Bertha Felicitas Sophie Freifrau von Suttner (Baroness Bertha von Suttner, ne Countess Kinsky, Grfin Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau; 9 June 1843 21 June 1914) was an Austrian–Bohemian pacifist and novelist. In 1905 she was the first woman to be solely awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the second female Nobel laureate after Marie Curie‘s 1903 award, and the first Austrian laureate.
Suttner was born on 9 June 1843 at Palais Kinsky in the Obecn dvr district of Prague. Her parents were the Austrian Lieutenant general (Feldmarschall-Leutnant) Franz de Paula Josef Graf Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau, recently deceased at the age of 75, and his wife Sophie Wilhelmine von Krner, who was fifty years his junior. Her father was a member of the House of Kinsky via descent from Vilm Kinsk. Suttner’s mother came from a family that belonged to untitled nobility of significantly lower status, being the daughter of Joseph von Krner, a cavalry officer, and a distant relative of the poet Theodor Krner. For the rest of her life, Suttner faced exclusion from the Austrian high aristocracy due to her mixed descent; for instance only those with unblemished aristocratic pedigree back to their great-great-grandparents were eligible to be presented at court. She was additionally disadvantaged because her father, as a third son, had no great estates or other financial resources to be inherited. Suttner was baptised at the Church of Our Lady of the Snows, not a traditional choice for the aristocracy.
Soon after her birth, Suttner’s mother moved to live in Brno with her guardian Landgrave Friedrich Michael zu Frstenberg (17931866). Her older brother Arthur was sent to a military school, at the age of six, and subsequently had little contact with the family. In 1855 Suttner’s aunt Loffe and cousin Elvira joined the household. Elvira, whose father was a private tutor, was of a similar age to Suttner and intellectually precocious, introducing Suttner to the pleasures of literature and philosophy. Beyond her reading, Suttner gained proficiency in French, Italian and English as an adolescent, under the supervision of a succession of private tutors; she also became an accomplished amateur pianist and singer.
Suttner’s mother and aunt suffered from delusions of clairvoyance and thus elected to gamble at Wiesbaden in the summer of 1856, hoping to return with a fortune. Their losses were so heavy that they were forced to move to Vienna. During this trip Suttner received a proprosal from Prince Philipp zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg which was declined due to her tender age. The family returned to Wiesbaden in 1859; the second trip was similarly unfortunate, and they had to relocate to a small property in Klosterneuburg. Shortly after this turn of events, Suttner wrote her first published work, the novella Endertrame im Monde, which appeared in Die Deutsche Frau. Continuing poor financial circumstance led Suttner to a brief engagement to the wealthy Gustav Heine von Geldern, thirty-one years her senior, whom she came to find unattractive and rejected; her memoirs record her disgusted response to the older man’s attempt to kiss her.
In 1864, the family summered at Bad Homburg which was also a fashionable gambling destination among the aristocracy of the era. Suttner befriended the Georgian aristocrat Ekaterine Dadiani, Princess of Mingrelia, and met Tsar Alexander II. Seeking a career as an opera singer as an alternative to marrying money, Suttner undertook an intensive course of lessons, working on her voice for over four hours a day. Despite tuition from the eminent Gilbert Duprez in Paris in 1867, and from Pauline Viardot in Baden-Baden in 1868, she never secured a professional engagement. She suffered from stage fright and was unable to project well in performance. In the summer of 1872 she was engaged to Prince Adolf zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Hohenstein who died at sea while travelling to America to escape his debts in October.
Tutor in the Suttner household, life in Georgia”]
Both Elvira and her guardian Friederich had died in 1866, and Suttner, now above typical marriageable age, felt increasingly constrained by her mother’s eccentricity and the family’s poor financial circumstances. In 1873, she found employment as a tutor and companion to the four daughters of Karl von Suttner, aged between fifteen and twenty. The Suttner family lived in the Innere Stadt of Vienna three seasons of the year, and summered at Schloss Harmannsdorf in Lower Austria. Suttner had an affectionate relationship with her four young students, who nicknamed her “Boulotte” due to her corpulence, a name she would later adopt as a literary pseudonym in the form “B. Oulot”. She soon fell in love with her charge’s elder brother, Arthur Gundaccar, who was seven years her junior. They were engaged but unable to marry due to the Suttners’ disapproval. In 1876, with her employers’ encouragement, Suttner answered a newspaper advertisement which led to her briefly becoming secretary and housekeeper to Alfred Nobel in Paris. In the few weeks of her employment Suttner and Nobel developed a friendship, and Nobel may have made romantic overtures. However, Suttner remained committed to Arthur and returned shortly to Vienna to marry him in secrecy, in the church of St. Aegyd in Gumpendorf.
The newly-weds eloped to Mingrelia, where Suttner hoped to make use of her connection to the former ruling House of Dadiani. On their arrival they were entertained by Prince Niko. The couple settled in Kutaisi, where they were able to find work teaching languages and music to the children of the local aristocracy. However they experienced considerable hardship despite their social connections, living in a simple three-roomed wooden house. Their situation worsened in 1877 on the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War, although Arthur had some success in reporting on the hostilities for the Neue Freie Presse. Suttner also wrote frequently for the Austrian press in this period, and worked on her early novels, including in Es Lwos a romanticized account of her life with Arthur. In the aftermath of the war, Arthur attempted to set up a timber business, but it was unsuccessful.
Arthur and Bertha von Suttner
Arthur and Suttner were largely socially isolated in Georgia; their poverty rather than their social status restricted their engagement with high society, and neither ever became fluent speakers of Mingrelian or Georgian. To stave off starvation, the couple each began writing as a career. While Arthur’s writing during this period is dominated by local themes, Suttner’s was not similarly influenced by Georgian culture.
In August 1882 Ekaterine Dadiani died. Soon afterwards, the couple decided to relocate to Tblisi. Here Arthur gained whatever work he could, in accounting, construction and wallpaper design, while Suttner largely concentrated on her writing. She became a correspondent of Michael Georg Conrad, eventually contributing an article to the 1885 edition of his publication Die Gesellschaft. The piece, entitled “Truth and Lies”, is a polemic in favour of the naturalism of mile Zola. Her first significant political work, Inventarium einere Seele (“Inventory of the Soul”) was published in Leipzig in 1883. In it Suttner takes a pro-disarmament, progressive stance, arguing for the inevitability of world peace due to technological advancement; a possibility also considered by her friend Nobel due to the increasingly deterrent effect of more powerful weapons.
In 1884 Suttner’s mother died, saddling the couple with further debts. Arthur had befriended a Georgian journalist in Tblisi, M, and the couple agreed to collaborate with him on a translation of the Georgian epic The Knight in the Panther Skin. Suttner was to improve M.’s literal translation of the Georgian to French, and Arthur to translate the French to German. This method proved arduous, and they worked for few hours each day due to the distraction of the Mingrelian countryside around M.’s home. Arthur did publish several important articles on the work in the Georgian press, and illustrations were prepared for the putative edition by Mihly Zichy. However, M. failed to produce expected payments, and with the eruption of the Bulgarian Crisis in 1885 the couple felt increasingly unsafe in Georgian society, which due to the nation’s political domination by Russia was increasingly hostile to Austrians. Arthur’s parents now accepted his marriage, and the couple were welcome in Austria; the couple returned in May, to live in the country house at Harmannsdorf.
Bertha found refuge in her marriage with Arthur. About it she said, “The third field of my feelings and moods lay within our married happiness. In this was my peculiarly inalienable home, my refuge for all possible conditions of life, ….and so the leaves of my diary are full not only of political domestic records of all kinds, but also of memoranda of our gay little jokes, our confidential enjoyable walks, our uplifting reading, our hours of music together, and our evening games of chess. To us personally nothing could happen. We had each other, – that was everything.”
Striving for Peace
Suttner and her husband finally reconciled with his family and in 1885 could return to Austria, where the couple lived at Harmannsdorf Castle in Lower Austria. She continued her journalistic activity and concentrated on peace and conflict studies corresponding with the French philosopher Ernest Renan and influenced by the International Arbitration and Peace Association founded by Hodgson Pratt in 1880.
In 1889 Suttner became a leading figure in the peace movement with the publication of her pacifist novel, Die Waffen nieder! (“Lay Down Your Arms!”), which made her one of the leading figures of the Austrian peace movement. The book was published in 37 editions and translated into 12 languages. She witnessed the foundation of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and called for the establishment of the Austrian Gesellschaft der Friedensfreunde pacifist organization in a 1891 Neue Freie Presse editorial. Suttner became chairwoman and also founded the German Peace Society the next year. She gained international repute as editor of the international pacifist journal Die Waffen nieder!, named after her book, from 1892 to 1899. In 1897 she presented Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria with a list of signatures urging the establishment of an International Court of Justice and took part in the organisation of the First Hague Conventions in 1899.
Upon her husband’s death in 1902, Suttner had to sell Harmannsdorf Castle and moved back to Vienna. In 1904 she addressed the International Congress of Women in Berlin and for seven months travelled around the United States attending a universal peace congress in Boston and meeting President Theodore Roosevelt.
Though her personal contact with Alfred Nobel had been brief, she corresponded with him until his death in 1896, and it is believed that she was a major influence in his decision to include a peace prize among those prizes provided in his will, which she received in the fifth term on 10 December 1905. The bestowal took place on 18 April 1906 in Kristiania.
In 1907 Suttner attended the Second Hague Peace Conference, which however mainly negotiated on aspects of law of war. On the eve of World War I, she continued to advise against international armament. In 1911 she became a member of the advisory council of the Carnegie Peace Foundation. In the last months of her life, she battled cancer and helped organize the next Peace Conference, which was to take place September 1914. Unfortunately, that conference did not occur. On 21 June 1914, a few weeks before Franz Ferdinand was killed, Bertha von Suttner succumbed to her cancer. Within two months of her death WW1 was raging.
In the comprehensive socio-cultural debate of her day, Suttner’s pacifism was influenced by the writings of Immanuel Kant, Henry Thomas Buckle, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin and Leo Tolstoy (Tolstoy praised Die Waffen nieder!) conceiving peace as an original state impaired by the human aberrances of war and militarism. Thus, she felt a right to peace could be demanded under international law and was necessary in the sense of an evolutionary (Darwinist) conception of history. Suttner was also an accomplished journalist, with one historian stating that her work revealed her as “a most perceptive and adept political commentator”.
The Writing of Bertha von Suttner
Bertha von Suttner wrote as a career. This often meant that she had to write novels and novellas that she did not believe in or really want to write. However, she continued to write them to avoid starvation. Even in those novels that she did not believe in, she found ways to incorporate her ideals. Often, the romantic heroes would fall in love upon realizing they were both fighting for the same ideals–usually peace and tolerance.
As an avid self-promoter, Bertha von Suttner also worked as a journalist at times. In her pursuit of self-promotion and the promotion of her ideals, she used her connections in aristocracy and friendships with wealthy individuals (i.e. Alfred Nobel) to gain connections to heads of State internationally. She also used them to gain popularity for her writing. To gain popularity and financial success from writing, she used a male pseudonym early in her career. In addition, Suttner often worked as a journalist to get her message out or promote her own books, events, and causes.
As Tolstoy noted and others have since agreed, there is a strong similarity between Suttner and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Both Beecher Stowe and von Suttner “were neither simply writers of popular entertainment nor authors of tendentious propaganda…. used entertainment for idealistic purposes.” For Suttner, peace and acceptance of all individuals and all peoples was the largest ideal and theme.
Bertha von Suttner also wrote about other issues and ideals. Two of the common issues outside of peace vs. violence in her work are religion and gender.
There are two main issues with religion that Bertha von Suttner often wrote about.
Bertha von Suttner held a disdain for the spectacle and pomp of some religious practices. In a scene in Lay Down Your Arms she showed highlighted the odd theatricality of some religious practices. In the scene, the emperor and empress are washing the feet of the normal citizens to show they are as humble as Jesus. However, they invite everyone to witness their show of humility and enter the hall in a dramatic fashion. As the protagonist Martha acknowledged, it was “indeed a sham washing.”
Next, and more prominent in most of her writing, is the idea that war is righteously for God. Often, leaders use religion as a reason or inspiration for war. This reasoning bothered Bertha von Suttner on two fronts. First, it placed the State as the important entity to God rather than the individual. Therefore, it makes dying in battle more glorious than other forms of death or even living through a war. Much of Lay Down Your Arms deals with this trope.
This type religious thinking also gives way to segregation and fighting based on religious differences. Bertha and Arthur von Suttner refused to accept that tenet of religious thinking. In fact, as a devote Christian, Arthur founded the League Against Anti-Semitism in response to the pogroms in Eastern Europe and the growing antisemitism across Europe. Acceptance of all people and all faiths is a major factor in everything the Suttner family did. For the Suttner family, religion was neighborly love, not neighborly hatred. Any kind of hatred, against other nations or against other creeds, detracted from the humaneness of humanity.
Bertha von Suttner is often considered a leader in the women’s liberation movement. In Lay Down Your Arms, the protagonist Martha often clashes with her father on this issue. Martha does not want her son to play with toy soldiers and be indoctrinated to the masculine ideas of war. The father character attempts to put Martha back in the female gendered box by suggesting that the son will not need to ask for approval from a woman. He also states that Martha should be marry again because women her age should not be alone.
This was not simply because she insisted that women are equal to men, but that she was able to tease out how sexism affects both men and women. Like Martha being placed in a female structured gender box, the character of Tilling is also placed in the male stereotyped box and affected by that. The character even discusses it, saying, “we men have to repress the instinct of self-preservation. Soldiers have also to repress the compassion, the sympathy for the gigantic trouble which invades both friend and foe; for next to cowardice, what is most disgraceful to us is all sentimentality, all that is emotional.”
Continued Impact and Dedication to Peace
Bertha von Suttner may not have experienced financial success during her lifetime. However, her work is still impacting individuals who are moved to action and activism, governments that seek diplomatic solutions before needless lost of life through war, and international organizations and nonprofits that seek to help prevent war and moderate issues between parties. She made note about the possible hope for the future in her Nobel Lecture:
“That the future will always be one degree better than what is past and discarded is the conviction of those who understand the laws of evolution and try to assist their action. Only through the understanding and deliberate application of natural laws and forces, in the material domain as well as in the moral, will the technical devices and the social institutions be created which will make our lives easier, richer, and more noble. These things are called ideals as long as they exist in the realm of ideas; they stand as achievements of progress as soon as they are transformed into visible, living, and effective forms.”
Commemoration on coins and stamps
- Die Waffen nieder, by Holger Madsen and Carl Theodor Dreyer. Released by Nordisk Films Kompagni in 1914.
- No Greater Love (German: Herz der Welt), a 1952 film has Bertha as the main character.
- Eine Liebe fr den Frieden Bertha von Suttner und Alfred Nobel (A Love for Peace Bertha von Suttner and Alfred Nobel), TV biopic, ORF/Degeto/BR 2014, after the play Mr. & Mrs. Nobel by Esther Vilar.
Works in English translation
- Memoirs of Bertha von Suttner; The Records of an Eventful Life, Pub. for the International School of Peace, Ginn and company, 1910.
- When Thoughts Will Soar; A Romance of the Immediate Future, by Baroness Bertha von Suttner … tr. by Nathan Haskell Dole. Boston, New York, Houghton Mifflin company, 1914.
- Lay Down Your Arms; The Autobiography of Martha von Tilling, by Bertha von Suttner. Authorised translation by T. Holmes, rev. by the author. 2d ed. New York, Longmans, Green and Co., 1906.