Bertha von Suttner: Long Live the Future! Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Bertha von Suttner: Long Live the Future!

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Long live the future!
- Bertha von Suttner

What is the Nobel Peace Prize good for, anyway? Is it a meaningless, politically-motivated award, or a way for the world to honour its citizens who work for the welfare of others rather than their own self-aggrandisement? Alfred Nobel put his money where his mouth was: he left the bulk of his large estate for prize money for 'those who... shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind1.' Back in the 1890s, Nobel and his friends seriously believed that it was possible to get people to admire peacemaking saints (such as Francis of Assisi) as much as they did the Alexander the Greats of this world2. Nobel and his friends were very naïve, as some of them found out in 1914.

But who were these turn-of-another-century peaceniks, anyway? Did they stand out in the crowd as eccentrics? Not really. Surprisingly, they were products of their time: Nobel, the chemical engineer opposed to the misuse of dynamite; mega-rich Andrew Carnegie, who once offered to buy the freedom of the Philippines from an unwilling US government; and Bertha von Suttner, the aristocratic lady novelist whose family could have populated an Austro-Hungarian soap opera.

Bertha von Suttner was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. She deserved it – she worked hard for peace. So let's find out a little about her wildly interesting life, shall we?

Living with A.E.I.O.U.

O Joan of Arc! heroic virgin favoured of heaven! could I be like to thee – to wave the oriflamme3, to crown my king, and then die – for the fatherland, the beloved!
- The character 'Martha von Tilling', writing in her childhood diary, in Lay Down Your Arms by Bertha von Suttner

'A.E.I.O.U', the personal symbol of Habsburg emperor Frederick III (1415–93), is variously interpreted as Austria erit in orbe ultima, Latin for 'Austria will be the last thing left standing in the world' – sort of a 'we will bury you' sentiment, or the possibly even more boastful 'Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan', meaning 'All the earth is subject to Austria.' However you read it, there's nothing penultimate about that slogan. And in the second half of the 19th Century, the upper classes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were just as certain as their counterparts in Queen Victoria's4 Britain that they were large and in charge, and were going to stay that way. At this point, we will stop and chuckle at their naïveté, and then go on to talk about Bertha von Suttner, and what she made of it all.

Bertha Felicie Sophie was born in Prague in 1843. Yes, Prague was part of the Austrian Empire at that time. Perhaps it might be good to show you a map. There it is, in all its glory in 1855. This is pretty much the world little Bertha Felicie Sophie was born into. The baby was also Countess Kinsky of Wchinitz und Tettau, although she couldn't spell it yet.

Bertha's father, Feldmarschall-Leutnant Franz de Paula Josef Graf Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau, was 75, and her mother, daughter of a much lower-born cavalry officer, was 25. In the old Austrian Empire class counted a lot, and this difference in social status would seriously affect Bertha's life prospects – for instance, she couldn't be presented at court because she couldn't demonstrate pure aristocratic ancestry back to her great-great-grandparents. (Being distantly related to a poet on her mother's side was no advantage.) It also didn't help that Josef Graf, etc, died before Bertha was born. So, no glittery court life for little Bertha.

Bertha grew up in Brno, which was in Moravia5, learned German, French, Italian and English, played piano and sang. She lived a quiet life, complicated by the elaborate social rituals and restrictions of the time, until her mother upset the apple cart by trying to use her 'psychic powers' to gamble at Wiesbaden in 1856. She lost a bundle, and the family was now not just socially challenged, but relatively poor. They had to move to Vienna.

Thirteen-year-old Bertha got a marriage proposal from a prince. Her family turned it down because they thought Bertha was a bit on the young side. Bertha had ambitions: in 1859, at only 16, she published a novella, Enderträume im Monde. She studied to become an opera singer, but was not a success. Bertha had the voice, but suffered from crippling stage fright. She got engaged to another prince, but he died at sea. Things were not going well for Bertha in the world of A.E.I.O.U.

A Woman of Letters and Scandal

By 1866, Bertha was practically an old maid. She found a job as a tutor to the von Suttner family. She also fell in love with her pupils' older brother. The parents weren't too happy about that, and encouraged Bertha to find employment elsewhere. This led to the most significant career change in Bertha's life: she became secretary and housekeeper to Alfred Nobel, the dynamite tycoon. The arrangement lasted only a few weeks – some think Nobel may have made romantic overtures which were rejected – but the friendship between the two continued throughout Nobel's life. The Nobel organisation credits Bertha with influencing Nobel's decision to leave his fortune to peace work.

Bertha left Nobel's employment – to elope with Arthur von Suttner to Mingrelia. Where? you ask. It was part of Georgia, belonged to the House of Dadiani until the Russians took over, and seemed far enough away from Austrian reach for a couple of runaway newlyweds who wanted to take up writing and language teaching. It also seemed safe enough. Wrong. In 1877, the Russo-Turkish War broke out, and life became difficult. In 1882, they moved to Tbilisi. (This is in Georgia, try to keep up.) Arthur worked at whatever he could find, including accountancy and wallpaper design, while Bertha wrote novels and newspaper articles on everything from Emile Zola to the possibility of world peace6. Peace must have seemed far away, with all the militarism, boundary-shifting, and fighting that went on around the couple. In 1885, there was something called the Bulgarian Crisis, and Austrians weren't safe in Georgia any more. We're sure this made sense at the time. Fortunately for world peace, the Suttner family caved in and accepted Bertha and Arthur's marriage, so they returned home to Austria in May 1885.

Bertha the Activist

In Austria, Bertha von Suttner went to work on peace studies, which was as unusual an activity then as it is now. She also kept writing. In 1889, her novel Die Waffen Nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms) made her an international figure. The pacifist book was translated into 12 languages. She founded the Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft (German Peace Society) in 1892 – it's still around. She edited a journal called Die Waffen Nieder after her book. She personally handed Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria a list of signatures proposing an international court of justice (how's that for not being presented at court?) and met Theodore Roosevelt at a peace conference. Bertha became known as the 'generalissimo of the peace movement'. She kept talking to Alfred Nobel. When he died, he left his fortune to the cause of peace. In 1905, Bertha von Suttner became the first woman to receive the Peace Prize as a solo award.

Viewing events from downstream can make historians sad. Bertha von Suttner died in June 1914. We may sigh and say, 'At least, she wasn't around in August when the guns started.' Peace studies received a serious blow in 1914. It probably wouldn't have made her happier to know that she would be posthumously depicted on stamps and Euro coins, or that a square in Bonn, Germany, would be named after her. That's not much of a consolation prize.

Bertha the Novelist

At seventeen I was a thoroughly overwrought creature.
- The character 'Martha von Tilling' in Lay Down Your Arms by Bertha von Suttner

What is Bertha von Suttner's writing like? Margaret Melicharova, writing for the Peace Pledge Union, describes Bertha's style as 'for our century, unappealingly high-flown and rhetorical.' That's probably putting it kindly. Readers of 19th-Century German had long attention spans. They also had a high tolerance for extremely emotional self-expression, the kind described with words like schwärmerisch (enthusiastically lyrical) or sehnsuchtsvoll (wistful or yearning). Emotion didn't have such a bad reputation back then. Here's a sample:

'Tell me, dear papa, what you think,' I asked anxiously. 'Will that prevent the war?'
'I am not aware that an ultimatum ever prevented a war. It would indeed be only prudent of this wretched rabble of Italians to give in and not expose themselves to a second Novara. Ah! if good Father Radetzky had not died last year I believe he would, in spite of his ninety years, have put himself again at the head of his army, and, by God! I would have marched along with him. We two have, I think, shown already how to manage these foreign scum. But it seems they have not yet had enough of it, the puppies! They want a second lesson. All right. Our Lombardo-Venetian kingdom will get a handsome addition in the Piedmontese territory, and I already look forward to the entry of our troops into Turin.'

- Lay Down Your Arms

Bertha's books were popular. Die Waffen Nieder! went into 37 editions. But there were critics – especially of the type who say they live in 'the real world', when they mean 'we have no desire to change this one'. The journal Die Waffen Nieder recorded anti-Bertha von Suttner jokes with ironic glee:

Baroness von Suttner is in despair. One fears the worst: namely, a new novel of hers.
- Vienna's Humoristische Blätter.

Bertha's outlook underwent a change over her lifetime. Like her heroine, Martha von Trilling, she began by accepting the general view of aristocratic Europe that empires were good things, that war was not only necessary but noble (and probably character-building), and that a well-dressed nobility was an asset to civilisation. However, Bertha didn't stay that way. She learned. And then she taught others.

For Further Reading

An English version of Lay Down Your Arms is available from Project Gutenberg, if you have the curiosity and patience.

If you're comfortable with old German print, have fun with Volume I and Volume II of Die Waffen Nieder. Be prepared for more discussion of military movements in 19th-Century Europe than you are likely to think strictly necessary. You're dying for the sequel? Try Marthas Kinder, it begins with the line, 'Es lebe die Zukunft!' ('Long live the future!')

In German, but this time in Latin font: a volume of the pacifist journal Die Waffen Nieder from 1898. You can read the hopeful speculations of people from more than a hundred years ago who believed they were building peace. As Bertha wrote, 'Long live the future!'

Image courtesy of Archive.org

1The official website of the Nobel Prize.2As of this writing, the Edited Guide does not have a stand-alone Entry on St Francis. What does that tell you?3'The oriflamme symbolises the complete opposite of peace. It was the medieval French royal banner of St Denis, a long, thin, wavy banner that was red as the colour of ferocious blood. While it was raised it signified that French troops would not accept any surrender and intended to slaughter every single one of their enemies. This was expected to strike terror in the (often English) enemy. However, during the Hundred Years War it encouraged the English to treat the French the same way and take no prisoners, leading to French defeats such as Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt'. This helpful explanation is brought to us courtesy of Bluebottle.4Now, Queen Victoria? We have a whole university project on her.5Now the Czech Republic. Central European geography requires study, as it changes a lot.6To appreciate how unusual Bertha's eclectic attitude was, compare her work to that of Charlotte Yonge. Where Yonge adhered strictly to the mores and religious prejudices of her class and time, von Suttner was even tolerant enough to consider the Russian Orthodox views alongside her native Catholicism. Maybe travel does broaden the mind.

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