Von Suttner bustIn October 2016, Dutch sculptor Ingrid Rollema officially finished and presented the bust of Baroness Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914) in the Peace Palace in The Hague.[1] Exactly one hundred years earlier, steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie had sponsored the building of the Peace Palace, which made it possible for the Baroness to address her vision on war and peace in front of the international court of law. As the spiritual mother of the palace, this Austrian author, editor and Frauenrechtlerin [feminist] was honoured for her activism. In 1905 she won the Nobel Peace Prize, making her the first woman ever to be awarded the prestigious prize. But how and why does the bust of an Austrian feminist and pacifist end up in The Hague?

As our guest blogger Cedric Van Dijck suggested a couple of months ago, war time did not encompass the cliché image of women who sat down and waited for the war to be over. While men were fighting in the war, it was women’s pen (die Feder) that served as a weapon to overcome conflict. However, Baroness Bertha Felicie Sophie von Suttner, born Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau, never encountered any wars or real danger. As her lengthy name indicates, her privileged background and aristocratic education allowed her to read, write, learn different languages and travel. It is through careful research and her recollection of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 that she created her manifestos and fictional work about the wars of her time. Because she chose to marry von Suttner instead of more respectable candidates, like scientist and engineer Alfred Nobel, she was forced to take refuge in Georgia. However, upon her return to Austria, she had her most productive literary period. It is then that she became truly interested in peace organizations that opposed armed forces, such as the International Arbitration and the Peace Association in London.[2]

Die Waffen Nieder!Inspired by the Russian-Turkish conflict she wrote the novel Die Waffen nieder! [Lay Down Your Arms] (1889) covering the story of Martha Althaus as a strong woman figure at the backdrop of several conflicts in 19th-century Europe. The novel became an instant success, making von Suttner a bestselling author and celebrated feminist pacifist avant la lettre. In 1892 then, von Suttner decided to publish and edit the periodical Die Waffen nieder! Monatsschrift zur Förderung der Friedens-Idee (1892-1899) [Lay Down your Arms. Monthly for the Propagation of the Peace-idea] [3]. Due to illness, the periodical continued to be printed under the auspices of her close colleague and friend Alfred H. Fried as Friedens-Warte [Awaiting Peace], which still exists today. It is not a coincidence that von Suttner decided to use the title of her novel for the periodical as well. Not only does the title mimic a clear military order which impersonates von Suttner’s active and relentless fight for peace, she also relies on the previous international success of her novel. Her social and financial position as a successful woman author make her choice of title into an intelligent marketing strategy. In addition, the novel was translated into more than ten languages and her ideas gained an international platform. As an advocate for peace, she echoed and consolidated her opinions in her periodical which resonated through 19th-century Europe.

Von Suttner became an active pacifist leader and organized conferences, assemblies and speeches that she propagated in Die Waffen Nieder! The periodical was not only widely disseminated, but the content and her ideas were picked up by other women editors as well. In 1899 Dokumente der Frauen published several articles about peace manifestations around Europe commenting on Bertha von Suttners speeches at the Peace Conference in The Hague in 1899. The importance of this conference cannot be underestimated and is stressed by Von Suttner herself in Die Waffen Nieder!: Für uns Anhänger des Friedensgedankens ist es jetzt gar nicht anders möglich, wenn wir in die Zeit schauen, als den Blick auf das hochragende, alles andere überschattende Ereigniss zu heften, das jetzt so nahe steht, das selbst, wenn es in letzter Stunde gar nicht zustande käme, doch die wichtigste und weittragendste Erscheinung der zukunftsbestimmenden Gegenwart ist – die für den 18. Mai in Haag einberufene Friedensconferenz.” [For us – supporters of the idea of peace – it is impossible not to look in time, to direct our gaze to the soaring event that overshadows everything and which is fast approaching (…) [it is] the most important and far-reaching event that will decide the future of our present – the requested Peace conference in The Hague on 18 May.][4] The promotion of her ideas eventually culminated in the publication of a personal account of the meeting: Die Haager Friedenskonferenz. Tagebuchblätter [The Hague Peace Conference, Diary].

On 21 June 1914, exactly one a week before World War I has its explosive start after the killing of Prince Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bertha von Suttner dies of a long-suffering disease. However, the voice of von Suttner resonates throughout other women’s periodicals in the beginning of the 20th century. In January 1915 the first issue of the Austrian women’s periodical Neues Frauenleben reflects on the first year of the World War. One of its women editors, Leopoldine Kulka, stresses the importance of women’s voice in ending the war, while not forgetting the courageous actions of men:

Was sind wir Frauen im Krieg? Wie immer wir uns darüber hinwegtäuschen mögen, so groß unsere Opferwilligkeit, unsere soziale Hilfsbereitschaft und Tüchtigkeit sein mögen, was wiegt dies alles gegen die Opfer und Leistungen der Männer im Felde? Nein, nie und nimmer wird die Welt des Krieges unsere Welt sein (…) aber nie und nimmer werden wir im Kriege Gleichwertiges leisten – es wäre denn, wir könnten eines: sein Ende beschleunigen.[…] Wir können es, leichter als die Männer irgend einer Partei, wir, die wir nicht die Plicht haben, dem Tode ins Auge zu sehen, wir dürfen am ersten rufen: genug des Tötens.

[What are we women in war? Although we always try to deceive ourselves, as great as our willingness for sacrifice, our social willingness to help and our abilities may be, what does this mean in comparison to the victims and achievements of the men on the field? Never will the world of war be our world (…) never ever will we be able to achieve the same – except, we can do one thing: quicken its end. […] We can, easier than men of any other party, we, who are not obliged to look war in the eye, we could be the first ones to cry out: enough of death!][5]

Charlotte D’Eer, 01/02/2017

[1] For a unique insight into the creation of the bust, have a look at “Ingrid en Bertha,” a movie made by Gerard Holthuis.

[2] Marie-Claire Hoock-Demarle, Bertha von Suttner 1843-1914. Amazone de la paix (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2014).

[3] All translations are my own, except the title Lay Down Your Arms.

[4] Die Waffen Nieder 6.4 (April 1899): 10.

[5] Neues Frauenleben 17.1 (January 1915): 2.