser, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1911), in which she voiced some doubts about U.S. pacifism, even though the U.S. public hailed her as “angel of peace.”
But it was in 1905 that she reached the zenith of public recognition in her fight for peace. As the first woman, she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work and her deep and lasting commitment to peace and pacifism. In her acceptance speech on 18 April 1906, she remarked that the militarist “system is doomed to failure”, but also that “pacifism faces no easy struggle” and that the solution to the “question of whether violence or law shall prevail between states…depends whether our Europe will become a showpiece of ruins and failure, or whether we can…enter the era of secure peace and law.” More than a quarter of a century would pass before another woman, American Jane Addams, would follow in her footsteps being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
Bertha von Suttner was not only a peace activist, but also a champion of liberal ideas, of utilitarian views and of women’s rights. It is thus not a surprise that she and her husbandwere actively struggling against Anti-Semitism which led some to call her, in derogatory terms, “Juden-Bertha” (“Jew Bertha”). In 1892, after having found a sponsor, she was a leading force behind the launching of the weekly “Freies Blatt” (“Free Paper”) which called itself a medium to fight Anti-Semitism. She also fought for women’s rights and was active in the “Bund Österreichischer Frauenvereine” (League of Austrian Women’s Associations), an association founded in 1902, where she headed the peace commission.
Despite being already affected by a beginning illness, most likely cancer, she spoke at The Hague International Peace Congress in 1913 and was involved in the preparations of the 21st Peace Congress scheduled to take place in Vienna in August of 1914. The Peace Congress in Vienna never materialized, and the two world wars that laid Europe in ruins and ashes seemingly put an end to the activities and hopes of the pacifist movement of the 19th century.
Yet, since the end of World War II almost 70 years ago, most of Europe, unfortunately still not all of it, has lived in peace and calm. It is therefore very likely that Bertha von Suttner would have whole-heartedly congratulated the European Union to receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for “over six decades contributing to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” In the end, that is what she (and many others) had been fighting for.
Nota: A multilingual exhibition on Bertha von Suttner’s eventful life, curated on the occasion of the centenary of her Nobel Peace Prize’s bestowal in 2005 can be accessed under the following link: www.oegwm.ac.at/bertha_von_suttner
Sigurd Pacher is the Deputy Head of Mission at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C.