Formidable Women – Bertha Suttner (1843 – 1914)

Today, I would like to pay homage to an Austrian woman, Bertha von Suttner, who was born a Countess and was, at one time referred to as the “Generalissimo of the Peace Movement.” An inquisitive and willful child, she learned to speak several languages, but was forced to earn a living without parental support early in life. One of her jobs was as a governess to the wealthy Suttner family in 1873. Their youngest son fell in love with this governess, seven years his senior, and the two were engaged, but the Suttner parents were opposed to the relationship and Bertha was dismissed.

Then, in 1876, in answer to an advertisement, Bertha was employed by Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) as secretary and housekeeper at his residence in Paris. She stayed for only two weeks, but maintained a correspondence with him until his death. She appears to have had a significant influence over this man who never married. At one point, she beseeched Alfred to support her peace activism, to which he responded: “Inform me, convince me, and then I will do something great for the movement.”

We have to give Bertha credit for having had an impact on the contents of Nobel’s will, for it contained provisions for a peace prize among those prizes already provided for. Bertha von Suttner was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for her sincere peace activities” in 1905.

Bertha returned to Vienna and her first love, Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner (1850-1902), where they secretly married; Arthur was immediately disinherited. To escape the hostile environment, Bertha and Arthur left Austria for Georgia in Russia, where they lived under difficult conditions. To begin, both earned their living by writing easy read novels and translations. Eventually, Arthur began publishing reports of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 and Bertha, writing under a pseudonym, also began a journalistic career writing short stories and essays on the Georgian country and its people.

In 1889, the publication of Bertha Suttner’s novel, “Lay Down Your Arms!”, along with other notable pacifist efforts, caused her to be considered a leading figure in the Austrian peace movement.
Suttner in 1896

After witnessing the foundation of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Bertha wrote an editorial in 1891 calling for the establishment of the Austrian Society of Peace Friends, a pacifist organization of which she became chairwoman. She also founded the German Peace Society the following year. From 1892 to 1899, she continued to gain international recognition as a pacifist as the editor of a journal titled after her book, “Lay Down Your Arms!” During that time, Bertha gathered a list of signatures which she presented to Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, urging the establishment of an International Court of Justice, and then took part in the organization of the First Hague Conventions in 1899. In 1911 she became a member of the advisory council of the Carnegie Peace Foundation and, inexhaustible in her peace efforts, continued to advise against international armament until the eve of World War I.

Just a week before war was declared, on June 21, 1914, Bertha succumbed to cancer, another beautiful, brave soul, not to be forgotten!

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