"CHÈRE BARONNE ET AMIE..."
LETTERS OF ALFRED NOBEL AND BERTHA VON SUTTNER
By Irwin Abrams
Published in the catalogue of the exhibition at the United Nations Library in Geneva, which commemorated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914): "Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914) and Other Women in Pursuit of Peace." (Geneva: United Nations Office, 1993); 9-13 [Footnote]
"Now or never you can show whether or no I may call you friend. Will you lend me a friend's moral and effectual support in this the most arduous and most cherished task of my life?"
So pleads Baroness Bertha von Suttner, the Austrian peace leader, in a letter written in English to Alfred Nobel, the Swedish millionaire dynamite king, on 24 October 1891, urging him to come to the international peace congress which was to meet in Rome in November. In response he sends a generous contribution, which will enable her to attend the congress, her first since she began taking part in the newly organizing international peace movement after the publication in 1889 of her anti-war novel, Die Waffen nieder! ["Lay Down Your Arms!"].
In thanking Nobel in her letter of 4 November l891, the baroness repeats her entreaty: "Do come to Rome. How you might help me with your advice!"
This exchange is typical of much of their correspondence: Bertha von Suttner imploring Nobel to engage himself actively in the movement for peace, Nobel responding graciously, never refusing a specific request for money, but leaving her wondering whether he acted out of friendship rather than from conviction. The consequence, however, was Nobel's peace prize, and a review of their letters will help explain how Bertha von Suttner helped bring that about. At the same time it can provide a fresh and immediate sense of the relationship between these two extraordinary people.
Their letters reveal such a close personal rapport that it is hard to believe that for the two decades of their friendship there are records of only three meetings. The first was in 1876, the second some ten years later, and the last in 1892.
The story in her memoirs of their first meeting has often been retold, how the beautiful and accomplished Countess Kinsky comes from Austria to answer an advertised position as secretary and manager of the household of "a very wealthy, cultured elderly gentleman, living in Paris." She finds him not so elderly, only forty-three, a brilliant conversationalist, eager to employ her and perhaps with a more exalted position in mind, but after a week she returns to Vienna to elope with her true love, Baron Arthur von Suttner.
They keep in correspondence but do not meet again until 1887, when she and Arthur, now established writers in Vienna, visit Nobel on a trip to Paris. The final and most important occasion is when the baroness and her husband are Nobel's guests in Zurich in 1892.
They not only share intellectual interests, but hold each other in the highest regard. While they usually address one another as "Chère Baronne et Amie," and "Cher Monsieur et Ami", observing the formalities of the time, one senses that the "friend" is paramount.
They delight in framing their thoughts in different languges. Most of their letters are in French, but they also use English, sometimes to give special emphasis, and there are even a few words in Russian. Occasionally the baroness writes in her native tongue. The skeptical Nobel writes a charming letter with a light touch and an ironic wit, mocking his own melancholy. The more optimistic Suttner enthusiastically parades each apparent advance of peace across her pages. She is generally more serious with her ceaseless campaign to win Nobel for the cause, but she writes with style and can be eloquent in her pleading.
When she first tells Nobel in 1889 of her novel, Nobel asks what she would have him do with his new [smokeless] powder if there were to be universal peace. He encourages her to work also against other evils, such as poverty, injustice and religious superstition (21/11/89).
When he reads the novel, however, he is deeply impressed and tells her it should be translated into every language. He looks forward to shaking her hand, "that hand of an amazon who so valiantly makes war on war." He chides her for crying "down with arms," when she is making such good use of her own weapons, "the charm of your style and the grandeur of your ideas," which would carry so much further than "the Lébels, the Nordenfelts, the De Banges and all the other implements of Hell." He signs in English, "Yours for ever and more than ever" (1/4/90).
Months pass before he writes again, once more in English, having read of the appeal she had published in Vienna, which led to the establishment of the Austrian Peace Society: "Delighted I am to see that your eloquent pleading against that horror of horrors ---war--- has found its way into the French press" (14/9/91). She has already written asking for his help (29/9/91), and, having no reply, makes the plaintive appeal with which this paper begins.
But when she declares that her role at the Rome congress, made possible by his gift, saved it from a serious split over a divisive issue (26/11/91), Nobel expresses his "admiration for your manner of presiding over a great work" (27/12/91). She thanks him again, declaring, "Remain faithful: it would be beau that the inventor of explosives for war should be one of the promoters of the movement for peace" (6/2/92).
While Nobel supports her Austrian Peace Society, he asks why such organizations would have large expenses. What they need is not money but a proper programme, not working for disarmament or arbitration, but something more modest: an agreement between the European governments to defer for one year all differences to a tribunal or even to defer any act of hostility for a stipulated term (31/10/91). Thus when the baroness reports in April 1892 about giving a reading of her novel in Berlin as the first step toward establishing a peace society in "the very fortress of our enemies," she goes on to say, "Mon Dieu.. I know very well that neither the societies nor their congresses have effective power to decree the abolition of war --- it is a matter of simultaneous demonstration of public opinion in all the countries" (16/4/92). This hardly meets Nobel's objection.
Indeed, he has more faith in the governments than the people. He later suggests to her the far-sighted idea of collective security, proposing that the European frontiers be accepted and that the states agree to form a coalition to defend any power that is attacked. While this would not mean disarmament, he questions whether disarmament is really desirable, in the light of "a new tyranny, from the lowest strata, already stirring in the shadows" (6/11/92).
The year 1892 is important in their relationship and for Nobel's thinking about a possible bequest for peace. The baroness tells in her memoirs how at her urging he comes to Bern, not to attend the international peace congress, but to hear her report about it. Well impressed with what he learns of the quality of her colleagues and their seriousness, he invites the Suttners to spend some days with him in Zurich. In excursions on the lake in his little aluminum motor boat, they talk about "a thousand things between heaven and earth," and Nobel even agrees to write a book with the baroness, attacking everything that holds the world in misery and stupidity.
When she teases him about his dynamite factories, he answers in the oft-quoted words, "Perhaps my factories will put an end to war even sooner than your Congresses; on the day when two army corps will be able to annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will recoil with horror and disband their troops." One might say that Nobel has a glimpse of mutual nuclear deterrence. He and Suttner both hold a firm belief that the march of science will lift humanity to a higher level in a warless world. Suttner feels that the activity of the peace societies can help bring this happy day sooner; Nobel agrees with the goal but remains skeptical about the peace societies. But his mind is open. "Inform me, convince me," as she remembers his words, "and then I shall do something great for the movement."
She says she will do more, she will try to "inspire" him. He readily agrees. He would like "to feel enthusiasm, a capacity for which my experiences in life, and my fellow-men, have greatly weakened."
Her account is the only one we have of these conversations, but it has been generally accepted as credible. She probably used her diary notes, such as the ones we have from 1897 until her death.
Soon after returning home, she begins sending Nobel a stream of information about the movement, asking in return only a postal from time to time, "address, bonjour, and some stray thought." But what she wants most of all -- "Oh, if you could only become impassioned for the work" (9/9/92).
Such a passion is not in his nature, but he does not forget his promise at Zurich. A few months after this meeting, Nobel writes to her: "I should like by testament to dispose of a part of my fortune by prizes to be distributed every five years (let us say six times in all, for if in thirty years it has not been possible to reform the present system, there will be a total return to barbarism) to him or her who will have brought about the greatest step in advancing to the pacification of Europe."
He repeats his idea of collective action against an attacking state, saying that he is not talking about disarmament nor obligatory arbitration (7/1/93). The baroness replies that she has "a more ardent faith" and expects peace before the end of the century. She questions giving a prize: "Oh, the idea of ridding the future from that horrible scourge which the next war would be, such an idea is so beautiful, so bejahigend ["aye-saying"] that to serve it, there is no need for such incentive. What is needed is only to know how and to be able to serve it (29/1/93).
Nobel apparently replies skeptically once more, for the baroness protests, "Don't always call our peace-plan a dream. Progress toward justice is surely not a dream, it is the law of civilisation." All the same, she quips, "I wish you could invent a little pill to blow up all fortresses and barracks at a single stroke" (in English, 15/2/93).
Little does the baroness supect that at this very moment Nobel is preparing to draft a will with a generous bequest for her Austrian Peace Society "for the propagation of the idea of Peace." In this will of 14 March 1893, there is a bequest for the Karolinka Institute of Stockholm for a prize to be awarded every third year for achievements in the field of physiology or medicine. The residue of his estate, about two-thirds of the total, is to constitute a fund for the Swedish Academy of Sciences, the interest of which is to be awarded as a prize every third year for other scientific and intellectual achievements. Recipients are to include "the persons who, by writing or by action, have succeeded in combatting ... prejudices against the institution of a European Tribunal of Peace."
This testament clearly marks Nobel's intention of keeping to his word to do "something great" for the peace movement. In the final version of his will, signed on 27 November l895, he simplifies the arrangement for the prizes and omits the bequest for the Austrian Peace Society, but keeps peace on an equal basis with the other fields in which he is deeply interested, the sciences and literature. After a number of personal bequests, the entire residue of the estate is to constitute a fund, the annual interest on which is to be divided into five parts in the form of prizes for those who "in the preceding year shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.
The prize for "champions of peace" is to be awarded by a committee of five to be elected by the Norwegian parliament. It is to be given "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."
These are the very activities in which Bertha von Suttner and her fellow activists are engaged. She brought Nobel to Bern at the time of the peace congress there, and her letters to him are full of information about subsequent international congresses. While for most of the activists disarmament would be a consequence of peace rather than a road to peace, Nobel may have had in mind the title of her novel, "Lay Down Your Arms."
Nobel does not tell the baroness about either of these two wills, and she keeps on trying to persuade him. Just two months before he signs the will that is to establish a peace prize, she writes him, hoping that her letters will awaken an echo of sympathy --- not for the author, but for the work which is dear to her: throw all these little papers into the wastebasket, but keep in the depths of your heart a voice which says to you: here is a woman, who in spite of the indifference and opposition her ideas encounter, perseveres in her task, and a woman who has confidence in me.
Then some news of the movement, still another invitation to visit them, and she concludes, "So, quick into the wastebasket!" (26/9/95).
In 1896, the last year of his life, his letters are fewer. Not only is he busier than ever, but his health is worsening, and his doctor has told him not to write so many letters. She writes out of concern for her friend, but also speaking of what his support has meant for the movement and what it would mean if he would no longer be there: "You wrote me once that you will destine a considerable legacy for the work of Peace. Yes, do this, seriously I beg you. Whether or not I am still there, what we will have given, you and I, will survive" (28/3/96). In another letter she deplores his cynicism: "Oh, how you distrust mankind" (3/6/96).
She wonders how he really feels about her letters: "And when I trace the cher monsieur et ami -- I ask myself, should I write ami'?" Why was he deaf to her pleas to come to the international congress at Budapest? "No, the work of my life does not interest you, or you would be there when I am struggling in the arena, offering me your hand ---you, enfin! ' One cannot be forced to love.' And I would want so much to force your love --- not for my insignificant person, but for the great cause that I serve and which would be so worthy to inspire you, you who have such a love for the great ideas of social progress."
She reminds him of Henri Dunant, how a single individual with only his energy and a small fortune was able to unfurl the flag of the Red Cross ---"with an effort equally energetic we could succeed in hoisting the white flag" (12/11/96).
On 28 November she writes her last letter, which he would have received before his death on 10 December. She lists all that his support to her has made possible: saving the congress at Rome, establishing peace societies in Vienna, Berlin and Budapest and getting the International Peace Bureau started: "Give a lever to Archimedes and give a million to our Bureau: it will lift up the world. Also, this is what I beg of you, my hands joined in supplication, never withdraw your support from us -- never, not even from beyond the grave, which awaits us all."
She cannot know that he has already made his dispositions.
In his last letter to her, written a few weeks before his death, he is witty and mocking to the end: "I, who don't have a heart, metaphorically speaking, I do have such an organ, and I feel it." He goes on to say that he is delighted to see the progress which the peace movement is making, and he pays tribute to those like herself, "who chase away prejudices and shadows." He signs in English, "heartily yours" (21/11/96).
At Zurich Nobel asked her to inform him and to convince him. Informed him she certainly did, with her letters and a multitude of printed materials about the peace movement. But had she convinced him? Was his support made out of friendship for the woman whom he so much admired, rather than out of convicttion that the movement she led would bring about the peace they both desired? She doubted that her efforts were successful. She kept protesting his cynical remarks about the peace movement, and she was pleading with him up to the very end.
But then Nobel was a man of contradictions. The baroness draws a perceptive portrait of him in a letter recalling their first meeting: "A thinker, a poet, a man bitter and good, unhappy and gay -- given to superb flights of mind and to malicious suspicions, passionately in love with the far horizons of human thoughts and profoundly distrustful of the pettiness of human folly, understanding everything and hoping for nothing, so you seemed to me. And twenty years have done nothing to efface that image (29/10/95).
Was he convinced? He did, after all, put his money where his dream was. But he was both dreamer and skeptic, and he could never completely suppress his doubts. The best guess we could make from our review of the correspondence is that he believed in the baroness and he wanted to believe in her movement. What does seem clear from these letters is that without Nobel's "Chère baronne et amie," there would have been no Nobel peace prize.
This paper represents a revisit of the Nobel-Suttner correspondence, which was first analysed in my article, "Bertha von Suttner and the Nobel Peace Prize," Journal of Central European Affairs, 22 (October 1962): 286-307. In that article the French and German quotations were left as in the original. Here they are translated, and where the correspondents use English, this is indicated. For a different version, see the English translation of Brigitte Hamann's biography in German: Bertha von Suttner. A Life for Peace (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996): 190-198.
I want to thank Dr. Beatrix Kempf for making available to me the manuscript of her edition of the correspondence. It is unfortunate that this has not been published.