The news of escalating tensions in Europe continues to be dispiriting.
Likewise, debates over book-banning (such as recent U.S. school districts banning books on slavery, gay/lesbian culture, and the Holocaust, among other topics) and authoritarian attempts to rewrite history (such as Vladimir Putin’s efforts to distort and deny Ukraine’s independence) continue to challenge our attempts to see the past clearly and navigate a rational and fact-based path into a more peaceful and prosperous future.
This, too, is not new.
Here’s a quote from Bertha von Suttner’s 1887 book Das Maschinenalter (later renamed Das Maschinenzeitalter, which roughly translates into The Machine Age, though no English translation of the book currently exists), in which she imagined speaking about her present (the 19th century) from a vantage point in the future (the 20th century). She originally published the book anonymously, knowing all too well that a philosophy book written by a woman would not, at that time, be taken seriously.
Like many around the world, I’ve been holding my breath as I monitor the news and worry, more than ever before in my lifetime, that the western world is hurtling toward all-out war with Russia over Ukraine. While NATO leaders struggle to keep diplomatic lines open in the hopes of finding peaceful paths forward, Vladimir Putin seems intent on finding some justification, even a manufactured provocation, for the invasion and overthrow of an independent neighboring country.
The world has been here before, and it ended horribly.
In March of 1914, just three months before her death and the outbreak of World War I, Bertha von Suttner wrote, “It is a sinister and disgraceful activity that currently dominates international politics and journalism. Nothing but mutual suspicions, accusations, agitation. Well, that is an adequate chorus for the proliferating cannons, the airplanes that test-drop bombs, and for war ministries that always demand more.”
Just a month later, Bertha wrote, “The all-sided suggestion of the (not a) coming world war does not want to stop. At present—in view of the official peace declarations of the Russian politicians about the Russian danger —it has become quiet; on the other hand, Romania is put up as the latest spectre of terror. … This is now the subject of long and broad discussion; once again a welcome fuse has been found for the European powder keg that is longing for explosion.”
Passages such as these haunt me as I continue work on a new revision of Peace at Last. I am also reminded of a recollection by the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, who wrote in his memoir The World of Yesterday of an encounter with Bertha in May of 1913:
“Next day I happened to meet Bertha von Suttner, the generous and magnificent Cassandra of our times. An aristocrat from one of the first families in the land, in her early youth she had seen the horrors of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 come close to their hereditary castle in Bohemia. With the passion of a Florence Nightingale, she saw only one task in life for herself—preventing a second war, preventing war in general. She wrote a novel entitled Die Waffen nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!), which was an international success; she organized countless pacifist meetings, and the great triumph of her life was that she aroused the conscience of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. He was induced to make up for the damage his invention had caused by setting up the Nobel Peace Prize to foster international understanding. She came toward me in a state of great agitation. ‘People don’t realize what’s going on,’ she cried out loud in the street, although she usually spoke in quiet, kindly, and composed tones. War was so close, and they were hiding everything from us and keeping it secret as usual. ‘Why don’t you young people do something? It’s more your business than anyone’s! Resist! Close ranks! Don’t keep leaving everything up to a few old women like us. No one listens to us!’
“I told her that I was going to Paris, and perhaps we could try to draw up a joint manifesto there.
“‘Why perhaps?’ she urged me. ‘Things look worse than ever. The wheels have begun turning.’ Uneasy as I was myself, I had difficulty in calming her down.”
Life on Earth has changed dramatically over the course of COVID pandemic. To burden humanity with a world war of any size at this time, especially as climate change continues to alter ecosystems around the globe, would prove disastrous. Our hopes and dreams for the future have already been compromised; the costs and consequences of war might reduce them to impossible fantasies.
“Whenever, in conversation with younger friends, I mention something that happened to me before the First World War,” wrote Zweig during the Second World War, “their startled questions make me realize how much of what I still take for granted as reality has become either past history or unimaginable to them. And a lurking instinct in me says that they are right; all the bridges are broken between today, yesterday, and the day before yesterday.”
I remain hopeful that somehow we will find a peaceful way to preserve such bridges between past and present, present and future.
SOURCES: The background image at the top is a still from the 1914 Danish film version of Lay Down Your Arms!, shown globally, about which I will write more in the months ahead. Brinker-Gabeler, Gisela, ed. Kämpferin für den Frieden: Bertha von Suttner. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1982. Pages 167–168. Zweig, Stefan. The World of Yesterday, translated by Althea Bell, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2013. Original title Die Welt von Gestern, Williams Verlag, Zurich, 1942. Pages xiii and 231–232.