Today in Oslo, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege were honored as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
You can read their dramatic and inspiring messages to the world in various languages by clicking this link:
Today in Oslo, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege were honored as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
You can read their dramatic and inspiring messages to the world in various languages by clicking this link:
Like many U.S. citizens, I’ve been watching the daily news with shock and horror as the country endures yet another wave of hatred and violence, with the most recent deadly attack taking place at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the same time, I’ve been revising scenes in my historical novel Peace at Last that address the spread of anti-Semitism throughout Europe in the 1890s.
As you might imagine, the parallels are frightening, both in terms of the actions themselves and the responses from across the political spectrum.
The roots of contemporary anti-Semitism extend beyond 20th-century Nazi Germany to the late 1800s. Just months before Bertha von Suttner founded her first peace society in 1891, her husband Artur convened the Union for Resistance to Anti-Semitism in Vienna in response to spikes in violence against Jewish people. Both of them strongly and publicly condemned such prejudice, despite repeated warnings from allies and adversaries to avoid the subject altogether. Editors often rejected their articles on the grounds that the issue was “unpleasant” and that such hostilities would simply “fade away like influenza.” Bertha described hateful anonymous letters sent by readers as “usually permeated with anti-Semitic spirit…and, along with that, always the friendly advice to return to the cooking pot and knitting needle.”
In her book The Machine Age, Bertha asked, “How is this possible in our humanitarian and enlightened century? It’s a disgrace, a remnant of barbarism, of religious mania.” Later, she reflected on her response to anti-Semitism in her memoirs, writing, “One must always resist injustice. There is no alternative. Silence, even though it intends to express disdain, is itself disdainful. It’s not enough for those affected to react; those who are unaffected must also revolt against injustice wherever they see it. Their silence is complicity, motivated by the same emotion as the victims’ silence—namely, fear.”
I’ve been rereading the correspondence between Bertha and her friend Bartholomaus Carneri, an Austrian statesman who lost his 1891 re-election bid to one of the newly emboldened anti-Semitic candidates. As a philosopher, Carneri was one of the first to apply Darwin’s theories of evolution to moral and ethical thinking. Though both he and Bertha firmly believed in evolution, he warned her that evolution in a positive direction—toward “the ideal,” as Alfred Nobel would have put it—could not be taken for granted.
In dramatizing their conversations, I paraphrase Carneri’s elaboration on the English biologist Herbert Spencer’s notion of the “survival of the fittest,” often mistakenly credited to Darwin and over-simplified as “only the strongest survive.” In fact, a creature’s ability to adapt to—or fit—its environment, not its strength or stubborn adherence to old ways, provides a far better indicator of its chances at survival. Carneri tells Bertha, “Toxic environments may favor toxic creatures, not necessarily the most decent and just. With that in mind, we must not merely be messengers of peace; we must create and preserve a culture of peace to ensure its survival.”
These days, I fear the resurgence of toxic sociopolitical environments around the world. I also worry that the peace movement has not been proactive enough in establishing and maintaining a healthy culture capable of countering that regression. In short, it needs help, yours and mine alike.
When I tell people that I’m writing about the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and one of the most influential and popular writers of her time, many people ask, “Why haven’t I ever heard about her?” Anti-Semitism forms a large part of the answer. In book after book, Bertha advocated a noble and idealistic society in which science and the arts flourished alongside rational political discourse and diplomacy. She railed against the prevailing militarism and nationalism of her day, both of which fostered conflict and contempt for “the other.” After taking on the related issue of anti-Semitism in all its permutations, critics labeled her “JudenBertha,” a Jew-lover, and she was eventually considered an enemy of the state.
Bertha’s books were among the first targeted for burning by the Nazis, and few original copies exist. Luckily, two first editions of her landmark novel Lay Down Your Arms! in Alfred Nobel’s possession have survived the purges. In 1940, the writer Hertha Pauli, who had written some of the earliest biographies of both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner, was forced to flee her Vienna home in advance of the Nazi occupation. She and her family later emigrated to the United States from France to escape further persecution. Upon her return to Austria, she wrote, “I found that the Suttner memoirs, diaries, and letters I had drawn upon had been destroyed by the Nazis. Then I knew that her life must not be forgotten.” Slowly, researchers and writers such as the late Brigitte Hamann, who wrote a biography of Hitler as well as the definitive book on Suttner, have been rediscovering and preserving the previously lost and scattered remnants of Bertha’s life.
It took decades for European anti-Semitism to reach its most horrific levels during the Holocaust. Sadly, like racism and other barbaric forms of prejudice, it has survived into the present, with various political figures adapting its message of intolerance to suit their own needs and desires. The ability of today’s social media platforms to amplify and escalate such hateful messaging shortens the time frame in which more rational and reasonable responses might triumph. Despite the increased challenge, the “most decent and just” among us have an even greater responsibility to act.
As Bertha firmly believed, silence is not an option.
Yesterday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee honored Nadia Murad of Iraq and Dr. Denis Mukwege of the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” As both a victim and witness of rape, and female enslavement, Ms. Murad has spoken out around the world and raised awareness of this heinous aspect of the war against her community, the Yazidi people of northern Iraq. Dr. Mukwege has become famous throughout Africa for his role as “The Man Who Mends Women,” helping victims to overcome the physical and emotional trauma associated with sexual violence and genital mutilation.
Because men are the major perpetrators of sex crimes and their victims are mostly women, the world remains largely unaware of the scope and nature of this violence. Too often, media reports shy away from the gruesome details and sickening images. We ask how human beings can act in such depraved and amoral ways as if that negates their very occurrence.
Critics of Bertha von Suttner’s novel Lay Down Your Arms! expressed concerns about the similarly graphic descriptions of war in its pages. Having conducted numerous interviews with soldiers and other witnesses of battlefield horrors, she chastised the “gentle reader” that we might otherwise associate with 19th-century literature. “Oh, away with your prudery! Away with your affected decorum!” she wrote in the book. “That is cruel ethics, I would have you know—cruel and cowardly. … This looking aside, with the physical and the spiritual eye, allows so much misery and injustice to persist. If only we had the courage to look steadily upon our fellow humans who are pining in pain and misery, along with the courage to reflect upon what we saw!”
Both Ms. Murad and Dr. Mukwege have witnessed such pain and misery first-hand. They have spoken out forcefully, sharing their stories while seeking reparations. For Ms. Murad, this means demanding justice for the Yazidis at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. For Dr. Mukwege, it means constructing hospitals, clinics, and legal centers in his homeland to help repair, both surgically and psychologically, the many victims of sexual violence.
“This is the only way Yazidis will possibly be able to move on with our lives, mourn our dead, and try to rebuild what we lost,” Ms. Murad said of her efforts. “A trial tells the militants that the world in the twenty-first century is built in a way that values life and humanity above mere power and fear, and that not only are we capable of protecting the most vulnerable, but that we will, no matter what.”
Dr. Mukwege acknowledges the difficulties of empowering witnesses to testify against their victimizers, especially since sexual violence remains a taboo subject in many cultures. “The women we treat are only the tip of the iceberg because many of them are afraid to say they have been raped for fear of being rejected by their husbands,” he said. “We’ve found that when they are doing well physically, when they feel strong enough psychologically and when they are economically independent, that’s when women start seeking justice,” he added.
It has been ten years since the UN Security Council adopted a resolution classifying sexual violence as both a war crime and a threat to international peace and security. The decision of this year’s Norwegian Nobel Committee serves to highlight that important and long-overdue decree and reminds us that, in times of both war and peace, Bertha’s calls for disarmament—and Alfred Nobel’s echo of her demand in creating the Peace Prize—can mean lowering one’s hands and fists along with laying down one’s guns and rifles.
You can read the full announcement from the Norwegian Nobel Committee here: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2018/press-release/
To read an interview with Nadia Murad:
To read an interview with Denis Mukwege:
To see “The Man Who Mends Women,” a documentary about Dr. Mukwege’s work:
On June 8th and 9th, dozens of peace-lovers from around the world gathered in The Hague to celebrate Bertha von Suttner’s 175th birthday and her enduring legacy. Following a day of presentations at the Bertha von Suttner Peace-Institute and an evening recalling Korea’s controversial presence at the 1907 Hague peace conference, the group gathered at the nearby Peace Palace for more formal tributes.
During the morning, historian Peter van den Dungen invoked the spirit of Bertha’s many friends and fellow pacifists in a tour of the Peace Palace and a subsequent lecture in the historic reading room. In the afternoon, Dr. Heinz Fischer, former president of Austria, and Marzhan Nurzhan of the International Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN, the recipients of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize), addressed the attendees and emphasized connections between the peace movements of the past and the present. During a reception, Bertha herself (as portrayed by actress Anita Zieher of Austria) joined the group for cake and champagne as well as an informative and entertaining interview with Dr. Susanne Jalka of Austria.
For Bertha and her colleagues, the 1899 and 1907 conferences in The Hague laid the foundation for the impressive Peace Palace, both figuratively and literally. With major funding for its construction from the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the building provided a permanent home for the newly formed Permanent Court of Arbitration and the International Criminal Court. Carnegie had become one of Bertha von Suttner’s most prominent supporters following the death of Alfred Nobel. For many activists today, the Peace Palace embodies both the strength of her convictions and the beauty of her idealistic vision.
You can learn more about the Peace Palace here: https://www.vredespaleis.nl/?lang=en
A few other images from the weekend’s events:
Congratulations to this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the members of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)! This organization, which successfully led fifty nations to sign the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in September, fulfills many of the ideas and obligations expressed in Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament. These include disarmament and greater cooperation between nations, both having been strongly advocated by Bertha von Suttner as she created and promoted pacifist societies throughout Europe in the 19th century. Today, ICAN continues to work toward a more peaceful world free of the specter of nuclear armageddon. Beatrice Finn, ICAN’s executive director, said of the recent UN treaty, “This is what a real step looks like. And for our shared human society, this is a step for the better.”
At a meeting in Zurich with Suttner in 1891, Nobel predicted, “On the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.” As we are now painfully aware, the development and deployment of nuclear weaponry did not result in a world liberated from the constant threat of war. Instead, the idea of nuclear deterrence has become a cornerstone of foreign policy for many weapons-rich nations, leaving the world’s citizens fearful of irrational leaders with itchy trigger fingers.
The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas also reminds us that man’s hunger for more and more powerful weapons continues unabated on the individual as well as the international level. (I’ve used the gendered word intentionally, as the majority of most mass murderers and terrorists are, by far, male.) In the United States, the proliferation of automatic and semi-automatic guns, along with the devices that can transform one into the other, have led to a citizenry that lives in constant dread of the next attack. News reporters exacerbate our anxieties by documenting how global terrorists have “weaponized” everything from automobiles to social media posts.
In the 1890s, anarchist bombings throughout Europe created a similar sense of panic in many cities, especially Paris, where Nobel maintained one of several homes. An explosion at the Café Terminus near the opera house targeted civilians for the first time in a symbolic attack on the bourgeoisie. (For more on this, check out John Merriman’s deeply researched and suspenseful book, The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siècle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror.)
Several years later, French residents received a shock of a different kind when the explosives manufacturer Eugene Turpin announced his invention of a doomsday machine that could destroy all of Paris within the course of an hour. Turpin envisioned mounting his “engine of destruction” on a locomotive with ammunition-filled railroad cars trailing behind. With its rotating rapid-fire cannons, this so-called “Angel of Death” could discharge 25,000 poison-filled projectiles and obliterate everything within 22,000 square meters.
We might imagine that peace-seeking idealists of the day would have been horrified by this proposed weapon of mass destruction. On the contrary, Suttner wrote to Nobel, “What is your opinion of Turpin’s machine? This invention fills me with joy, for if it delivers what its inventor promises, it would make war almost impossible. Yet…I would have preferred that you had invented it.” Nobel dismissed Turpin’s plans as impractical “balls of soap” but went on to praise its inventor’s imagination. Somewhat annoyed, Suttner wrote back to clarify her position. “If you had invented such a machine,” she told Nobel, “it would have been for the sole purpose of rendering war impossible. But Turpin and his friends weren’t thinking of peace; they wanted to act like treacherous parasites and use their infernal machinery to profit from the fears and prejudices of the day. What a blessing that they have not succeeded!”
Today we celebrate ICAN’s success toward rendering nuclear war impossible. In announcing this year’s Peace Prize, the Nobel committee noted, “We live in a world where the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater than it has been for a long time. Some states are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and there is a real danger that more countries will try to procure nuclear weapons, as exemplified by North Korea. Nuclear weapons pose a constant threat to humanity and all life on earth. Through binding international agreements, the international community has previously adopted prohibitions against land mines, cluster munitions, and biological and chemical weapons. Nuclear weapons are even more destructive, but have not yet been made the object of a similar international legal prohibition.” We can hope that the symbolic support of the Nobel Peace Prize will help ICAN and all of the UN treaty’s signatories achieve that prohibition.
Much has changed since my last post here, especially after the U.S. election last November. I’ve been tempted to comment on the many parallels between the daily news and the historical events I’ve been researching (among them terrorism in the early 1890s, anti-immigration and anti-Semitic policies of that day, the looming specter of doomsday devices, and even disputes over Venezuelan sovereignty).
At the same time, I’ve felt a greater urgency to complete the final chapters and not be overly distracted by all the hype and click-bait published in the media, both social and professional. On several occasions I’ve thought about Franz Kafka’s dispassionate and seemingly self-centered journal entry on the outbreak of World War I: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon.”
(Brief historical aside: Kafka’s spirit haunts me as I write this book, especially after I learned that Bertha von Suttner’s birthplace, the Kinsky Palace in Prague, was later converted into the grammar school that Kafka attended as a child. It now houses the Franz Kafka Bookshop. See http://www.prague.cz/kinsky-palace/ for more details.)
There’s a vast psychological distance between those two sentences in Kafka’s journal, and yet by now many of us are all too familiar with it, perhaps to the point of feeling overwhelmed and completely powerless in the face of current events. What can one single person do in this place and time to create a better future for our world? For some, the answer is to take to the streets with banners and placards, to spend hours arguing with legislators on the telephone, to post and repost fact-based articles detailing the most demanding issues of the day. For others, the answer is to persist and persevere along our chosen paths. “Stay in your lane,” advised the poet and journalist Ted Genoways, urging fellow writers to do what they do best: write. The benefits may not be realized in the short-term, especially for those of us working on epic-length novels, but we maintain faith in the positive, long-term effects.
In the meantime, we should look to our health as individuals and prepare ourselves for what promises to be a long-term challenge. When has this not been the case? Losing sleep, courting depression, indulging addictions: none of these helps with solutions.
The trend toward aggressive militarism in the United States, for example, didn’t begin with the contested election of Donald Trump, nor did the nation’s long-running struggle with racism and xenophobia. When I began writing this book years ago, these ugly and immoral aspects of American life were already deeply ingrained in our culture. Just compare how a 19th-century female pacifist like Bertha von Suttner would have responded to the wildly popular movie “Wonder Woman” and so many viewers’ claims that here, at last, was a positive role model for young women. To use a modern catch-phrase, “I can’t even.”
Today is the International Day of Peace, one of many symbolic annual events such as Earth Day that neatly package a grand idea into twenty four hours of observation. Many (like me, I’ll admit) will post a banner or meme on their Facebook walls before returning relatively unaffected to our daily work. Some, like the real wonder woman, Nobel Peace prize winner Malala Yousafzi, may continue to act on their beliefs in human goodness and progress, perhaps placing one brick atop another to construct a new and sturdy schoolhouse for young women in a war-ravaged nation. (More likely, Malala will be hunkered down in the library doing her homework after classes at Oxford University, continuing to improve herself even as she works to improve the world.)
Symbolic gestures such as International Peace Day remind us that the work of peace is varied and ongoing. Bertha von Suttner was a firm believer in the power of advertising and propaganda; in fact, these were among the primary goals of the many peace societies she helped to found throughout Europe. Together with other luminaries of the day, she helped craft a pin for society members to wear, something visible to promote the cause in public. “Peace is sought for by Justice,” the emblem read, reminding members of the ideology behind their movement. Today, we carry that idealism forward according to our individual gifts and talents. On days like International Peace Day, it’s worth pausing to consider what our efforts can achieve collectively.
So on this day, remind others that our labors for peace are ongoing and that we must continue to do what we can do. Read a newspaper to stay engaged. Volunteer to help a friend or neighbor in need. Share your hopes for a better world. Purchase a book to stay enlightened. And swim a few laps to stay healthy.
This past weekend, as the 2016 Nobel Prize winners received their awards on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s (actual) death in 1896, the western world continued to grapple with a “post-truth” political landscape that threatens the very foundations of the laureates’ achievements: evidence-based research and discovery. In his introductory remarks, Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, said, “The grim truth is that we can no longer take it for granted that people believe in science, facts, and knowledge.”
In my own explorations into the origins of the peace prize, I’ve been surprised at how often historical “facts” have been twisted and manipulated into false narratives, even in supposedly authoritative, academic texts. Take, for instance, this excerpt from the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s biographical entry on Nobel, which chronicles a bit of “fake news” concerning his (supposed) death in 1888:
The French newspapers reported Ludvig’s death but confused him with (his brother) Alfred, and one paper sported the headline “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). Perhaps Alfred Nobel established the prizes to avoid precisely the sort of posthumous reputation suggested by this premature obituary. (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alfred-Nobel)
I’ve found versions of this story repeated throughout my research, though neither I nor many of the historians who have studied Nobel’s life have been able to document or verify the headline quoted above. I have, however, been able to verify that the false obituary did appear in newspapers around the world, including in The New York Times (see right). In many instances, Nobel biographers draw a direct correlation between the mistaken obituary and his development of the peace prize, despite the fact that eight years (and at least two prior drafts of his last will and testament, neither of which included a peace prize) separate the two events.
Once we have the “merchant of death” story in mind, however, we start looking for other facts and details that support this intriguing (and admittedly entertaining) narrative. This is called confirmation bias: starting with a hypothesis and seeking out evidence that supports it rather than remaining objective and drawing one’s conclusions from the evidence itself. Sadly, we expect to find an abundance of confirmation bias in politics, but it’s doubly distressing to see it infiltrating academic texts. As a false correlation like the one above is referenced and footnoted throughout subsequent works, it becomes harder and harder for us to discern the “fake news” from the facts. Key words such as “perhaps” from the original encyclopedia entry have a way of disappearing in subsequent retellings.
As someone writing a fictionalized account of the origins of the peace prize, I’m tempted by some of the more dramatic and entertaining options available, such as suggestions of a romantic relationship between the two protagonists, Nobel and Bertha von Suttner. Fiction, however, prefers to revel in complexities, not settle for simplistic explanations. By extension, historical fiction insists upon careful research and analysis, with the central narrative(s) supported by both evidence and logic.
This isn’t always possible, especially when theorizing about what drove and distracted major and minor figures in the 19th century. Like a good detective, the historical fiction writer looks for probable cause, not merely plausible cause. The latter may attract a wider readership (by suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter, for example), but it borders on being irresponsible. When you consider that the creators of “fake news” are, in fact, peddling this same sort of fiction, you can begin to appreciate the rising anxiety levels of already anxious writers today.
Fiction posing as fact is not a new phenomenon, nor is the eager gullibility of the general public. Literature may invite us as readers to “suspend our disbelief” when entering imagined worlds of the past, but readers should do so sparingly, and then only temporarily. Above all, we should continue to question and explore the topics that interest us and influence our lives beyond the final pages.
Some might protest that homework ends in adulthood, but that’s hardly true in any civilized society. Many farmers continue to research and practice new ways to improve their crop yields just as doctors constantly research and practice new life-saving procedures. Likewise, our civic duty demands a critical attentiveness to the present-day news and, as a kind of “healthy skepticism,” a steadfast desire to verify the truth of that news. This is the ongoing and absolutely vital kind of education promoted by both Nobel and Suttner throughout their lifetimes. Without it, we remain vulnerable to all manner of future horrors and atrocities, as Suttner herself warned right up until her own death—just days before the violent outbreak of World War I.