Bertha von Suttner – Prague-born peace campaigner whose ideas on cooperation and disarmament continue to have lasting effect

11-10-2019

Few people today have heard of Bertha von Suttner, the Prague-born writer and activist whose message of peace stirred great powers to action. Yet her thoughts live on in today’s international organisations such as the European Union or the Permanent Court of Arbitration and her dreams of ending military conflicts through disarmament continue to be pursued by parliamentarians and civil society groups across the world.

Bertha von Suttner, photo: Public DomainBertha von Suttner, photo: Public Domain The year was 1899 and more than a hundred diplomats and foreign dignitaries gathered in the Dutch city of The Hague.

Their mission was to discuss a future framework pertaining to war and war crimes in international law, following a proposal for such a conference by Tsar Nicholas II. of Russia.

Legend has it that he was moved to propose the international gathering after he read the book of a Bohemian aristocrat – Bertha von Suttner.

While this seems unlikely, and Nicholas II. seems to have been more concerned about halting the ongoing arms race between Europe’s great powers, which Russia did not yet have an industrial base to keep up with, it is true that Bertha von Suttner’s novel Lay Down Your Arms had been met with great acclaim since it was published in 1889.

Nicholas II.’s compatriot, Leo Tolstoy likened it to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and said that he hoped Suttner’s book would lead to the end of war as Stowe’s had helped end slavery.

In the preceding decade Bertha von Suttner had become one of the international peace movement’s leading figures and was herself attending the Hague Convention as a private lobbyist and the leader of the international peace movement.

Dr. Peter van den Dungen, who heads the Bertha von Suttner Peace Institute in The Hague, says she left a lasting impression there, despite not being sent with an official mandate.

“She came as a leader of the international peace movement. She was the only woman allowed to be in the public gallery during the opening of the conference.

“We have the published diaries of many of the diplomats who held ambassadorial posts and similar positions, to show that she really did make a difference and promoted the aims of the conference as much as she could.”

“She established her own salon in The Hague. Through her aristocratic background, she was well connected and knew how to deal with diplomats. So she was very important.

“We have the published diaries of many of the diplomats who held ambassadorial posts and similar positions, to show that she really did make a difference and promoted the aims of the conference as much as she could.”

Ultimately the convention’s main goal, to stop the arms race was unsuccessful. However, it did create organisations such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague which exists to this day and expanded upon the rules of war laid down in the Geneva Convention.

Six years after the first conference took place, Bertha von Suttner would become the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and she would live to see another gathering in The Hague eight years later. Although less successful than many had hoped, it did bring further detail on the rules of maritime warfare.

The Hague conventions were a step in the right direction, but they did not do enough to prevent the onset of a world war in 1914.

Dying at the age of 71, just a week before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bertha von Suttner was spared of the horror that would unfold in Europe over the next four years.

However, the vision she set out left a lasting legacy says Dr. van den Dungen.

'Lay Down Your Arms', photo: Prosvěta publishing'Lay Down Your Arms', photo: Prosvěta publishing “We see already in the First World War new peace movements emerging and of course she had also pleaded for a European union of some sorts. There are plans for preventing future wars and in the person of Count Coudenhove-Kalergi the roots of pan-Europeanism.

“We also see the establishment of the League of Nations, the first world organisation for peace, the emergence of war resistance and the establishment of the International Peace Organisation. So we do see a set of new peace organisations emerging.

“To what extent her ideas and activism influenced the peace movement after the war that is difficult to estimate. However, I would certainly say that there are connections there and the ideas of creating a European union of course continued.”

To remind the public of Bertha von Suttner’s visionary work and her contribution to the international peace movement, a special conference was held in Prague this week, organised by the PragueVision Institute for Sustainable Security.

Kristýna Chyňavová, who was in charge of the conference’s communications, says that Bertha von Suttner’s influential 1889 novel has also been re-published alongside the conference.

“We decided to hold this conference because we felt that Bertha von Suttner is mostly forgotten here in the Czech Republic, where she was born.

“Our organisation is made up mostly of women and we feel that other women need to be encouraged to work in the peacebuilding sector, because it is statistically proven that when there are women present in such negotiations it has a beneficial effect on creating sustainable peace in certain areas.

“To what extent her ideas and activism influenced the peace movement after the war that is difficult to estimate. However, I would certainly say that there are connections there and the ideas of creating a European union of course continued.”

“Furthermore, Bertha von Suttner made a major contribution to peace efforts. Her book, Lay down Your Arms was last translated into Czech 100 years ago and the language is therefore quite different, so we thought it would be worth it to have it back in libraries and bookshops, because it is a very well written novel.”

Bertha von Suttner was also an important force in helping establish an international movement of parliamentarians working towards disarmament.

Among those attending the conference were the representatives of one such influential international group – the Parliamentarians for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament (PNND).

New Zealander Alyn Ware, is the organisation’s global coordinator.

“Nuclear disarmament is a very political issue. It has to do with perceptions of security - whether we are safe and how we can achieve peace. In order to be able to establish such a goal we need the involvement of civil society, parliamentarians and governments.

“I work mainly with parliamentarians. They are supposed to be the voice of civil society and they can bring forward policy that can bring us towards a safer world where we can be secure without relying on the threat of nuclear weapons.”

Mr. Ware agreed to visit Czech Radio to offer details on how disarmament efforts are progressing in today’s world. I began by asking him what sort of means do MPs actually possess that can be used to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

“In the nuclear armed states there are possibilities for parliamentarians to say no to weapons systems that the administration may be pushing for.

“For example, in the United States the Trump administration is pushing for a new nuclear-tipped cruise missile, which would previously have been prohibited under the intermediate nuclear forces treaty which the U.S.A. has just withdrawn from.

“As a result, our congress members there are saying that such a nuclear system is not needed for the country’s security and would merely prompt a new arms race, therefore it should not be developed. They can choose to vote against funding such a programme.

Alyn Ware, photo: archive of Alyn WareAlyn Ware, photo: archive of Alyn Ware “In non-nuclear states on the other hand, parliamentarians can push forward ideas to establish regional nuclear-weapon free zones, which seek to ensure no nuclear weapons will be positioned in the region.

“We already have nuclear weapon free zones in most of the southern hemisphere and central Asia. There are also proposals for one in the Middle East and in Europe.”

How do you think Bertha von Suttner would view the introduction of the massively destructive element of nuclear weapons into the equation? Does the threat of mutually assured destruction actually make such weapons beneficial towards ensuring peace?

“She actually had dialogues with Alfred Nobel about this.

“They had quite an intellectual relationship and it was actually through their relationship that Alfred Nobel established the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Nobel was an industrialist building dynamite that was being used in wars.

“He had the opinion back then that if you create such a destructive material it would bring an end to war. He thought that the destruction brought about by dynamite was bad enough and yet look at what happened during the two world wars, the destruction was horrible.

“There was conversation between them where they talked about the possibility of an even more destructive weapon and that the shock of that would prevent war.

“However, Bertha von Suttner then realised that this was not the solution. If you have that sort of animosity between people you can end up in war even if you have a horrific weapons system as we saw in WWI and WWII, which she predicted would happen unless there was disarmament.

“So she shifted from the idea that a huge weapon could prevent war, towards the idea that we have to have demilitarisation and disarmament as well as build-up the legal system for resolving political disputes.”

What is the PNND focusing the most right now and in the near future? Are there any specific regions you are focusing on, or perhaps specific policies?

“They [Bertha von Suttner and Alfred Nobel] had quite an intellectual relationship and it was actually through their relationship that Alfred Nobel established the Nobel Peace Prize.”

“There are three. When it comes to Iran, we want to make sure that the fact that the United States has withdrawn from the nuclear non-proliferation deal, a deal which was preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, does not derail this deal and that Iran sticks to the agreement not to produce uranium which could be used in such weapons, also that they keep the inspections there. Furthermore, that Europe honours their side of the agreement to start trading with Iran.

“We are also working on North East Asia, the North Korean situation. Our next assembly will be in Seoul where we are bringing parliamentarians together to support a diplomatic and peace process.

“When it comes to the Russia and United States situation, we are working to ensure that they do not develop new nuclear weapons systems and that they adopt no first use policies. That means policies that would make them start a nuclear war.

“We know that they are not going to get rid of their nuclear weapons tomorrow, but if we can step back from the brink where we are now, we will be a little safer and then able to negotiate their elimination of nuclear weapons over time.”

11-10-2019