Nobel Peace Prize winner Bertha von Suttner, 1911. Photo Karl Winkler/Getty Images
There is an important story about women, peace and security that needs to be told.
We are putting the spotlight on women who have paved the way – the bold and the brave – and we know there are and can be many more of them.
We are pushing for #MoreWomenMorePeace.
She was the first major leading figure of the international peace movement.
She was the only woman among the 96 delegates at the First Hague Peace Conference.
She made sure that pacifism became the umbrella term for peace efforts. Bertha von Suttner even inspired Alfred Nobel to establish the Nobel Peace Prize, which she herself was awarded in 1905.
Bertha von Suttner was born in 1843, in the then Austro-Hungarian city of Prague, as Countess Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau. Her father was a lieutenant-general in the Austrian army.
During the first half of her life, Bertha von Suttner was a supporter of the military traditions that were common among the Austrian aristocracy. But the turning point came in her early thirties when she became an increasingly active champion of alternatives to militarism.
In 1876, Bertha von Suttner and her husband went to Russia for a month’s honeymoon, but they stayed much longer than a month. In her diary, which later became her memoir, she wrote: ‘Our honeymoon to the Caucasus lasted nine years!’
In the spring of 1877, when Russia declared war on Turkey, Bertha von Suttner joined a local voluntary organisation and went from hospital to hospital to help the nursing and medical staff. The hospitals were overwhelmed – not only with war casualties but mostly with people suffering from diseases that spread in the shadow of war.
Bertha and her husband wrote articles about the war to make ends meet. Her husband published articles in his own name, but Bertha’s articles were only accepted when she wrote as a man under the pseudonym B. Oulot.
When the couple returned to Europe, Bertha von Suttner established herself as an author. In 1889, her book ‘Die Waffen nieder!’ (’Lay Down Your Arms!’) was published by a small publishing house in Dresden.
This coming-of-age novel became a best-seller and was translated into several European languages. The young women characters enthuse about the military and the young men dream of going off to battle for a good cause, to then return home and bask in honour and glory.
The main character of the book is the young Martha Althaus. Bertha von Suttner describes how Martha initially shares the values of those around her and their enthusiasm for the Danish-German Holstein conflict, but she gradually begins to ask herself:
“Why not on both sides weigh their rival claims, in order to come to an understanding; and if this should fail, make a third power arbitrator? Why go on always shouting on both sides ‘I am in the right’ and even shouting it against one’s own conviction, till one has shouted oneself hoarse, and finishing by leaving the decision to force? Is not that savagery?”
The main character of the novel, Martha Althaus, then decides to devote all her energies to fighting the foremost expression of tyranny: force as a means of resolving conflict. The fictitious character’s life story is not so different from the author’s own.
Bertha von Suttner went from sharing the nationalist thoughts and admiration for the military of those around her to becoming an author, founder of the Austrian Peace Society and a leading figure in the international peace movement. She worked on several fronts, and following the success of her book, she wrote and published articles in her own name.
So what about Alfred Nobel and the Peace Prize? Bertha von Suttner had briefly worked in Paris as Alfred Nobel’s secretary before she got married. Some writers have claimed that she was the love of his life, but one thing is clear: it was Bertha von Suttner who convinced Alfred Nobel to establish the Peace Prize.
She had invited him to the Fourth Universal Peace Congress in Switzerland, and during a boat trip on Lake Zurich they had discussed war and peace. Alfred Nobel is then said to have stated that he would like to do something important for the peace movement.
About a month after this boat trip, Alfred Nobel wrote to Bertha von Suttner that he wanted to use part of his fortune to establish an annual prize for the person who has done most to promote peace.
The first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1901 to the Swiss Henry Dunant, and the Frenchman Frédéric Passy.
In 1905, Bertha von Suttner was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her pacifist writing and her leadership in the peace movement. She was the first woman to be awarded the prize.