Pacifist Bertha von Suttner

In Georgia, she encountered the horrors of the Russian-Turkish war. She began publishing anti-war books expressing moral indignation over a society that never ceased developing new ways of killing. Together with Arthur, she founded the League against anti-Semitism.

Staroměstské náměstí 12, 110 15 Prague 1
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Follow Kaprova Street to the Old Town Square, and walk to Kinsky Palace, a fine example of baroque architecture. Take the right-hand entrance and the memorial plaque is on your left.

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The author and pacifist Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914) spent a major part of her childhood within the Kinsky Palace walls. On the left side of the entrance is a bronze memorial plaque to the Nobel Prize laureate, created by the sculptor Jan Hendrych and unveiled in 2006. Her father, who died before Bertha was born, was from the Kinsky family but the family did not support Bertha much due to her mother’s humble origins. Moreover, Bertha’s mother Sofia was seriously addicted to gambling so, desperate for resources, they moved from Prague to Brno and Vienna. Thanks to her legal guardian, however, Bertha received a good education and in 1873 became a governess in Vienna with the Suttner family, where she secretly became engaged to Arthur von Suttner, nine years her junior. Under pressure from Arthur’s mother, Bertha, forced to abandon the Viennese household, responded to an anonymous advert from Alfred Nobel who was looking for a secretary. Bertha went to Paris to work for him. Nobel fell in love with her, but Bertha did not return the inventor’s feelings, and instead went back to Arthur. Together they fled Vienna to escape the social scandal and went to Georgia, where they lived modestly but happily, despite encountering the horrors of the Russian-Turkish war. Bertha began publishing anti-war books expressing moral indignation over a society that never ceased developing new ways of killing. Her most famous novel is Disarm! Disarm! (orig.: Die Waffen Nieder! from 1889, the Czech translation came out in 1896, the English translation in 1892). Together with Arthur, she founded the League against anti-Semitism and with the support of Alfred Nobel, addressed statesmen and organized European peace congresses. But governments, “had no interest in peaceful stability and there was a belief that the world was demanding not only a change, but a shock, and hopefully one strong enough to shake society to such an extent that - to the despair of the nobility - not a stone of the old order would be left … Her books generated stormy debates, but they had little influence on the politics of European governments: as the Baroness’s peace movement strengthened its social position, armies throughout Europe were racing to arm themselves” (P. Kosatík). The First World War broke out only a few weeks after the Baroness’s death.

Bertha von Suttner (source: internet)

How should one explain these contradictions? Was there something inauthentic in Bertha von Suttner’s courageous approach? Or were these problems with pacifism simply in line with the contradictions of “secular faith” of the 19th century? The life-long friendship of the pacifist Suttner with the Dynamite King, Alfred Nobel, is difficult to understand. Suttner inspired him to set up the Nobel Peace Prize, and although Nobel sponsored a number of her pacifist projects, he was of the opinion that the more the world armed itself, the quicker it would disarm: “My factories may end war way before your congresses, I hope that the day two armies realize they can destroy each other in one second, all civilized peoples will wake up and will dissolve their armies.” History clearly answered Alfred Nobel negatively: civilized nations have not dissolved their troops, even though they have a nuclear potential capable of destroying life on the entire planet. Or have nations ceased to be civilized? Baroness von Suttner’s call is still awaiting a response, but it does not seem that current governments are interested in disarmament. Nevertheless, as consumers, we can all exercise self-restraint in response to the ongoing global destruction of the environment. The life of pacifist Bertha von Suttner bears witness to this.

Bertha von Suttner with a Czech letter stamp bearing her portrait (source: internet)
Resources in English:
  • Hamann, Brigitte: Bertha von Suttner – Life for Peace. Trans. Ann Dubsky. Syracuse, NY, 1996.
  • Memoirs of Bertha von Suttner: The Records of an Eventful Life (Vol. 1 and 2), Ginn and Company, 1910.
  • Bertha von Suttner: Ground Arms. McClurg Company, 1892.

Where next?

From Kinsky Palace go to Železná Street, turn left in front of the green Estates Theater building. The fruit market will lead you to the Karolinum, connected with the work of Růžena Vacková and Milena Hübschmannová.