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Words Against War: Bertha von Suttner, Novelist and Peace Activist

By Dr Barbara Burns, Reader in German and Dean of Graduate Studies, University of Glasgow

The Austrian writer Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914), whose influential novel Die Waffen nieder! [Lay Down Your Arms!] (1889) was translated into sixteen languages and adapted into a film during her own lifetime, became the first female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905, but is largely forgotten today. A widely travelled, multilingual individual with an aristocratic background, Suttner was equally comfortable as a journalist, a creative writer and a public speaker. The success of her novel, which was both a literary work and a manifesto for pacifism, brought its author access to an international political stage and support from prominent figures across Europe and the United States. The centenary in 2014 of Suttner’s death, together with the many reflections on war which the last year of commemoration has generated, have made it an appropriate moment to re-evaluate the contribution of this important author.

BvS 1890

Bertha von Suttner

Researching the work of Suttner has also revealed an interesting Scottish link, with the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In 1903 Carnegie provided 1.5 million dollars to erect a symbolic building in The Hague, a Temple of Peace, to accommodate the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the aim of which was to ‘end all wars’. Among the distinguished guests at the opening ceremony in 1913 was Bertha von Suttner. Fourteen years earlier, she had been the only woman to attend the opening of the 1899 Hague Peace Conference, at which she and other peace activists had lobbied the delegations to support the establishment of a court aimed at replacing armed conflict with arbitration. The fruit of these efforts was the Permanent Court of Arbitration, forerunner to the International Court of Justice, to which Carnegie shortly afterwards lent his support.

front cover waffen nieder

Die Waffen Nieder [Lay Down Your Arms]

Bertha von Suttner’s involvement in this international cause was made possible by the success of her 1889 novel Lay Down Your Arms!. The manuscript was at first rejected by several publishers for its anti-militaristic stance, but when published enjoyed bestseller status and propelled its author to a position of international influence. Von Suttner was formally received in Buckingham Palace and the White House, and travelled extensively both in America and Europe, addressing peace congresses and corresponding with politicians and members of the European intellectual elite. Leo Tolstoy wrote to her: ‘I very much appreciate your work and think that the publication of your novel is a good omen. The abolition of slavery was prepared by the famous work of a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe: may God grant that your book will result in the abolition of war.’ Perhaps due to its rather florid and didactic tone, Lay Down Your Arms! never achieved the classic status of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but its success in generating support for a powerful political agenda makes it a landmark of late nineteenth-century literary writing. Suttner deliberately chose the medium of fiction to spread her political ideals: ‘I was sure to find a larger public this way than by a treatise’, she wrote. Her instinct proved correct, and this strategically targeted novel enabled its writer within the space of a few years to make the transition from author of fiction to serious political intermediary. For a woman who did not even have the vote, Suttner was arguably the most noteworthy female European advocate for peace of her generation, whose work helped to lay the foundations for the League of Nations, and in due course for the European Community and the agencies of the United Nations.

Suttner died in June 1914, just a few days before the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie. Her pacifist colleague Alfred Fried captured the significance of her legacy in his obituary for his tirelessly campaigning friend: ‘When she sent out the call ‘Lay down your arms’ into the world as the title of a novel, the peace movement was still a utopia. […] But on the day Bertha von Suttner breathed her last, that utopia had become a science, a powerful global movement.’

The 2014 centenary both of von Suttner’s death and of the outbreak of world war afforded an opportunity to reconsider and foreground the various facets of her achievement. My research took me to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection in Philadelphia, and I gave papers on Suttner at several conferences and public engagement events on the themes of war and objections to war. Audiences are fascinated by the human elements of her story, for example her longstanding friendship with Alfred Nobel, and enjoy speculating on the degree of her influence in prompting him to endow a Peace Prize. But they are also inspired by her political vision, her rhetorical skill and her sheer tenacity in pursuing her humanitarian goals in the face of mockery and opposition. My research on the work of this remarkable woman has so far yielded insights into the early development of calls for a united Europe and an end to the arms race, and there is much yet to be explored.


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