Bertha von Suttner
Born: 9 June, 1843 – Prague, Austria
Died: 21 June, 1914 – Vienna, Austria
Known as: a globally-renowned pacifist and writer
Described as an "extraordinary" woman who was instrumental in championing peace and the female voice, Bertha von Suttner is not what one would call a household name. However, she is a pioneer in multiple ways, and her entire life is a story of a woman who was unafraid to speak out against myriad atrocities, and inspire a world to seek love.
Born into a noble family in Prague, the then-Countess was given an education which inspired her love of reading and the written word. As a child, she wasn't initially planning to be a writer – instead, she initially determined she would be an opera singer, and she adored music. She was described as social, regularly accompanying her mother on various travel engagements where she was exposed to far more of the world than her society allowed.
But, after one such tour, Bertha realised she could no longer rely on her mother. Her mother had a gambling addiction; funds, therefore, were rapidly dwindling. Bertha's opera career was out – she had crippling stage fright. Marriage to a rich man was unlikely – she'd reached an age where wedded bliss was a lost cause.
Bertha found work as a governess in the Viennese von Suttner home, and it was here she met her husband, Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner. The match was met with disapproval from his parents due to Bertha's dubious background (she, despite being a countess in her own right, was not the daughter of two nobles), and due to the seven year age difference between the couple. Despite this, the pair were engaged, but briefly postponed their marriage. Perhaps to placate Arthur's parents, Bertha briefly became a secretary and housekeeper in Paris to Alfred Nobel. This would lead to a lifelong friendship; the two wrote to each other for Nobel's entire life.
However, she soon returned to elope with Arthur, and the two – largely shunned by high society, and now living in relative poverty in Georgia – turned to writing to support themselves. From here, Bertha eventually became a journalist back in Austria, focusing almost exclusively on peace and conflict around the world. This would lead to the publication of her most famous novel, Down With Weapons. Bertha was immediately recognised as a leading figure in the Austrian Peace Movement, and the book became a global success.
Bertha began actively campaigning for peace, founding the Austrian Peace Society and establishing her own magazine as avenues to promote worldwide harmony. This was largely a male-dominated field, and Bertha's presence made its audiences immediately take note. She spoke with conviction and knowledge – a sort of forcefulness which would see her described as the "generalissimo of the peace movement".
There is no doubt that Bertha was the reason for the implementation of the Nobel Peace Prize. Nobel urged her to tell him just how he could offer his support to the peace movement, and his stipulation for the prize – that it be awarded to the "man or woman who induced Europe to take the first step towards the idea of peace" – virtually sums up Bertha's life ethos. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 and was the first woman to receive this award, plus the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize on her own.
Bertha died in 1914, only weeks before the start of World War I. Her final words were an impassioned plea to a world on the brink of devastation: "Lay down your arms. Tell it to many."