Bertha von Suttner

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Bertha von Suttner

Austrian writer and activist Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914) became a leading figure in peace activism at the turn of the twentieth century with the publication of her anti-war novel, Lay Down Your Arms. She continued her efforts as a public speaker and played a key role in the formation of the first Hague Peace Conference and the Nobel Peace Prize. For her efforts in the peace movement, she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.

Bertha von Suttner was a leading figure in the growing peace movement at the end of the nineteenth century in Europe. Suttner used her literary talents to produce the 1889 political novel Die Waffen nieder, or Lay Down Your Arms; a call for disarmament, the book became a best-seller and was translated into a number of languages. The activist also promoted world peace by helping to organize the first Hague Peace Conference and encouraging her friend, Alfred Nobel, to create the internationally respected Nobel Peace Prize. Her many activities helped to remove the labels of "utopians" and unrealistic "idealists" from those involved in peace activism by gaining the support of respected world leaders and intellectuals for the movement.

Suttner was born as the Countess Bertha Kinsky on June 9, 1843. An only child, she came from a noble military family of Prague in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her father, Count Joseph Kinsky, was a field marshal who died before her birth. Her mother, a relative of the poet Joseph von Korner, was left with a modest income after the death of her husband, and the limited funds were strained even further by her compulsive gambling at the fashionable casinos of Europe. She did find money, however, to provide her daughter with governesses, who instructed her in French and English, as well as singing lessons. As a teenager, Suttner had dreams of becoming an opera singer, but after a while, she realized that her voice was not adequate for such a career. She instead turned to academics, reading the works of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and the German scientist Alexander von Humbolt by the time she was 16. She also taught herself Italian. She enjoyed a reputation as a great beauty, and supposedly her hand was sought in marriage by a prince when she was only 13. But she remained fairly isolated, with few companions other than her mother, well into her adult years.

Because of her mother's financial situation, Suttner was finally obliged to seek employment to support herself. At the age of 30 she became a governess in the home of the Baron and Baroness von Suttner. Their 23-year-old son, Arthur, was soon attracted to the older woman, and the two fell in love. Although the young man's sisters were very pleased by the romance, his mother was not. Upon discovering her son's attachment to Suttner, she found a new position for the governess in the distant city of Paris. There Suttner became the secretary and housekeeper for Alfred Nobel, the Swedish scientist who had invented dynamite. Only a week after she arrived in Paris, Nobel left for a trip to Sweden at the request of the king of that country; Suttner was also called out of town. During this time she received a telegram from Arthur von Suttner asking her to marry him. They met in Vienna and were secretly married before departing for a honeymoon in the Caucasus region of Russia.

Estranged from her husband's family, the couple stayed for nine years in the Caucasus, remaining as guests and employees of a friend who was a prince of the region. Suttner served as an instructor in music and languages, while her husband worked as an architect. They both were also welcomed as peers at the prince's social events, where they fraternized with the local aristocracy. Her husband eventually began to write articles that were successfully published in Austrian newspapers. Inspired by his success, Suttner also began to write and was encouraged when she published her first essay under a pseudonym. She soon attempted a longer work, and in 1883 published her first novel, Inventarium einer Seele, or Inventory of a Soul, which drew notice in literary circles. The couple decided that they would be able to make a living as writers and returned to Austria in May of 1885. There they joined the von Suttner family, who had forgiven them for their marriage.

Suttner continued to produce acclaimed works, including Daniela Dormes in 1886 and Das Maschinenzeitalter: Zukunftsvorlesungen uber unsere Zeit in 1889. Her books were distinguished by both moral views and an interest in scientific and philosophical ideas. In fact, sensing that the scientific themes of Das Maschinenzeitalter would not be taken seriously if published under a woman's name at that time, Suttner released the book under the pseudonym "Jemand, " or "anyone." The book did sell well and provided Suttner and her husband with enough money to move to Paris.

In Paris, Suttner was reintroduced to Nobel, who in turn brought her and her husband in contact with members of leading social and intellectual circles. It was shortly after arriving in Paris that the couple learned about the London-based International Peace and Arbitration Society. Suttner was immediately drawn to the goals of the organization and decided to devote all her energies to this cause. She realized that she could use her literary talents to spread the message of peace to many people through a work of fiction and began writing her best-known work, Lay Down Your Arms. The anti-war themes of the book were considered controversial by publishers, and many refused to handle it. When it finally was accepted by a publisher, a number of changes were requested to make the work more socially acceptable. Suttner allowed a number of cuts and rewrites to be made to her manuscript, but she refused to change the title. Upon the book's debut in 1892, it exceeded its publisher's expectations by becoming a best-seller. Suttner received generous praise from a number of luminaries, including Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who compared the work's influence on the peace movement to the impact of American author Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin on the anti-slavery movement.

The book's success brought Suttner into the forefront of the anti-war movement. She was named president of the Austrian Peace Society and with the journalist Alfred Hermann Fried began a popular monthly journal, entitled Lay Down Your Arms, that detailed developments and activities in the peace movement for eight years. She participated in the first Hague Peace Conference, an event that marked a major victory for peace activists. The event was attended by high-ranking officials from countries such as the United States, Britain, and France and gave credibility to the peace efforts that had often been dismissed as unrealistic and naive by critics. Suttner herself was a featured speaker at the conference and was well-received by her admiring audience.

After the death of her husband in 1902, Suttner attempted to overcome her loss by working even harder to spread the message of peace. She continued writing and attended numerous conferences and meetings on the subject. She launched a speaking tour of the United States in 1904, during which she met President Theodore Roosevelt and visited Quaker communities that offered an inspiring example of life devoted to non-violence. She also saw hope for world peace in international developments of the time, such as the British movement to give former colonies Commonwealth status and the changes that seemed likely to follow the death of the aging Austrian emperor. For her efforts to promote the ideals of a peaceful world society, Suttner was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.

Suttner died of stomach cancer on June 21, 1914. Only weeks after her death, the assassination of the heir to the Austrian empire launched World War I, an event that no doubt would have brought great sorrow to the advocate of peace. Despite such a turn of events, Suttner's contributions to the peace movement were not in vain. Her writings and organizational efforts led to a number of success in the struggle for peace, particularly by gaining support for non-violent ideals among the general public as well as political and intellectual figures. The Hague Peace Conferences and the Nobel Peace Prize have become annual traditions that sustain the hope of peace to which Suttner devoted her life.

Further Reading

Kemp, Beatrix, Woman for Peace: The Life of Bertha von Suttner, translated by R. W. Last, Oswald Wolff, 1972.

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

Suttner, Bertha von, Memoirs of Bertha von Suttner: The Records of an Eventful Life, Ginn, 1910. □

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