Who is Bertha von Suttner?
Bertha Kinský was born on 9 June 1843 at Kinský Palace in the Obecní dvůr district of Prague. Her parents were the Austrian Lieutenant general (German: Feldmarschall-Leutnant) Franz Michael de Paula Josef Graf Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau (1769-1843), recently deceased at the age of 75, and his young wife Sophie Wilhelmine von Körner (1815-1884), who was almost fifty years his junior.
Her father was a member of the illustrious House of Kinsky via descent from Count Vilém Kinský (1574-1634). Bertha’s mother came from a family that belonged to untitled nobility of significantly lower status, being the daughter of her husband’s comrade, Joseph von Körner (a captain of the cavalry in the Imperial Army), a distant relative of the poet Theodor Körner. Through her mother, Bertha was also related to Theodor Körner, Edler von Siegringen, namesake and great-nephew of the poet, who later served as the 4th President of Austria, as well as to film producer, writer and author Jason L. Koerner (born 1972).
For the rest of her life, Bertha faced exclusion from the Austrian high nobility due to her “mixed” descent; for instance, only those with an unblemished aristocratic pedigree back to their great-great-grandparents were eligible for presentation at the imperial court. She was additionally disadvantaged because her father, as a third son, had no great estates or other financial resources to bequeath. Bertha was baptised at Prague’s Church of Our Lady of the Snows – not a traditional choice for the aristocracy.
Soon after her birth, Bertha’s mother moved to live in Brno near Bertha’s guardian, Landgrave Friedrich Michael zu Fürstenberg-Taikowitz (1793–1866). Her older brother, Count Arthur Franz Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau (1827–1906), was sent to a military school at the age of six and subsequently had little contact with the family. In 1855, Bertha’s maternal aunt Charlotte (Lotte) Büschel, née von Körner (also a widow), and her daughter Elvira joined the household. Elvira, whose father was a private scholar and whose official guardian, after the death of her father, became Count Johann Carl August von Huyn, was of a similar age to Bertha and interested in intellectual pursuits, introducing her cousin to literature and philosophy. Beyond her reading, Bertha gained proficiency in French, Italian and English as an adolescent, under the supervision of a succession of private tutors; she also became an accomplished amateur pianist and singer.
Bertha’s mother and aunt, regarding themselves as clairvoyant, went to gamble at Wiesbaden in the summer of 1856, hoping to return with a fortune. Their losses proved so heavy that they were forced to move to Vienna. During this trip, Bertha received a marriage proposal from Prince Philipp zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg (1836–1858), third son of Prince August Ludwig zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg (Minister of State of the Duchy of Nassau) and Franziska Allesina genannt von Schweitzer (1802-1878), which was declined due to her young age. The family returned to Wiesbaden in 1859; the second trip proved similarly unsuccessful, and they had to relocate to a small property in Klosterneuburg. Shortly after this, Bertha wrote her first published work, the novella Erdenträume im Monde, which appeared in Die Deutsche Frau. Continuing poor financial circumstances led Bertha to a brief engagement to the wealthy Gustav, Baron Heine von Geldern, 31 years her senior and a member of the banking Heine family, whom she came to find unattractive and rejected; her memoirs record her disgusted response to the older man’s attempt to kiss her.
In 1864, the family spent the summer at Bad Homburg, a fashionable gambling-destination among the aristocracy of the era. Bertha befriended the Georgian aristocrat Ekaterine Dadiani, Princess of Mingrelia, and met Tsar Alexander II. Seeking a career as an opera singer as an alternative to marrying into money, she undertook an intensive course of lessons, working on her voice for over four hours a day. Despite tuition from the eminent Gilbert Duprez in Paris in 1867, and from Pauline Viardot in Baden-Baden in 1868, she never secured a professional engagement. She suffered from stage fright and was unable to project well in performance. In the summer of 1872, she became engaged to Prince Adolf zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Hohenstein (1839–1872), son of Prince Alexander zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Hohenstein (1801–1874) and Countess Amalie Luise von Bentheim-Tecklenburg-Rheda (1802–1887). Prince Adolf died at sea that October while travelling to America to escape his debts.
Bertha’s guardian (Landgrave Friedrich zu Fürstenberg) and her cousin Elvira both died in 1866, and she (now above the typical age of marriage) felt increasingly constrained by her mother’s eccentricity and the family’s poor financial circumstances. In 1873, she found employment as a tutor and companion to the four daughters of Karl, Freiherr von Suttner, who were aged between 15 and 20. The Suttner family lived in the Innere Stadt of Vienna three seasons of the year, and spent the summer at Castle Harmannsdorf in Lower Austria. She had an affectionate relationship with her four young students, who nicknamed her “Boulotte” (fatty) due to her size, a name she would later adopt as a literary pseudonym in the form “B. Oulot”.
She soon fell in love with the girls’ elder brother, Baron Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner, who was seven years her junior. They were engaged but unable to marry due to his parents’ disapproval. In 1876, with the encouragement of her employers, she answered a newspaper advertisement which led to her briefly becoming secretary and housekeeper to Alfred Nobel in Paris. In the few weeks of her employment, she and Nobel developed a friendship, and Nobel may have made romantic overtures. However, she remained committed to Arthur and returned shortly to Vienna to marry him in secrecy, in the church of St. Aegyd in Gumpendorf.
The newlywed couple eloped to Mingrelia in western Georgia, Russian Empire, near the Black Sea, where she hoped to make use of her connection to the former ruling House of Dadiani. On their arrival, they were entertained by Prince Niko. The couple settled in Kutaisi, where they found work teaching languages and music to the children of the local aristocracy. However, they experienced considerable hardship despite their social connections, living in a simple three-roomed wooden house. Their situation worsened in 1877 on the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War, although Arthur worked as a reporter on the conflict for the Neue Freie Presse. Suttner also wrote frequently for the Austrian press in this period and worked on her early novels, including Es Löwos, a romanticised account of her life with Arthur. In the aftermath of the war, Arthur attempted to set up a timber business, but it was unsuccessful.
After their return to Austria, Suttner continued her journalism and concentrated on peace and war issues, corresponding with the French philosopher Ernest Renan and influenced by the International Arbitration and Peace Association founded by Hodgson Pratt in 1880.
In 1889, Suttner became a leading figure in the peace movement with the publication of her pacifist novel, Die Waffen nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!), which made her one of the leading figures of the Austrian peace movement. The book was published in 37 editions and translated into 12 languages. She witnessed the foundation of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and called for the establishment of the Austrian Gesellschaft der Friedensfreunde pacifist organisation in an 1891 Neue Freie Presse editorial. Suttner became chairwoman and also founded the German Peace Society the next year. She became known internationally as the editor of the international pacifist journal Die Waffen nieder!, named after her book, from 1892 to 1899. In 1897, she presented Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria with a list of signatures urging the establishment of an International Court of Justice and took part in the First Hague Convention in 1899 with the help of Theodor Herzl, who paid for her trip as a correspondent of the Zionist newspaper, Die Welt.
Upon her husband’s death in 1902, Suttner had to sell Harmannsdorf Castle and moved back to Vienna. In 1904 she addressed the International Congress of Women in Berlin and for seven months travelled around the United States, attending a universal peace congress in Boston and meeting President Theodore Roosevelt.
Though her personal contact with Alfred Nobel had been brief, she corresponded with him until his death in 1896, and it is believed that Von Suttner was a major influence on his decision to include a peace prize among those prizes provided in his will. Bertha von Suttner was awarded the Nobel Peace Price in the fifth term on 10 December 1905, together with her comrade, the legal scholar Tobias Asser(1838-1913) for their help in developing an international order based on peace rather than war. The presentation took place on 18 April 1906 in Kristiania.
Imaginative drawing by Marguerite Martyn and a photo of Bertha von Suttner, 1912, with a victorious Suttner holding a scroll labeled “International Peace Treaty / England / France / America.” In the corner cowers a representation of a defeated warrior labelled “WAR.” A broken sword and shield is on the ground. A tangle of broken warships is at the left side. At top are newspaper headlines from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of October 20, 1912.
In 1907, Von Suttner was the only female to attend the Second Hague Peace Conference, which mainly pertained to the law of war. Von Suttner was actually highly critical of the 1907 conference, and warned of a war to come. When accepting her Nobel Peace prize, she said: ’(…) whether our Europe will become a showpiece of ruins and failure, or whether we can avoid this danger and so enter sooner the coming era of secure peace and law in which a civilisation of unimagined glory will develop. The many aspects of this question are what the second Hague Conference should be discussing rather than the proposed topics concerning the laws and practices of war at sea, the bombardment of ports, towns, and villages, the laying of mines, and so on. The contents of this agenda demonstrate that, although the supporters of the existing structure of society, which accepts war, come to a peace conference prepared to modify the nature of war, they are basically trying to keep the present system intact’.
Around this time, she also crossed paths with Anna Bernhardine Eckstein, another German champion of world peace, who influenced the agenda of the Second Hague Peace Conference. A year later she attended the International Peace Congress in London, where she first met Caroline Playne, an English anti-war activist who would later write the first biography of Suttner.
In the run-up to World War I, Suttner continued to campaign against international armament. In 1911 she became a member of the advisory council of the Carnegie Peace Foundation. In the last months of her life, while suffering from cancer, she helped organise the next Peace Conference, intended to take place in September 1914. However, the conference never took place, as she died of cancer on 21 June 1914, and seven days later the heir to her nation’s throne, Franz Ferdinand was killed, triggering World War I.
Suttner’s pacifism was influenced by the writings of Immanuel Kant, Henry Thomas Buckle, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin and Leo Tolstoy (Tolstoy praised Die Waffen nieder!) conceiving peace as a natural state impaired by the human aberrances of war and militarism. As a result, she argued that a right to peace could be demanded under international law and was necessary in the context of an evolutionary Darwinist conception of history. Suttner was a respected journalist, with one historian describing her as “a most perceptive and adept political commentator”.