Suttner, Bertha von (1843–1914)

views updated

Suttner, Bertha von (1843–1914)

Austrian baroness whose antiwar novel Die Waffen Nieder! became a bestseller in late 19th-century Europe, laying the basis for peace societies in central Europe and winning the Nobel Peace Prize for its author, the first woman so honored. Pronunciation: SOOT-ner. Name variations: Countess Kinsky; Baroness von Suttner. Born Bertha Felicie Sophie Kinsky in Prague on June 9, 1843; died on June 21, 1914; daughter of Count Franz Joseph Kinsky von Wehinitz and Tettau (a field marshal in the Austrian army) and Countess Sophie Wilhelmina Kinsky (the daughter of a cavalry captain); educated by governesses and relatives; married Baron Arthur von Suttner (1850–1902, a novelist), on June 12, 1876; no children.

Served as private secretary to Alfred Nobel (1876); lived with husband in the Caucasus section of Russia (1876–85); published first major book, Das Maschinenzeitalter (The Machine Age, spring 1889); published Die Waffen Nieder! (late 1889); co-founded the journal Die Waffen Nieder! with the pacifist Alfred Fried (1892), title changed to Friedens-Warte (1899); founded the Austrian Peace Society (1891); attended the Hague Peace Congresses (1899 and 1908); visited the United States, partly to secure funding for peace activities (1904 and 1911); won the Nobel Peace Prize (1905).

Selected publications:

Das Maschinenzeitalter (Zurich: Verlags-Magazin, 1889); Die Waffen Nieder! Eine Lebensgeschichte (Dresden: E. Pierson, 1889, translated into English as Lay Down Your Arms!, 1905); Memoiren (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1901).

During the late 19th century, when a German magazine asked its readers to name the most famous women of the age, second and third place went to two thespians: France's Sarah Bernhardt and Italy's Eleonora Duse . The winner, however, was the Austrian Baroness Bertha von Suttner, whose antiwar novel Die Waffen Nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!) would have an impact in Europe equivalent to the influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe 's Uncle Tom's Cabin in the United States. A bestseller in the late 19th century, Die Waffen Nieder! would, in 1905, move the Swedish committee to select her as the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ironically, Bertha von Suttner had been born in 1843 into an Austrian family, the Kinskys, with a long history of military service. Although her father died before she was born, she was well aware of his long and distinguished service as a field marshal and member of the imperial cavalry in the Austrian army. Her mother's side of the family also featured a string of Austrian soldiers.

The young Bertha had a male guardian who was also a soldier. He was Friedrich, landgraf (count) of Fuerstenberg, whom she affectionately called "Fritzerl." A high civil servant, he was from one of the loftiest aristocratic families in Austria. He was also a devoutly religious man whom the adult Bertha remembered as someone who never failed to miss mass or a "church festival," but she also remembered him as someone who traveled little and never left the borders of Austria.

Although she was born into the ranks of privilege, von Suttner never felt at home among the Austrian nobility. In that highly stratified aristocracy, it was whispered that her mother's family ranked much lower than her father's. While her father's family, the Kinskys, traced their lineage back to Bohemian counts of the 12th century, that lineage was not ancient enough to position it among the most prestigious noble lines of the Austrian Empire. In her memoirs, von Suttner recalled frequently seeing her mother Countess Sophie Wilhelmina Kinsky sitting alone at social gatherings of the Austrian elite.

The young Bertha was taught by her mother to ignore such social pressures and to fulfill her life's ambitions in her own way. She remembered her mother's beautiful singing voice, but she also recalled her mother's bitterness that her own parents had not supported her desire to take singing lessons and become an opera singer.

Von Suttner's knowledge of the world out-side Austria was greatly enlarged by her cousin, Elvira. Elvira and her mother, "Aunt Tante," came to live with the Kinskys when Bertha was 11. Elvira shared with Bertha her knowledge of Shakespeare, of the German historian Friedrich Hegel, and of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. The foursome frequently traveled to Venice, Vienna, and Rome, and during these trips von Suttner would study music and Elvira would practice writing dramas and poems.

In one way, the trips proved a major influence on von Suttner. Aunt Tante and Sophie Kinsky, who shared a love of gambling, lost much of the family fortune in the casinos of Europe. Not only was Sophie reduced to living on a meager widow's pension, but there was now not enough money to provide a dowry for her daughter. Spinsterhood, a dreaded fate in late 19th-century Europe, loomed as a possibility. Although von Suttner was engaged twice, marriage did not result. The first was ended by the man's family, who considered Bertha too old for their son; the second engagement ended when her fiancé died of illness while aboard a ship at sea.

Prodded by her mother, Bertha sought employment as a governess and eventually accepted a position to the four daughters of the von Suttner family of Harmannsdorf, Austria. Although she was not asked to be governess to the family's two sons, one of the them, Arthur, was attracted to her, despite the fact that he was nearly eight years younger. Bertha gave him no encouragement, but when the young man's mother discovered him one night standing at the open door of Bertha's bedroom, talking with her, she insisted that Bertha give up the governess position and leave the household.

Seeking new employment, Bertha responded to an ad which appeared in a Viennese newspaper: "A very wealthy, cultured elderly gentlemen living in Paris, desires to find a lady of mature years, familiar with languages, as secretary to and manager to his household." The "elderly gentlemen" who placed the ad proved to be Alfred Nobel, the 43-year-old dynamite maker and magnate, who invited von Suttner to his Paris home for an interview and immediately hired her as head housekeeper and private secretary. She was intrigued by his personality, saying, "It was a rare pleasure to talk with him about the world and its people … as well as its problems."

Von Suttner was also impressed by Nobel's commitment to world peace, although she was less certain about his ideas on how to end war. Nobel insisted that it was "nonsense to demand immediate and total disarmament as a path of peace," since "the road to peace leads only through the graveyard." He lamented that "my explosives lack sufficient effectiveness to end war," and he predicted that war would not be abolished until "it is just as deadly for women and children as for troops at the front." Europe's armaments race would end only when the day came that "any two army corps can destroy each other in a second."

Within a week of her arrival in Paris, she received a telegram from Arthur von Suttner proposing marriage. "I cannot live without you," it read. Bertha responded with an identical reply, and quickly returned to Austria. Since his family continued to oppose their marriage—Bertha was 33 and Arthur was 26—the couple decided to marry secretly, in a provincial chapel near Vienna.

Knowing that they were not going to be welcomed by his family, they decided to leave Austria, moving instead to the Caucasus section of Russia, near the border with the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). Bertha's family had friends in that area, and it was thought that one of them might secure for Arthur a position in the government of the Russian tsar, Alexander II. They settled in the Caucasus with "a mixture of adventurousness and hope."

The job never materialized, and Bertha and Arthur struggled to make a living; he gave German lessons to eager Russians, and she taught piano. When war broke out in 1877 between Russia and Turkey, Arthur discovered that Austrian newspapers would pay him for sending them letters about the war, written from the viewpoint of an Austrian who was actually living near the fighting. Eventually, he began to write full articles for pay, generally for both newspapers and magazines. Von Suttner helped her husband and, in time, began writing articles of her own.

In 1885, Arthur's parents asked the couple to come back to Austria. They returned, not as wayward children but as financially independent adults. But von Suttner found the atmosphere of the family mansion at Harmannsdorf to be stifling and dull. "I am no stranger to loneliness," she wrote, "but family life here is the most tedious imaginable." To pass the time, she continued her writing, and in early 1889 produced her first novel, Das Maschinenzeitalter (The Machine Age). It consisted of imaginary lectures by an observer, living in the future, who commented on conditions at the second half of the 19th century. In it, von Suttner—who listed her name as Jemand (German for someone) because she feared that potential readers might pass over a book written by a woman—criticized the narrowness of opinions in her time, as well as the exaggerated nationalisms, the double standards of morality for men and women, and the need to emancipate women from outdated conventions. The book set the tone for much of her subsequent writings, which she summarized as directed against the "enemies of mankind, brutality and lies."

To von Suttner, the topic of war was a logical one for her next novel. She had lived through, and remembered, wars in 1859 (Italy and Austria), 1864 (the German states and Denmark), 1866 (Austria and Prussia), and 1870–71 (France and Prussia). When she and Arthur occasionally journeyed to Paris to visit Alfred Nobel, she noticed the frequent talk of war with Germany. She became convinced that the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck was promoting talk of war with France as a way to convince the German Reichstag, a parliamentary body, to increase the military budget.

By the time Das Maschinenzeitalter appeared, she had already begun writing a novel entitled Die Waffen Nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!). In her research for the novel, she read newspaper accounts of recent wars, interviewed veterans, and read government documents. The fact that the novel was told from the viewpoint of a suffering woman would prove to be the basis for much of its popular appeal. Die Waffen Nieder! described the experiences of a woman, Martha Althaus, during the wars of 1859, 1864, 1866, and 1870–71. Of aristocratic birth (like Bertha), Martha loses her first husband in the Italian-Austrian war of 1859. Lamenting the "uselessness of sacrificed lives," Martha sees her second husband, an Austrian army officer, go off to war with Prussia in 1866.

When, in a dream, she thinks that she hears him call for help, she wanders through the battlefields of Europe, looking for his body. This portion of the novel gave von Suttner the opportunity to describe graphically the aftermath of battles, including the piles of dead bodies. Suffering a nervous breakdown, Martha returns home, where she finds her husband, alive. The two commit themselves to fight for peace with the same vigor that soldiers pursued war. "Who takes up a mission and works for it, must give up his life for it, even if he realizes how little one person can be responsible for the success of a cause," von Suttner argued. The novel, in its conclusion, asserts that "when millions find satisfaction in seeing the triumph of peace, the fortifications of war will fall to pieces. Millions will join us."

Publisher after publisher rejected the novel. One wrote her that it was impossible to publish such an antiwar novel "in our military state." When the book was finally published, however, it was a quick success. Twelve editions appeared in the first six years, and it was quickly translated into eight European languages. Nobel wrote von Suttner that her book should appear "in 2,000 tongues and should be published, read, and thought over in each one of them." He termed her an "Amazon who is vigorously waging war against war." When she moved to take advantage of the book's popularity by establishing an Austrian peace society in 1891, he sent her 2,000 francs and a completed membership application. The book also stimulated the formation of civic and regional peace societies in Germany.

In her continuing correspondence with Nobel, von Suttner worked to convince him to leave money in his will to establish a prize for individuals and organizations working for peace. Nobel had planned to leave money to reward significant scientific work, but he was intrigued by von Suttner's ideas and wrote asking her to "instruct me and convince me … and I will do great things for your movement." Von Suttner was the individual most responsible for convincing him to add a peace prize to his planned endowments.

By the time of Die Waffen Nieder!, von Suttner's pacifism had begun to diverge considerably from Nobel's conviction that an arms race might lead to peace and that his weapons would bring a more rapid end to war than her peace congresses. She maintained that military weapons always seem to acquire new lives, and their only purpose is to cause death. She sought a "new world order open to all national states." "Do not tell me," she proclaimed, "that a unified Europe is a mad dream; it is the only salvation." Her friend Alfred Fried observed that she could have lived a lazy life of luxury, but chose, instead, to brave ridicule as a "naive woman" because she thought that "peace is more important than any one government."

Die Waffen Nieder! made her a celebrity at international conferences and peace meetings, where she was at ease in dealing with European diplomats and generals. Only the Germans snubbed her, she complained. She also noted that "as a woman" she was frequently not invited to men-only dinners honoring other prominent pacifists of the day. Nevertheless, she became a prized speaker at the meetings of peace organizations.

Fried noted that she was often invited to speak not because of her speaking style, but because of her ideas and her sincerity. He reported that she spoke quite undramatically—in too low a voice, he said—but in a regal, almost matronly manner. He added, however, that he thought her "regal manner" was partly the result of her tendency, because of nearsightedness, to point her head slightly upward so that she could more easily read from her speaking notes.

Since women were forbidden by Austrian law to serve in the Austrian government, she chose, in the years from 1890 until her death, to become heavily involved in a variety of peace organizations and conferences, including the International Arbitration and Peace Society in London, founded in 1880 by Hogsdon Pratt; the War and Peace Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland, whose opening she attended with Arthur; the Berne Peace Congress of 1892; and the Inter-planetary Union, which laid a basis for the later League of Nations. Together with Fried, she founded the pacifist journal Die Waffen Nieder! in 1892; its name was changed to Friedens-Warte (Peace Watch) in 1899.

Although she attended both Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1908, she complained that the agenda had been set by diplomats and professional military men. She called for a third conference which would exclude anyone who "profited from war" or whose career was related to war.

Arthur died in 1902. One of their last joint activities was the founding of the League against anti-Semitism. They had both been horrified by the Dreyfus Affair in France, in which a French

Jew, a military officer, had been accused of treason and imprisoned on Devil's Island. When they heard acquaintances make statements like "Dreyfus belongs on Devil's Island, and all the Jews along with him," they became convinced that the charges against Dreyfus were motivated by anti-Semitism rather than fact. Arthur ran the organization on a day-to-day basis, while Bertha wrote publicity for the organization in which she attacked prominent European anti-Semites such as the French Count Joseph de Gobineau and the German writer Houston Stewart Chamberlain. She accused them of being "superpatriots touting the superiority of a single race."

She especially regretted her husband's absence when, in 1905, a telegram arrived from Oslo, Norway. Since the telegram had "charges due," she dismissed the delivery man without accepting it. Having second thoughts, she immediately called him back, and read: "Dearest Madam: It is a great pleasure to inform you that at its session today the Nobel committee decided to honor you with its peace prize." She traveled to Oslo to receive the prize on April 18, 1906. In her address at the ceremony, she called for an international organization of nations to arrange for, and monitor, world peace, and for "international standards of behavior for nations."

Now an international celebrity, von Suttner visited the United States twice, in 1904 and (for a lecture tour) in 1911. She received the accolades of American President Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow Nobel laureate who told her, "World Peace is coming, without a doubt, it is coming." In turn, she praised "the wealth, the splendor, and the unbounded possibilities of the American nation." She returned to Europe with some of that wealth; the Carnegie Peace Foundation, founded by the industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie, awarded her a lifelong pension as a reward for her work for peace.

The early years of the 20th century alarmed her. She complained that the major European nations were involved in an arms race in which new weapons would be introduced purely for the purpose of terrorizing the enemy. In an article entitled "The Militarization of the Air," she warned that the newly invented airplane would become a weapon of terror, making women and children vulnerable to attack even if they were located well behind battle lines. She also saw the seeds of a terror weapon in scientific work on radium. While not anticipating the atomic bomb, she did warn that future wars would use "radium rays" which would have "terrible effects" on soldiers.

Her thoughts on future weapons were not the only area where she proved to be a prophet. She worried about the continual wars, in the early years of the 20th century, between the new nations of the Balkan peninsula. She condemned the "cheap sentimentalism" of journalists and soldiers who found the Balkans Wars to be "fascinating and exhilarating." When she died in 1914, her death came less than ten days before the event that would start World War I—the assassination, in the Balkan city of Sarajevo, of the heir to the throne of her native Austria.


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

Lengyel, Emil. And All Her Paths were Peace: The Life of Bertha von Suttner. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1975.

Suttner, Bertha von. Memoiren. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1901.

suggested reading:

Pauli, Hertha . Cry of the Heart: The Story of Bertha von Suttner. Trans. by Richard and Clara Winston. NY: Ives Washburn, 1957.

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


Many of the papers of Bertha von Suttner are held in the Library of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Much of her correspondence with Alfred Nobel is housed in the Nobel Foundation at Stockholm, Sweden.

Niles Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal-Bloomington, Illinois