On August 28, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Peace Palace. In the context of our anniversary, it is time to reflect and salute those who, a hundred years ago, worked tirelessly to help the Peace Palace come into existence. One of these people is author and peace activist Bertha von Suttner. Does her name ring any bells? If it doesn’t than this is the right moment to learn about the remarkable life of a woman who played a special role in the history of the Peace Palace and who went on to become the first woman in history to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.
Bertha von Suttner was born as Countess Kinsky in 1843 in Prague. Although it appears that this meant that she was born to privilege, her early life was by no means an easy one. Her father died shortly before she was born. Her mother came from a bourgeois family and social structures at the time made it difficult for Bertha to be accepted in to society. Growing up Bertha was determined to educate herself, to learn languages, to read widely and to travel as much as her circumstances would allow her to. Still single at the age of 30, she decided to become a governess and was hired by Baron von Suttner to look after his 4 young daughters. It was here that she met Arthur von Suttner, a son of Baron von Suttner and they quickly fell in love. Both Bertha’s and Arthur’s family strongly disapproved of their relationship and they ended up marrying in private.
At age 44, in 1887, Bertha had already become interested in peace and war issues but she seems to have become completely awakened after learning about the International Arbitration and Peace Association (IAPA) which was established in 1880 in London by Hodgson Pratt. In her memoires, she writes 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 endeavored to do as a helper in the peace movement."
From the beginning, Bertha was determined to do as much as she could possibly do to advance the cause for peace. Since she had already published a book, she felt she could do the most good in the literature department and she decided to write an anti-war novel titled ‘ Die Waffen Nieder !’.
‘Die Waffen Nieder!’ (Lay down your Arms!) was written with the purpose of influencing public opinion on the subject of pacifism. By writing a fictionalized story on the horrors of war and implementing pacifist arguments, she hoped to awaken strong sentiments against war and to find allies for the organized peace movement. The novel was published in 1889 and quickly became an international bestseller. She received wide acclaim for her book and her contemporaries even compared her to American author Harriet Beecher Stowe who became famous for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an influential novel that contributed significantly to the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Bertha’s novel made her stood out and catapulted her in to the forefront of the International Peace Movement. She subsequently founded the Austrian Peace Society of which she became president. Together with her German friend Alfred Fried, also a future Nobel Peace Prize Winner, she established The German Peace Society and edited with him the journal ‘Die Waffen Nieder’.
Besides all her writings, Bertha was beginning to organize annual peace congresses and busying herself with the Inter-Parliamentary Union. She argued the case for an International Court to peacefully settle international disputes and sought out famous names for the cause including the Russian Tsar Nicholas II.
In 1899 she was the only woman who attended the First Peace Conference in The Hague. She was present at the opening even though she was not an official delegate to the Conference. During the negotiations, Bertha held salons where she and other prominent peace activists lobbied the delegations to support the establishment of a court aimed at solving armed conflict with arbitration. These efforts were successful and Bertha was pleased with the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that arose out of the 1899 Conference. Today the PCA is still a functioning international institution located inside the Peace Palace.
In the years following the formation of the PCA, Bertha von Suttner continued her peace activities and travelled all over Europe and the US to lecture extensively on peace issues. She kept writing and publishing articles and attending peace conferences where she often had become the key-attraction.
In 1905, Bertha von Suttner was recognized for her efforts and was the first women to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Her courage, determination and dedication for world peace were truly inspiring. Thanks to Bertha’s efforts and all those involved in the International Peace Movement, the peace ideal founds its way in to political and diplomatic affairs and resulted in an International Organization. It did take another half a century before it became a western tradition that in the following decades also began to spread across the world.
Bertha attended the opening of the Peace Palace on August 28, 1913. She died on June 21, 1914, a month before the outbreak of World War I, a war she had struggled so hard against. On August 28th, 2013, during the Peace Palace Centenary, she will be the first women honored with a buste in the main hall of the Peace Palace.