Baroness Bertha Felicie Sophie von Suttner (June 9, 1843-June 21, 1914), born Countess Kinsky in Prague, was the posthumous daughter of a field marshal and the granddaughter, on her mother’s side, of a cavalry captain. Raised by her mother under the aegis of a guardian who was a member of the Austrian court, she was the product of an aristocratic society whose militaristic traditions she accepted without question for the first half of her life and vigorously opposed for the last half.
As a girl and young adult, Bertha studied languages and music (at one time aspiring to an operatic career), read voraciously, and enjoyed an active social life enlivened by travel.
At thirty, feeling she could no longer impose on her mother’s dwindling funds, she took a position in Vienna as teacher-companion to the four daughters of the Suttner household. Here she met her future husband, the youngest son of the family. In 1876 she left for Paris to become Alfred Nobel‘s secretary but returned, after only a brief stay, to marry Baron Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner. Because of the Suttners’ strong disapproval of the marriage, the young couple left immediately for the Caucasus where for nine years they earned an often precarious living by giving lessons in languages and music and eventually, and more successfully, by writing.
During this period the Baroness produced Es Löwos, a poetic description of their life together; four novels; and her first serious book, Inventarium einer Seele [Inventory of a Soul], in which she took stock of her thoughts and ideas on what she and her husband had been reading together, especially in evolutionist authors such as Darwin and Spencer; included is the concept of a society that would achieve progress though achieving peace.
In 1885, welcomed by the Baron’s now relenting family, the Suttners returned to Austria where Bertha von Suttner wrote most of her books, including her many novels. Their life was oriented almost solely toward the literary until, through a friend, they learned about the International Arbitration and Peace Association1 in London and about similar groups on the Continent, organizations that had as an actual working objective what they had now both accepted as an ideal: arbitration and peace in place of armed force. Baroness von Suttner immediately added material on this to her second serious book, Das Maschinenzeitalter [The Machine Age] which, when published early in 1889, was much discussed and reviewed. This book, criticizing many aspects of the times, was among the first to foretell the results of exaggerated nationalism and armaments.
Wanting to «be of service to the Peace League… [by writing] a book which should propagate its ideas»2, Bertha von Suttner went to work at once on a novel whose heroine suffers all the horrors of war; the wars involved were those of the author’s own day on which she did careful research. The effect of Die Waffen nieder [Lay Down Your Arms], published late in 1889, was consequently so real and the implied indictment of militarism so telling that the impact made on the reading public was tremendous. And from this time on, its author became an active leader in the peace movement, devoting a great part of her time, her energy, and her writing to the cause of peace – attending peace meetings and international congresses, helping to establish peace groups, recruiting members, lecturing, corresponding with people all over the world to promote peace projects.
In 1891 she helped form a Venetian peace group, initiated the Austrian Peace Society of which she was for a long time the president, attended her first international peace congress, and started the fund needed to establish the Bern Peace Bureau.
In 1892, with A. H. Fried, she initiated the peace journal Die Waffen Nieder, remaining its editor until the end of 1899 when it was replaced by the Friedenswarte (edited by Fried) to which she regularly contributed comments on current events (Randglossen zur Zeitgeschichte) until she died. Also in 1892 she promised Alfred Nobel to keep him informed on the progress of the peace movement and, if possible, to convince him of its effectiveness. No doubt she felt that she was beginning to succeed when she received a letter from him in January of 1893, telling her about a peace prize he hoped to found, one which, after his death in 1896, his will showed he had indeed established 3.
Bertha von Suttner, along with her husband, worked hard to gain support for the Czar’s Manifesto and the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, arranging public meetings, forming committees, lecturing. She sent accounts of the Conference itself to the Neue Freie Presse and to other papers, in other countries, and in the following year wrote articles and initiated meetings to popularize the idea of the Permanent Court of Arbitration set up by the Conference.
Although grief-stricken after her husband’s death in 1902, she determined to carry on the work which they had so often done together and which he had asked her to continue.
She now left her quiet retirement in Vienna only on peace missions, which often included arduous speaking tours. She continued to write, but only for the cause of peace. By 1905 when she received the Nobel Peace Prize – at a fortuitous time financially – she was widely thought of as sharing the leadership of the peace movement with the venerable Passy. In the years that followed she played a prominent part in the Anglo-German Friendship Committee formed at the 1905 Peace Congress to further Anglo-German conciliation; she warned all who would listen about the dangers of militarizing China and of using the rapidly developing aviation as a military instrument; she contributed lectures, articles, and interviews to the International Club set up at the 1907 Hague Peace Conference to promote the movement’s objectives among the Conference delegates and the general public; she spoke at the 1908 Peace Congress in London; and she repeated again and again that «Europe is one» and that uniting it was the only way to prevent the world catastrophe which seemed to be coming.
Her last major effort, made in 1912 when she was almost seventy, was a second lecture tour in the United States, the first having followed her attending the International Peace Congress of 1904 in Boston.
In August of 1913, already affected by beginning illness, the Baroness spoke at the International Peace Congress at The Hague where she was greatly honored as the «generalissimo» of the peace movement. In May of 1914 she was still able to take an interest in preparations being made for the twenty-first Peace Congress, planned for Vienna in September. But her illness – suspected cancer – developed rapidly thereafter, and she died on June 21, 1914, two months before the erupting of the world war she had warned and struggled against.
In accordance with her wishes, she was cremated at Gotha and her ashes left there in the columbarium. The war and its immediate aftermath put an end not only to the plans of the peace movement for the congress in Vienna but to its plans for a monument to Bertha von Suttner.
|Abrams, Irwin, «Bertha von Suttner and the Nobel Peace Prize», in Joumal of Central European Affairs, Vol. 22, No. 3 (October, 1962), 286-307.|
|Kempf, Beatrix, Bertha von Suttner: Das Lebensbild einer grossen Frau. Wien, Österreichischer Bundesverlag, 1964.|
|Playne, Caroline E., Bertha von Suttner and the Struggle to Avert the World War. London, Allen & Unwin, 1936.|
|Suttner, Bertha von. Most papers and manuscripts are in the Bertha von Suttner Manuscript Collection in the Peace Archives of the United Nations Library in Geneva, Switzerland. The Nobel Archives of the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden, contain communications from Baroness von Suttner to Alfred Nobel.|
|Suttner, Bertha von, Bertha von Suttners gesammelte Schriften in 12 Bdn. Dresden, E. Pierson, 1906.|
|Suttner, Bertha von, Briefe an einen Toten. Dresden, E. Pierson, 1904, 1905.|
|Suttner, Bertha von, Inventarium einer Seele. Leipzig, W. Friedrich, 1883.|
|Suttner, Bertha von, Der Kampf um die Vermeidung des Weltkrieges: Randglossen aus zwei Jahrzehnten zu den Zeitereignissen vor der Katastrophe (1892-1900 und 1907-1914). 2 Bde. Zürich, Orell Füssli, 1917.|
|Suttner, Bertha von, Krieg und Frieden: Ein Vortrag. München, A. Schupp, 1900.|
|Suttner, Bertha von, Lay Down Your Arms: The Autobiography of Martha von Tilling. Authorized translation [of Die Waffen nieder]. London, Longmans, 1892.|
|Suttner, Bertha von, Marthas Kinder. Fortsetzung zu Die Waffen nieder. Dresden, E. Pierson, 1902.|
|Suttner, Bertha von, Das Maschinenzeitalter. Zukunftsvorlesungen über unsere Zeit von «Jemand». Zürich, Verlags-Magazin, 1891.|
|Suttner, Bertha von, Memoirs of Bertha von Suttner: The Records of an Eventful Life. Authorized translation [of the Memoiren]. 2 vols. Boston, Ginn, 1910.|
3. For a detailed account of the relationship between Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner and a discussion of the Peace Prize itself, including Baroness von Suttner’s reactions and opinions concerning it, see Irwin Abrams’ article «Bertha von Suttner and the Nobel Peace Prize».
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.