In 1905, Baroness Bertha Sophie Felicita von Suttner became the second female Nobel laureate and the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner. She wrote and passionately argued for world peace. She is the next subject in this month’s look at women of peace.
Born June 9, 1843 in Prague, Austrian Empire, she was the daughter of a count in the Austrian military. Her mother’s family came from untitled nobility, making Bertha of “mixed” descent according to the standards of high Austrian aristocrats of the day.
While her family struggled financially, a cousin whose father was a private tutor moved in with her family. He taught Bertha literature and philosophy. Fluent in French, Italian and English, she also became a pianist and singer. She wanted to be an opera singer, but her stage fright prevented her from making opera singing a career.
Her first published work, the novella Endertraüme im Monde, appeared in Die Deutsche Frau in 1859.
She found employment as a tutor and companion to the four teenaged daughters of Karl von Suttner in 1873. She fell in love with the girls’ elder brother, Arthur Gundacca who was seven years her junior. Neither of their families approved of their relationship.
In 1876, Suttner answered an ad for a secretary and housekeeper. She worked for Alfred Nobel in Paris. They became friends and correspondents for the rest of his life. She’s thought to have influenced his decision to establish the Nobel Prize. Some speculate that he wanted her to win the prize.
After a few weeks of working for Nobel, Suttner returned to Vienna and married Arthur in secrecy. The couple settled in Kutaisi, Georgia.
Though they were impoverished, she thought they had everything.
At age 42, she published her first novel, “Ein Schlechter Mensch“.
She and her husband reconciled with Arthur’s family and moved to Harmannsdorf Castle in Lower Austria in 1885.
Electrified for Peace
In 1887, she learned about the International Arbitration and Peace Association (IAPA, The International Peace Bureau founded in 1880, one of the world’s oldest international peace federations). In her autobiography, she says the idea that such an organization existed electrified her.
At age 46, in 1889, she writes her best-selling novel, Lay Down Your Arms (Die Waffen Nieder). Tolstoy and others compared it in popularity and influence with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book tackled the effects of war, the growing militarism of Europe, and the problem of extreme nationalism.
Nobel Peace Prize Winner
After her husband died in 1902 and she moved back to Vienna. She continued to campaign for peace and argued that a right to peace could be–should be–international law.
She became the Honorary Vice President of Permanent International Peace Bureau, Berne, Switzerland. And she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1905. She was the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, the second female Nobel laureate. (Madame Currie won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903.)
Her Work Continued
In 1911, she became a member of the advisory council of the Carnegie Peace Foundation.
Although ill and 71 years young, she was organizing the international peace congress scheduled for Vienna in August 1914.
Baroness Bertha von Suttner, died of cancer on June 21, 1914. On June 28,1914 an assassin killed Franz Ferdinand, triggering World War I. The international peace congress never took place.
Did you know about the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner? The German edition of her book, Die Waffen nieder!, and the English edition, Lay Down Your Arms, are available on Amazon in ebook and print.
If you liked this post, read more brief biographies of women.