“One of the eternal truths is that happiness is created and developed in peace, and one of the eternal rights is the individual’s right to live.”
– Bertha von Suttner
Bertha von Suttner was a baroness, novelist, traveler, lover of art … the revolutionary leader of a global peace movement and the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
She was born into aristocracy: music and language lessons, horseback riding. Bertha von Suttner was destined for a life of idle luxury. But the young countess expected more of herself and the world; she wanted to learn, experience, and contribute. And, just as strangely for a noblewoman of the nineteenth century, she did not want to rely on her family’s fortune to do it.
She took a job, a rarity within her class and time, as a governess in the household of an Austrian Baron. There, she fell in love with the family’s youngest son, Baron Arthur von Suttner.
Both their families disapproved of the match, so the lovers married in secret a few years later and fled to the Caucuses, where they lived poor but in love and happy. They survived by teaching music and languages, and writing novels and articles.
Deeply in love and committed to one another, the pair even read together. They discussed Darwin and Spencer and other evolutionist authors. It was they who first made Bertha think that the natural state of humanity could not be one of war.
“The instinct of self-preservation in human society, acting almost subconsciously, as do all drives in the human mind, is rebelling against the constantly refined methods of annihilation and against the destruction of humanity.”
She had worked briefly for Alfred Nobel in Paris, in 1876. They became close friends, and she spoke and wrote to him of her ideas of peace. “Inform me, convince me,” he told her. She would; she and Arthur returned to Vienna and began advocating for this world peace she was now passionate about.
She wrote one of the nineteenth century’s most influential, controversial books: a novel entitled Lay Down your Arms that made a radical call: for a world free of war and oppression, for disarmament on a global scale. The message, and the fact that it came from a woman, shocked many. But some listened, including Alfred Nobel, who was inspired by Suttner to create the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Baroness did not just write; she acted. In 1887, she discovered the International Arbitration and Peace Association (IAPA) in London.
“What? such a league existed? –the idea of justice between nations, the struggle to do away with war had assumed life? The news electrified me.”
In 1891, she would establish the Austrian Peace Society herself. In a male-dominated environment, she was not afraid to stand up and speak. Her leadership “inspired hundreds of thousands to become mindful about world peace, and many joined the peace movement in their countries.”
By the beginning of the 1900s, she was being called the “generalissimo of the peace movement.” She won The Nobel Prize, the first woman to do so, in 1905.
“After the verb ‘to love,’ ‘to help’ is the most beautiful verb in the world.”
There is no doubt that Bertha von Suttner committed her life to both. Even after her husband’s death, which left her devastated, she continued to write, speak, and advocate for peace in the world.
The idea of “world peace” sounds cliché today, more than a century after her death. But hundreds of wars and millions of deaths have proven it as pertinent as ever. And as radical, in the midst of rising fear, mistrust, and hatred of the other. Bertha von Suttner’s words and life are, to me at least, a ray of hope.