Bertha von Suttner: The inspiration behind the Nobel Peace Prize is getting her due

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017 - 09:16

By Janet Anderson

Bertha von Suttner was not only the first woman to be solely awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she’s also widely credited for inspiring Alfred Nobel to include a prize for champions of peace among the prizes provided for in his will. A lifelong pacifist, Bertha also wrote several books that championed the cause of peace. At a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard, Bertha was recognized as an outspoken leader in the peace movement.

Yet, despite her gender-defying achievements and intellectual contributions, Bertha has been given short shrift in the tellings of history. As the director and founder of the Bertha von Suttner Project, Professor Hope Elizabeth May of the Central Michigan University is leading a push to popularise Bertha’s ideas and help her cement her place in history as one of the preeminent thinkers of the last century. “She's a very sophisticated thinker and I think that we're still catching up to some of her ideas,” says Prof May.

Justice Hub’s Janet Anderson recently caught up with Prof May during a flag-raising ceremony at the Peace Palace in The Hague. Professor May discussed The Hague’s rich history in the peace movement and the role women have played in the development of international law. Edited lightly for clarity, the interview is the latest instalment in Justice Hub’s long-running #MyJustice series.

Justice Hub: What's the connection between Bertha von Suttner and The Hague's Peace Palace?

Well, Bertha was here when the Peace Palace was opened in 1913. But actually, she had begun her activism with the publication of a book in 1889, which was ten years prior to the first Hague Peace Conference of 1899. That book was called Die Waffen nieder! ("Lay Down Your Arms!") and she said that she was not an activist when she wrote the book but rather wrote and then became a peace activist. 

She actually said that she had learned that an organised peace movement existed to establish a court of arbitration. She was already writing at the time and she felt she had to do something, like we all feel like we have to do something sometimes. 

What she could do is bring to life the horrors of war so that's what she did. The book, Die Waffen nieder! ("Lay Down Your Arms!"), put a human face on war. Leo Tolstoy called it the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the peace movement. Uncle Tom's Cabin, a similar book, humanised the evils of slavery. 

When she learned that there was going to be a Peace Conference in 1899 here in The Hague, she just had to be here and so she came. She was the only woman allowed in the opening ceremony and then she also opened up her hotel room as a salon for diplomats and journalists. As she says, she got swept up. And she was here in 1907 when they had another peace conference and she was here in 1913 when the Peace Palace opened. In 2013 when the Peace Palace turned 100, the Carnegie Foundation commissioned two busts of Bertha von Suttner.  

She was the first woman ever to have her likeness in the Peace Palace so it took a hundred years. So there's a process that's going on here. That process is what Rosa Rios, the former treasurer of the United States (who is responsible for the placement of women on the paper money that will be unveiled in 2020 to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of women's right to vote in the US) calls "making the invisible visible", "making the unseen seen", "making the unconscious conscious", "bringing something from darkness into light". 

Stories about the contribution of women, especially in international law, have been shrouded in darkness and we have begun the process of bringing that to our consciousness. I've been continuing that work because it can't just be about the unveiling of one or two statues.

Justice Hub: What are the different parts of the process of "making the unseen seen"?

I owe a lot to Bertha because reading one of her speeches alerted me to the Peace Movement in the United States. She said that the United States is sort of at the vanguard of the peace movement, because they celebrate Peace Day, the US federal government is involved in peace education and I thought: what is she talking about? So that caused me to start researching.

The flag we raised here at the Peace Palace was actually flown on Peace Day in the United States. That day was also known as Hague day - because of the peace conferences - and was celebrated throughout the country. It was marked on May 18th because that was the day on which the first Hague Peace Conference opened. It was celebrated basically in every American state and that flag was used by the US chapter of the International Council of Women. That's the story about the flag. Many of Bertha's works are still in the German language and they just haven't been translated. So in the vein of "bringing the unconscious to consciousness" and, frankly, bringing her ideas to the Anglo-American mind, I'm involved in translating those works and publishing them in English.

It's the first book of several that I've had translated. It's just part of the process of making her known. When you hear people talk about Bertha the usual two-minute thing is "oh she inspired [Alfred] Nobel to create the Nobel Peace Prize and she wrote this book Die Waffen nieder! ("Lay Down Your Arms!") which is a work of fiction". However, she is a most formidable philosopher.  She's just a deep thinker and I'm really passionate about broadening our understanding of her identity. She's a very sophisticated thinker and I think that we're still catching up to some of her ideas.

Justice Hub: Why do you think that we've lost so much of our understanding of the role that The Hague played in peace movements and the whole idea of peace movements? Where has that disappeared in the last hundred years?

I'm so glad you asked that question. This year, 2017, is the hundredth anniversary of when the U.S. entered World War I in early April.  I know that when we - the United States - entered World War I, it became a crime to speak against the war. This was inspired by the laws then in place in England. 

There was a Sedition Act, an Espionage Act and it became a crime to speak out against the war, even non-violently. Thousands of people were arrested and cases went to the Supreme Court. There's a very famous case called Schenck v. United States, where the Supreme Court, not good law anymore thank God, basically said that in the time of war a country's need to mobilise and conscript soldiers outweighs the right to free speech. 

That Supreme Court decision basically caused the Peace Movement to fold. The federal government had been involved in peace education in the US. There was a huge network of students, teachers and public school administrators that were teaching about The Hague in the United States. This is what I've learned from Bertha. She gave me the lead. So I think World War I has a lot to do with it.

Also, when talking about the history of the Hague, there is this tendency to focus on Nuremberg as the inspiration. And it's one of my pet peeves that when people come to the Peace Palace and they see the ICJ (International Court of Justice) flag, they call it the ICJ building. But this building was here before the ICJ, it was here before World War I. So I also think the monopolisation of our imagination by World War II and the narrative that we begin with Nuremberg has something to do with it as well.

Justice Hub: Why is it that we've lost the feminine part of International Law? Why has that been erased?

Well, that's just always been erased. I'm teaching a class now and a lot of people don't even know the history of the Suffrage Movement, which is the basic right to vote. We don't know that either. So why is that? I'm going to quote Rosie Rios again. When she became the treasurer of the United States she had to go into the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. That's where they have all these books of vignettes of historical scenes. These are the scenes that will appear on postage stamps, food stamps and paper money. 

She was going through these albums of thousands and thousands of images and there was no image of any actual women. Just like in the Peace Palace before, the only representations of women were in the form of  Lady Justice or Victory. At that moment she was like: "How can this be? No, I will change this". She went to her boss [former Secretary of the Treasury] Tim Geithner and she learnt that no one had ever brought it up before. 

Perhaps it takes a female to notice this kind of thing and complain about it. I think that's part of it. It takes time to correct these things but it will happen. 

Justice Hub: What does justice mean to you? 

I'm a student of ancient Greek philosophy and Plato in The Republic asks the question: "What is justice?.  The Republic is a very long book and the whole book is an answer to that question. But Plato basically says that it must start with the individual and essentially it is a property of the individual. As he says, it's a kind of a harmony of the soul.

Countess Cora di Brazza, who designed the flag that we raised today, also said justice begins with the individual. But we can also talk about justice as practised between states. I'll just refer to Hugo Grotius: "pacta sunt servanda", which simply translates to "respect your agreement". If you say you're going to do something then do it. Half of the problems that we have today is many countries not honouring their agreements.

Photos: Janet Anderson

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