What We Owe to Bertha von Suttner
By David Swanson
Just saying her name sounds like a joke: Baroness Bertha Felicitas Sophie Freifrau von Suttner, Gräfin, née Countess Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau. And when she began talking about ending war in mid-nineteenth century Austria it wasn’t her name that was treated as a joke. Yet by the turn of the century, her idea seemed to be one whose time had come.
Bertha von Suttner’s novel “Ground Arms,” or “Lay Down Your Arms,” was widely described as the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of war abolition. It was doing and would accomplish for war what Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book had for slavery. I can’t encourage you strongly enough to take a quick break from the inanities of presidential debates and football announcers and buy the book, borrow the book, or read it free online.
It was principally this book, along with years of activism, journalism, and organizational leadership in the peace movement (and not a single Iranian scientist’s murder) that won von Suttner the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel website reads: “The effect of Die Waffen nieder [Lay Down Your Arms], published late in 1889, was … so real and the implied indictment of militarism so telling that the impact made on the reading public was tremendous.”
The impact was not so much the love of the novel’s characters. Nor was it a new understanding of how hellish war can be. The power of the impact, I think, came from the way the book framed war abolition within a story of advancing civilization. Humanity was developing, according to this story, after endless eons of fighting off ferocious beasts and fighting off ferocious humans. Violence was on the wane. The beasts were gone, and the humans were learning to speak and negotiate. City states were united as nations. Blood feuds were left behind. Dueling among individuals was being replaced by discussions, arbitrations, courts of law, and — more importantly — by a new conception of honor. No longer would disgrace fall on the man who tolerated an affront so much as on the buffoon who delivered it.
War itself was being civilized. The Red Cross was seeking to tend the wounded. Atrocities were being banned. Disputes among royals were being mocked by republicans as proper grounds for wars. Arbitration was proving itself as an alternative to slaughter. With slavery and pillage being left behind, with religion beginning to fade, with the technology of weaponry rapidly advancing, war was losing its economic motive, its theocratic justification, and its suitability as a test of individual skill or courage. The ending of war was an idea that went from fringe craziness to mainstream popularity during Bertha von Suttner’s lifetime, and in great measure because of her. The Nobel website reports:
“In August of 1913, already affected by beginning illness, the Baroness spoke at the International Peace Congress at The Hague where she was greatly honored as the “generalissimo” of the peace movement. In May of 1914 she was still able to take an interest in preparations being made for the twenty-first Peace Congress, planned for Vienna in September. But her illness – suspected cancer – developed rapidly thereafter, and she died on June 21, 1914, two months before the erupting of the world war she had warned and struggled against.”
When the idea of ending slavery came and developed and took hold and spread, it could not be stopped by the occurrence of a sudden catastrophic outbreak of slavery. Slavery is not like a hurricane. It was a practice that went on and could be ended. It might be brought back, but only slowly, not in a mad rush of passion before anyone had time to think it through. War was different. The ending of war was an idea whose time had come. And then time halted. Time froze. The evolution of civilization was instantly thrown into reverse.
In von Suttner’s novel, a crowd begins to sing pro-war songs in excitement over a new and exciting war, and her two main characters, husband and wife, converse:
“‘See, Martha,” exclaimed Frederick, ‘this spark which spreads from one to another, uniting this whole mass and making every heart beat higher, is love –‘
‘Do you believe so? It is a song inspiring hate.’
‘That makes no difference; a common hatred is but another form of love. When two or three or more are bound together by the same feeling, they love one another. When the time arrives for a nobler, broader aspiration than the interests of nationality, namely, the cause of humanity, then our ideal will be attained.’
‘Ah, when will that time come?’ I sighed.
‘When? One can speak but relatively. As a length of time compared with our personal existence — never; when compared with the existence of our race — tomorrow.'”
Peace activists, like suffragettes, and like reformers of all kinds in this period, accepted that they might not succeed during their lifetimes, that like Dr. Martin Luther King they might not make it to the mountain top, but they were completely and absolutely confident that in the coming decades or centuries victory would be won. No doubt, that confidence contributed to their willingness to work for their good causes despite the slow or invisible pace of progress.
Now, of course, we are up against environmental destruction and the potential for complete elimination of our species through war. We feel we do not have the time to toil slowly for our descendants’ inevitable advancement. But here’s the important point: we don’t need long. We as a culture reached the point of outgrowing war a century ago, and the course of progress was thrown off track. War makes absolutely no more sense today than male nipples or fathers giving away brides or the prohibition on ending a sentence with a preposition. War is an anachronism. It’s a freak meme traveled forward in time purely because of the power it has to disrupt cultural advancement.
World War I, once it had ended, only strengthened the drive to end war, but it also strengthened the opposing forces. World War II did the same, and the strength it gave to the pro-war forces was much greater. The idea of ending war was set aside as a dream because its time had come and it had not been fulfilled. Nothing looks weaker than an idea whose time has come and gone. But ending slavery remained a sensible cultural advance that had once appeared fantastic and naïve. So did ending feuds and duels and corporal punishment and infanticide and witch burning. Living in an environmentally sustainable manner is another idea whose time has come and is rapidly going. This idea cannot be fulfilled without ending war, but ending war missed its chance; and so environmentalism steers clear of pacifism, to its own serious — possibly fatal — detriment.
An idea whose time has come and gone is an idea that can be rapidly revived. Renaissance is a common concept because we have had cultural renaissances before. They require humility, and they require work, but they are far easier and more fruitful than trying to reinvent the wheel.
David Swanson is the author of “When the World Outlawed War,” “War Is A Lie” and “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union.”Print This Post