The Clinton Connection

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The Kurhaus Hotel in The Hague shortly after the First International Peace Conference. Hillary Clinton chose to stay here while visiting The Hague because she was a great admirer of Bertha von Suttner, who held many influential salons in the hotel. 

During a visit to The Hague in the Netherlands last June, my husband and I spent several nights at the beautiful seaside Kurhaus Hotel. There, during the late spring and early summer of 1899, Bertha von Suttner and her husband Artur had hosted frequent salons, to which they invited delegates and guests attending the International Peace Conference taking place in the city. Over a century later, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted on staying at the Kurhaus during a spring-time conference related to the situation in Afghanistan. According to Steven van Hoogstraten, a former director of the Carnegie Foundation, Clinton chose the hotel because she was a “great admirer” of Bertha von Suttner. Clearly, the secretary felt a strong connection to the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner and wished, however symbolically, to follow in her footsteps. One question, however, haunted us after our stay: would the appreciation have been mutual?

Because she was a woman, Bertha was not allowed to take part in the official proceedings of the First Hague Peace Conference.* Even so, having secured funding as a freelance journalist, she traveled to the Hague with high hopes for the event. On the opening day, she wrote in her private journal, “This is the first time since history began to be written that the representatives of the governments have come together to find a means for ‘securing a permanent, genuine peace’ for the world.”

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State representatives–men only–from many nations gathered at the First International Peace Conference in The Hague.

For Bertha, this meant substantive actions toward global disarmament and the formation of an international court of arbitration. Since she couldn’t participate directly in the conference’s daily discussions, she organized many end-of-day activities as a way of gathering information and, whenever possible, negotiating strongly in favor of reducing weapons production and decreasing military fortification throughout the world. Sadly, despite some small successes and concessions related to arbitration, the conference ultimately failed to live up to her expectations.

Like Bertha before her, Clinton held private meetings and small salons at the Kurhaus as part of her diplomatic mission. Unlike Bertha and her fellow pacifists, however, Clinton’s responses to international conflict often called for militaristic solutions and a substantial build-up of the weapons of war. During her tenure at the State Department, the administration negotiated a substantially larger number of arms sales than the Bush/Cheney administration had during its previous term.** Gun control, a controversial issue within the United States, obviously remains problematic on the international front as well. As such, Secretary of State Clinton’s approach to security and conflict resolution stood sharply at odds with Suttner’s core beliefs about disarmament.

Perhaps Clinton’s appreciation of Bertha related more to their roles as powerful women in traditionally male-dominated environments, and yet one would hope that the admiration didn’t stop short at gender identification. While Bertha applauded and supported various women’s issues of the day, such as suffrage and access to education, she placed the moral imperative of pacifism ahead of them and prioritized her efforts accordingly. In fact, she spent a great deal of energy trying to keep the philosophy of pacifism free from any simplistic male/female dichotomy. She was well aware that women could be just as militaristic as men. By the same logic, a man’s allegiance to the peace movement didn’t require or result in any sort of “feminization.”

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Today, a bust of Bertha von Suttner greets visitors in the main lobby of the Peace Palace in The Hague.

During her lifetime, Bertha’s dreams of disarmament and a “permanent, genuine” world peace would remain just that: distant dreams. Her pacifism was frequently mocked as idealistic, impractical, and unpatriotic. Criticism came from all quarters, causing her to respond, “The moral element has to penetrate all questions of politics. Only then can we win. … We must not become ‘practical politicians.’” (Letter to Alfred Fried, March 23, 1898)

With all this in mind, it’s easy to imagine that a meeting between Suttner and Clinton might have turned cool despite whatever high regard one held for the other. Bertha had already experienced firsthand the dismissive attitude of another female leader, Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands, who, despite hosting the Peace Conference at her palace in The Hague, remained opposed to the pacifist agenda. Bertha described their encounter this way: “The young Queen, graciously smiling, asks me, just as she probably asks most of the others, if this is the first time I have ever visited The Hague and how I like it. I include in my reply my observation that my sojourn in Holland is made particularly happy by the greatness of the cause that brought me there. The gracious little sovereign nods at that but says nothing.”

NOTES:

* It’s worth pointing out that many international peace gatherings preceded The Hague Peace Conference, which was a “first” in that it brought together state representatives from foreign governments rather than members of the various peace congresses throughout the world. Women played a strong and active role in these congresses. In fact, Bertha was both founder and president of the Austrian peace society and served as vice-president of the international association that organized nearly-annual gatherings throughout Europe and the United States.

** For more details about these weapons sales agreements and links to State Department records, see this article in the International Business Times.

Paris is Burning (Again)

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Artist’s rendering of Paris during the Communard uprising of 1871

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been immersed in thought about Paris, not only because of the recent terrorist attacks, but also because I’ve been considering the effects of terrorist attacks from over a century ago as they relate to the themes of militarism, idealism, and pacifism in my novel Peace at Last.

First, some historical background: In 1871, the Prussians defeated France after bombarding and laying siege to the city of Paris for several months. Shortly after France was allowed to establish a provisional government, radical members of the upstart Paris Commune challenged the new republic, setting fires throughout the city and destroying major landmarks such as the buildings of Les Tuileries with explosives. (Today, the area is a beautiful public garden.) Harsh reprisals against the Communards continued even after the initial uprising was quelled. In the years that followed, the citizens of Paris rebuilt their city from the ashes and welcomed new and well-to-do residents such as Alfred Nobel. When Countess Bertha Kinsky (later von Suttner) arrived from Vienna to become his secretary, however, Les Tuileries remained in ruins along the Seine, a grim yet intentional reminder of what Victor Hugo had called “L’Année Terrible.”

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Alfred Nobel’s house on Rue Malakoff in Paris (now Avenue Raymond-Poincaré)

In the mid-1870s, having returned from exile abroad to the city he loved, Hugo remained at odds with many of his fellow Frenchmen. The world-renowned author argued that reason and compassion should prevail despite the anger and calls for revenge resulting from the violence. Rumors circulated of police-run torture cells in the sewer systems beneath the streets, raids and round-ups of suspects and firing lines beside massive graves dug out of sight and earshot in the countryside. Angry mobs gathered on Hugo’s doorstep and accused him of being a terrorist sympathizer, and when the aging writer requested protection, the Parisian police turned a blind eye and a deaf ear.

 

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Victor Hugo during his later years in Paris

Alfred Nobel first met Victor Hugo in this harsh and judgmental climate and, one might easily assume, found the literary lion to be something of a soul-mate, a successful man who was nonetheless vilified by parts of society for his idealistic views on mankind. (It was not lost on the public that Nobel’s latest invention, dynamite, had laid waste to so many city landmarks during the Communard uprising.) In his opening address to the Paris Peace Congress of 1849, Hugo had proclaimed, “A day will come when there will be no battlefields, but markets opening to commerce and minds opening to ideas.” Such a philosophy would have resonated loudly with Nobel, who was already well on his way to becoming the wealthiest man in all of Europe. Over time, Nobel became a good friend of Hugo and dined often at his house nearby. Together, the two men also frequented a number of Paris’s most popular, celebrity-filled salons.

 

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Juliette Adam: author, editor, and “instigator” of one of Paris’s most famous salons

Sadly, Victor Hugo died two years before Bertha returned to visit Nobel in Paris, this time accompanied by her husband, Artur Gundaccar von Suttner. Though a decade had passed, demands for revanche (revenge) against the Prussians still reverberated throughout some of the salons, particularly that of Juliette Adam, the founder and editor of France’s Nouvelle Revue. “What an outpouring of amateur political opinion there was!” Bertha remarked in her memoirs.” Even here, amid this artistic and social gaiety, the dark word ‘war’ buzzed through the room. … How can a woman ever busy herself so much with politics?”

 

Debates about war in one salon gave way to discussions of peace in another, however, and these sparked Bertha’s curiosity and imagination. Over the course of the next two years, she nurtured her own philosophical ideas about pacifism and disarmament while crafting her best-selling novel, Die Waffen Nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!), a direct response (and, she hoped, preemptory warning) to the calls for violence and revenge overheard in Paris. In salons, meetings, and congresses across Europe, a new peace movement grew up around her, one that challenged traditional notions of conflict and conquest. With Nobel’s support, she worked tirelessly to realize Hugo’s vision of open minds and open markets—and to banish the terrifying and seemingly relentless specter of war that threatened both.

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Les Tuileries after dynamite explosions destroyed the central dome

The Red Cross Controversy

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Jean Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross and first Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient

Disputes often erupt around the announcement of Nobel Peace Prize winner, and this was true from the very beginning. Many peace activists assumed that the first recipient would be Bertha von Suttner in the firm belief that Alfred Nobel had created the prize with her in mind all along. Instead, the first prize, awarded in 1901, was split between the French economist Frédéric Passy and Henri Dunant, the Swiss-born founder of the Red Cross.

Of the two, Dunant was the more controversial. Though Suttner and others admired the Red Cross for its humanitarian work and philosophy, they worried that treating wounded soldiers and sending them back into battle (as opposed to sending them home to heal fully from their wounds) only led to greater injury and prolonged periods of warfare. They argued that Nobel had intended the Peace Prize to help deter and end armed conflict, not to facilitate its continuance.

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Handwritten draft of Dunant’s “Un Souvenir du Solferino”

Suttner and Dunant were no strangers to one another. In fact, Suttner likely relied quite heavily on Dunant’s firsthand account of the 1859 Franco-Austrian war, A Memory of Solferino, to write some of the more graphic descriptions of battle in her own bestseller, Lay Down Your Arms! The battle of Solferino, during which Dunant recruited civilians to help tend to the wounded, inspired him to establish the Red Cross. His thoughts and ideas would later provide the foundation for the first Geneva Convention.

After receiving his award, Dunant wrote to Suttner, “This prize, gracious lady, is your work, for through your instrumentality, Mr. Nobel became devoted to the peace movement, and at your suggestion, he became its promoter.” Four more years would pass before the Norwegian Storting, the governing body charged with deciding amongst the nominees, awarded Bertha von Suttner her own long-awaited Nobel Peace Prize.

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An artist’s depiction of Henri Dunant tending to the wounded in the aftermath of the battle at Solferino

Continuous Education

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Portrait of Bertha von Suttner (1894) by Adrienne Gräfin Potting. The painting now hangs at Schloss Harmannsdorf, once Bertha’s home in Austria.

In 1912, Bertha von Suttner addressed the National Education Association of the United States of America and declared, “It seems to me that education must be continuous, and that the greatest educators are life and experience.” As she well knew at the time, life and experience were often the only two avenues for learning available to women, who were still barred from pursuing a more formal education in many countries.

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“Martha’s Tagebuch,” published in 1897, was adapted from Suttner’s novel “Lay Down Your Arms” and became “the first work of German pacifist children’s literature” (Roderick McGillis, 2003).

As part of her efforts to spread the message of peace from her landmark best-seller, Lay Down Your Arms!: The Autobiography of Martha von Tilling, Bertha worked with her close friend and fellow writer Hedwig Gräfin Potting (whom she jokingly referred to as “Hex,” from the German word for “witch”) to create and publish a version of the book that might appeal to younger audiences and help educate them about the horrific costs of war. Based on the life and experiences of the original novel’s central character, Martha’s Tagebuch (Martha’s Diary) features several illustrations by Hedwig’s sister Adrienne, who years earlier had painted a youthful portrait of the world-famous author.

With the gracious help of my friend Patty Paige-Pfennig in Wiesbaden, I’ve been fortunate to obtain a first edition of the book, one that had been tucked away in an old barn in Germany. Even though Bertha was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, her resounding calls for peace and disarmament were regarded as a serious threat to the militaristic leaders of her day. Many of Bertha’s published works and personal effects were destroyed by the Nazis and other fascist groups in the decades between World Wars I and II, so the book is a rare find indeed.

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The fictional Martha von Tilling, based in large part on Bertha von Suttner herself, writes in her journal. Illustration from “Martha’s Tagebuch” by Hedwig Gräfin Potting.

Writing a historical novel involves following a number of paths and tangents, some of which can result in an author’s falling “down the rabbit hole” and losing track of the original story and its themes. In this instance, however, I’m thankful to have discovered an important secondary character for the book in Hedwig “Hex” Potting, especially as Hex was one the very first people to learn that Bertha had finally been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. I look forward to sharing more stories of the lives and experiences of such engaging characters as I continue to follow in the footsteps of Bertha von Suttner and Alfred Nobel.

Building Momentum

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After a successful research trip to Europe that included a talk on Bertha von Suttner at the Peace Palace in The Hague (see photo above), I’m excited to share some other good news related to Peace at Last.

For starters, I’ve been awarded a generous grant from the Vermont Arts Council to develop stand-alone excerpts from the novel. The first of these, entitled “Koppargruva,” will be published by the literary journal Ploughshares as part of their “Solos” series in the 2016-17 season. This chapter builds upon some new and intriguing research about Alfred Nobel’s trip to the United States in 1866, shortly after the end of Civil War. The second excerpt, entitled “Le Trac” (a French term for stagefright), will follow Bertha’s frustrated attempts at a singing career during her stay in Paris in the years just prior to the Franco-Prussian War. I am grateful to the Vermont Studio Center for providing me with a scholarship to work on developing and editing these sections during an upcoming, month-long residency.

With news of the project’s increasing momentum, I look forward to updating this blog more regularly and posting more photographs from research trips, especially those that relate to key scenes in the novel. In the meantime, the manuscript continues to grow, revealing new insights into both Alfred and Bertha on an almost daily basis. I look forward to sharing some of these discoveries here in the weeks and months ahead!