Suttner, Bertha von

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SUTTNER, BERTHA VON (1843–1914), Austrian peace activist.

Bertha Felice Sophie Kinsky was born 9 June 1843 in Prague into a venerable aristocratic family famed for three centuries of military credentials. Her seventy-five-year-old father, a third son, died before her birth, and her twenty-five-year-old mother was a commoner. In the rigid society of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she was considered practically illegitimate, despite her arrival in the palatial family home on the Altstädter Ring. Raised by a mother who gambled their little money away in the world of casinos and watering places, Bertha, Countess Kinsky, broke free of her environment, used her skills in four languages as well as prodigious music education, and went out to earn her own living.

In 1873, thirty years old and unmarried, she became a governess in the Viennese home of the Baron von Suttner where she met and fell in love with the youngest son, Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner (1850–1902). The family's disapproval encouraged her to leave and Bertha Kinsky took a position in Paris with a Swedish manufacturer, Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833–1896). While her employment lasted barely two weeks, she and Nobel remained fast friends through a rich and frequent correspondence. Bertha Kinsky returned to Vienna to elope with the young baron, who had telegraphed that he could not live without her. They moved to the Caucasus for about a decade to escape his family's opprobrium. There they struggled as language tutors, reading voraciously and launching careers as writers.

It was in this period of exile that von Suttner abandoned all ties to traditional religion, transformed by studies in Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel (1834–1919), Charles Darwin (1809–1882), and Henry Thomas Buckle (1821–1862). Her ideas took shape—a thorough belief in rationality, in the possibility of positive evolution of both political and social relations, and the absolute necessity for world peace to be organized in order to undermine the forces of militaristic retrogression. She abandoned her military heritage to become one of the best-known peace activists in Europe before World War I.

In 1888 she anonymously published Das Machinenzeitalter, which attacked the exaggerated nationalism and militarism of the period, as well as outmoded ideas about education, human relations, love, women's position, and the uncritical acceptance of war as a phenomenon of nature. The book was widely reviewed and praised, but the work that made her famous, Die Waffen nieder! (Lay down your arms), published in 1889, earned her the sobriquet "the Harriet Beecher Stowe of the peace movement." A story of the imaginary Martha von Trilling, whose two husbands were killed in the mid-century wars, managed to do for the tiny peace movement what endless pamphlets, sermons, lectures, and meetings of societies had not done—command the public spotlight. The battlefield descriptions commanded reviewers' respect and some political admiration. Two printings were sold out by 1890 followed by translations into Swedish, French, and English that also sold out in 1891. Both expensive and popular editions followed over the next twenty-two years and by 1914, over a million copies circulated in sixteen languages (including Japanese and Russian). A film company completed a movie of the novel that was supposed to open in September 1914 in Vienna, where plans had been laid to hold the Universal Peace Congress. Obviously the Congress and film were canceled.

Von Suttner quickly found her soul mates in the emerging international peace movement whose Rome 1891 congress she attended. When the Universal Peace Congress voted to establish a permanent headquarters in Bern in 1892 (the Bureau international de la paix), von Suttner joined the council that set policies and organized propaganda. She founded the Austrian Peace Society and then helped create the German Peace Society, aided by her countryman, Alfred Hermann Fried (1864–1921). With her husband, she attacked the violent anti-Semitism of the Viennese mayor, Karl Lueger (1844–1910). Thereafter her lectures, articles, books, and interventions at conferences of pacifists and feminists made her an international celebrity. Her ties to Alfred Nobel convinced the skeptical millionaire inventor to support the peace movement. And she is famously credited with convincing Nobel to create the prizes, including the Peace Prize that he stipulated must be awarded by the Norwegian and not the Swedish committees. In 1905 she became the first woman to win the prize.

Following her husband's death (and the discovery of his liaison with a young female relative), von Suttner struggled to overcome her depression by a full career of lecturing, organizing, writing, correspondence, and participation in congresses. Her schedule took her to the United States; to The Hague during the 1899 and 1907 governmental conferences, where she used her aristocratic charm to lobby diplomats; to women's suffrage congresses whose cause she eventually incorporated into the peace argument. Von Suttner eventually moved to the position argued by most modern suffrage campaigners that women's participation in the public, political sector was essential and justified if modern society was to move toward an organized peace.

Despite charges of naivete, von Suttner's understanding of the dangers of a potential war were prophetic. She observed, in her Nobel acceptance speech, that "two eras of civilization [were] wrestling with each other" and a new one, representing "internationalization and unification," was threatening the old. But a belief that war was an anachronism did not mean it could not happen. Von Suttner died on 21 June 1914, a week before the shots at Sarajevo and fortunately avoided seeing the collapse that she had struggled to prevent.

See alsoNobel, Alfred; Pacifism.


Primary Sources

von Suttner, Bertha. Das Maschinenzeitalter. Zukunftsvorlesungen über unsere Zeit von "Jemand." Zurich, 1891.

——. Lay Down Your Arms. Translated by T. H. Holmes. London, 1892. Reprint, New York, 1972.

——. Gesammelte Schriften. 12 vols. Dresden, 1906.

——. Memoirs of Bertha von Suttner: The Records of an Eventful Life. 2 vols. London, 1910. Reprint, New York, 1972.

——. Der Kampf um die Vermeidung des Weltkrieges: Randglossen aus zwei Jahrzehnten zu den Zeitereignissen vor der Katastrophe (1892–1900 und 1907–1914). 2 vols. Zurich, 1917.

Secondary Sources

Abrams, Irwin. "Bertha von Suttner and the Nobel Peace Prize." Journal of Central European Affairs 22, no. 3 (1962): 286–307.

Braker, Regina. Weapons of Women Writers: Bertha von Suttner's Die Waffen nieder! as Political Literature in the Tradition of Harriet Beecher Stowés Uncle Tom's Cabin. New York, 1995.

Hamann, Brigitte. Bertha von Suttner: A Life for Peace. Translated by Ann Dubsky. Syracuse, N.Y., 1996.

Kempf, Beatrix. Suffragette for Peace: The Life of Bertha von Suttner. Translated by R. W. Last. London, 1972.

Playne, Caroline E. Bertha von Suttner and the Struggle to Avert the World War. London, 1936.

Sandi E. Cooper