In Remembrance: A Pacifist Opposed to the First World War

Hal Gordon




This summer marks the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. As we remember the jingoism, militarism, intrigue and paranoia that combined to produce one of history’s bloodiest debacles, we might spare a thought for the gallant and forgotten band of pacifists who offered Europe one last chance to pull back from the brink.


In particular, we might rescue from undeserved obscurity the Baroness Bertha von Suttner, whom the writer Stefan Zweig called the “majestic and grandiose Cassandra of our time.”


Born Countess Kinsky in Prague in 1843, Bertha was the posthumous daughter of a field marshal and, on her mother’s side, the granddaughter of a cavalry captain. Hardly the stuff of which pacifists are made. Yet the experiences of her adult life would cause her to reject the martial traditions that she had accepted without question in her youth.


Bertha’s family was shabby genteel. Straitened circumstances forced her to seek employment in Vienna as a governess to the four daughters of the wealthy Baron von Suttner. Bertha was 30 at the time, but she fell in love with the baron’s son, Arthur, who was seven years her junior. When Arthur’s parents opposed the match, Bertha retreated to Paris, where she found work as private secretary to Swedish inventor and arms maker Alfred Nobel. Bertha would later persuade Nobel to establish the Nobel Peace Prize, of which she would be the fifth recipient in 1905.


Bertha’s stay in Paris was brief. She returned to Vienna and, shortly thereafter, eloped with Arthur to the Russian Caucasus. Arthur’s family reacted by cutting him off without a penny, so for the next nine years the couple lived hand-to-mouth; Bertha giving lessons in languages and music, and Arthur working as a draftsman and business translator. Both were writers, and eventually they began to achieve some success in that field.


Their lives changed dramatically when Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse engaged Arthur to report on Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. Through Arthur’s work as a correspondent, the couple saw first hand the horrors and miseries that war inflicted on soldiers and civilians alike. Bertha was deeply affected, and vowed to devote the rest of her life to the cause of peace.


Her opportunity came in 1885 when she and her husband were reconciled with his family and were able to return to a comfortable living in Vienna, pursuing parallel careers as writers. Four years later, Bertha published a gripping anti-war novel, Die Waffen Nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!) based on her experiences in Russia. The book became an overnight best-seller in the German-speaking world. In 1890, Bertha founded the Austrian Peace Society and from 1892 to 1899 she co-edited a monthly pacifist journal also titled, Die Waffen Nieder!


In Our Famous Guest, his fascinating book about Mark Twain’s sojourn in Vienna in the late 1890s, Professor Carl Dolmetsch offers a brief but arresting sketch of Bertha at this time: “By all accounts Baroness von Suttner was an extraordinary person. Touched with brilliance, if not genius, and with rhetorical and organizational skills of a high order, she was the kind of obdurate, single-minded visionary fired with evangelical fervor who, by force majeur has often changed the course of history.”


Bertha believed passionately that an individual could indeed change the course of history and, for a brief shining moment, it seemed as if she actually might. In his book, Professor Dolmetsch describes a massive peace rally that Bertha staged in Vienna in 1898. She managed to secure Mark Twain as a speaker on this occasion, but the principal address was given by one Lt. Col. Manfred von Egidy, a Prussian officer who had been dismissed from the army for writing and circulating an antiwar pamphlet.


The purpose of the rally was to build support for a proposal made by Czar Nicholas II of Russia that all governments send representatives to The Hague in six months to discuss proposals for world peace and international disarmament. The czar’s gesture was not entirely wasted; it led to the founding of the International Court of Justice, which still exists today. But it failed in its immediate aim of promoting peace and disarmament. Within months of the meeting at The Hague, the Boer War broke out in South Africa. Meanwhile, the European arms race hurtled on.


In May of 1913, Vienna was shaken by a dramatic event that revealed just how immediate was the threat of all-out war. Colonel Alfred Redl, head of the Austrian Army’s counter-intelligence unit, blew out his brains in a hotel near the war department. It was shortly revealed that Redl had for years been in the pay of the Russians, selling them Austria’s vital military secrets.


In his memoirs, Stefan Zweig describes meeting Bertha von Suttner on a Vienna street just after the Redl story broke. The normally dignified and soft-spoken baroness was beside herself at the news. “The people have no idea what is going on!” she cried out for all to hear. “The war is already upon us, and once again they have hidden and kept it from us. Why don’t you do something, you young people? It is your concern most of all. Defend yourselves! Unite! Don’t always let us few old women to whom no one listens do everything.”


In reply, Zweig could only talk vaguely of going to Paris and persuading his fellow writers, artists and intellectuals to “perhaps”’ issue a common manifesto. But this was scarcely enough to satisfy the woman whom he would later call the “majestic and grandiose Cassandra of our time.” She shook her head. “Things are worse than ever,” she declared ominously. “The machine is already in motion.”


Prophetic words. In a last-ditch effort to stop the machine, Bertha attempted to organize another peace conference, to be convened in Vienna in August of 1914. It was too late. On June 28 of that year, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated at Sarajevo. By August, the great powers of Europe were locked in a cataclysmic struggle.


The outbreak of the great war that Bertha had devoted her life to preventing would surely have broken her heart, had she lived to see it. But fate was kind. On June 21, exactly one week before the Sarajevo assassinations, Bertha von Suttner died.


Author Bio:

Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Website:

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