Bertha Felicitas Sophie Freifrau von Suttner (Baroness Bertha von Suttner), born June 9, 1843 in Prague (now Czech Republic) as Gräfin (Countess) Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau, died June 21 1914 in Vienna (Austria), was an Austrian novelist, pacifist and the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1905. It was 26 years before another woman received this honor. Her literary career began after her marriage to Arthur Gundaccar Freiherr von Suttner in 1876. She had served the Suttner family as governess from 1873. Following several critically acclaimed books denouncing war, calling for disarmament and universal peace, it was her 1889 book, Die Waffen nieder! (Ground Arms) that earned her international acclaim. In 1891, she helped to launch the Austrian Peace Society and attended the Third International Peace Congress in Rome. From 1892, she began to regularly update Alfred Nobel on the progress of the peace movement. After 1899, when the Hague Peace Conference met, she strongly supported the Permanent Court of Arbitration founded by the conference. Already anticipating war between Germany and Great Britain, she formed the Anglo-German Friendship Committee in 1905.
At the London Peace Congress of 1907 she spoke about how European unity would end war, anticipating the agenda of the architects of the post World War II European space. From 1905 until her death she was Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau in Geneva, having served as a permanent director since 1892. Suttner was critical of imperialism and argued that progress and the end of war as a means of resolving disputes would result in a more unified world. She believed war to be barbaric, immoral, that it hinders humanity's social progress and violates individual rights. Happiness, she taught, is best created and developed in peace, while the individual's right to live is universal and trumps the right of nations to pursue self-interest. Her hope was that the human instinct to survive would, in the end, consign war to history. Her criticism of the international order was that when nations meet to talk about war, it is only to restrict war or to modify it rather than to end it; they do not contemplate banishing all thought of war, or ending the means to wage war. The issue for her was whether violence or law would prevail between states. Ending war for "Peace Bertha" meant ending all war, not only armed conflict but class war, gender war and rivalry between religions.
Suttner was the posthumous daughter of an impoverished Austrian Field Marshal, Franz-Josef Graf Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau (October 12, 1768–January 4, 1843) and his wife, Sophie von Körner, a descendant of the German poet Theodor Körner. She had an older brother, Arthur Franz Graf Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau (April 17, 1837–May 29, 1906), who died unmarried and childless. She was raised by her mother and by a guardian. Her mother was a commoner, which meant that Bertha was "never received at court." She was educated educated at home by private tutors. Raised in a military family, she accepted the values associated with military traditions "without question for the first half of her life." She learned languages and music but at this stage her "vision of the future focused on romantic marriage." In her novel, Ground arms!" The story of a life her heroine marries an army officer at age eighteen. Suttner enjoyed an active social life, attending "dances, parties" wearing "beautiful gowns" even as "battles were raging around various parts of Europe," later commenting that "wars were considered glorious, battles were the high points of men's lives and young soldiers basked in the admiration of young women." However, due to her family's financial problems she was "snubbed at her coming-out ball." At eighteen, she was briefly engaged to a "fifty-two year old millionaire" but this did not survive "the first kiss." Other liaisons followed, including one with an Australian who claimed to possess a large property but who turned out to be an impostor.
In 1873, when the funds from her father's legacy had dwindled due mainly to her mother's addiction to gambling and she needed to supplement her income, she became governess to the Suttner family. When she became engaged to Baron von Suttner's son, the engineer and novelist Arthur Gundaccar Freiherr von Suttner in 1876, they objected, presumably because of the age gap and lack of a dowry. She was seven years older than Arthur. Her mother's reputation as a gambler would not have helped either.
Answering an advertisement from Alfred Nobel in 1876 at the suggestion of Baroness Suttner to become Nobel's secretary-housekeeper at his Paris residence, she traveled to Paris and secured the job. Abrams hints that Nobel, who was "charmed by the beautiful countess" may have entertained "thoughts of a more exalted position for Bertha that would end his loneliness." However, while he was on a business trip to Sweden about a week after her arrival in Paris, she received a telegram from Arthur imploring her to return to Vienna, since he could not live without her. In order to make the journey, she sold a valuable diamond. Returning to Vienna, she secretly married von Suttner on June 12 1876 but maintained correspondence with Nobel until his death.
The couple spent the next nine years in Russia. The Baroness taught languages and music and began her own literary career as a novelist and poet. Following the successful publication of several novels, she wrote Inventarium einer Seele (Inventory of a Soul) in 1883, a serious work setting out her developing ideas about peace, human progress and the future of civilization. Influenced by evolutionary thought, especially by the social evolutionary ideas of Herbert Spencer she argued that war hinders progress, while peace promotes this. Arthur fully shared her ideals. By 1885, the Suttner's were able to return to Vienna where the senior Suttners had by then accepted Bertha's and Arthur's marriage.
Husband and wife continued to promote their ideals through their writing. In 1888, through a friend, they heard about the pragmatic agenda of the International Arbitration and Peace Association, founded in London in 1880 which aimed to persuade nations to renounce violence in favor of arbitration to resolve disputes. This gave a specific focus to their writing, and eventually led to Bertha's active involvement in the peace movement. Initially, she thought that her best contribution would still be literary and started her second serious work, Das Maschinenzeitalter (The Age of Machines) published in 1889. The book was originally published under a pen-name, "Jemand" (Anyone) because she feared that a book about science by a woman might not be taken seriously. In this work, she argues that disarmament and peace represented the pinnacle of human progress. War retarded progress and was the opposite of progress because it killed the fittest and allowed the least fit to survive. Instead of advancing, society degenerates. In the future, she said, as technological capability advanced, fed by aggressive policies and imperial ambition, machines would be invented that could wipe out whole armies. She critiqued nationalism as too often the enemy of peace because it encourages hatred, envy of or ideas of superiority over other races. However, it was her next book, Die Waffen nieder [Ground Arms!) published later the same year that instantly transformed her into a celebrity and an active player in the evolving peace movement. Drawing on her life experience and on extensive research into the wars of her time, her heroine grew to hate war as she experienced its horrors. The realistic representation of her subject earned critical acclaim; the book's impact on the German speaking public has been widely compared with that of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin within the English-speaking context. Leo Tolstoy suggested that the book would "lead to the abolition of war as Stowe's had to the abolition of slavery". In Austria, government ministers commended the book. Her English translator described her as "a handsome, brilliant woman of the world" who "reasons like Herbert Spencer."
Invitations to speak at peace conferences and to serve on their committees now followed. In 1891, she founded the Austrian Peace Society and spoke at the International Peace Conference in Rome. In 1892, she was appointed a permanent director of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva becoming Vice-President in 1905. From then until her death, she attended almost every major peace congress, wrote, traveled and lectures. In 1892, she co-founded the journal, Die Waffen Nieder, which she edited until 1899 when it was replaced by the Friedenswarte (edited by her fried, A. H. Fried). Her ongoing correspondence with Nobel now focused on the peace movement. From 1893, Nobel began plans for a Peace Prize. Nobel had earlier suggested that dynamite would end war quicker than her congresses; armies that could destroy each other, he thought, would "shrink from war." After reading Ground Arms! he changed his mind, writing to Suttner that his inventions were the "horror of horrors and the greatest of crimes."
It was her role behind the scenes at the Hague Peace Conference of 1899 that met with some practical outcome in the form of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. As an official observer at the Conference, she was the only woman present at the opening ceremony. Again, Arthur was at her side assisting her in her efforts to persuade delegates to commit to the arbitration process. She spent six months "button-holding diplomats after each evening session closed."
In 1904, Suttner visited the United States for the first time on a speaking tour and to attend the Boston International Peace Congress. She also met Theodore Roosevelt, whom she admired, in the White House on October 17th. Roosevelt won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. She visited many Quaker communities, which she saw as important examples of a life-style expressing a worldview devoted to peace. Suttner "felt that the youthfulness of the United States, and its openness to new ideas, would spill over into Europe." She cited Roosevelt in her Nobel Lecture, who said that it is the duty of governments to "to bring nearer the time when the sword shall not be the arbiter among nations." She supported Roosevelt's proposal for a "An international body with strength to maintain law between nations, as between the States of North America, and through which the need for recourse to war may be abolished."
When the first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1901, it was widely thought that Suttner would be the recipient. However, it was instead jointly awarded to Frédéric Passy first President of the Interparliamentary Union and Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross.
Suttner "was pleased with Passey's award" but displeased with Dunant's. She believed that his efforts merely ameliorated war, making it more palatable." For her, the key was international arbitration. In 1903, a Berlin newspaper reported that she was regarded as the "most important" woman of her time. However, in 1905 the Nobel committee awarded her the prize; she was the first woman and remained the only women recipient for the next 26 years. In his presentation speech, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson referred to the unique role that women can play in convincing the world to abolish war:
Women have encouraged the ideas of war, the attitude to life, and the causes for which men have fought, for which their sons were brought up, and of which they have dreamed. Any change or reformation of these ideas must be brought about chiefly by women. The human ideal of manly courage and manly deeds must become more enlightened; the faithful worker in all spiritual and material spheres of life must displace the bloodstained hero as the true ideal. Women will cooperate to give men higher aims, to give their sons nobler dreams.
In her lecture, Suttner proposed the creation of an international court of justice and of laws binding on nations that would "maintain peace."
Aware that tension and the arms race between Great Britain and Germany was heading to confrontation, Suttner founded the Anglo-German Friendship Society in 1905. Speaking at the London Peace Congress in 1908, she urged European unification; "Europe is one," she said and "uniting it was the only way to prevent the world catastrophe which seemed to be coming." Here, she anticipated the call for European unification and integration that came after the World War II when the founding fathers of the new European institutions such as the Council of Europe and the European Union pledged to make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible. Only the cry, "Ground Arms!" could save Europe from "the most appalling disaster."
Suttner argued that every war is a fratricidal war of "civilized man against civilized man." History itself is manipulated to delude "impressionable childish minds" that war is ordained by God and that to die for your country is the greatest honor. In Down Arms! and other writing she argued that individual rights take moral priority over those of nations. Individuals have an absolute right to control their lives, which states violate when they declare war. War is barbaric. It hinders progress; true human progress will occur when universal peace has been achieved. As long as diplomats and governments "in the main ... plot wars ... with the result of arresting the social development of humanity" individual rights will be ignored. The day will come when war will no longer be glorified, so that "all the love of military renown engendered by the stories of the past will cease to be."
Suttner saw a clear link between peace and justice; her goal was to "hasten the advent of the rule of justice obtained without force." She was aware that the causes of war need to be tackled. However, her argument was that a peaceful world can better devote itself to solving the challenges of poverty, disease and inequality. Civilization, a "fragile result of centuries of human labor" could be easily "eradicated by modern weapons." The end of war would divert the inventiveness invested in creating weapons of mass destruction into developing humane technologies. Among the causes of war, she said, were hatred of other races, nationalities and religions. All such hatred "minimized people's humanity." Ending war for her included ending class war, gender war and religious wars.
She supported higher education for women and welcomed women's entry into the political arena. In an 1894 article, she
urged that physical differences should not occasion ethical differences. After all, she observed, the racecourse mare does the same task as the horse; the bitch in the hound pack hunts as the dog does. Man and woman are born equal, and should have equal rights.
Speaking in San Francisco on July 4 1912, "where women had recently won the vote" she stated:
The one half of humanity that has never borne arms is today ready to blaze into this living, palpable force (the principle of the brotherhood of man). Perhaps the universal sisterhood is necessary before the universal brotherhood is possible.
However, she also argued that the "war against war" took priority over other struggles; it was the "One Great Thing." Once asked to write an article on "peace from a woman's point of view" she "candidly admitted that ... she saw no difference between men's and women's viewpoints on peace." "The methods and ideas" she suggested "in favor of peace ... had nothing to do with sex."
Suttner began to see beyond the nation-state to a more unified political world order:
Quite apart from the peace movement, which is a symptom rather than a cause of actual change, there is taking place in the world a process of internationalization and unification. Factors contributing to the development of this process are technical inventions, improved communications, economic interdependence, and closer international relations. The instinct of self-preservation in human society, acting almost subconsciously, as do all drives in the human mind, is rebelling against the constantly refined methods of annihilation and against the destruction of humanity.
She criticized men and women for claiming God's support for war, suggesting that by ascribing to the Christian God sympathy for war, humanity expresses human egotism. Were Jesus Christ's true teaching to "control the world there would be an end to war."
After Arthur died in 1902, although "grief-stricken ... she determined to carry on the work which they had so often done together and which he had asked her to continue." When she experienced a financial crises shortly after Arthur's death and was compelled to sell the Suttner's ancestral home, peace activists around the world contributed to a fund which was presented to her as a 60th birthday testimonial. When the money from the Peace Prize, much of which she gave away, was used she was awarded a private pension by Andrew Carnegie. At the 1907 Munich Peace Congress, Suttner received a ten minute standing ovation. In 191I-12, she again visited the USA, criss-crossing the nation on a speaking tour addressing "groups large and small" covering 25,000 miles. In August 1913 she spoke at the International Peace Congress at the Hague. Already ill, she did not live to see the cancellation of the next peace conference, which was to have been held in Vienna or the start of World War I. She was cremated in Gotha, Austria.
Bertha von Suttner was recently selected as a main motif for a high value collectors' coin: the 2008 Europe Taler. The reverse shows important people in the history of Europe, including Bertha von Suttner. Also depicted in the coin are Martin Luther (symbolizing the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern period); Antonio Vivaldi (exemplifying the importance of European cultural life); and James Watt (representing the industrialization of Europe, inventor of the first steam engine in the eighteenth century).
The film Die Waffen nieder by Holger Madsen and Carl Theodor Dreyer was made by Nordisk Films Kompagni in 1914. She is depicted on the Austrian 2 euro coin, and was pictured on the old Austrian 1000 schilling bank note.
Suttner's papers are part of the Peace Collection at Swarthmore College, PA. 2005 was declared the Bertha von Suttner Commemorative Year by the International Peace Bureau. There is a monument to her memory in the Rotary Peace Park in Wagga Wagga, Australia. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (founded 1915) honored her memory by placing her portrait "as the frontispiece of their published minutes."
Many of Suttner's ideas have seen fruition in the League of Nations and in the United Nations as well as in the post-World War II European institutions. Unfortunately, humanity has not yet relinquished use of force or fully embraced arbitration. Suttner was a private citizen who devoted her life to trying to make the world a safer, more prosperous place for all people. She was able to use her access to people of power, facilitated by her aristocratic status, to try to convince the powerful that war is not inevitable. She "urged them to put faith in the possibilities of arbitration, negotiation and peaceful solutions." She was also convinced that ordinary people "did not want war." She pointed out that it is the poor and middle-classes who have to do the fighting while the rich "have often been able to buy themselves out with money and favors." Perhaps the key is to strengthen the voices of ordinary people within the decision-making process of nations and of the international order.
All links retrieved June 3, 2016.
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