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 Clinton Connection

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

Building Momentum

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After a successful research trip to Europe that included a talk on Bertha von Suttner at the Peace Palace in The Hague (see photo above), I’m excited to share some other good news related to Peace at Last.

For starters, I’ve been awarded a generous grant from the Vermont Arts Council to develop stand-alone excerpts from the novel. The first of these, entitled “Koppargruva,” will be published by the literary journal Ploughshares as part of their “Solos” series in the 2016-17 season. This chapter builds upon some new and intriguing research about Alfred Nobel’s trip to the United States in 1866, shortly after the end of Civil War. The second excerpt, entitled “Le Trac” (a French term for stagefright), will follow Bertha’s frustrated attempts at a singing career during her stay in Paris in the years just prior to the Franco-Prussian War. I am grateful to the Vermont Studio Center for providing me with a scholarship to work on developing and editing these sections during an upcoming, month-long residency.

With news of the project’s increasing momentum, I look forward to updating this blog more regularly and posting more photographs from research trips, especially those that relate to key scenes in the novel. In the meantime, the manuscript continues to grow, revealing new insights into both Alfred and Bertha on an almost daily basis. I look forward to sharing some of these discoveries here in the weeks and months ahead!