“I wish to dwell for a moment on the subject of America,” said Bertha von Suttner in her acceptance speech for the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize. “This land of limitless opportunities is marked by its ability to carry out new and daring plans of enormous imagination and scope, while often using the simplest methods. In other words, it is a nation idealistic in its concepts and practical in its execution of them. We feel that the modern peace movement has every chance in America of attracting strong support and of finding a clear formula for the implementation of its aims.”
Bertha had every reason to be optimistic about both the United States and its role in the global peace movement. During a three-week trip to America in 1904, she met with various leaders of the pacifist movement and came away especially impressed by the forward progress of women on such issues as suffrage and the abolition of slavery. On a subsequent visit in 1912, she told a large audience in San Francisco, “When people speak to me of the future, I tell them, ‘Go to America and look at the future, for there it has already arrived. They are fifty years ahead of us ethically.’”
Bertha compared the United States of the early 1900s to Europe and saw stark contrasts. “Alarm is general everywhere,” she said of her home continent, “and no one can give a rational cause. In America, the reverse is true.” She noted achievements in welfare and civil rights before observing that “in my city (Vienna), they are putting guns into the public schools and making the curriculum less and less liberal, more and more militant.”
Sadly, the United States today more closely resembles Europe in those anxious years prior to the start of World War I. Patriotism and militarism go hand in hand, and every national holiday now seems like an excuse to exalt the armed forces and celebrate physical strength over moral and ethical spirit. The lust for vengeance supersedes rational justice; guns are a fetish. Political parties work toward their own preservation, often at the expense of the people’s will.
Today, July 4, is Independence Day in the United States, a commemoration of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress. In essence, it signaled the birth of a new nation and a radically different form of government. “If the United States has a mission,” Bertha observed in 1912, “it is to develop the principle of the Brotherhood of Man into a living, palpable force.” True to her lifelong calls for disarmament, she ventured a step farther. “The one half of humanity that has never borne arms is today ready to blaze into this living, palpable force. Perhaps the Universal Sisterhood is necessary before the Universal Brotherhood is possible.”
On this Independence Day, I find myself, like Bertha as she approached her 70th birthday, still clinging to the promise of a better world. The greatness that she once saw in America seems, sadly, almost unrecognizable now, especially in light of recent events that threaten to reverse the country’s progress on human rights. The struggle for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” continues to be just that—a struggle. Even so, I find strength in her enduring spirit and in her faith in the American dream. Our work toward its realization continues.
No matter how the current situation in Ukraine evolves, the global peace movement faces new and increasingly difficult challenges in the years ahead. A renewed arms race had already begun, with nations ramping up military spending in order to defend themselves against the delusional ambitions of madmen. The high costs of weapons manufacturing and troop readiness, including renewed calls for nuclear capability, will further jeopardize spending in other areas such as refugee resettlement, education expansion, infrastructure development, agricultural growth, medical research, support for the arts, and climate change responses, just to name a few. These aren’t just “peacetime” activities; they are essential to improving the quality of life around the globe and preventing the sorts of stress and anxiety that authoritarians exploit for their own selfish and irrational purposes. Welfare or warfare: the ideal civilization can’t cry poverty in response to one while signing blank checks for the other.
None of this is new to us. In addition to the ghastly toll in human lives and livelihoods, the economic devastation that armed conflict requires in terms of preparation, engagement, and reconstruction renders it a catastrophe for the winners as well as the losers. The Polish railroad industrialist Jan Bloch confirmed this hypothesis in his six-volume, data-filled treatise The War of the Future in its Technical, Economic and Political Relations (Budushchaya voina i yeyo ekonomicheskie posledstviya). Published just before the end of the 19th Century, peacemakers around the globe (and even a few political leaders, including Tsar Nicholas II of Russia) embraced the book as proof that a brighter future, one not overshadowed by the constant threat of war, lay ahead in the 20th century. The book’s influence energized efforts to convene the momentous 1899 Peace Conference in the Hague.
Bertha von Suttner, one of the most notable organizers and attendees at that conference, had already anticipated Bloch’s positivist philosophy in her earlier book The Machine Age (Das Maschinenzeitalter). Originally published under the pseudonym “Jemand,” (meaning “someone” or “anyone,” since she knew that few readers of the time would pay much attention to a woman writing about such serious topics), Bertha imagined a speaker in the future reflecting on the past—reflecting on her present, in other words. “Oh, the bad old days!” she sets out in the introduction, though she saw much to appreciate and celebrate in 1887, particularly in the ways that science was supplanting superstition. In a last-minute revision to the book’s first edition, Bertha inserted news of the 19th Century’s burgeoning peace movement, about which she had just learned in the salons of Paris. Spoiler alert: She would soon thereafter become one of that international movement’s most prominent leaders.
As a promoter of peace, Bertha did much more than provide simplistic platitudes or meme-worthy quotes in her numerous essays, books, speeches, and articles. She founded and sustained numerous peace societies throughout Europe. With her many allies, she proposed a confederation of nations (much like the League of Nations, the UN, and later the EU) that would help bring peoples together rather than distance them from one another. Likewise, she was one of the leading proponents of the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice (previously the Permanent Court of Arbitration), which currently resides in the Peace Palace, built in the Hague by Andrew Carnegie at the request of Bertha and her contemporaries. These tangible accomplishments not only earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905; they had guided Alfred Nobel in outlining the basic prerequisites for that award.
International courts have become crucial players during the crisis in Ukraine, particularly as they determine when, where, and by whom various human-rights abuses and war crimes have been committed. Sadly, however, justice only prevails when all parties agree to abide by established law. Although it is a signatory member of the Court of Justice, Russia—along with the United States, it should be noted—claims exceptionalism and refuses to be bound by its jurisdiction. Declarations of being “above the law” or “beyond prosecution” (or, in the economic context, “too big to fail”) only serve to embolden dictators and authoritarian regimes. When warmongers aren’t held accountable for their actions, the prospects for a more peaceable and civilized world diminish for all of us.
We stand at a moment in history when we risk falling back into “the bad old days” of the past, pouring money into the coffers of the military-industrial complex while mass-producing coffins for the many innocent victims of armed conflict. Coordinated economic sanctions have proven to be somewhat effective as a form of punishment, if not as a deterrent, but it remains to be seen how they might affect the global balance of power in the long run. Meanwhile, demands for vengeance and violent retribution ring out loudly alongside pleas for justice and peaceful resolution. As a consequence, we risk compromising our investment in human rights and freedoms around the globe.
It’s tempting to imagine ourselves, as Bertha did, looking back on these days from ten or twenty years in the future and seeing hopeful promises fulfilled. The dark fog of war, however, obscures any clear view into the weeks, days, and even hours ahead of us. It steals the future and stains the present. No matter how the situation in Ukraine plays out, we must, as citizens of the world, strengthen our commitment to establishing and maintaining peace whenever and wherever possible, and most especially in the here and now. This may come at a greater cost than ever before, both at home and abroad, but the losses we suffer in the future will be far greater if we succumb to the warlike ways of the past.
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.
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.
In 1912, at the age of sixty-nine and seven years after she became the first woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Bertha von Suttner traveled across the Atlantic Ocean for her second speaking tour of the United States. Such a voyage by ship would have been perilous enough for a woman of her age and faltering health, but news of the sinking of the Titanic, a tragedy in which 1,500 passengers died in the icy waters just a month earlier, would have surely added to her anxiety.
Countless reports in newspapers large and small documented her months-long journey from New York City to San Francisco and back again. Thousands packed into the Chautauqua, New York, amphitheater to hear her speak. At smaller venues in smaller towns, Bertha met with groups of mostly women for luncheons and local presentations. Along the way, she was also invited to spend some time on a golf course with U.S. President William Howard Taft, who confided to her that on the matter of world peace, “We share the same platform.”
Bertha’s U.S. tour sets the stage for the above photograph, an image of her that (I thought) I had never seen before. As good fortune would have it, an historical archive was offering the physical 8×10 print for a relatively small price—relative, at least, to the hundreds of dollars charged per use for digitized versions of similar photographs at major stock companies such as Getty and Alamy. The seller included a scan of the back of the photograph, which showed that it had once belonged to the Pacific Bureau of the Newspaper Enterprise Association (N.E.A.).
I shared this information with the international peace studies scholar Peter van den Dungen, who promptly replied that the image appeared to be a detail from a photo originally used in Gisela Brinker-Gabler’s 1982 biography, Bertha von Suttner: Kämpferin für den Frieden (page 104). That grainy reproduction shows up in several later publications, but the image I have (yes, reader, I purchased it!) is significantly clearer and includes only Bertha’s face in the frame.
Based on Peter’s information, I was able to locate the photo he had described as it originally appeared. It accompanied a newspaper article about a reception Bertha attended on June 28, 1912, in San Francisco with Phoebe Hearst, the mother of media mogul William Randolph Hearst. With this much clearer image at hand, I could detect slight differences suggesting that I had acquired a completely different photograph, one taken moments before or after the group shot.
It’s worth noting that the photograph I have is not just a reprinted version of a scanned image. It’s an historical artifact, complete with markings and imperfections that reveal both its age and original usage. White ink outlines Bertha’s head, a common practice in newspapers of that time to remove distracting backgrounds. The photo retoucher also used darker ink to highlight Bertha’s eyebrows, eyes, and mouth, adding the contrast necessary to ensure a sharper image in print. Think of it as primitive Photoshopping. In addition, the image appears to be “flopped,” turned on its vertical axis so that Bertha looks to the left instead of the right. In preparing a final image for sharing, I have employed a few photo-editing tricks of my own to repair and restore the image. (Please contact me directly if you would like a higher-resolution digital file of the final enhanced image.)
After several days of searching through newspaper archives, I finally found the altered version of Bertha’s image alongside the newspaper story below. Apparently, the story and the image were sent to multiple Scripps-McRae-owned newspapers, as many subscribed to content-providing services such as the Newspaper Enterprise Association.
“Through the voice of women will come international peace,” Bertha proclaimed in a speech given just days after this photograph was taken. I’m honored to amplify that voice once more in our own militaristic times, and to do so alongside this newly discovered photograph of her.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Today, Europe celebrates the 75th anniversary of V-E day, the official recognition of the Nazi’s surrender to Allied forces, in the shadow of a raging pandemic. In some countries, the climbing infection and death rates have been turned around. In others, the worst is yet to come. In 1945, even as Europe declared freedom from fascist oppression, fighting continued in the Pacific. Nonetheless, civilians gathered to express their joy in small-town streets and city squares. V-E Day rekindled a sense of hope in a war-ravaged world. Peace was still possible after all.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t live to see V-E Day, having died of a brain hemorrhage just weeks beforehand. Even so, he had already envisioned the hard work that would be necessary beyond the end of the fighting. “The transition from war to peace should be carried forward rapidly,” he had declared in the fall of 1944. “This is the time to do planning, although the war, even in Europe, is not over.”
In her newspaper column “My Day” on May 8, 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt echoed her husband’s words when she wrote, “We will never have peace without friendship around the world. This is the time for a long look ahead. This is the time for us all to decide where we go from here.” For Eleanor, that meant promoting peace and prosperity among all nations, an endeavor that would result in the formation of the United Nations and the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That document remains a touchstone of hope and faith in humanity throughout the world today.
Article 25 of the Declaration states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” Sadly, many countries have yet to achieve this goal, a fact made all too clear by the current pandemic.
In a recent article, Indian author Arundhati Roy agonizes over the horrific situation in her home country while looking ahead to a post-pandemic world. Like the Roosevelts decades earlier, she sees the value in planning now in order to prepare for a better future. “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew,” she writes. “This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Seventy-five years ago, citizens around the world cheered in joy and relief at the European prospects for peace. The echoes of their celebrations should inspire us to renew our own commitments to peace and unity today and to embrace the yet-unfulfilled ideal of a healthy and equitable post-pandemic world.
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.)
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.
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.