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Conflict

Bertha von Suttner: The life of a peace pioneer

Austrian countess and best-selling author, Bertha von Suttner, dedicated her life to peace. She was a leading member of the pacifist movement and was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She died 100 years ago.

When the pacifist Bertha von Suttner died on June 21, 1914, no one knew that the war was imminent. Just one week after her death, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. Six weeks later, the major European powers became embroiled in the First World War - a conflict that set new standards in brutality and destruction. Bertha von Suttner had foreseen this war, and she had spent much of her life warning against it.

An eventful life

Bertha von Suttner's life story reads like a novel by Leo Tolstoy: an elderly, noble father who died before she was born; a bourgeois mother, who gambled away their inheritance; the young countess von Suttner, who did everything she could to secure a good marriage.

But at the age of 30, her life took a surprising turn. She opted for independence and became a governess to the von Suttner family. She fell in love with her employer's son, Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner. The pair married secretly and fled to the Caucasus.

Bertha von Suttner in 1870

Bertha von Suttner in 1870, three years before she became a governess

"It was an escape from the confines of Habsburg society, but of course, also from the von Suttner family," said musician Stefan Frankenberger. His homage to von Suttner was recently released by the Austrian publisher, Mono.

"The time they spent in Georgia was a crucial point in their lives. It's where they sought to find their own way," he said.

Pioneer of pacifism

The couple suffered many hardships in those years, but they managed to make ends meet by writing. Extensive correspondence with authors and editors in Western Europe helped them stave off mental isolation, while giving them a chance to build contacts with potential clients.

When they weren't writing, they read - works by Charles Darwin and Henry Thomas Buckle.

"There, they read that man could change himself for the better. Using his own strength, without God. That was a radical idea which only had a small following at the time," said Frankenberg.

Bertha von Suttner formed her idea of pacifism from these works. The starting point was the firm conviction that, according to the law of nature, mankind could effectively change for the better. In the pacificist utopia, hatred, vice and barbarity could be overcome. The "noble man" lived in a humanistic world, a world without weapons.

In Georgia, the married couple developed their own theories. But it was only after 1886, when Bertha and Arthur von Suttner returned to Austria, that they learned about the organized peace movement.

An important source of inspiration there was the millionaire and inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel. He drew the attention of his longtime friend von Suttner to the national peace societies. She was enthralled, and she wanted to win over the masses with the idea of peace.

Success and fame

Her novel, "Die Waffen nieder!" (Lay Down Your Arms!), was published in 1889. The work shows war in all its brutality. Instead of heroism, fame and glory, von Suttner described the horrific consequences of military conflict: devastation, destruction and deprivation of the people. Until that time, no one - and certainly not a woman - had ever described war so brutally.

The book cover of Lay Down Your Arms!

"Lay Down Your Arms!" shed light on the shocking realities of war

The book was a worldwide success, and von Suttner became famous overnight. She used her position to write articles and hold lectures in which she issued warnings about the looming war. Not everyone was receptive to her message.

"Bertha von Suttner was ridiculed as 'Peace Bertha'," explains Caroline Wenzel from the foundation Archive of the German Women's Movement. "But she still had a great influence. Her novel and her peace policy efforts led to the founding of the Austrian and German peace societies."

Von Suttner was a peace activist and a peace agitator. She tirelessly wrote letters, books and articles. She built up a large network of supporters, raised money for the cause of pacifism, and held lectures in Europe and the United States.

In 1905, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work. She was the third person, and the first woman, to win the prize. The award, however, was long overdue. After all, it was she who had inspired the Alfred Nobel Foundation to give out a prize for peace in the first place.

Ahead of her time

But how significant is Bertha von Suttner today?

"She is still well known, at least in today's women's and peace movements," said Wenzel.

But Frankenberger believes remembering von Suttner has always been tricky. "She never had anything to do with the Social Democrats," he said. "She was never left, never chic. The semi-nobles didn't really fit into the picture."

Von Suttner certainly hasn't been completely forgotten. Her portrait graced the old Austrian 1000 schilling bank note and can be seen today on Austria's two euro coin.

"Bertha von Suttner was ahead of her time," Wenzel said. "After the First World War, progressive circles and even the radical wing of the women's movement took up the 'Idea of Europe.' Many of her goals have now been achieved."

But the world is still waiting for peace. And perhaps that's worth a little reflection on the 100th anniversary of Bertha von Suttner's death.

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