“The Subject of America”

“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 in New York City

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.”

Bertha was an honored guest at San Francisco’s Century Club during her 1912 visit.

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.

The Past, Present, and Future of the Peace Movement

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.

Studio Portrait of Jan Bloch given to Alfred Fried

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.  

The Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands

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.

The third edition of The Machine Age

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.

The Fuse for the Powder-Keg

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. 

A political cartoon from the German newspaper Lustige Blatter depicts Bertha von Suttner trying to coax Mars, the god of war, down from his pedestal.

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:

Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig

“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.

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.

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.