First in their Field: Bertha von Suttner

Baroness Bertha von Suttner was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, making her the second female Nobel laureate after Marie Curie who was awarded her first prize in 1903. Von Suttner was also the first Austrian laureate.

Bertha von Suttner was born in June of 1843 in Prague, which was then part of the Austrian Empire. She was a novelist and a pacifist,  and often referred to as “generalissimo of the peace movement”.

200px-bertha_von_suttner_briefmarke_deutschland_2005Her most famous work, Die Waffen nieder (or Lay Down Your Arms) was published in 1889. By the time von Suttner was awarded the Nobel Prize her book had 37  German published editions and was translated into sixteen other languages. The book centered around issues such as war and peace, and women in society. It was the nineteenth century’s most influential anti-war novel and until the publication of All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929, it remained the most influential German literature about war.

In the 1870s she met Alfred Nobel and after meeting they corresponded briefly on the subject of peace.

“Inform me, convince me, and then I will do something great for the movement”, Alfred Nobel once wrote to von Suttner.

And convince him she did. von Suttner continued to correspond with Nobel until he died in 1896 and in his will he included a peace prize as part of the five prizes he established with his estate.

“and one part 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” – excerpt from Alfred Nobel’s will

Von Suttner and her correspondence with Nobel have popularly been credited for the establishment of the prize.

Her acceptance lecture for the Peace Prize began:

“The stars of eternal truth and right have always shone in the firmament of human understanding. The process of bringing them down to earth, remolding them into practical forms, imbuing them with vitality, and then making use of them, has been a long one.

One of the eternal truths is that happiness is created and developed in peace, and one of the eternal rights is the individual’s right to live. The strongest of all instincts, that of self-preservation, is an assertion of this right, affirmed and sanctified by the ancient commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”

200px-bertha_von_suttner_nobelAfter she won the Nobel Prize in 1905, she continued to be a leader in the pacifist movement in Europe. She campaigned against the militarization of China advancements in aviation for military purposes, and was a strong supporter of a more united Europe in order to prevent “world catasrophe”. She spoke at the 1908 Peace Congress in London and in 1912 when she was almost seventy, she undertook a lecture tour in the United States.



Melissa Jones, Women’s Museum of California
Learn about other women who were first in the field with our digital timeline

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