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Bertha von Suttner: The great peace campaigner

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the pacifist campaigner Bertha von Suttner, a woman not intimidated by anyone she met, even the most powerful men in the world

Bertha von Suttner, in 1911 - Credit: Getty Images

She may have been the daughter of a Count who became a Baroness but Bertha von Suttner never really had it easy. First through circumstance, then by choice, she found herself to be an almost permanent outsider. Of noble birth but frequently penurious, an outspoken pacifist in a time of near constant conflict, she would never hide who she was or where she had come from. Once she found her calling – a burning antipathy to war – she was prepared to take on the most powerful men in the world while never pretending to be anything other than the person she was.

When she wrote her memoirs a confidant asked Suttner whether such an honest account of her childhood and youth might be detrimental to the image of a woman known worldwide as ‘Bertha for Peace’, the woman who prompted Alfred Nobel to instigate his peace prize and then in 1905 became the first woman to win it.

“Such a shallow, tawdry, small youth I had,” she replied. “I did not have to tell about it but while I was writing I fell under a kind of spell telling me – be truthful! Be completely truthful! The truth is the only source from which lessons can flow.”

For the first three decades of her life it looked as though Bertha von Suttner was destined to be a disappointed woman who would leave no mark on the world.

She never knew her father, a Count from the Czech House of Kinsky and a Lieutenant-General in the Austrian army who died at the age of 75, shortly before she was born. Her mother Sophie, 50 years her husband’s junior, was the daughter of an army captain, a commoner, an unusual union in terms of age alone, but the mixture of classes was enough to have Bertha and her mother excluded from Austro-Hungarian high society.

The Count had been a third son so there was no fortune to fall back on. Sophie tried everything to reverse the household’s financial difficulties but it’s fair to say she didn’t exactly have a head for business. By the summer of 1856 Bertha’s mother had convinced herself that she and her sister were clairvoyants, decamping with 13-year-old Bertha and her cousin Elvira to Wiesbaden for the summer where they planned to make a killing at the gaming tables by harnessing their supernatural powers. Not only did they win absolutely nothing, they lost everything they had.

Bertha’s subsequent teen summers were similarly spent at some European spa resort or other that boasted a number of casinos where the sisters tried and failed repeatedly to channel their extra-sensory powers to bypass the chance factor in games of chance. Their more earthbound time away from the tables was spent pushing Bertha in front of potential wealthy suitors.

There were a couple of brief engagements to much older men but by 1872 Bertha was almost 30 and, having decided that marriage to a doddery Prussian noble living in a draughty castle was not the life for her, training to be an opera singer in the hope of a career as a soprano. Then, in Wiesbaden that summer, she met Prince Adolf zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Hohenstein, a singer himself who spoke of the fortunes he was going to make imminently in America. The couple were soon engaged, Bertha having no idea Adolf was practically bankrupt. When he died on a ship to America, apparently as a result of severe seasickness, while attempting to escape his debts, Bertha realised she was going to have to make her own way. For too long she’d relied on others to provide her with a future and a sense of fulfilment. From then on she would take her destiny into her own hands.

“Seek not good from without,” she would later say in her speeches in support of peace, “seek it within yourselves or you will never find it”.

Chronic stage fright having curtailed her hopes of a performing career, instead she took a job as tutor to the four daughters of Karl, Baron von Suttner, at their palace in Vienna. Before long she fell in love with the girls’ brother Arthur, seven years her junior, but the Baron disapproved of the union and forbade them to marry. At one point Bertha even left the household to work as secretary to Alfred Nobel in Paris, triggering the lifelong friendship that inspired the peace prize, but missed Arthur so much that she returned to Vienna, married him in secret, then left with him for Georgia.

There they lived at first in a small wooden house in Kutaisi, then in the capital Tbilisi, working as teachers for local aristocratic families as well as writing and translating. Most significantly they read voraciously, works by writers like Charles Darwin and Henry Thomas Buckle, developing their belief that peace was a natural human trait and a key achievement of evolution.

After seven years in the Caucasus the Suttners finally reconciled with Arthur’s family and returned to Austria in 1885, and four years later the 1889 publication of her bestselling novel Die Waffen nieder!, translated into English as Lay Down Your Arms!, established Bertha as a leading figure in the global peace movement. Believing correctly that a novel would have wider appeal than a non-fiction treatise, Suttner told the story of Austrian countess Martha Althaus and her experiences living through four European wars. A searing indictment of militarism – not to mention the patriarchal society – it remained the only German language novel to tackle the morality of war until Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) was published in 1929.

The book was a sensation, translated into a dozen languages. Tsar Nicholas II requested an audience after reading it and became the driving force behind the first international peace convention in the Hague in 1899. Before long Suttner found herself chair of both the Austrian and German Peace Societies as well as editor of the international pacifist journal Die Waffen nieder!, named after her novel.

Despite the death of her husband in 1902, at the dawn of the 20th century Suttner was busier than ever, travelling Europe on lecture tours and, attending the International Congress of Women in Berlin in 1904 and embarking the same year on a seven-month tour of the United States. There she met Theodore Roosevelt and was not impressed.

“Mr Roosevelt poses as a friend of peace,” she said, “but his protestations are insincere. While he talks peace he dreams of war and the cause has nothing to hope of him.”

She became such an influential global figure partly because of this refusal to be cowed or intimidated by anyone, not least the most powerful men in the world. She’d had more than her fair share of having to ingratiate herself with inadequate men during her youth. Now she had a purpose, a calling, and she would compromise for nobody, not even presidents.

Her Nobel Peace Prize win in 1905 made headlines across the globe, with Pope Leo XIII greeting the news by labelling Suttner “the most remarkable woman in the world”. She worked tirelessly, constantly travelling, giving speech after speech, rallying supporters wherever she was needed, challenging the powerful whenever she could, even when she realised cancer was eating away at her with no hope of respite. Her mission, she believed, was bigger than she was and she had to keep going.

As the world entered a tense second decade of the 20th century Suttner could see the clouds of war gathering on the horizon and, despite approaching her eighth decade, intensified her efforts. When she died on June 21, 1914, she was in the middle of organising a huge international peace conference later that year.

Exactly a week after her death Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo and within a month the world embarked on a war that would plumb new depths in slaughter and destruction. Bertha von Suttner might not have been around to see it but she’d predicted it and tried to warn against it, hammering home her three-fold message of peace.

“As a religion we must preach it, as a science we must teach it, and as warfare we must fight in it,” she said.

“The world is poorer for the death Baroness von Suttner,” wrote the Hungarian peace activist Rosika Schwimmer in The Englishwoman after her death. “She was one those personalities who raise humanity to a level society would not have reached until much later without her strong but gentle help.”