Bertha von Suttner – Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land

Bertha von Suttner (9 June 1843 – 21 June 1914). Pseudonyms: B. Oulot, Jemand (translates to ‘someone’). Photo via http://www.nobelprize.org

Bertha von Suttner was born into a Bohemian aristocratic family. Her father, Count Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau, died before her birth at the age of 75. She was raised by her mother and a guardian who was a member of the Austrian court with militaristic traditions (her older brother Arthur was sent to military school at the age of 6). As a young girl, she was taught several languages (including French, English, Italian, and Russian), literature, and music. Bertha started working, at the age of 30, as governess for the industrialist Karl von Suttner in Vienna to tutor his four daughters, after her mother (Sophie Wilhemine von Körner) had gambled away most of her inheritance. There, she met and fell in love with Athur von Suttner, the youngest son of Karl von Suttner, and 7 years her junior.

Arthurs mother did not approve of this relationship and dismissed Bertha from her job, but not without setting her up with a new job in Paris as the secretary of Alfred Nobel (the inventor of dynamite). The employment as secretary was short lived and Bertha returned Vienna. She and Arthur married in secrecy on 12 June 1876, which led to Arthurs disinheritance.

The couple moved to the Caucasus/Georgia, where she worked as language teacher, novelist, and translator. With the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war in 1877, Arthur started writing for several German newspapers dispatches and travelogues. Bertha also started her journalistic work under the pseudonym of B. Oulot by writing short stories and essays for Austrian newspapers.

In 1885, she and Arthur returned to Vienna and reconciled with his family. Upon her return, she continued her journalistic work and concentrated on a more peaceful society and committed herself to pacifism. In 1886 she met Alfred Nobel again, who supported her engagement to pacifism financially and in 1887 she started corresponding with the, at the time, only peace organisation in the world “International Arbitration and Peace Association “ in London.

In 1889, she published her anti-war novel “Die Waffen nieder!” (“Lay down Your Arms!”), which made her one of the leading figures of the peace movement. The novel describes the terror of war from the perspective of a spouse, who loses her husband. It was translated into 12 languages and published in 37 editions. “Die Waffen nieder!” was the most important German language literary work concerning war until the publication of “Im Westen nichtes Neues” (“All Quiet on the Western Front”) by Erich Maria Remarque in 1929.

Bertha defined peace as natural established normality impaired by the human aberrances of war. Therefore, a right to peace could be demanded under international law. In 1891 she helped form a Venetian peace group (having spent the winter of 1891/91 in Venice) and initiated the Austrian Peace Society (of which she remained its president until her death in 1914). She also attended her first international peace congress and started the fund needed to establish the Bern Peace Bureau. She also founded the German Peace Society and became editor of the international pacifistic journal “Die Waffen nieder!” (named after her 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 Hague Convention in 1899. In 1904 she attended the International Congress of Women in Berlin and travelled the United States for seven month, where she attended a universal peace congress and met President Theodore Roosevelt.

Although her personal contact with with Alfred Nobel was brief, she corresponded with him until his death in 1896. Bertha is believed to be a major influence on his decision to include a peace prize among those prizes provided in his will. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 as the first woman. She was the second woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize (the first being Marie Curie for Physics).

Bertha von Suttner continued to attend Peace Conferences and hold lectures in Europe and United States until her death. In 1914, in the last months of her life, she helped organise the next Peace Conference, while suffering from cancer. However, the conference never took place, as she died on 21 June 2014, and a week later the Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo triggering World War I.

In his obituary Alfred Hermann Fried (founder of the peace journal “Die Waffen nieder!”) passed on her last words: “Die Waffen nieder! – – sag’s vielen – vielen. ” (Lay down your arms! – – tell it many – many.)

Why does Bertha von Suttner matter? To me, she is the symbol of the early peace movement. She was ahead of her time. She warned of the consequences of armament. She was for a peace union between the states and an International Court of Justice. She wanted the states to overcome conflicts peacefully, without violence. We now have similar institutions in place, but we are far from achieving world peace. Maybe even further than we had, with people wanting their country to leave the EU, people all over the world spreading hate, fear, and racism to break apart the fragile unions between countries, which had been painstakingly established over the years…


Written by Daniela Schmitt (she/her) from Germany. This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.


Sources:

  • I vaguely remember a mini exhibition at my school (which was named after her)
  • Held a presentation in my final year at school (a different school) in my history class (I had read quite a few books on her for that presentation)

Sources to freshen up my memory:

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