IN 1875, AT THE AGE of thirty two, an impoverished Austrian countess left Vienna, where she had been working as a governess, and went to Paris in answer to an advertisement: 'A very wealthy, highly educated, older gentleman living in Paris seeks a lady well-versed in languages, also elderly, as secretary.'
The 'older gentleman' was Alfred Nobel, Swedish millionaire and inventor of dynamite. He was, in fact, only forty-two when he received his aristocratic (and quadrilingual) applicant; he immediately felt drawn to her. For an hour or more each day for eight days they sat in Nobel's Paris apartment and talked fervently about people, art, life, time, eternity, and how to make war impossible.
On the ninth day Nobel went to Stockholm. Shortly afterwards the countess received two telegrams. One from Nobel: he would be back in a week. The other from the man the countess loved, whom she had attempted to renounce because of his family's disapproval: he couldn't, he said, live without her.
Bertha went back to Vienna to elope with her young baron Arthur von Suttner. But during those few days in Paris she established a romantic friendship with Alfred Nobel which, sustained by many letters, lasted until his death on December 10 1896. By then she had become a journalist, best-selling novelist, and pacifist of international renown; in 1905 she was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (and the first woman to receive any Nobel prize since their institution in 1901).
Bertha and Arthur spent a decade in exile in the Caucasus, where they wrote and read avidly; here they first formed ideas of a crusade against war. So when, reconciled with Arthur's family, they returned to Europe and met the co-founder of a London peace group, Bertha's enthusiasm was ready to blaze. She consulted reports and records, interviewed battle-scarred military, and then wrote the anti-war novel for which she is best known: 'Die Waffen Nieder' ('Lay Down Your Arms!'). Published in 1889, it ran to more than 35 editions and was translated into most European languages.
Tireless author now became vigorous activist. She set up branches of the international peace movement in Austria and Germany. She made public speeches (the first at the 1891 International Peace Congress in Rome). She started a peace newsletter. She raised funds (sometimes from Nobel himself). She wrote articles, pamphlets, reviews, letters and petitions. She set up meetings between influential people. She made lecture tours, including a six-month trip to America when she was nearly 70. She attended every possible conference and congress, and at the First Hague Peace Conference in 1899 she was 'the unofficial focal point, as it were, of the whole thing', though she was only allowed there as an observer (and the only woman admitted to the opening ceremony).
All this was achieved against a background of financial hardship (the Suttner family was debt-ridden, and Bertha's mother had gambled away her own resources) and private difficulties, which she had been brought up to conceal. She was helped by the extent of her learning (Bertha attributed much of her success to her fluency in languages); by a strong practical intelligence; by energy and passionate convictions; and by a personal charisma of which she was fully aware, perhaps most movingly when in her diaries she documented its fading. 'I know I've lost my magnetism,' she told her diary; but she consoled herself that at least her plans to retire would not harm 'the cause'. 'My getting ugly, my getting weak, must not be shown to the world.'
Why has so little been written of this woman?
First, she was a woman at a time when it was not easy to be a woman of consequence. She knew it: while 'ministers and statesmen and intellectuals' (men) continue to impress well into old age, 'women in public life are still something new. The term 'old woman' expresses something quite different from 'old man'.' In 1903, when a Berlin newspaper poll showed Bertha von Suttner to be one of the five 'most famous women' her companions included a Ruritanian queen and two actresses. She made her mark by being who she was rather than what she did; she got into the papers, and dinner-table conversations, rather than history books (like Florence Nightingale) or literary circles (she was no George Eliot). What Bertha von Suttner did was not the sort of thing it was then customary to record. Her life story certainly attracted interest; but only as a plot for romantic fiction. Her autobiography is highly selective and reserved; and her literary style is, for our century, unappealingly high-flown and rhetorical.
And then, only a few days after she died, the Great War began. Most of the peace movement was brought to a halt, and the world in which a Russian Tsar could convene a Peace Congress, or a public speaker claim that world peace was the logical next step in mankind's progress to a higher plane of existence, was changed for ever.
Why should Bertha von Suttner be remembered now?
What she achieved was against the grain of the times; even so, by her commitment and determination she showed how influential a life underpinned by conviction can be. Her beliefs informed 'Lay Down Your Arms'; the book was read for entertainment; and its readers caught, on the way, its serious message. Her public life demonstrated how much can depend on the power of personality, on the sort of self-confidence that makes other people feel better. 'She always behaved as if a Geneva Convention already existed in the mind. People could not resist her noble-mindedness. When opinions clashed and agreement seemed impossible, Bertha von Suttner would rise to her feet, and this alone, the dignity of her appearance, the seriousness of her features, would bring the calm that is the precondition for agreement.'
Bertha von Suttner should also be remembered for her belief in the equality of women. 'The question of women - what is it but the awakening of a woman who is treated like a child by society and law?' This in a letter written in 1889, with far too many years still to pass before women's suffrage. In 1894 one of her many articles urged that physical differences should not occasion ethical differences. After all, she observed, the racecourse mare does the same task as the horse; the bitch in the hound pack hunts as the dog does. Man and woman are born equal, and should have equal rights. (Yes, indeed. How do things look these days, a hundred years on?)
The University of Syracuse in New York has recently published a comprehensive biography which makes use of previously unpublished material (some of it only recently discovered). It is the work of the Austrian historian Brigitte Hamann. She has done her best to present a rounded picture of her subject's personality, life and times, despite what will always be too little resource material. The book ('Bertha von Suttner: A Life For Peace') has been translated from the German by Ann Dubsky of Austrian Radio, whose sometimes frankly bizarre English veers between the extremes of 'fine writing' and a contemporary vernacular it isn't always easy to place. (Dubsky gives Bertha's description of Nobel (in a letter to him) as 'a thinker, a poet, a human being, bitter and good, unhappy and cheerful, with a brilliant flight of thought and terrible mistrust, who passionately loves the great expanse of the human world of thought...' Compare this with the more fluent version published in a United Nations Library document: '...a thinker, a poet, a man both kindly and bitter, serene yet unhappy, filled with thoughts of genius and also with deep mistrust, a man passionately in love with the great world of the human intellect...')
Brigitte Hamann's book, then, is best used as a mine from which useful information can be extracted. There is a reasonably good index to assist in this endeavour. A chronology of von Suttner's life and activities would have been more than helpful; although one can make one's own from the information supplied, it takes time, especially as some of the chapters are thematic. Among these, the chapter on the Nobel prize, with its accounts of greed and squabbling, is depressing and unrewarding; 'Hope In the Mighty' is less informative on von Suttner's approaches to the great and good than it seems; but 'The Question of Women' is excellent. The chapter entitled 'Human, All Too Human', which explores the area of von Suttner's emotional life, shares with the rest of the book the fatal flaw of biography - the ambition to reveal, balanced against the inability ever to fully know, the subject.
Bertha von Suttner: A Life For Peace. Brigitte Hamann. Syracuse Studies on Peace and Conflict Resolution, Syracuse University Press 1996
Review by Margaret Melicharova.