“Wealthy Gentleman Seeks Mature Lady”

For over a century, biographers of both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner have searched far and wide for the initial catalyst that drew them together: his newspaper advertisement in a Viennese newspaper for a secretary/housekeeper at his home in Paris. The only available clue for historians was Bertha’s account of the job posting in her memoirs: “A very wealthy, cultured, elderly gentleman, living in Paris, desires to find a lady also of mature years, familiar with languages, as secretary and manager of his household.”

At the time of the advertisement’s publication, Bertha’s secret affair with Artur Suttner, the son of her employer, had just been discovered by his disapproving parents. Having been asked to relinquish her position as governess to Arthur’s younger sisters, the job posting provided a rare opportunity for a woman of her talents. It would also keep Bertha and Artur far apart, which would have pleased his parents immensely.

A few years ago, I sat down for coffee at the Nobelmuseet in Stockholm with curator Ulf Larsson, whose fascinating book Alfred Nobel: Networks of Innovation provides a wealth of information and images from an exhibit of the same name. When I asked him about the sought-after advertisement, he replied that someone might have found it after all, but that it remained both unverified and inconclusive. Most scholars agreed that it had probably appeared in the Neue Freie Presse, but searches through that paper’s archives (my own included) had turned up nothing. Having unsuccessfully chased down many such ambiguous leads during my own research, I moved on to other topics.

My recent conversations with peace studies scholar Peter van den Dungen reignited my curiosity about this purported secretarial advertisement. In 2019, the Swedish journalist Ingrid Carlberg published a new biography of Alfred Nobel, Nobel: Den gåtfulle Alfred, hans värld och hans priser (Nobel: The Enigmatic Alfred, His World and His Prizes). The book features new and in-depth research from her travels across multiple countries. Over the course of several pages, she documents her own unsuccessful efforts to find the advertisement that Bertha had described. By process of elimination, however, she settles instead on something from the Illustriertes Wiener Extrablatt more closely resembling a personal ad: “A wealthy elderly gentleman in need of spiritual stimulation seeks acquaintance with an educated beautiful girl or widow, whom he is willing to support with advice and deeds. A marriage may not be excluded. Reply under ‘Good luck’” Carlberg concludes, “This ad is more likely than the one Bertha von Suttner reproduced. … So while awaiting the critical review that is the basis of all truth-seeking activity, not just science, I venture the claim that (this) ad may actually be the right one.”

This ad, on an intuitive level at least, didn’t sound to me at all like Alfred. Likewise, it didn’t sound like anything that Bertha might have considered worthy of a response. She was madly in love with Artur and had demonstrated on numerous past occasions a strong and stubborn sense of self in matters of the heart. What she wanted was work, not romance.

Knowing that the world’s information databases have been growing almost exponentially day by day, I decided to hop down the proverbial rabbit hole once again. I reconnected with Ulf Larsson and reminded him of our conversation years ago. In his reply, he sent along a digital file of what might—or might not—be the advertisement in question. “A historian in Oslo received it from someone in Sweden some 15 years ago,” he wrote, “but no one remembers the source anymore. So I am not sure which newspaper it was and have not been able to check it.”

Here is the transcription of the German ad followed by a translation into English:

Gesuch.
Vermögender, hoch gebildeter äl-
terer Herr, in Paris wohnhaf,
such, wegen Anstellung einer
Sekretärin-Hausvorsteherin,
mit einer sprachkundigen Dame
im reifen Alter Kontakt.

Request.
Wealthy, well-educated elderly gentleman, living in Paris, seeks contact with a language-proficient lady of mature age for employment as a secretary-head of household.

[NOTE: While the original advertisement contains two errors (wohnhaf should be wohnhaft, and such should be sucht), my friend and professional translator Patricia Paige-Pfennig notes that the composition of the ad demonstrates a high level of sophistication and linguistic accuracy. Because of that, she believes that the errors are, in fact, typos. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Alfred purposefully introduced the errors himself in the hopes that any successful applicant would be both bold and confident enough to point them out. I once worked for someone who did things like that all the time. That, to me, sounds a lot more like Alfred than the ad mentioned by Carlberg above!]

This advertisement matches Bertha’s description so accurately that at first I worried someone had mocked it up as an illustration. This had been done previously with the apocryphal newspaper headline “The Merchant of Death is Dead,” a premature death announcement claimed by many biographical sources to have motivated Alfred to establish the Peace Prize.

Equipped with this physical specimen, however, the task of locating the original source—and thereby providing proper authentication—became much easier. Diving back into Vienna’s newspaper archives, I found that the style of the post matches the typeface and set-up of classified advertisements in the popular newspaper, Neues Wiener Tagblatt. It most likely appeared within the “Kleine Anzeigen” (small advertisements) section under the category “Dienst und Arbeit” (Services and Work). The number in the lower-right-hand corner also matches the newspaper’s tracking system for similar postings.

Via his own independent path of inquiry, Peter van den Dungen had come to some of the same conclusions. As with proper scientific experimentation, we were able to produce the same results under different conditions, thereby moving closer and closer toward proving a hypothesis and providing final authentication.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, the online archives for Neues Wiener Tagblatt are incomplete. Fearing that the issues I’ve been searching for had been lost or destroyed, I contacted the research department at the Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek. A few days later, librarian Daniela Köck responded that the particular volumes I was seeking had simply been overlooked in the digitization process. In fact, she now had the physical copies right there on her desk for my perusal and would request that they be scanned and properly archived.

I’m eager to complete this last step of authentication so that historians (and historical novelists such as myself) will at last have a more definitive time line for these important initial interactions between Alfred and Bertha. If only we could find the letters that she and he exchanged between Vienna and Paris as a result of this ad… For now at least, fiction (or, as some might call it, narrative nonfiction) will have to suffice to bridge the remaining gaps in their stories.

On the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations

Today the world celebrates the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, an international alliance forged in the crucible of World War II to prevent future military cataclysms. The preamble to the UN Charter lists four guiding aspirations:

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom
President Harry Truman watches as U.S. delegate Edward R. Stettinius signs the UN Charter

The United Nations succeeded the League of Nations, formed after the first World War in 1920. Though U.S. President Woodrow Wilson would receive a Nobel Peace Prize for his fundamental role in developing the league, the United States never joined as an official member. During the second World War, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill envisioned a stronger global organization and developed the Atlantic Charter, the seed from which the UN Charter sprang. Years later, the Nobel Peace Prize committee first acknowledged the role of the UN by honoring Ralph Bunche, a U.S. diplomat who helped bring about peace in the Middle East after the original negotiator was killed by extremists. Bunche was also the first person of color to become a Peace Prize laureate.

Interestingly, Woodrow Wilson and Bertha von Suttner spent some time together at Skibo, the luxurious Scottish castle owned by the American pacifist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Woodrow was then president of Princeton University; Bertha had hopes of convincing Carnegie to become her new patron after the death of Alfred Nobel some years earlier. It’s not hard to imagine Bertha bending Woodrow’s ear about peace during the long carriage ride from the train station to Carnegie’s countryside estate. In fact, their signatures appear, one atop the other, in Skibo’s guest registry.

At the Fourth World’s Peace Congress in Bern, Switzerland, in 1892, Bertha had co-sponsored a proposal concerning “the formation of a confederation of states on the basis of the solidarity of their interests.” She and her co-signers invited “all the societies in the world, especially at the time of political elections, to draw attention to the necessity of a permanent congress of nations, to which every international question should be submitted, so that every conflict may be settled by law and not by force.” Their vision would eventually be realized not only in the League of Nations and the United Nations but also in the establishment of the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Arbitration. These latter organizations are both housed in the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, a grand building funded in large part by Carnegie at the request of Suttner and her pacifist colleagues.

The Peace Palace in The Hague, the Netherlands

All of the efforts noted above evolved from centuries of philosophical inquiry, most notably, perhaps, from the written works of Hugo Grotius and Immanuel Kant. They also stand as a testament to the value of shared knowledge, received and transmitted through time. Imagine how our world leaders today might fulfill the goals of the U.N. charter if they educated themselves more deeply in the history and philosophy of pacifism. Such inquiries can inspire us all as we work together toward a more peaceful coexistence around the globe.

BONUS: Hear Sir Laurence Olivier read aloud the preamble to the UN Charter.

The Ignoble Nominees

Replicas of the Nobel Peace Prize inside the Nobelinstitutt building in Oslo, Norway.

This year, the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee reports that they have received 318 valid nominations for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. Per the committee’s standing rules, they will not publicly confirm, identify, or discuss any of these candidates for fifty years, a guideline that they likewise expect the wide range of nominating officials to honor. These stipulations, as well as details of the decision-making process itself, are clearly spelled out on the agency’s Web site. Even so, whenever the annual awards season nears, various parties begin to boast about their nominations and declaim the likelihood, pro or con, of their becoming one of the distinguished laureates. The prize itself becomes a political tool, an opportunity to promote self over society in ways that run counter to Nobel’s core ideals.

When Nobel envisioned the peace prize in his last will and testament, he established three criteria directly linked to the ongoing work of Bertha von Suttner and her contemporary pacifists: “fraternity between nations,” “the abolition and reduction of standing armies,” and “the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Future Nobel wannabes can quickly estimate their eligibility by evaluating their own efforts toward these three goals. Not surprisingly, perhaps, many who outwardly crave such a high honor are often among the least deserving. Any male U.S. politician who brags about developing new weapons of mass destruction, for example, might just as well campaign for the title of highest-scoring female South American soccer star. Such behavior not only demonstrates both disregard and disrespect for Nobel’s clearly stated wishes; it demeans the efforts of legitimate peacemakers around the globe.

The Peace Prize decision-making process. Nominations must be made by February 1.

Still, critics continue to point out that none of the five Nobel awards has avoided controversy of some sort during their history. The achievements of female scientists, such as Marie Curie, have long been shadowed by male counterparts; theories based on racist assumptions, such as eugenics, have been discredited over time. Likewise, some peace prize laureates, despite showing good faith and promise in their initial peacemaking efforts, eventually failed in their efforts or fell back upon more violent solutions in response to events around them. One recent article by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic suggested that, because of this, the world should abandon the peace prize altogether, though this seems akin to shutting down an entire university after one or two scholarship recipients courted scandal after graduation, a common enough occurrence.

Most people around the world continue to anticipate the annual announcements of the Nobel awards as opportunities to restore our faith in humanity, especially in dark and dire times such as these. We look forward to hearing about new discoveries and initiatives in various fields that might, as Nobel envisioned, “confer the greatest benefit on mankind.” We reject nihilism and, instead, embrace the idealism of young peacemakers, such as Malala Yousafzi and Nadia Murad, whose enduring optimism helped them transform personal trauma into societal progress.

Personally, I welcome the announcement of a surprise laureate, someone who has toiled until now in relative silence and obscurity. The world stands ready to receive these new heroes, peace pioneers who inspire hope and progress and don’t tempt us down the dark path to cynicism. As historian Burton Feldman reflects in his book The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige: “The peace movement is dedicated to the greater good, not private glory.” The more pompous Nobel wannabes of the world would do well to remember that. 

(The charts above appear on the Web site of the Nobel Prize Organization, which you are encouraged to visit by clicking here.)

A Response to COVID-19

With the COVID-19 pandemic currently looming large in all our lives, it’s difficult to maintain focus on our normal workloads. In addition to practicing social distancing, observing quarantines, and sanitizing relentlessly, all extremely important responsibilities during this health crisis, we need to remain vigilant about the viral disinformation and pseudo-science that routinely infects social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The lives of our friends and family members may very well depend on it.

That’s why the following quote from Alfred Nobel has been on my mind lately: “To spread knowledge is to spread well-being. I mean general well-being, not individual prosperity, and with the arrival of such well-being, the greater part of the evil we have inherited from the dark ages will disappear. The advances in scientific research and its ever-expanding fields of interest arouse a hope in us that pernicious microbes, both those of the soul and body, will gradually be eradicated and that the only war humanity will wage in the future will be the war against these microbes.”

 (Note: The quote originally appeared in an early Nobel biography written by Henrik Schück, one of the first chairpersons of the Nobel Foundation’s Board of Directors. I have taken the liberty of adding the word “pernicious” to describe microbes in this translation, as the current English definition of “microbes” is broader and more neutral than the original application of the term.) 

French scientist Louis Pasteur, whose work in the 1800s validated the “germ theory” of disease by demonstrating the link between microbes and contagion

Nobel’s words resonate not only because of his enduring faith in science, but also because of his unique understanding of the dangerous gap that often exists between public and private interests. In nearly every endeavor, Nobel trusted science to provide a clear and rational solution to a specific problem. He valued facts and data over opinion and conjecture. His letters contain frequent diatribes against those who challenged his idealism, including politicians, lawyers, “quack” doctors, and even his closest, profit-minded business associates. Our often scattershot responses to the COVID-19 epidemic today would have appalled him, I’m sure. Would they have surprised him? Possibly, but mostly because he believed that, by now, humanity would have outgrown any lingering distrust of science. 

Such a distrust, which has grown epidemic in its own right here in the United States, represents one of the more sickening “microbes…of the soul” that Nobel mentions above. People with little or no knowledge of medicine and epidemiology spread untested rumors and proven fallacies about COVID-19, and for what purpose? Most often private interests. Some seek to address the growing psychological dissonance around their personal political affiliations; others hope to be applauded for performing public acts of altruism, however indirect or ill-conceived. The most selfish of all hope to make a quick profit or protect their existing investments from contagion.

Early plague doctors, outfitted in heavy coats and hats, filtered air through a beak-like prostheses to prevent exposure to the so-called “miasma” of disease.

“We do not yet know.” Throughout my reading about both Nobel’s life and the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve found these five simple and truthful words repeated by some of the most intelligent and compassionate people in history. They are humbling, true, and yet they have inspired explorers to venture into uncharted territories just as much as they have guided scientists toward examining previously inexplicable mysteries. Success was never guaranteed. In fact, as Nobel well knew, repeated failure would often precede the most significant discoveries. Some might have called this optimism. Nobel, whose melancholic nature leaned more toward pessimism, preferred to call it idealism. 

As Nobel said, “to spread knowledge is to spread well-being.” Diseases that once ravaged entire populations have been tamed and vanquished by scientific break-throughs, some of which provide the foundation for our current understanding of COVID-19. To accept and promote that knowledge is to reduce the global impact of the virus and save lives. To spread ignorance is to facilitate unwarranted fear and delusion. In too many instances, such disinformation leads to death.

Without scientific understanding, it was easy to envision disease as a specter from beyond against which the traditional weapons of war were powerless.

In these challenging times especially, the world needs to leave behind, once and for all, “the evil we have inherited from the dark ages,” including all the debunked snake-oil remedies and hero-worship mythologies that adulated military leaders over the medical professionals who continue to work so tirelessly to save lives and maintain the health of our civil societies. This is why Nobel chose to establish his prizes in the fields of science and pacifism. Therein lay his best hopes for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Therein, too, lies our strongest hope for the twenty-first.

Sweet Peace

The best part of historical research occurs when unexpected passions intersect. In today’s instance, it was peace-work and chocolate. 

While following various threads in multiple search engines, I came upon these candy wrappers from the French company Guérin-Boutron. The elite chocolatier, established in Paris in 1775, achieved notoriety throughout Europe for their colorful labels. At the turn of the 19th century, they produced a collection featuring 84 “Benefactors of Humanity.” Along with familiar notables such as Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Isaac Newton, and Galileo, the company also paid homage to both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner for their contributions to the world.

As we enter the 2020s, it’s worth reflecting on which historical figures we might include on a similar series of collectible artwork. Likewise, we should identify and support those who might lead the world toward greater wisdom and harmony in the years ahead.

What’s in a Name?

During the impeachment inquiries against the president of the United States of America, many spectators were confused by the various pronunciations of Kyiv (Kiev), the capital of Ukraine. As it turns out, most Americans rely on the Russian pronunciation over the native rendition. In a way, this comes as no surprise. Not only do foreigners frequently mispronounce international place names; in many instances, they spell the proper names of countries and cities in nearly unrecognizable ways, even when relying on a common alphabet. Endonyms (the names people and places use for themselves) no longer match exonyms (the names given to people and places by foreigners). (To see an interactive map of the world featuring country names in their original languages, click here.)

If we could take one definitive step toward respecting one another on this planet, might we not start by calling each other by our given names? 

World in Languages

Country names are one thing, but settling on universal names for bodies of water could prove to be a far greater challenge.

Local place names often reflect a region’s cultural history. For example, the names of many geographical features in the U.S., such as Lake Winnipesaukee and the Mississipi River, have deep roots in indigenous languages. Throughout history, however, colonizing forces around the globe imposed their own languages on subjugated nations, often ignoring long-standing nomenclature. Tribal power shifts within countries have also affected both the spelling and pronunciations of local names. The various exonyms for today’s Deutschland (Alemania in Spanish, Germany in English, Niemcy in Polish, Saksa in Finnish, Tyskland in Scandinavian languages) result from numerous geopolitical and linguistic shifts that took place over the region’s history.

Turr

István Türr, also known as Stephan, Stefano, and Étienne.

On the personal level as well, the names of people often change dramatically in translation. That’s why I was called José in my high school language class, as there was no Spanish equivalent for Hugh. In her memoirs, Bertha von Suttner recalls greeting the chairman of the 1896 Budapest Peace Congress, the Hungarian General István Türr, with a sign that read “Wilkommen, Stephan Türr.” During the congress itself, the Italian delegation called Türr Stefano while the French representatives referred to him as Étienne. Would it have been so difficult for everyone to agree to call him by his given name, in his native language?

Apparently, such due respect might be more difficult than we imagine. Phonemes in some languages (i.e. the sounds that make up a given word) have no counterparts in others. In extreme instances, oral physiology has adapted to some sounds (or their absence) to such a degree that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to pronounce certain foreign words properly. Many people have difficulty saying my name properly, so much so that calls of “hey Hugh!” sound more like “hey you!” depending on the regional accent. That explains why, when I worked in a record shop, with loud music constantly playing in the background, I received the nickname Bert. I rarely looked up when someone across the store called my name.

Bertha and other 19th-century pacifists, including Alfred Nobel himself, regarded a universal language as one possible pathway toward peace. Even so, the developers of these languages, such as Volapük and the more recent Esperanto, faced nearly insurmountable challenges. Some historians claim that Martin Schleyer’s devotion to the umlaut doomed Volapük. It certainly opened his efforts up to ridicule, as this limerick from the Milwaukee Sentinel shows:

JM_Schleyer_1888

Johann Martin Schleyer, the founder of the universal language Volapük

A charming young student of Grük
Once tried to acquire Volapük
But it sounded so bad
That her friends called her mad,
And she quit it in less than a wük.

The French author and caricaturist John Grand-Carteret, having described Bertha as “the apostle of peace and civilization,” proclaimed her work to represent “the feminine Volapük of the future, a language that…will permit the women of all countries to utter the cry, ‘Die Waffen Nieder!’” It wasn’t enough for women to raise their voices; they needed to modify their native languages (ironically called the “mother tongues” in English) to communicate their needs and desires more effectively as well. Even the German title of Bertha’s most popular book remains difficult to translate into English. Initial editions bore the clumsy title Ground Arms!, while subsequent versions were updated with Lay Down Your Arms! I’d suggest that Lower Your Weapons! is a more accurate translation, though it lacks the clear military reference of its predecessors.

volapuk-emblem.jpg

The emblem for the international language Volapük bears the inscription “One mankind, one language.”

Despite the clear challenges, it would serve humanity well to attempt the languages of others, if only in speaking the names of people and places. Doing so would not only show respect for others; it would further our continuing education about the rich array of languages and cultures around the world. It might also provide a necessary first step toward adopting a global language, one that might bring us all closer together rather than driving us farther and farther apart.

On Brexit and the European Union

EU Brexit

With so much debate roiling around the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, I’ve found myself wondering, “If Brexit succeeds, should UK citizens be asked to forfeit their Nobel Peace Prize?”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the entire European Union in 2012, noting that “the work of the EU represents ‘fraternity between nations’ and amounts to a form of the ‘peace congresses’ to which Alfred Nobel refers as criteria for the Peace Prize in his 1895 will.”

Medal and diploma of the Nobel peace Prize

The 2012 Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma, which honors the EU motto “United in Diversity.”

 

Nigel Farage, then leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), disagreed and called the decision “baffling.” He further claimed that the committe had dragged the award “into total disrepute.” Since then, Farage has continued to campaign vociferously against the idea of a united Europe, earning him the moniker “Mr. Brexit” from Donald Trump.

It’s worth noting that Farage began his career as a trader on the London Metal Exchange and that the UK was not one of the six founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which many consider to be the precursor to the European Union itself. Former Atlantic editor Robert Wright noted, “It’s possible that, had far-seeing leaders not in 1951 created the European Coal and Steel Community, and had this not led to a series of free trade agreements among European nations, economic nationalism would have started trade wars that led to real wars.”

SuttnerSchilling

An engraving of Bertha von Suttner appeared on Austria’s 1,000 schilling note prior to the adoption of the Euro.

The ECSC formed after World War II as a result of the Paris Treaty, which intended to foster a new era of economic cooperation and supranationalism. (Please be careful not to read that last word as “supernationalism.” Supranationalism refers to an aggregate political entity above the level of state or country, not a claim that any one nation or empire is superior to others or has comic-book-style superpowers.) In his favorable response to the question “Did the European Union deserve a Nobel Peace Prize?” author Steven Pinker wrote, “The EU grew out of the European Coal and Steel Community, which was designed in 1950 to reduce the chances of a recrudescence of war between Germany and its neighbors. The rationale came right out of Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay ‘Perpetual Peace’: democracy, free trade and an international community should discourage leaders from dragging their countries into war. More than half a century of Western European peace later, we can see that the architects of European economic unification had a point.”

In his essay, Kant argued that scientific reason and respect for the rule of law were prerequisites for the formation of a Völkerbund, or “union of nations.” While allowing that such a political entity might result in enhanced economic prosperity, his prime objective was to eliminate war as a means of settling disputes between nations. Though Darwin hadn’t yet been born, Kant saw a European confederation in evolutionary terms, part of a natural progression of human society and civilization.

 

KantPacificUnion

This sort of idealism sat well with Alfred Nobel and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers. It also inspired Bertha von Suttner and her fellow pacifists E.T. Moneta and S.J. Capper (himself a Brit) to propose “A Confederation of European States” back in 1892 at the International Peace Congress in Bern, Switzerland. “At the time the idea had not yet begun to be understood at all,” Bertha wrote in her memoirs. “It was generally confounded with the idea of the United States, that the North American pattern was being proscribed for Europe.”

Here, in full, is the Suttner/Capper/Moneta proposal:

“Whereas both the injury caused by armed peace and the danger that is ever threatening the whole of Europe from a possible great war have their basis in the condition of lawlessness in which the different states of Europe stand toward one another;

Whereas a confederation of European states, which would be desirable also in the interest of commercial relations of all countries, would do away with this condition of lawlessness and create permanent legal relations in Europe;

And finally, whereas such a confederation would in no wise impair the independence of the individual nations as regards their internal affairs, and therefore as regards their forms of governance;

The Congress invites the European peace societies and their adherents to exert themselves, as the highest aim or their propaganda, for the formation of a confederation of states on the basis of the solidarity of their interests. It moreover invites all the societies in the world, especially at the time of political elections, to draw attention to the necessity of a permanent congress of nations, to which every international question should be submitted, so that every conflict may be settled by law and not by force.”

BerneBundeshaus1980s

The 1892 International Peace Congress convened in Bern, Switzerland.

 

At the time, Europe had yet to endure the sort of “great war” that Suttner and her colleagues envisioned in 1892. Nations might have agreed with their proposed “European Confederation” in theory, but in practice, world leaders continued to promote military tradition and to finance standing armies, favoring costly force over the rule of moral law in settling international conflicts. Peace remained the pipe dream of philosophers such as Kant, and, as the first of two world wars soon demonstrated, the world paid dearly for the oversight.

Today, some world leaders are once again stoking the furnaces of misguided patriotism and despotism, insisting on separatism and isolationism in place of cooperation and unification. Stubborn partisanship has replaced rational political discourse in both the public square and the chambers of government.

Shortly after the Nobel committee’s announcement in 2012, Wall Street Journal writer Simon Nixon remarked that the EU was “on the brink of failure.” With so much at stake, he considered the awarding of the Peace Prize to be an “inspired decision.” Like the Nobel Committee, citizens of the world today should continue to feel inspired and work to support and strengthen the European Union’s stated commitment to “the ideals of international unity, solidarity, and harmony“—with or without the United Kingdom.

EU Flag

 

 

Confronting Sexual Violence

1200px-Nadia_Murad_-_Global_Citizen_Festival_Hamburg_02

Nadia Murad shares her stories of violence and her demand for justice at the Global Citizen festival.

Yesterday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee honored Nadia Murad of Iraq and Dr. Denis Mukwege of the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” As both a victim and witness of rape, and female enslavement, Ms. Murad has spoken out around the world and raised awareness of this heinous aspect of the war against her community, the Yazidi people of northern Iraq. Dr. Mukwege has become famous throughout Africa for his role as “The Man Who Mends Women,” helping victims to overcome the physical and emotional trauma associated with sexual violence and genital mutilation.

Because men are the major perpetrators of sex crimes and their victims are mostly women, the world remains largely unaware of the scope and nature of this violence. Too often, media reports shy away from the gruesome details and sickening images. We ask how human beings can act in such depraved and amoral ways as if that negates their very occurrence. 

Critics of Bertha von Suttner’s novel Lay Down Your Arms! expressed concerns about the similarly graphic descriptions of war in its pages. Having conducted numerous interviews with soldiers and other witnesses of battlefield horrors, she chastised the “gentle reader” that we might otherwise associate with 19th-century literature. “Oh, away with your prudery! Away with your affected decorum!” she wrote in the book. “That is cruel ethics, I would have you know—cruel and cowardly. … This looking aside, with the physical and the spiritual eye, allows so much misery and injustice to persist. If only we had the courage to look steadily upon our fellow humans who are pining in pain and misery, along with the courage to reflect upon what we saw!”

Both Ms. Murad and Dr. Mukwege have witnessed such pain and misery first-hand. They have spoken out forcefully, sharing their stories while seeking reparations. For Ms. Murad, this means demanding justice for the Yazidis at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. For Dr. Mukwege, it means constructing hospitals, clinics, and legal centers in his homeland to help repair, both surgically and psychologically, the many victims of sexual violence.

header-overons-partnersinternationaal-mukwege-stichtingvluchteling

Dr. Denis Mukwege has provided critical medical services to victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

“This is the only way Yazidis will possibly be able to move on with our lives, mourn our dead, and try to rebuild what we lost,” Ms. Murad said of her efforts. “A trial tells the militants that the world in the twenty-first century is built in a way that values life and humanity above mere power and fear, and that not only are we capable of protecting the most vulnerable, but that we will, no matter what.”

Dr. Mukwege acknowledges the difficulties of empowering witnesses to testify against their victimizers, especially since sexual violence remains a taboo subject in many cultures. “The women we treat are only the tip of the iceberg because many of them are afraid to say they have been raped for fear of being rejected by their husbands,” he said. “We’ve found that when they are doing well physically, when they feel strong enough psychologically and when they are economically independent, that’s when women start seeking justice,” he added.

colin-np-5.jpgIt has been ten years since the UN Security Council adopted a resolution classifying sexual violence as both a war crime and a threat to international peace and security. The decision of this year’s Norwegian Nobel Committee serves to highlight that important and long-overdue decree and reminds us that, in times of both war and peace, Bertha’s calls for disarmament—and Alfred Nobel’s echo of her demand in creating the Peace Prize—can mean lowering one’s hands and fists along with laying down one’s guns and rifles.
You can read the full announcement from the Norwegian Nobel Committee here: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2018/press-release/

To read an interview with Nadia Murad:

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/555106/the-last-girl-by-nadia-murad/

To read an interview with Denis Mukwege:

https://news.un.org/en/story/2016/03/524722-interview-fate-shaped-injustice-one-mans-mission-help-women-dr-congo

91Qwxx4XVyL._RI_To see “The Man Who Mends Women,” a documentary about Dr. Mukwege’s work:

http://mukwege-themovie.com

Facts, Fake News, and Fiction

15418395_10154138347379103_2426340092127106366_oThis past weekend, as the 2016 Nobel Prize winners received their awards on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s (actual) death in 1896, the western world continued to grapple with a “post-truth” political landscape that threatens the very foundations of the laureates’ achievements: evidence-based research and discovery. In his introductory remarks, Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, said, “The grim truth is that we can no longer take it for granted that people believe in science, facts, and knowledge.”

In my own explorations into the origins of the peace prize, I’ve been surprised at how often historical “facts” have been twisted and manipulated into false narratives, even in supposedly authoritative, academic texts. Take, for instance, this excerpt from the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s biographical entry on Nobel, which chronicles a bit of “fake news” concerning his (supposed) death in 1888:

The French newspapers reported Ludvig’s death but confused him with (his brother) Alfred, and one paper sported the headline “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). Perhaps Alfred Nobel established the prizes to avoid precisely the sort of posthumous reputation suggested by this premature obituary. (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alfred-Nobel)

nyt-early-obitI’ve found versions of this story repeated throughout my research, though neither I nor many of the historians who have studied Nobel’s life have been able to document or verify the headline quoted above. I have, however, been able to verify that the false obituary did appear in newspapers around the world, including in The New York Times (see right). In many instances, Nobel biographers draw a direct correlation between the mistaken obituary and his development of the peace prize, despite the fact that eight years (and at least two prior drafts of his last will and testament, neither of which included a peace prize) separate the two events.

Once we have the “merchant of death” story in mind, however, we start looking for other facts and details that support this intriguing (and admittedly entertaining) narrative. This is called confirmation bias: starting with a hypothesis and seeking out evidence that supports it rather than remaining objective and drawing one’s conclusions from the evidence itself. Sadly, we expect to find an abundance of confirmation bias in politics, but it’s doubly distressing to see it infiltrating academic texts. As a false correlation like the one above is referenced and footnoted throughout subsequent works, it becomes harder and harder for us to discern the “fake news” from the facts. Key words such as “perhaps” from the original encyclopedia entry have a way of disappearing in subsequent retellings.

As someone writing a fictionalized account of the origins of the peace prize, I’m tempted by some of the more dramatic and entertaining options available, such as suggestions of a romantic relationship between the two protagonists, Nobel and Bertha von Suttner. Fiction, however, prefers to revel in complexities, not settle for simplistic explanations. By extension, historical fiction insists upon careful research and analysis, with the central narrative(s) supported by both evidence and logic.

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Taken from a plaster cast of his face, Alfred Nobel’s “death mask” rests atop engraved lines from his last will and testament.

This isn’t always possible, especially when theorizing about what drove and distracted major and minor figures in the 19th century. Like a good detective, the historical fiction writer looks for probable cause, not merely plausible cause. The latter may attract a wider readership (by suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter, for example), but it borders on being irresponsible. When you consider that the creators of “fake news” are, in fact, peddling this same sort of fiction, you can begin to appreciate the rising anxiety levels of already anxious writers today.

Fiction posing as fact is not a new phenomenon, nor is the eager gullibility of the general public. Literature may invite us as readers to “suspend our disbelief” when entering imagined worlds of the past, but readers should do so sparingly, and then only temporarily. Above all, we should continue to question and explore the topics that interest us and influence our lives beyond the final pages.

Some might protest that homework ends in adulthood, but that’s hardly true in any civilized society. Many farmers continue to research and practice new ways to improve their crop yields just as doctors constantly research and practice new life-saving procedures. Likewise, our civic duty demands a critical attentiveness to the present-day news and, as a kind of “healthy skepticism,” a steadfast desire to verify the truth of that news. This is the ongoing and absolutely vital kind of education promoted by both Nobel and Suttner throughout their lifetimes. Without it, we remain vulnerable to all manner of future horrors and atrocities, as Suttner herself warned right up until her own death—just days before the violent outbreak of World War I.

Response to a Demagogue

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General Georges Boulanger, who served for many years as France’s Minister of War

During this U.S. presidential election cycle, I’ve been working on a section of Peace at Last that features General Georges Boulanger, a handsome and charismatic French demagogue from the late 1800s who rallied the French public to take up arms against Germany in the hopes of avenging the nation’s prior defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. On election night in January of 1889, emboldened mobs took to the streets of Paris and exhorted Boulanger to seize control of the government and establish a new, populist, authoritarian regime. Instead, and quite unexpectedly, Boulanger chose to pass up the opportunity and spend the evening with his mistress.

Perhaps because of his businessman’s knowledge of each country’s military capabilities, Alfred Nobel strongly believed that Germany would have readily defeated France if Boulanger had initiated a second war between the nations. He also clearly understood the dangers of demagoguery and how a man such as Boulanger could incite and inflame the vengeful sentiments of the uneducated masses. A resident of Paris at the time, Nobel noted in a letter, “In former days, governments used to be more narrow-minded and aggressive than their subjects. Nowadays, it seems as though the governments endeavor to appease the idiotic passions of a public roused into hysteria by pernicious newspapers.”

In 1892, shortly after Nobel and Bertha von Suttner had discussed the idea of establishing a global prize for peacemakers, he shared his darkening cynicism about mankind in a letter to the Baroness. “A new tyranny—that from the lower strata—stirs in the darkness,” he wrote, “and one can hear its distant rumble.”

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Just months after the death of his mistress, General Boulanger went to her grave with a pistol in hand and took his own life.

In the United States, that rumble no longer sounds in the distance. Unlike France in the late 19th century, it appears that the demagogue will have his day. Though the origins of Donald Trump’s electoral appeal may differ somewhat from Boulanger’s, the parallels are hard to ignore: a sensationalist press, an ill-informed public, and a list of grievances that have remained unresolved for decades.

Throughout his final years, Nobel found it difficult to overcome the growing sense of despair and depression he felt on reading the daily news. To her credit, Suttner remained an uplifting influence in his life, nursing his wounded idealism despite the mounting evidence of bigotry, prejudice, and nationalism spreading throughout Europe. When he revised his will shortly before his death, Nobel finally followed through on his promise to fund the peace prize that he and Suttner had envisioned.

From a period of turmoil and adversity, then, at least one great and affirming good emerged. I remain hopeful that peace-affirming beliefs such as those embodied by both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner will guide the world in its responses to the unfolding events of our own time.