Like many U.S. citizens, I’ve been watching the daily news with shock and horror as the country endures yet another wave of hatred and violence, with the most recent deadly attack taking place at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the same time, I’ve been revising scenes in my historical novel Peace at Last that address the spread of anti-Semitism throughout Europe in the 1890s.
As you might imagine, the parallels are frightening, both in terms of the actions themselves and the responses from across the political spectrum.
The roots of contemporary anti-Semitism extend beyond 20th-century Nazi Germany to the late 1800s. Just months before Bertha von Suttner founded her first peace society in 1891, her husband Artur convened the Union for Resistance to Anti-Semitism in Vienna in response to spikes in violence against Jewish people. Both of them strongly and publicly condemned such prejudice, despite repeated warnings from allies and adversaries to avoid the subject altogether. Editors often rejected their articles on the grounds that the issue was “unpleasant” and that such hostilities would simply “fade away like influenza.” Bertha described hateful anonymous letters sent by readers as “usually permeated with anti-Semitic spirit…and, along with that, always the friendly advice to return to the cooking pot and knitting needle.”
In her book The Machine Age, Bertha asked, “How is this possible in our humanitarian and enlightened century? It’s a disgrace, a remnant of barbarism, of religious mania.” Later, she reflected on her response to anti-Semitism in her memoirs, writing, “One must always resist injustice. There is no alternative. Silence, even though it intends to express disdain, is itself disdainful. It’s not enough for those affected to react; those who are unaffected must also revolt against injustice wherever they see it. Their silence is complicity, motivated by the same emotion as the victims’ silence—namely, fear.”
I’ve been rereading the correspondence between Bertha and her friend Bartholomaus Carneri, an Austrian statesman who lost his 1891 re-election bid to one of the newly emboldened anti-Semitic candidates. As a philosopher, Carneri was one of the first to apply Darwin’s theories of evolution to moral and ethical thinking. Though both he and Bertha firmly believed in evolution, he warned her that evolution in a positive direction—toward “the ideal,” as Alfred Nobel would have put it—could not be taken for granted.
In dramatizing their conversations, I paraphrase Carneri’s elaboration on the English biologist Herbert Spencer’s notion of the “survival of the fittest,” often mistakenly credited to Darwin and over-simplified as “only the strongest survive.” In fact, a creature’s ability to adapt to—or fit—its environment, not its strength or stubborn adherence to old ways, provides a far better indicator of its chances at survival. Carneri tells Bertha, “Toxic environments may favor toxic creatures, not necessarily the most decent and just. With that in mind, we must not merely be messengers of peace; we must create and preserve a culture of peace to ensure its survival.”
These days, I fear the resurgence of toxic sociopolitical environments around the world. I also worry that the peace movement has not been proactive enough in establishing and maintaining a healthy culture capable of countering that regression. In short, it needs help, yours and mine alike.
When I tell people that I’m writing about the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and one of the most influential and popular writers of her time, many people ask, “Why haven’t I ever heard about her?” Anti-Semitism forms a large part of the answer. In book after book, Bertha advocated a noble and idealistic society in which science and the arts flourished alongside rational political discourse and diplomacy. She railed against the prevailing militarism and nationalism of her day, both of which fostered conflict and contempt for “the other.” After taking on the related issue of anti-Semitism in all its permutations, critics labeled her “JudenBertha,” a Jew-lover, and she was eventually considered an enemy of the state.
Bertha’s books were among the first targeted for burning by the Nazis, and few original copies exist. Luckily, two first editions of her landmark novel Lay Down Your Arms! in Alfred Nobel’s possession have survived the purges. In 1940, the writer Hertha Pauli, who had written some of the earliest biographies of both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner, was forced to flee her Vienna home in advance of the Nazi occupation. She and her family later emigrated to the United States from France to escape further persecution. Upon her return to Austria, she wrote, “I found that the Suttner memoirs, diaries, and letters I had drawn upon had been destroyed by the Nazis. Then I knew that her life must not be forgotten.” Slowly, researchers and writers such as the late Brigitte Hamann, who wrote a biography of Hitler as well as the definitive book on Suttner, have been rediscovering and preserving the previously lost and scattered remnants of Bertha’s life.
It took decades for European anti-Semitism to reach its most horrific levels during the Holocaust. Sadly, like racism and other barbaric forms of prejudice, it has survived into the present, with various political figures adapting its message of intolerance to suit their own needs and desires. The ability of today’s social media platforms to amplify and escalate such hateful messaging shortens the time frame in which more rational and reasonable responses might triumph. Despite the increased challenge, the “most decent and just” among us have an even greater responsibility to act.
As Bertha firmly believed, silence is not an option.