The Woman Who Inspired the Peace Prize

by Elsa Lilja Gunnarsdottir

There is little doubt that Bertha von Suttner was a remarkable woman. She fought for peace, equality and military disarmament with the sole the force of a pen. She wrote many inspirational articles and books, including her, at the time controversial, book “Lay Down Your Arms” which quickly gained international recognition. It wasn’t common for women to write about the horror and atrocities of war, especially with as much detail and honesty as Bertha did. Yet this was not something Bertha was concerned about; she was determined to dedicate her life to inspire peace, despite any controversy.

Bertha von Suttner wasn’t born into a wealthy, high-class family, nor was she gifted with exceptional intelligence. As a young girl she was concerned about ordinary things like finding the right man and wearing pretty dresses; Bertha was just a normal girl, no more significant than any other in her surroundings. But one spontaneous job application for the position as Alfred Nobel’s secretary changed her life forever.

Although she only remained in the position for a week – before running back to the love of her life to get married – it is clear that she made a lasting impression on Nobel. They stayed in constant touch until Nobel’s death in 1896. Their meeting is still impacting the world today, for without their encounter, the Nobel Peace Prize might not exist.

The family of Arthur von Suttner (Bertha’s husband) did not approve of their relationship, so the two fled to Georgia to start a life together. Here, Bertha began her career as an author, writing books on topics such as love and romance. It wasn’t until approaching her fifties that Bertha became intrigued with the subject of war and peace. The conflicts going in the country she had settled in with her husband launched her into the debate about war, conflict and peace resolution.

This is when she came to write “Lay Down Your Arms,” in which Bertha painted a picture of war that instead of glorifying it, described the horrors and pointlessness of violent conflicts. She talks about “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” an ancient commandment central in many religions, and how in war this commandment is given no respect. How can one claim to be religious if one does not follow the rules of one’s own religion? Bertha believed that war is denial of this precept and contempt for the value of human life.

I’ve never found a better description for the pointlessness of war and how it proves an utter lack of respect for the life of a human being. Can one still claim to respect another man’s life if one is willing to deny him the right to live – in other words; willing to partake in war? Do people believe that war can lift religious and societal rules?

Bertha was a true role model for women everywhere and it is unfortunate that many have never even heard of her. Personally, I did not know who she was until I read the “The Woman Behind the Peace Prize” by Anne Synnøve Simensen. I find it sad that I did not know about this extraordinary woman before. This book gives both a feeling of what Bertha’s life was like, what she fought for and how the meeting between her and Nobel eventually inspired Alfred Nobel to dedicate part of his will to annually award the Nobel Peace Prize. Nobel defined in his will that the award shall be rewarded “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”[1] It is clear that Bertha inspired him, as her dream in life was to lead peace congresses to promote peace between nations, and to fight for the reduction of arms. In many ways I believe that in being rewarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Bertha’s vision is becoming true. The European Union is built on the principles of assuring brotherhood between nations, reducing the use of arms and conflicts as a congress for collaboration in many fields as a way to restore and sustain peace.

Bertha’s optimism is truly inspirational. She really believed that peace was inevitable, the rest of the world just needed to realize it. She claimed that the focus on military and arms was ancient, yet it is still present today. I am sure she would be pleased that there are little conflicts between nations today, but I wonder if she would also be disappointed that we have not come further. Everything seemed to be looking up at the end of her years; there had not been war in Europe for 100 years, but only six weeks after her death, the outbreak of World War I threw us ten decades back.

Fortunately, the kind of organizations she believed in – such as the European Union and the United Nations – prospered at the end of war. United Nations’ staff and agencies have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize ten times[2] and the European Union was awarded the prize last year for their efforts in achieving peace and cooperation between nations. That these unions have been considered to have done the most and best work in keeping peace between nations during the course of a year reaffirms Bertha’s vision of a better world.

The European Union has been struggling these past years, amplified by the Euro Crisis in 2009[3], something that has sparked much anger and frustration for its inhabitants. But receiving the Nobel Peace Prize serves as a reassuring pat on the back, and reminds us the most important thing that the EU has accomplished – peace and fraternity between nations. In many ways it has also revived the memory of Bertha’s dream, and her story inspires us to see the importance of such unions even though things get difficult at times.

What truly inspires me about Bertha is that she was just an ordinary girl, but the fact that she was so remarkably passionate made her leave an infinite mark on the world. From reading excerpts from “Lay Down Your Arms,” it is clear that she was a very intelligent woman. I believe that she took what life had taught her and she gave back with the efforts of trying to make the world better. Her existence has proven that people from all walks of life can contribute in some way to make this world a little bit better, even if just by sharing ideas of peace. Needless to say, Bertha, through Anne Synnøve Simensen’s book “The Woman Behind the Peace Prize” has made a lasting impression on me – And even though I have just come to learn who she was, I find her as a great inspiration, and I hope her story will never be forgotten. Alfred Nobel was a powerful man, but there is little doubt that without this incredible woman, he wouldn’t have come up with this remarkable recognition of peace. I believe it the reaffirms the saying “behind every great man is a great woman.”


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