Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914): Austrian Peace Activist and Writer by Ita Marguet

7 March

Described as a remarkable woman who was ahead of her time, she was a leading activist and internationalist who continues to provide inspiration to those who believe in progress of humanity through reason, tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflicts. She wrote “Fortresses are being erected, submarines built, whole areas mined, airships tested for use in war; and all of this in such zeal - as if to attack one’s neighbour were the most inevitable and important function of a state”. Founder of the Austrian Peace Society and other pacifist organisations in Europe, she helped to establish the International Peace Bureau in Bern. She also played an important role in The Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 that led to the creation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In a lasting friendship with Alfred Nobel she inspired him to create the Nobel Peace Prize, and was the first woman to receive the Prize in 1905.

She came from an aristocratic, conservative background with strong ties to the Austro-Hungarian military to become a passionate supporter of peace through law and international institutions. She described the horrors of war through a woman’s eyes in her critically acclaimed novel ‘Lay Down Your Arms’ (1889) that she struggled to get published. It was translated into many languages. As a call for disarmament the book established her as a leader in the peace movement. Her many activities and writings helped to remove the labels of “utopians” and unrealistic “idealists” from those involved in peace activism by gaining the support of respected world leaders and intellectuals for the movement.

Born as the Countess Bertha Kinsky on June 9, 1843 she was the only child from a noble military family of Prague which was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her father Count Joseph Kinsky was a field marshal who died before her birth. Her mother, a relative of the poet Joseph von Korner, was left with a modest income after the death of her husband, and the limited funds were strained even further by her compulsive gambling at the fashionable casinos of Europe. She did however provide her daughter with governesses who instructed her in French and English, as well as singing lessons. As a teenager, Bertha had dreams of becoming an opera singer but after a while she realised her voice was not adequate for such a career. Instead she turned to academics, reading the works of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and German scientist Alexander von Humbolt by the time she was sixteen. She also taught herself Italian. She enjoyed a reputation as a great beauty and supposedly her hand was sought in marriage by a prince when she was only thirteen. She remained fairly isolated with few companions other than her mother well into her adult years. In 1876 she travelled to Paris to become Secretary to Alfred Nobel. She left after a few weeks to marry Baron Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner in Vienna where she had been employed as a governess; she remained friends with Nobel, primarily through correspondence.

Between 1876 and 1885 due to family disapproval of the marriage, the Suttners moved to the Caucasus in Russia where her husband worked as an architect; they also taught languages and music and started writing. They returned to Austria in 1885 where they became involved in international arbitration and the peace movement. On the death of her husband in 1902 she was determined to continue her work for peace and began arduous speaking tours in Europe and abroad. Her last major speaking tour was to the United States in 1912. She became ill and died of stomach cancer in Vienna, Austria, on June 21, 1914, where she was cremated. It was a few days prior to the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie that led to the first World War. One of her memorable quotes reads … After the verb ‘to Love’, ‘to Help’ is the most beautiful verb in the world.

Commemorative stamps and coinage in Austria and Germany and international literature mark the life and work of this remarkable woman in her unsparing and dedicated quest to spread a message of peace that remains so badly needed in our world.

United Nations Exhibition (2005)

An impressive pictorial and documented exhibition entitled A Century of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates (1901-2005): From Peace Movements to the United Nations was on display at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, in 2006. It featured a selection of thirty-eight Nobel Peace laureates who strove to promote international peace through the development of international organisations from the antecedents of the League of Nations to the United Nations. The exhibition was split into three parts that characterised the twentieth century: the pre-World War 1 period, the inter-war years and the period from 1945 to 2005.

The exhibition was presented and documented by the Library of the United Nations Office in Geneva and the Center for the Study of Global Change at Indiana University, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Bertha von Suttner’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. ... In 1893 Nobel announced his plans to establish a peace prize in his will in a letter to von Suttner.

Among its extensive holdings the UN Library houses the Bertha von Suttner Papers, the Permanent International Peace Bureau archives, the Woodrow Wilson collection and is the depositary of other valuable collections. A website complements the material by providing access to a selection of primary materials including correspondence, reports, photographs, addresses and treaties, as well as other artefacts.

Ita Marguet
January 2021

Note: Acknowledgement is given to the biographical and other sources in this text. It follows a text Nobel Peace Prize Laureates (1901-2005), Palais des Nations, Geneva 2006, by Ita Marguet.