Baroness Bertha von Suttner (1843 to 1914) was an Austrian pacifist and writer. In 1905, in recognition of her lifelong opposition to war she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the second female Nobel laureate, after Marie Curie.
Born into the Austrian aristocracy, but impoverished and disadvantaged, Bertha attempted first to make a career as an opera singer, but finally resigned herself to make a living as a tutor and writer. Despite the fierce opposition of his parents, she married Arthur Suttner, the older brother of her then students, and eloped with him to live modestly in Georgia, where they taught languages and music to the children of the local aristocracy and supported themselves by writing.
One of her earliest published articles was the impassioned “Truth and Lies,” a polemic in favor of the naturalism of Émile Zola. In 1883, she wrote a pro-disarmament political work, “Inventory of the Soul,” arguing that technological advancement would inevitably bring about world peace. Suttner writes of meeting and befriending Alfred Nobel at the fourth World Peace Congress, in August 1892 in Switzerland. In fact, von Suttner can be credited with persuading Nobel to establish the famed peace price, and it was he who greatly inspired her further work in combatting the deterrent effect of powerful weapons of destruction. Referring to Nobel in her 1906 Peace Prize address, she wrote:
His will showed that he had gradually become convinced that the movement had emerged from the fog of pious theories into the light of attainable and realistically envisaged goals. He recognized science and idealistic literature as pursuits which foster culture and help civilization. With these goals he ranked the objectives of the peace congresses: the attainment of international justice and the consequent reduction in the size of armies.
After reconciling with Arthur’s family, the couple returned to Austria, where von Suttner became a leading figure in the Austrian peace movement and published her pacifist novel, Die Waffen nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!), subsequently translated into 12 languages. She witnessed the foundation of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, called for the establishment of the Austrian Association for the Friends of Peace, and became known internationally as the editor of the international pacifist journal Die Waffen nieder!, named after her own book. In 1897, she presented Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria with a list of signatures urging the establishment of an International Court of Justice and took part in the First International Hague Peace Conference in 1899 with the help of Theodor Herzl, who paid her travel expenses.
Upon her husband’s death, Suttner, still under financial strain, moved to Vienna in 1902. In 1904 she addressed the International Congress of Women in Berlin and for seven months travelled around the United States, attending a universal peace congress in Boston and meeting President Theodore Roosevelt. In her 1906 Nobel address, Suttner writes of the role of America in the peace process:
. . .it is a nation idealistic in its concepts and practical in its execution of them. . . The methods are outlined in the following objectives, which comprise the program of a peace campaign currently being waged in America. (1) Arbitration treaties; (2) A peace union between nations; (3) An international body with strength to maintain law between nations.
Though her personal contact with Alfred Nobel had been brief, she corresponded with him until his death in 1896 and was undoubtedly a major influence on his decision to include a peace prize among those provided for in his will, awarded to her in 1905. In her address she paid tribute to Nobel’s profound conviction that there was an even shorter and more direct way to obtain peace. He had written:
It could and should soon come to pass that all states pledge themselves collectively to attack an aggressor. That would make war impossible, and would force even the most brutal and unreasonable Power to appeal to a court of arbitration, or else keep quiet. If the Triple Alliance included every state instead of only three, then peace would be assured for centuries.
In 1907 Suttner attended the Second Hague Peace Conference, and on the eve of World War I, campaigned tirelessly against international armaments, also becoming a member of the advisory council of the Carnegie Peace Foundation. In the last months of her life, although suffering from cancer, she helped organize the next Peace Conference, scheduled for September 1914. However, she died in June of 1914. And when Franz Ferdinand was killed a few weeks later, World War I had begun, thus preventing the Third Hague Peace Conference from taking place.
Suttner’s pacifism was inspired by the writings of Kant, Spencer, Darwin and Tolstoy. She conceived of peace as a natural state impaired by the human distortions of war and militarism, arguing that a right to peace could be demanded under international law.
Bertha von Suttner is often considered a leader in the women’s liberation movement and was ahead of her times in recognizing the harm done to both men and women by sexist dichotomies. Tilling, one of her literary inventions, voices the unusually modern sentiment that “we men have to repress the instinct of self-preservation. Soldiers have also to repress the compassion, the sympathy for the gigantic trouble which invades both friend and foe; for next to cowardice, what is most disgraceful to us is all sentimentality, all that is emotional.”
With her disdain for theatrical religious practices, she abhorred the use of religion as a pretext for war. Her devoutly Christian husband founded the League Against Anti-Semitism in response to the pogroms in Eastern Europe and the growing antisemitism across Europe. “Religion was neighborly love, not neighborly hatred. Any kind of hatred, against other nations or against other creeds, detracted from the humaneness of humanity” she wrote.
In her Nobel lecture, entitled “The Evolution of the Peace Movement,” von Suttner sums up her views about the future of humanity:
happiness is created and developed in peace, and one of the eternal rights is the individual’s right to live. The strongest of all instincts, that of self-preservation, is an assertion of this right, affirmed and sanctified by the ancient commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” . . . It is erroneous to believe that the future will of necessity continue the trends of the past and the present. . . .We must not be blinded by the obvious; we must also look for the new growth pushing up from the ground below. We must understand that two philosophies, two eras of civilization, are wrestling with one another and that a vigorous new spirit is supplanting the blatant and threatening old. . . [T]here 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.