Bertha Von Suttner

Honored by:Reverend Sally Bryan
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The Reverend Sally Bryan

If someone were to tell me that my house was burning down, one item that I would quickly try to rescue is this book: Suffragette for Peace: The Life of Bertha von Suttner. The book by itself has no great monetary value – however as it represents a rare account of a significant person of this century so is invaluable! I believe that Bertha von Suttner is one of the most influential women of our time. Yet, her name has little, if any recognition today.

I first heard about Bertha von Suttner when I was a seminary student and read her name in an anthology of women peace activists. When the book cited her as the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, I thought to myself – “There must be a fascinating story to discover!" I devoted an entire afternoon, therefore, visiting the Boston Public Library in search of information about this historic figure. After many hours of serious investigation, I was shocked to find that virtually nothing was in print about her. In spite of obviously very impressive credentials, she had become an obscure name by the end of the 20th century. I was perplexed ... and this reflection is all about respecting the mystery of my original question.

The graceful rhythm of synchronicity brought me to full attention several weeks after visiting the library. I was casually perusing the shelves of a local used bookstore when I suddenly spied a title on a cluttered shelf above me: Suffragette for Peace: The Life of Bertha von Suttner. This fateful book! I was actually trembling with unexpected joy as I picked it up and realized that I had just found an entire biography about the cryptic woman herself. Written by Beatrix Kempf of Vienna, this book includes a historic overview of her life, as well as a collection of her most famous essays and speeches. Ms. Kempf explains in the forward that she acquired information about Bertha von Suttner by accessing primary sources filed in the United Nations archive library in Geneva, Switzerland.

The story of Bertha von Suttner is most often traced to the year 1876. At the age of 33, Bertha Kinsky – then her family name – was in desperate need of employment. A child of an aristocratic family of Austria, Bertha was known to be an intellectual, cultured woman of society. Unfortunately, her widowed mother had squandered the family's inherited wealth. She found meaningful employment serving as a governess to the von Suttner family, a family of nobility in Vienna. In this role she became acquainted with the eldest son, Arthur, who soon fell in love with her. Ten years her junior, Arthur invoked his parents' wrath by displaying these sincere feelings – and Bertha was soon dismissed from her position. Consequently, she suddenly found herself reading the want ads of the Paris paper and quickly spotted an intriguing opportunity: "A very rich, cultured, aged gentleman, residing in Paris, wished to meet an equally mature lady knowing foreign languages for the performance of the duties of secretary and housekeeper." Bertha responds to this ad discovering that the anonymous patron was Alfred Nobel. In 1876, this "aged gentleman" was in his early forties and was at the peak of his career as an inventor and scientist. His invention of dynamite had made him one of the wealthiest men in Europe. A Swedish citizen, Nobel had developed this high explosive as a means to deter war itself. By this time in his life, he had never married--and his newspaper ad was seen as a subtle way of looking for an appropriate wife. And upon meeting Bertha Kinsky, he became enamored with her, inviting her to move to Paris where he would employ her services.

As fate would have it, he was able to host her at his Paris mansion for only a week. Alfred Nobel was suddenly summoned by the King of Sweden to return to Stockholm to participate in the dedication of a new dynamite factory. And while he was away, Bertha received a telegram from the Baron Arthur von Suttner, who passionately begged her to return to Vienna where they would elope. That same day, she also received a telegram from Alfred Nobel informing her of his scheduled return to Paris. The next day, Bertha packed her bags and returned to Vienna where they were married. Because Arthur's parents had disowned him for this action, they boarded a ship which would take them to the Caucasus Mountains of Russia. Trying many occupations during the ten years while they lived there, Bertha and Arthur eventually became respected journalists who documented the many ethnic conflicts which were taking place in Russia at that time. Upon returning to Europe, Bertha decided to write a novel which would depict the atrocities of war. Lay Down Your Arms was published in 1889 and received overnight success – in spite of the doubt of her first publisher! By the time she received the Nobel Prize in 1905, her novel had been translated into 12 languages and was in its 37th edition. Many historians believe that Lay Down Your Arms, with its message to declare the end to warfare, had a profound impact of 19th century thinking- comparing its effect to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which radically changed public opinion towards slavery. In fact, when Willy Brandt, former Chancellor of Germany, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971, he referred to Lay Down Your Arms as one of the great inspirations of his life.

                In 1891, Leo Tolstoy wrote Bertha von Suttner the following letter to congratulate her on her literary achievement.

“Dear Madame,

I was just reading your novel Lay Down Your Arms, which H. Boulgakoff had sent me, when I received your letter. I esteem your work highly, and it has occurred to me that the publication of your novel represents a good omen for the future.

                The abolition of slavery was preceded by a famous novel written by a woman, H. Beecher-Stowe. My God grant that the abolition of war will follow your novel…”

Leo Tolstoy
10/12 October 1891

Bertha Von Suttner received another congratulatory letter from an old acquaintance, Alfred Nobel.

“Dear Baroness and friend,

I have just finished reading your admirable masterpiece, It is said that there are 2,000 languages – 1,999 too many – but there is not a single language into which your excellent work should not be translated, and then read and dwelt upon.

How long did it take you to create such a marvel? You will tell me when I have the honor and good fortune to shake your hand – the hand of an amazon so bravely declaring war upon itself.

It is not really right of you to declare: “Lay down your arms,” because you make use of weapons yourself, and your weapons – the charm of your style and the nobility of your ideas – have a far greater range than the hellish weapons of war.”

Alfred Nobel
1 April 1890

Bertha von Suttner had been corresponding with Alfred Nobel since her return from Russia. They had established a unique friendship. Alfred Nobel remained an ardent admirer of Bertha von Suttner until his death, because they shared the same vision for peace. Alfred Nobel sincerely believed, however, that a world of peace would be achieved when the weapons of destruction became so terrifying that they would force human beings to cower before them – never to be used again. A committed pacifist, Nobel was literally obsessed to invent the most devastating technology possible to achieve this goal. In a letter to Bertha he stated: “My factories may well put an end to war before your congresses. For in the day that two armies are capable of destroying each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil before a war and dismiss their troops.”

Bertha von Suttner, on the other hand, advocated an international tribunal to arbitrate disagreements. As a famous writer, she attracted large audiences throughout Europe when she made public appeals for the use of arbitration in resolving conflicts. Bertha was founder and first president of the Austrian Peace Society. She was a prominent representative in the various world peace congresses which were being held at the turn of the century in Europe. Bertha was conscientious in keeping her friend, Alfred Nobel, informed of these developments. From her widespread travels, she would send him personal letters, news articles, and current literature regarding the new principles of arbitration. Nobel eventually identified with this cooperative vision for peace. And the year before his death, he wrote his famous will – leaving his entire fortune to create a foundation which would honor men and women who made outstanding contributions towards peace and cultural advancement.

Alfred Nobel died on December 10, 1896. Each year on the anniversary of his death, the Nobel Prizes are awarded to recognize human achievement. Four fields were originally acknowledged – chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. In 1969, a fifth prize for economics was added.

Both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner ascribed to the theories of evolution presented by Charles Darwin. Both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner shared a vision that humanity would evolve in consciousness through individual achievements of men and women. The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901. In 1095, Berth von Suttner was the first woman to receive the Peace Prize. The Unitarian Universalist Association can acknowledge with pride that the next two women to receive the Peace Prize were both active members of this denomination: Jane Addams in 1931 and Emily Green Balch in 1946 who were co-founders of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

The story about Bertha von Suttner and the Nobel Prize is a story about personal integrity rather than fame and fortune. Bertha von Suttner transcended many difficult circumstances in her life because of her commitment to serve the interests of humanity. From Alfred Nobel, she sought a mutual friendship based on principle and vision. Bertha con Suttner lived her life with an absolute sense of her personal commitment to see peace prevail between nations. It can be said, therefore, that she approached life as World Citizen. The urgent need of our own generation, I believe, beckons each of us to live as World Citizens as well. We must replace selfish egotism with an attitude of global consciousness. Such remarkable people as Bertha von Suttner have shown us the way.

In my role as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I am eager to share her poignant story with first this sermon. I also now have the vision to write perhaps a book – a historic novel – which would dramatize the marvelous details of her life, so that society would not forget who she was or what she accomplished!! We will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize in the year 2001. I am sincerely hopeful that in my own creative pursuits, therefore, I can help re-acquaint society to this special woman and her special role in the work for world peace.

Blessed Be.

Submitted on 5/16/94