2. Bertha von Suttner
Short biography
Bertha Sophie Felicitas Freifrau von Suttner (Baroness Bertha von Suttner), (9 June, 1843 in Prague, [then in Austrian Empire] - 21 June, 1914 in Vienna, [then in Austria-  Hungary]), born as Gräfin (Countess) Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau, was an Austrian novelist, radical pacifist, and was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Suttner was the daughter of an impoverished Austrian field marshal and governess to the wealthy Suttner family from 1873. She became engaged to engineer and novelist Baron Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner, but her family opposed the match, and she answered an advertisement from Alfred Nobel in 1876 to become his secretary- housekeeper at his Paris residence. She only remained a week before returning to Vienna and secretly marrying Arthur.
Suttner became a leading figure in the peace movement with the publication of her novel, Die Waffen nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!) in 1889 and founded an Austrian pacifist organization in 1891. She gained international repute as editor of the international pacifist journal Die Waffen nieder!, named for her book, from 1892 to 1899. Her pacifism was influenced by the writings of H. T. Buckle, Herbert Spencer, and Charles Darwin. Though her personal contact with Alfred Nobel had been brief, she corresponded with him until his death in 1896, and it is believed that she was a major influence in his decision to include a peace prize among those prizes provided in his will, which she won in 1905. She is depicted on the Austrian euro coins.
Convert of the peace movement
Bertha von Suttner was a late convert to the peace movement. When you read her diary that was first published in 1909 you notice for instance that the war of 1859, in which her own country Austria-Hungary fought against the combined forces of France and Piedmont, passed her by completely. Famous battles like Magenta or Solferino did not distract the ten 16 year old Countess Kinsky from her youth flirtations in Wiesbaden. The Austro-Prussian war of 1866 also failed to impress her. She was only happy that her guardian, who had just passed away, did not have to experience the defeat. At that time, newspapers were not read in the villa in Baden- Baden and all her time went to singing. The war of 1870-71 between France and Prussia made a stronger impression on her because she and her mother were in Paris when it started and in Berlin when it ended.
Fifteen years later, after they had returned to Austria from their self-chosen exile in the Caucasus, the Von Suttners went to Paris to spend the winter. On various occasions they met writers, journalists, members of the Académie Française and artists in literary and political salons. Conversations were dominated by the growing tension between France and Germany: a war seemed likely, ‘revanche’ and the return of Alsace and Lorraine was near. In one of the salons she had a talk about war and peace with a friend, Dr Löwenthal, who informed her (and I quote from her Memoirs) ‘that there existed in London an “International Arbitration and Peace Association” whose objective it was to mobilise public opinion in order to archieve the establishment of an international court which would replace armed combat as a means of settling dispute between nations (…) This information electrified me.’ Löwenthal gave the then 43 year old all sorts of details, including the name of its founder and chairman Hodgson Pratt, who at the time was travelling Europe holding lectures in various continental capitals on the purpose and aims of his peace organisation. Pratt wanted to set up societies based on the London model in as many countries as possible, and then to bring them together in a huge confederation. When she returned home, Von Suttner found the proofs of her new book The Age of the Machine, and added a report on the London organisation.
But she wanted to do more for the peace movement. And out of that came Die Waffen nieder or Lay down your arms, one of the most influential anti-war novels of all time. The book told the sad story of Martha von Tilling, who lived through the wars of 1859, 1864, 1866 and 1870- 71, during which she lost both her husbands: the first one in war on the battlefield of Magenta in 1859, and the second one as a result of war, shot during the siege of Paris by order of a court- martial as the Austrian colonel Tilling was presumed to be a German spy.
Von Suttner did a lot of research for the book. It allowed her to give very realistic descriptions of war’s cruelty, suffering, and inhumanity. She had great difficulty getting the book published, but when it appeared, the novel was a bombshell. Soon it had to be reprinted. In the year that she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the book went through its 37th edition and it had been translated in almost all other European languages. Von Suttner won millions for the movement. Contemporaries compared Lay down your arms with Harriet Beecher- Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In August 1898 newspapers brought the news that the ruler of the Russian Empire, tsar Nicholas II, in a Rescript had invited the nations to a conference to discuss ‘the progressive development of the present armaments’ and ‘the most effectual means of insuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and durable peace’. Public opinion in Europe and America responded positively on the tsar’s initiative. Peace activists, among them the Von Suttners, could not believe the news. One of the most powerful persons in the world had all of sudden accepted the agenda of the peace movement. No longer could their ideas be called utopia. Everywhere, peace societies started to petition the governments. The journalist William Stead even went to visit the European capitals on his ‘Peace Crusade’ to ensure that the Conference would be held and that its emphasis would be on arms control. At the time, people said that the tsar had taken his initiative after reading Lay down your arms and the books of another peace activist, Johan Bloch.
Governments responded less enthusiastic. They were sceptical about the motives of the tsar and they distrusted each other. In the international political culture of the 19th century war was an accepted and rational instrument of national politics. Because of the lukewarm response, the Russian government devised a modified agenda that focussed on arms reduction, modification of codes of warfare and acceptance of new means of peaceful settlement of conflicts, i.e. the use of good offices, mediation and voluntary arbitration. Later The Hague was chosen as place of venue of the Conference.
The Hague Peace Conference
The Hague Peace Conference would last from 18 May till 29 July 1899. That summer, contemporaries called The Hague the ‘city of peace’. While the diplomats, military men, naval specialists and international lawyers were negotiating behind closed doors, there were all sorts of activities by representatives of oppressed peoples who demanded immediate action on the part of the Conference. There were also demonstrations by socialists and radicals. According to them the only force that could stop the spiral of war, was the class struggle of the international proletariat.
During the Conference, Mrs. Waszkléwicz-van Schilfgaarde of the Netherlands’ Women’s League for International Disarmament organised some meetings and lectures. So did the Cosmopolitan Alliance for Peace and Free International Intercourse. Both organisations had been founded the year before. It’s striking that the before mentioned General Dutch Peace Association did not develop any sort of independent action. Its executive later stated that it had refrained from action because it did not want to give a podium to foreign peace activists.
A small elite of the Friends of Peace had come to The Hague to experience the Dawn of a New Age. Of course the ever present Von Suttner was there. At virtually the last moment she received an entrance card from the Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs to witness the opening of the Conference. Amongst the photographers, draftsmen, journalists and correspondents of newspapers from all over the world, she was the one woman there.
During the Conference the Von Suttners opened up a salon, first in Hotel Central, later in Kurhaus Hotel in Scheveningen, where they received journalists to talk about the peace cause. In the salons reporters could consult several journals and works on peace, for instance the books of Bloch. The baroness also organised private diners and meetings between prominent peace activists like Stead, Bloch, Novikow and herself and susceptible official delegates and military men. During these informal talks, the peace leaders were informed on ongoing developments in the Conference and sometimes even on the diplomatic initiatives and strategies of delegations, like the American and British. Von Suttner wrote everything meticulously down in a diary that was later published. In it we can read that the baroness on at least one occasion was even involved in secret, unofficial diplomacy. When the negotiations over arbitration reached a deadlock, the leader of the American delegation Andrew White urged her to use her contacts to exert pressure in Austria and Germany to support the plan for a Court. In the literature about the First Hague Conference, the salon of the Von Suttners has always been described as an important centre of influence.
During the Conference Von Suttner also met the young Dutch queen, Wilhelmina, at a royal dinner. They exchanged a few words and then the queen had to talk to another guest. Since 1998, we know that Wilhelmina only played a role that evening. From the start she looked with great dissatisfaction at the Peace Conference. The queen thought that the Netherlands, internationally seen, made a fool of itself. She also disliked the activities of the peace activists because at the time there was an important debate on conscription ongoing in Dutch parliament. Wilhelmina had read Lay down your arms. She found it dreadful and could not understand how the book could have persuaded the tsar to take his peace initiative. No, Wilhelmina was definitely not a Friend of Peace.
When the Conference was in its second week, Von Suttner felt so excited that she wrote in her diary (and I quote): ‘Who has ever heard that in the company of diplomats and military men, the discussions would be on world peace? This thought crosses me every time I enter a salon. I feel that there is an atmosphere here, that the ones who are present, have never inhaled. This is Wonderland.’
At the end, Von Suttner’s enthusiasm was gone. The Conference failed to give an answer to the burning question of armaments. She was also displeased that a Peace Conference made rules concerning the mitigation of warfare. However, the formation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration pleased her.
In the following years Von Suttner propagated the development of the work of The Hague. She travelled all over Europe and the United States, lecturing extensively, writing, and attending peace conferences. Her colleagues in, what was now more and more called, the ‘pacifist’ movement, began to call the baroness ‘Notre Général en Chef’. She won the Nobel Peace Prize 1905. ‘The general in chief’ died on 21 June 1914. One week later, Gavrilo Princip fired his fateful shots in Sarajevo.
Von Suttner’s relevance today
Von Suttner was one the icons of the peace movement who before 1914 pleaded for a new political culture based on peace, the rule of law over might, international co- operation instead of confrontation, the organisation of a states system and openness in diplomacy. It took the shock of the total war of 1914-1918 for those new forms to become a reality in international relations; for instance in the League of Nations. After the slaughter of the Great War, the issue of war and peace became a public matter. Since 1919 governments, politicians – even the dictators - and diplomats could not go round about the passion for peace of the peoples. They have always had to confess in public that they are in favour of international peace and solidarity, justice, the community of peace loving countries etc. This goes on until today. True, on many occasions they only paid lip service to the ideal of peace. Nonetheless, in international political and diplomatic culture and style it is no longer possible to glorify war, to state that frequent wars are unavoidable, that wars have purifying effects, that wars are indispensable for the development of a state, and that war is life. These ideas were very strong on the eve of the First World War in for instance the Wilhelmine Empire.
A second reason. ‘Friedensbertha’ and her ideas are part of a Western tradition that in the second part of the 20th century slowly seems to be spreading all over the world. Von Sutter, her ideas and this symposium are proof of the topicality of the past. Simultaneously, as the collective memory nowadays seems to go back only for a few months, perhaps a year at most, they show us that current affairs do have a long history.