Bertha von Suttner



She was “Jew Bertha” to the anti-Semites, “Red Bertha” to the anti-socialists, “Peace Bertha” to the war mongers, a “woman corrupter” to the catholic church, and to modern biographer Jutta Landa, “she was a woman, campaigning in a man’s world against man’s favorite pastime: war.”

Born in Prague in 1843 as Countess Kinsky, Bertha was to become one of the most famous women of her time, Vienna’s First Lady of Peace on the Eve of the First World War. After more than three decades of obscurity and lackluster performance on Vienna’s social ladder, Bertha’s fallback career as an educator provided the springboard for the purpose, prominence and impact she enjoyed in her later life. As Governess to the daughters of Baron von Suttner, Bertha met the two men who would facilitate the rare influence of this fin de sicle middle-aged woman. It was through the Suttner family that Bertha came to know and work with Alfred Nobel, the genius behind both dynamite and the Nobel Peace Prize. Though Nobel made no secret of his romantic interest, it was the Baron’s son, Arthur Grundaccer von Suttner, who would save Bertha from spinsterhood, accompanying her on journeys as an ex-patriot, a writer and a peace activist.

Baroness Bertha von Suttner penned 30 novels, the most famous of which, Lay Down Your Arms (1889), was published in 37 editions during her lifetime. She also edited a monthly journal of the same name, wrote a monthly column in Die Freidenswarte, and contributed to Die Gesellschaft and Realistische Wochenschrift für Literatur, Kunst und Offentliches Leben. As the founder and president of the Austrian Peace Society, vice president of the Central Bureau of Peace Societies in Bern, initiator of the Hungarian Peace Society, and mother of the First International Peace Conference in The Hague, Bertha was instrumental in laying the foundations for a worldwide Peace infrastructure. The von Suttners also raged against the increasing momentum of anti-Semitism. Bertha’s social criticism, of “people… so happy, when they can denounce a class as inferior, as second-rate creatures” to “gain nobility in their own eyes,” and Arthur’s creation of the “Society for Resistance Against Anti-Semitism” were early acts in the Resistance to the Holocaust. Bertha, with her untiring dedication to the achievement of Peace, earned the admiration of US presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, and Czar Nicolas II, as well as the audience of heads of state and citizens worldwide. Alfred Nobel, Bertha’s earliest and most committed fan, initiated her into the History books as the first Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1905.

Yet, as the name-calling indicates, turn of the century Vienna was not ready for Bertha’s brand of feminism, and as the era of World War to follow evidences, the world was not yet ripe for her call to peace. Though critics lauded Bertha’s novel Das Machinenzeitalter, believing its anonymous author to be male, Suttner struggled even to publish Lay Down Your Arms, and suffered Vienna’s distain once the anti-war work with its politically savvy female protagonist hit the shelves. As Europe prepared to unleash the violence and destruction of the Twentieth Century’s first widespread war, Bertha’s accomplishes were shrouded in disappointments. Though the First International Peace Conference germinated with Bertha von Suttner’s dedication to Peace, its only female participant was marginalized in its organization by the male government officials who turned it into a despairingly moderate pursuit of more “humane” war. Though Bertha had envisioned A League of Nations, arbitrations and disarmament as necessary fruits of an international peace movement, “Peace Czar” Nicolas II’s cruel suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1902 and the outbreak of the Boer War in 1907 were the more immediate consequences of early 20th Century discourse on peace. Perhaps graciously, death spared Bertha from a crowning disappointment, the commencement of World War I with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand a mere seven days after her demise on June 21, 1914.

Only the horrors of the ensuing half century of war, the manifestation of many of Bertha’s fictional prophesies of widespread destruction, would prepare world leaders to take the necessity of peace seriously. Bertha’s real legacy materialized posthumously, in the establishment of a League of Nations, the UN, forums for non-violent dispute resolution, peacekeeping troops and the widespread use of war crime tribunals.