Meet Bertha von Suttner, the first woman to have won the Nobel Peace Prize
The Nobel Peace Prize, which was created in 1901 by Swedish Alfred Nobel, has honoured 106 individuals so far. We look back at the life of Bertha von Suttner, the first woman to have ever won it.
Bertha was a 19th century author who first gained recognition as one of the leading figures of the Austrian peace movement when she published Die Waffen nieder (Lay Down Your Arms) in 1889. A call for disarmament – that addressed women’s place in society at the same time – the novel tells the story of a heroine who suffers the atrocities of war and challenges the widely accepted view that war was a necessary evil. It was the first time that someone described the brutal devastation and destruction caused by military conflict, instead of recounting tales of war heroism.
In her Memoirs, Bertha explained that she wanted to “be of service to the Peace League…[by writing] a book which should propagate its ideas.” Although it was first judged controversial by many publishers, the novel very quickly became a best-seller and was soon translated into twelve languages. From that moment Bertha became a well-known leader in the international peace movement.
ONE OF THE ETERNAL TRUTHS IS THAT HAPPINESS IS CREATED AND DEVELOPED IN PEACE, AND ONE OF THE ETERNAL RIGHTS IS THE INDIVIDUAL’S RIGHT TO LIVE
She was not only the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905, she actually was the inspirational force behind the prize.
She had met Alfred Nobel in 1876, when she went to Paris to briefly work as his secretary. They developed a strong friendship that lasted until Nobel’s death, and the abundant correspondence that took place between the two of them in the following years laid the groundwork for Nobel’s introduction to the growing peace movement in Europe.
An arms manufacturer and the inventor of dynamite, he believed that powerful means of destruction had a deterrent effect: “on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.” There is no doubt Bertha had a great influence on Nobel’s changing views of war. Initially sceptical about peaceful societies, Alfred Nobel told her: “Inform me, convince me, and then I shall do something great for the movement.”
When his will was made known after his death in 1896, and it was disclosed that he had established a special peace prize, it created an international sensation.
Bertha led a remarkable life for a 19th century woman – and in some respects, for today’s standards too. Ahead of her time, she lived life on her own terms.
Bertha was born an impoverished countess in 1843 to a noble military family of Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. When she turned 30, she went to work as a governess for the Baron von Suttner household in Vienna to support herself. Falling in love with the family’s son Arthur, who was seven years her junior, they married in secret and left for the Caucasus because of his family’s disapproval.
For nine years they lived a precarious life. Bertha gave music and languages lessons and started to write. Living close to the Caucasian front of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, she also gained insights into war’s human cost and horrors, forming her nascent anti-war ideas. She published her first serious work Inventarium einer Seele, or Inventory of a Soul, in 1883, where she argues that peace promotes progress.
In 1985 the couple returned to Vienna, welcomed by the relenting von Suttner family. A few years later, Bertha learnt about the International Arbitration and Peace Association (IAPA) in London that advocated for arbitration and peace instead of armed force. In her memoirs she wrote that she encountered a record from a meeting of the IAPA “by accident,” and that this chance encounter “gave the initial occasion for all that I have endeavoured to do as a helper in the peace movement.”
This gave a specific focus to Bertha’s writing, resulting in the publication of Das Maschinenzeitalter (The Machine Age). The book, which criticised many aspects of the times, was among the first to foretell the results of exaggerated nationalism and armaments, and was critically acclaimed. But it was the novel Lay Down Your Arms that propelled her into world fame. Leo Tolstoy suggested that the book would lead to the abolition of war as Harriet Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had to the abolition of slavery.
From then on Bertha started to be more active in the anti-war movement, attending meetings and international congresses, helping to establish peace groups, recruiting members, lecturing, and corresponding with people all over the world to promote peace projects.
PERHAPS THE UNIVERSAL SISTERHOOD IS NECESSARY BEFORE THE UNIVERSAL BROTHERHOOD IS POSSIBLE
In 1891, she founded the Austrian Peace Society and spoke at the International Peace Conference in Rome. A year later, she co-founded the peace journal Die Waffen Nieder, which she edited until 1899.
She was the only woman to attend the opening of the 1899 Hague Peace Conference, and used the opportunity to lobby the delegation with other peace activists to support the establishment of a court aimed at replacing armed conflict with arbitration. Their efforts were successful, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) was created, which it was believed would end war.
Aware that tension and the arms race between Great Britain and Germany was heading to confrontation, Bertha founded the Anglo-German Friendship Society in 1905. Speaking at the London Peace Congress three years later, she urged European unification. “Europe is one” she said, and “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.
A year later, affected by the beginning of an illness, Bertha spoke at the International Peace Congress at The Hague where she was greatly honoured as the «generalissimo» of the peace movement.
Bertha passed away on June 21, 1914, only days before the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that sparked the outbreak of World War I. In the following years Europe endured the barbaric wars she warned and fought against. But many of her ideas have also seen fruition in the United Nations and in the post-World War II European Institutions.
Bertha dedicated her life to the idea of worldwide peace, and her achievements for the time – and especially as a woman – are nothing short of impressive. She combatted all forms of conflicts, including class, gender and religious wars. Among the causes of war, she said, was hatred of other races, nationalities and religions. She also criticised the claim that God supported war.
Bertha believed in the equality of women and welcomed women’s entry into the political sphere. Speaking in San Francisco on July 4 1912, where women had recently won the right to vote, she said: “The one half of humanity that has never borne arms is today ready to blaze into this living, palpable force – the principle of the brotherhood of man. Perhaps the universal sisterhood is necessary before the universal brotherhood is possible.”
A century after her death, however, the world doesn’t look anything like the peaceful, equal and unified place she so passionately fought for. We are witnessing endless wars, terrorism, widespread sexism and violence against women, and even the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union.
To quote Bertha from her Nobel lecture, “we must not be blinded by the obvious; we must also look for the new growth pushing up from the ground below.” Because there is one thing that Bertha von Suttner taught us, it’s how influential a life led by conviction and passion can be.