The Red Cross Controversy

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Jean Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross and first Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient

Disputes often erupt around the announcement of Nobel Peace Prize winner, and this was true from the very beginning. Many peace activists assumed that the first recipient would be Bertha von Suttner in the firm belief that Alfred Nobel had created the prize with her in mind all along. Instead, the first prize, awarded in 1901, was split between the French economist Frédéric Passy and Henri Dunant, the Swiss-born founder of the Red Cross.

Of the two, Dunant was the more controversial. Though Suttner and others admired the Red Cross for its humanitarian work and philosophy, they worried that treating wounded soldiers and sending them back into battle (as opposed to sending them home to heal fully from their wounds) only led to greater injury and prolonged periods of warfare. They argued that Nobel had intended the Peace Prize to help deter and end armed conflict, not to facilitate its continuance.

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Handwritten draft of Dunant’s “Un Souvenir du Solferino”

Suttner and Dunant were no strangers to one another. In fact, Suttner likely relied quite heavily on Dunant’s firsthand account of the 1859 Franco-Austrian war, A Memory of Solferino, to write some of the more graphic descriptions of battle in her own bestseller, Lay Down Your Arms! The battle of Solferino, during which Dunant recruited civilians to help tend to the wounded, inspired him to establish the Red Cross. His thoughts and ideas would later provide the foundation for the first Geneva Convention.

After receiving his award, Dunant wrote to Suttner, “This prize, gracious lady, is your work, for through your instrumentality, Mr. Nobel became devoted to the peace movement, and at your suggestion, he became its promoter.” Four more years would pass before the Norwegian Storting, the governing body charged with deciding amongst the nominees, awarded Bertha von Suttner her own long-awaited Nobel Peace Prize.

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An artist’s depiction of Henri Dunant tending to the wounded in the aftermath of the battle at Solferino

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Continuous Education

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Portrait of Bertha von Suttner (1894) by Adrienne Gräfin Potting. The painting now hangs at Schloss Harmannsdorf, once Bertha’s home in Austria.

In 1912, Bertha von Suttner addressed the National Education Association of the United States of America and declared, “It seems to me that education must be continuous, and that the greatest educators are life and experience.” As she well knew at the time, life and experience were often the only two avenues for learning available to women, who were still barred from pursuing a more formal education in many countries.

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“Martha’s Tagebuch,” published in 1897, was adapted from Suttner’s novel “Lay Down Your Arms” and became “the first work of German pacifist children’s literature” (Roderick McGillis, 2003).

As part of her efforts to spread the message of peace from her landmark best-seller, Lay Down Your Arms!: The Autobiography of Martha von Tilling, Bertha worked with her close friend and fellow writer Hedwig Gräfin Potting (whom she jokingly referred to as “Hex,” from the German word for “witch”) to create and publish a version of the book that might appeal to younger audiences and help educate them about the horrific costs of war. Based on the life and experiences of the original novel’s central character, Martha’s Tagebuch (Martha’s Diary) features several illustrations by Hedwig’s sister Adrienne, who years earlier had painted a youthful portrait of the world-famous author.

With the gracious help of my friend Patty Paige-Pfennig in Wiesbaden, I’ve been fortunate to obtain a first edition of the book, one that had been tucked away in an old barn in Germany. Even though Bertha was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, her resounding calls for peace and disarmament were regarded as a serious threat to the militaristic leaders of her day. Many of Bertha’s published works and personal effects were destroyed by the Nazis and other fascist groups in the decades between World Wars I and II, so the book is a rare find indeed.

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The fictional Martha von Tilling, based in large part on Bertha von Suttner herself, writes in her journal. Illustration from “Martha’s Tagebuch” by Hedwig Gräfin Potting.

Writing a historical novel involves following a number of paths and tangents, some of which can result in an author’s falling “down the rabbit hole” and losing track of the original story and its themes. In this instance, however, I’m thankful to have discovered an important secondary character for the book in Hedwig “Hex” Potting, especially as Hex was one the very first people to learn that Bertha had finally been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. I look forward to sharing more stories of the lives and experiences of such engaging characters as I continue to follow in the footsteps of Bertha von Suttner and Alfred Nobel.

Building Momentum

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After a successful research trip to Europe that included a talk on Bertha von Suttner at the Peace Palace in The Hague (see photo above), I’m excited to share some other good news related to Peace at Last.

For starters, I’ve been awarded a generous grant from the Vermont Arts Council to develop stand-alone excerpts from the novel. The first of these, entitled “Koppargruva,” will be published by the literary journal Ploughshares as part of their “Solos” series in the 2016-17 season. This chapter builds upon some new and intriguing research about Alfred Nobel’s trip to the United States in 1866, shortly after the end of Civil War. The second excerpt, entitled “Le Trac” (a French term for stagefright), will follow Bertha’s frustrated attempts at a singing career during her stay in Paris in the years just prior to the Franco-Prussian War. I am grateful to the Vermont Studio Center for providing me with a scholarship to work on developing and editing these sections during an upcoming, month-long residency.

With news of the project’s increasing momentum, I look forward to updating this blog more regularly and posting more photographs from research trips, especially those that relate to key scenes in the novel. In the meantime, the manuscript continues to grow, revealing new insights into both Alfred and Bertha on an almost daily basis. I look forward to sharing some of these discoveries here in the weeks and months ahead!