A New Perspective

This past summer I attended the German school at Middlebury College as a Kathryn Wasserman Davis Peace Fellow. In keeping with the program’s complete immersion philosophy, I spoke, wrote, and read nearly everything in German for seven weeks. Classes in grammar, culture, and literature broadened my knowledge of the language in both content and context. Extracurricular activities enriched my understanding of Germanic history, philosophy, film, and music. My goal throughout was straightforward: to strengthen my ability to read historical research materials by and about Bertha von Suttner in the original language and, when necessary, render a satisfactory English translation. It should come as no surprise that one of my final projects was a ten-minute presentation (auf Deutsch) about Bertha’s life and achievements. 

It should also come as no surprise that I’ve returned to Peace at Last and its related projects with new ideas and perspectives. Now, I’m not much of a fan of “writers writing about writing,” as it too often veers into simplistic instruction or mystical self-aggrandizement. I’ve been doing this long enough to appreciate the varying needs and strategies of individual writers and individual projects. I’ve also learned to distinguish between writing and publishing and, further, to try to keep those two worlds apart for as long as possible when undertaking a project. 

My initial inspiration for Peace at Last inextricably linked Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner, and I felt strongly that their stories, at least in the overarching context of the establishment of the Peace Prize, could not and should not be told apart from one another. That resulted in a “first final” draft approaching 500,000 words, which, according to friends who are agents or editors, was an absolute non-starter for publication. I’ve since cut the manuscript in half, and from there continued to chop away whole sections and chapters. Spoiler alert: the two stand-alone excerpts that have already been published (“Koppargruva” and “The Iron Tower”) no longer appear as complete chapters in the current manuscript.

Having spent a summer away from that manuscript, I approached the ongoing revision process with renewed energy and confidence. As a result, I’ve split the manuscript in two once again. As things now stand, Bertha and Alfred have their own separate books. To justify that drastic change, I had to be sure that each of the two resulting novels would have its own, distinct narrative arc while preserving the idealistic spirit that motivated both characters. In other words, the two books couldn’t simply tell the same story from two different points of view. Bertha’s bold and persistent optimism in a male-dominated society, even within the pacifist movement, interested me from the start, and so I’ve chosen to focus on her book first and will continue to use the provisional title Peace at Last. Alfred’s book will likely focus on his internal battles with chronic melancholia, lifelong “bachelorhood,” and guilt over his younger brother’s death.

“There will always be conflict, but I’ll remind you that love, kindness, and support are also part of human nature. My challenge to you is to bring about a mindset of preparing for peace instead of preparing for war.”

– Kathryn Wasserman Davis

I’ll continue to write and post here about both Alfred and Bertha, but for the weeks and months ahead, Bertha will be my primary focus. I look forward to sharing new insights and ideas about her and her work, particularly as they relate to events unfolding around the world today. Kathryn Wasserman Davis challenged her namesake scholars to “bring about a mindset of preparing for peace instead of preparing for war.” I remain hopeful that my continuing work on Peace at Last will meet that challenge.

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.

A Place at the Table

As friends and families around the United States gather together for their Thanksgiving dinners today, many (according to a plethora of trendy newspaper stories) dread the sort of political discussion that raises the risk of appetite loss and/or indigestion. I recall holidays at home with my own family and my mother’s requests that I refrain from bringing up subjects such as nuclear disarmament or gay rights at the table. She, too, would remain politely silent despite the antagonistic comments of others. One in particular, an offhand remark that doctors shouldn’t treat people with HIV/AIDS because they deserve to die, still burns in my heart.

“The Dinner Table” by Judy Chicago, 1979

With that in mind, my Thanksgiving morning this year was spent reading about Judy Chicago and the various women commemorated in her installation, “The Dinner Table.” This year marks the 40th anniversary of the masterpiece, widely regarded as a cornerstone of feminist art. When asked about what had inspired her, Chicago recalled an actual dinner party she had attended in 1974: “The men at the table were all professors,” she said, “and the women all had doctorates but weren’t professors. The women had all the talent, and they sat there silent while the men held forth.” 

The artist Judy Chicago

For centuries, women had no “place at the table” when it came to political discourse. Chicago’s imaginary banquet hall features a triangular table with 39 place settings for influential female figures. The contributions from an additional 999 women are honored with names inscribed on “The Heritage Floor.” These women, Bertha von Suttner among them, represent the foundations upon which feminist progress was built.

Though Bertha was invited to numerous international parliamentary conferences during her lifetime, she attended only as a guest, since governmental business was the nearly exclusive province of men. (Royalty allowed for some rare exceptions.) Likewise, in political discussions of the day, her viewpoints and ideas were often summarily dismissed solely because she was a woman. This explains why she, along with many other female writers of her time, used a gender-neutral pseudonym, “B. Oulotte,” when publishing her early political and philosophical essays. (Bertha’s nickname in the Suttner household was “Boulotte,” which roughly translates to “Fatty.”) For her landmark book The Machine Age, Bertha went by the name “Jemand,” the German word for “someone” or “anyone.” As she explained in her Memoirs: “I was afraid that if the book were signed with a woman’s name, it would not reach the readers for whom it was expressly designed, for in scientific circles there remains so much prejudice against the capacity of women as thinkers.” 

The International Congress of Women held in Den Haag, the Netherlands, in April of 1915

This Thanksgiving, we should feel grateful for the progress made over the past century, not only in women’s rights but in the rights of other previously silenced and marginalized peoples. Much hard work remains. Even so, our holiday dinner-table conversations can build upon that progress and inspire us to learn how the voices of yesterday helped to lift up our voices today.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Continuous Education

Bertha_Potting

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.

Marta's Taglebuch 1

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.