1889. Nationalism and imperialism are driving wedges between European neighbours. War is festering on the horizon, a Great War the likes of which had never been seen. Behind the scenes, countries are hurrying to stockpile arms in preparation for what’s to come. They see war as inevitable, unstoppable.
Amidst the cries for blood, there is a solitary voice calling for peace. The voice of Baroness Bertha von Suttner, captured in her pacifist novel Lay Down Your Arms!
The voice that would define the value of peace for decades to come.
Bertha Felicitas Sophie Freifrau Kinsky was born on June 9, 1843, at Prague’s Kinský Palace.
Though a noble by birthright, Suttner never enjoyed the lavish luxury that royalty infers. Her father, a Lieutenant General in the Austrian army, died shortly before her birth. Suttner’s mother, 50 years junior and of lower social status than her husband’s family, was excluded from noble life.
Struggling for money, Suttner and her mother were forced to leave the palace and move in with a relative. Suttner’s older brother, Arthur, was sent to military school shortly after, and had little contact with the family from then on.
Though private tutors served to provide Suttner with basic schooling, it was her cousin Elvira that had the most profound impact on Suttner’s education when she introduced her to literature and philosophy. They would fuel the passion that would come to define her legacy.
Over the following years, Suttner’s situation would go from bad to worse. Her aunt and mother, believing themselves clairvoyant, went on a gambling holiday in the summer of 1856. Their losses were so extreme that the family was forced to move. They regained their losses by 1859, only to lose them all again in exactly the same way. Suttner was engaged to a famous journalist in an attempt to deal with the family’s burgeoning debt. 31 years her senior, she was repulsed by the notion of marrying an old man for the sake of money.
Throughout this turmoil, Suttner focused on her writing. Her first novella, Endertraüme im Monde, was published that same year. But it was her other love, singing, that offered the most immediate escape from her predicament.
Suttner trained for four hours a day with coaches in Paris and Baden-Baden, but though her skill developed, she was never able to conquer her fear of the stage.
With no other choice, she agreed to be engaged to a Prussian prince, but he died at sea while attempting to escape his own debts in 1872.
Pressure mounted for Suttner – now over the ‘marriageable’ age – to please a new suitor. Instead, she took a job as a tutor for the von Suttner family.
Here, she would find love with the eldest boy, Arthur. She readily agreed when he proposed to her, but his family took objection to the marriage.
Suttner remained in the role for three years, until successfully applying to become a secretary for acclaimed philanthropist Alfred Nobel.
The relationship that formed as a result would become historic.
Nobel and Suttner would keep in touch for the rest of his life, but in the meantime, Suttner only remained in the job for a few weeks before sneaking back to Austria to marry Arthur von Suttner in secret.
The couple eloped to Kutaisi, Georgia, where they taught language and music while living in a run-down, three room, wooden house.
Both remained writers, and when the Russo-Turkish war broke out in 1877, they covered it as reporters. Over the next decade, Arthur would take various odd jobs, while Suttner focused on her writing.
She worked as a correspondent for German newspapers, before contributing her own article, Inventory of the Soul, in 1883. The piece argued for global disarmament, calling world peace an inevitability due to evolution and technological advancement. The article was read by many across Europe, including Nobel, who shared her sentiment.
The following year, Suttner’s mother died, and the young couple had the burden of her debts thrust upon them. With the added concern of mounting hostility between Russia and Austria, the couple felt compelled to return to their homeland. Fortunately, Arthur’s family had come to accept their marriage, and welcomed them home lovingly.
There, the two commenced their work as journalists, and by 1889, Suttner was an icon of the Austrian peace movement.
Lay Down Your Arms! served, in turn, to make her a hero of the peace movement all across Europe. Published in 37 editions, and in 12 languages, it led to Suttner being appointed chairwoman of the German Peace Society the following year, and editor of the pacifist journal Neue Freie Presse.
By 1897, she had garnered the reputation and authority which allowed her to deliver to the Austrian Emperor a petition demanding the establishment of an International Court of Justice.
Nobel died in 1896, and left a will that outlined his request for an international award to be established with the majority of his assets. It is believed that Suttner was the primary influence in his decision to include a peace prize, due to his stipulation for the awarding of the prize:
“For the man or woman who induced Europe to take the first step towards the idea of peace.”
It was no surprise then that Suttner was the fifth recipient of the Nobel Peace prize in 1905. She was the first woman to receive the prize, and the second woman overall, after Marie Curie.
A few years later, Suttner became ill with cancer. But with World War I looming, she only worked harder to ensure her message was heard.
Bertha von Suttner would succumb to her illness on June 21st, 1914, mere weeks before the outbreak of the first World War.
Though her work ultimately did not stay the hand of world leaders it was, as Nobel referenced, the first step.
The UN would establish an International Court of Justice in June of 1945, and in the decades that have followed, Suttner’s call for peace resonates as loudly as ever.
Her name, however, has been all but forgotten. So take the time to share Suttner’s story, and her message.