Bertha von Suttner

(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111206107-Suttner.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Suttner inspired and organized peace movements and was instrumental in persuading Alfred Nobel to establish the Peace Prize named for him. Her novel Die Waffen nieder! (1889; Lay Down Your Arms, 1892) was a clarion call for disarmament.

Early Life

Bertha von Suttner, née Countess Kinsky, was born in Prague into an old noble family with a long and distinguished military tradition. Her father, Field Marshal Count Joseph Kinsky, died before she was born. On her mother’s side, Kinsky was related to the poet Joseph von Korner. In her teens, she dreamed of a career as an opera singer; she was encouraged in this, but, after a short while, she realized that her talent was insufficient. A precocious child, she read Plato’s works and those of Alexander von Humboldt, a great German scientist, before she was sixteen. From her governesses she learned French and English. Later, she taught herself Italian. Kinsky must have been a beautiful girl. When she was only thirteen years old, a prince wanted to marry her, and in letters she is invariably mentioned as a very lovely girl. She was an only and very lonely child, and until the age of twelve she had no playmates. This experience reinforced her inclination to live in a world of dreams and fantasies.

After her father’s death, her mother was left with a modest income, but the expenses of Kinsky’s singing lessons and her mother’s compulsive gambling at the fashionable casinos diminished their limited funds. At the age of thirty, Kinsky took a job as a governess with the family of Baron and Baroness von Suttner. Though their youngest son, Arthur, at twenty-three years of age, was seven years younger than Kinsky, the two fell in love. Their romance was eagerly fostered by the girls of the family; they were very fond of Bertha and were fascinated by the development of romantic love. It was quite otherwise with the parents. When the romance was discovered the highly incensed baroness did not lose any time in finding a new, distant position for Kinsky.

This new position was with Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who lived, at the time, in Paris. A bachelor at age forty-three, he was looking for a secretary-housekeeper who was also familiar with languages. In his advertisement he wrote, “A very wealthy, cultured, elderly gentleman, living in Paris, desires to find a lady, also of mature years, familiar with languages, as secretary and manager of his household.” Despite her youth, Kinsky undoubtedly fit all the other requirements, for she was hired right away. A week later Nobel had to return to Sweden; the king had summoned him. Kinsky too was called away from Paris. Upon receipt of a telegram from Arthur confessing that he could not live without her, Kinsky hurried to Vienna. There, in great secrecy, they married.

For their honeymoon, which according to Kinsky lasted nine years, they went to the Caucasus in Russia. The invitation had come from a prince, who was one of their friends. Their stay was a curious blend of being both guests and employees of their hosts. At first the prince had hopes of finding employment for Arthur. When that failed, Arthur was employed as an architect and overseer while Bertha gave music and language lessons. When the day’s work was done, they changed their workclothes for evening dresses and tuxedos and mingled on equal footing with the local aristocracy. Arthur started to write articles that were published in the Austrian newspapers. Whether out of envy or the desire to imitate—she herself wrote that she could not decide which—Bertha too began to write. Her first published work was a light piece, an essay of the type known as a feuilleton, and it was signed with a pseudonym, but still it gave her confidence. Filled with the assurance that they could make a living as writers, they were ready to return home. In May, 1885, after nine years, they said farewell to the Caucasus.

Life’s Work

Upon their return, Bertha and Arthur were forgiven for their secret marriage, and they rejoined Arthur’s family. Published two years before their return, Bertha’s book Inventarium einer Seele (1883; inventory of a soul) gave her entrée into literary circles. She soon added two important works to her oeuvre. Daniela Dormes (1886) and Das Maschinenzeitalter: Zukunftsvorlesungen über unsere Zeit (1889). Daniela Dormes in many ways is more a discussion than a novel. In it, however, one can discern Suttner’s philosophical and moral views: She is sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, and she believes in Darwinism as a social force. Das Maschinenzeitalter is a look into the future. Suttner commented that she wrote the book to rid herself of the gloom with which the present filled her. The book was replete with scientific and philosophical themes; in scientific circles there was so much prejudice against the capacity of women as thinkers that a book signed with a woman’s name would not have been read, so Suttner used the pseudonym “Jemand” (anyone).

The turning point of Suttner’s life was approaching. With the money earned by Das Maschinenzeitalter, she and her husband decided to go to Paris. There they again met Nobel, and through him they also met the intellectual and social elite of the city. It was in Paris that Suttner first heard about the existence in London of a society called the International Peace and Arbitration Society. From that moment, she decided to promote it with all her efforts. She realized that her talent lay in writing; she also...

(The entire section is 2296 words.)