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.

Thoughts on the 75th Anniversary of V-E Day

New York City’s Times Square on May 8, 1945

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. 

Eleanor Roosevelt insisted on displaying the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” in numerous languages to celebrate its adoption by the United Nations.

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. 

Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy

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.