“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.

A New Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

– Kathryn Wasserman Davis

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

“Wealthy Gentleman Seeks Mature Lady”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Search of a Photograph

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.

The Clinton Connection

Scheveningen_-_Het_strand_en_het_Kurhaus_1900

The Kurhaus Hotel in The Hague shortly after the First International Peace Conference. Hillary Clinton chose to stay here while visiting The Hague because she was a great admirer of Bertha von Suttner, who held many influential salons in the hotel. 

During a visit to The Hague in the Netherlands last June, my husband and I spent several nights at the beautiful seaside Kurhaus Hotel. There, during the late spring and early summer of 1899, Bertha von Suttner and her husband Artur had hosted frequent salons, to which they invited delegates and guests attending the International Peace Conference taking place in the city. Over a century later, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted on staying at the Kurhaus during a spring-time conference related to the situation in Afghanistan. According to Steven van Hoogstraten, a former director of the Carnegie Foundation, Clinton chose the hotel because she was a “great admirer” of Bertha von Suttner. Clearly, the secretary felt a strong connection to the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner and wished, however symbolically, to follow in her footsteps. One question, however, haunted us after our stay: would the appreciation have been mutual?

Because she was a woman, Bertha was not allowed to take part in the official proceedings of the First Hague Peace Conference.* Even so, having secured funding as a freelance journalist, she traveled to the Hague with high hopes for the event. On the opening day, she wrote in her private journal, “This is the first time since history began to be written that the representatives of the governments have come together to find a means for ‘securing a permanent, genuine peace’ for the world.”

The_First_International_Peace_Conference,_the_Hague,_May_-_June_1899_HU67224-2

State representatives–men only–from many nations gathered at the First International Peace Conference in The Hague.

For Bertha, this meant substantive actions toward global disarmament and the formation of an international court of arbitration. Since she couldn’t participate directly in the conference’s daily discussions, she organized many end-of-day activities as a way of gathering information and, whenever possible, negotiating strongly in favor of reducing weapons production and decreasing military fortification throughout the world. Sadly, despite some small successes and concessions related to arbitration, the conference ultimately failed to live up to her expectations.

Like Bertha before her, Clinton held private meetings and small salons at the Kurhaus as part of her diplomatic mission. Unlike Bertha and her fellow pacifists, however, Clinton’s responses to international conflict often called for militaristic solutions and a substantial build-up of the weapons of war. During her tenure at the State Department, the administration negotiated a substantially larger number of arms sales than the Bush/Cheney administration had during its previous term.** Gun control, a controversial issue within the United States, obviously remains problematic on the international front as well. As such, Secretary of State Clinton’s approach to security and conflict resolution stood sharply at odds with Suttner’s core beliefs about disarmament.

Perhaps Clinton’s appreciation of Bertha related more to their roles as powerful women in traditionally male-dominated environments, and yet one would hope that the admiration didn’t stop short at gender identification. While Bertha applauded and supported various women’s issues of the day, such as suffrage and access to education, she placed the moral imperative of pacifism ahead of them and prioritized her efforts accordingly. In fact, she spent a great deal of energy trying to keep the philosophy of pacifism free from any simplistic male/female dichotomy. She was well aware that women could be just as militaristic as men. By the same logic, a man’s allegiance to the peace movement didn’t require or result in any sort of “feminization.”

IMG_7408

Today, a bust of Bertha von Suttner greets visitors in the main lobby of the Peace Palace in The Hague.

During her lifetime, Bertha’s dreams of disarmament and a “permanent, genuine” world peace would remain just that: distant dreams. Her pacifism was frequently mocked as idealistic, impractical, and unpatriotic. Criticism came from all quarters, causing her to respond, “The moral element has to penetrate all questions of politics. Only then can we win. … We must not become ‘practical politicians.’” (Letter to Alfred Fried, March 23, 1898)

With all this in mind, it’s easy to imagine that a meeting between Suttner and Clinton might have turned cool despite whatever high regard one held for the other. Bertha had already experienced firsthand the dismissive attitude of another female leader, Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands, who, despite hosting the Peace Conference at her palace in The Hague, remained opposed to the pacifist agenda. Bertha described their encounter this way: “The young Queen, graciously smiling, asks me, just as she probably asks most of the others, if this is the first time I have ever visited The Hague and how I like it. I include in my reply my observation that my sojourn in Holland is made particularly happy by the greatness of the cause that brought me there. The gracious little sovereign nods at that but says nothing.”

NOTES:

* It’s worth pointing out that many international peace gatherings preceded The Hague Peace Conference, which was a “first” in that it brought together state representatives from foreign governments rather than members of the various peace congresses throughout the world. Women played a strong and active role in these congresses. In fact, Bertha was both founder and president of the Austrian peace society and served as vice-president of the international association that organized nearly-annual gatherings throughout Europe and the United States.

** For more details about these weapons sales agreements and links to State Department records, see this article in the International Business Times.

Paris is Burning (Again)

Commune_de_Paris_nuit_du_23_au_24_mai_incendies_dans_Paris

Artist’s rendering of Paris during the Communard uprising of 1871

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been immersed in thought about Paris, not only because of the recent terrorist attacks, but also because I’ve been considering the effects of terrorist attacks from over a century ago as they relate to the themes of militarism, idealism, and pacifism in my novel Peace at Last.

First, some historical background: In 1871, the Prussians defeated France after bombarding and laying siege to the city of Paris for several months. Shortly after France was allowed to establish a provisional government, radical members of the upstart Paris Commune challenged the new republic, setting fires throughout the city and destroying major landmarks such as the buildings of Les Tuileries with explosives. (Today, the area is a beautiful public garden.) Harsh reprisals against the Communards continued even after the initial uprising was quelled. In the years that followed, the citizens of Paris rebuilt their city from the ashes and welcomed new and well-to-do residents such as Alfred Nobel. When Countess Bertha Kinsky (later von Suttner) arrived from Vienna to become his secretary, however, Les Tuileries remained in ruins along the Seine, a grim yet intentional reminder of what Victor Hugo had called “L’Année Terrible.”

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Alfred Nobel’s house on Rue Malakoff in Paris (now Avenue Raymond-Poincaré)

In the mid-1870s, having returned from exile abroad to the city he loved, Hugo remained at odds with many of his fellow Frenchmen. The world-renowned author argued that reason and compassion should prevail despite the anger and calls for revenge resulting from the violence. Rumors circulated of police-run torture cells in the sewer systems beneath the streets, raids and round-ups of suspects and firing lines beside massive graves dug out of sight and earshot in the countryside. Angry mobs gathered on Hugo’s doorstep and accused him of being a terrorist sympathizer, and when the aging writer requested protection, the Parisian police turned a blind eye and a deaf ear.

 

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Victor Hugo during his later years in Paris

Alfred Nobel first met Victor Hugo in this harsh and judgmental climate and, one might easily assume, found the literary lion to be something of a soul-mate, a successful man who was nonetheless vilified by parts of society for his idealistic views on mankind. (It was not lost on the public that Nobel’s latest invention, dynamite, had laid waste to so many city landmarks during the Communard uprising.) In his opening address to the Paris Peace Congress of 1849, Hugo had proclaimed, “A day will come when there will be no battlefields, but markets opening to commerce and minds opening to ideas.” Such a philosophy would have resonated loudly with Nobel, who was already well on his way to becoming the wealthiest man in all of Europe. Over time, Nobel became a good friend of Hugo and dined often at his house nearby. Together, the two men also frequented a number of Paris’s most popular, celebrity-filled salons.

 

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Juliette Adam: author, editor, and “instigator” of one of Paris’s most famous salons

Sadly, Victor Hugo died two years before Bertha returned to visit Nobel in Paris, this time accompanied by her husband, Artur Gundaccar von Suttner. Though a decade had passed, demands for revanche (revenge) against the Prussians still reverberated throughout some of the salons, particularly that of Juliette Adam, the founder and editor of France’s Nouvelle Revue. “What an outpouring of amateur political opinion there was!” Bertha remarked in her memoirs.” Even here, amid this artistic and social gaiety, the dark word ‘war’ buzzed through the room. … How can a woman ever busy herself so much with politics?”

 

Debates about war in one salon gave way to discussions of peace in another, however, and these sparked Bertha’s curiosity and imagination. Over the course of the next two years, she nurtured her own philosophical ideas about pacifism and disarmament while crafting her best-selling novel, Die Waffen Nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!), a direct response (and, she hoped, preemptory warning) to the calls for violence and revenge overheard in Paris. In salons, meetings, and congresses across Europe, a new peace movement grew up around her, one that challenged traditional notions of conflict and conquest. With Nobel’s support, she worked tirelessly to realize Hugo’s vision of open minds and open markets—and to banish the terrifying and seemingly relentless specter of war that threatened both.

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Les Tuileries after dynamite explosions destroyed the central dome

The Red Cross Controversy

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Jean Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross and first Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient

Disputes often erupt around the announcement of Nobel Peace Prize winner, and this was true from the very beginning. Many peace activists assumed that the first recipient would be Bertha von Suttner in the firm belief that Alfred Nobel had created the prize with her in mind all along. Instead, the first prize, awarded in 1901, was split between the French economist Frédéric Passy and Henri Dunant, the Swiss-born founder of the Red Cross.

Of the two, Dunant was the more controversial. Though Suttner and others admired the Red Cross for its humanitarian work and philosophy, they worried that treating wounded soldiers and sending them back into battle (as opposed to sending them home to heal fully from their wounds) only led to greater injury and prolonged periods of warfare. They argued that Nobel had intended the Peace Prize to help deter and end armed conflict, not to facilitate its continuance.

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Handwritten draft of Dunant’s “Un Souvenir du Solferino”

Suttner and Dunant were no strangers to one another. In fact, Suttner likely relied quite heavily on Dunant’s firsthand account of the 1859 Franco-Austrian war, A Memory of Solferino, to write some of the more graphic descriptions of battle in her own bestseller, Lay Down Your Arms! The battle of Solferino, during which Dunant recruited civilians to help tend to the wounded, inspired him to establish the Red Cross. His thoughts and ideas would later provide the foundation for the first Geneva Convention.

After receiving his award, Dunant wrote to Suttner, “This prize, gracious lady, is your work, for through your instrumentality, Mr. Nobel became devoted to the peace movement, and at your suggestion, he became its promoter.” Four more years would pass before the Norwegian Storting, the governing body charged with deciding amongst the nominees, awarded Bertha von Suttner her own long-awaited Nobel Peace Prize.

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An artist’s depiction of Henri Dunant tending to the wounded in the aftermath of the battle at Solferino

Continuous Education

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Portrait of Bertha von Suttner (1894) by Adrienne Gräfin Potting. The painting now hangs at Schloss Harmannsdorf, once Bertha’s home in Austria.

In 1912, Bertha von Suttner addressed the National Education Association of the United States of America and declared, “It seems to me that education must be continuous, and that the greatest educators are life and experience.” As she well knew at the time, life and experience were often the only two avenues for learning available to women, who were still barred from pursuing a more formal education in many countries.

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“Martha’s Tagebuch,” published in 1897, was adapted from Suttner’s novel “Lay Down Your Arms” and became “the first work of German pacifist children’s literature” (Roderick McGillis, 2003).

As part of her efforts to spread the message of peace from her landmark best-seller, Lay Down Your Arms!: The Autobiography of Martha von Tilling, Bertha worked with her close friend and fellow writer Hedwig Gräfin Potting (whom she jokingly referred to as “Hex,” from the German word for “witch”) to create and publish a version of the book that might appeal to younger audiences and help educate them about the horrific costs of war. Based on the life and experiences of the original novel’s central character, Martha’s Tagebuch (Martha’s Diary) features several illustrations by Hedwig’s sister Adrienne, who years earlier had painted a youthful portrait of the world-famous author.

With the gracious help of my friend Patty Paige-Pfennig in Wiesbaden, I’ve been fortunate to obtain a first edition of the book, one that had been tucked away in an old barn in Germany. Even though Bertha was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, her resounding calls for peace and disarmament were regarded as a serious threat to the militaristic leaders of her day. Many of Bertha’s published works and personal effects were destroyed by the Nazis and other fascist groups in the decades between World Wars I and II, so the book is a rare find indeed.

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The fictional Martha von Tilling, based in large part on Bertha von Suttner herself, writes in her journal. Illustration from “Martha’s Tagebuch” by Hedwig Gräfin Potting.

Writing a historical novel involves following a number of paths and tangents, some of which can result in an author’s falling “down the rabbit hole” and losing track of the original story and its themes. In this instance, however, I’m thankful to have discovered an important secondary character for the book in Hedwig “Hex” Potting, especially as Hex was one the very first people to learn that Bertha had finally been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. I look forward to sharing more stories of the lives and experiences of such engaging characters as I continue to follow in the footsteps of Bertha von Suttner and Alfred Nobel.