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.

A “Magnificent Blunder”

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Nobel’s writing desk at the Swedish Club in Paris, where he composed his final will in 1896

When he died in 1896, Alfred Nobel was one of the richest men in the world. People responded with both kudos and criticism when they learned that he had assigned much of his fortune to the establishment of various prizes. Hjalmar Branting, an emerging political leader in Sweden and editor of a Stockholm newspaper, praised the “magnificent intentions” of Nobel’s will but followed up his assessment with the headline “Magnificent Blunder.”

In his analysis, Branting attacked Nobel’s will on philosophical grounds, arguing that “the only road (to peace) is through a merger of the working masses in all countries.” In other words, peace was a goal for common and democratic endeavor, not something to be determined in autocratic fashion by a millionaire. Branting concluded his lengthy critique by saying, “A millionaire might personally be worthy of esteem, but it is better to avoid both the millions and the donations.”

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Hjalmar Branting, the “father” of Sweden’s social democracy

Even so, what else was Nobel to do with his fortune? A bachelor throughout his entire life, he had no sons or daughters of his own. His brothers (and, by extension, their families) had already filled their own coffers to overflowing as leaders in Europe’s growing oil industry. Despite their financial security, they launched one legal battle after another in the courts of several countries, eager (along with the tax collectors) to grab up their share of Nobel’s lingering millions.

In her memoirs, Bertha von Suttner wrote that Nobel felt it was “improper for rich men to leave their property to their relatives,” insisting that “he regarded great inheritances as a misfortune, for they have a paralyzing effect.” Branting would have agreed, arguing that fortunes passed down among family members could lead to a lazy class of men and women who had neither the need nor the motivation to work toward the common good. According to Suttner, Nobel believed that “great accumulations of property should go back to the community and common purposes,” toward “the renewed enrichment of the world.”

Even today, some of the wealthiest individuals in the world pick and choose their charities, endowing a favored few while leaving others to struggle. The so-called “billionaire class” may pick up the slack when and where governments falter, but they risk enabling and prolonging political weakness in the process, compromising the ideal role of government in general. As the “father” of social democracy in Sweden, Branting worked to empower the common, working-class citizen, favoring a “grass-roots” approach to politics over the growing influence of industrial (i.e. corporate) concerns. This may have put him at odds with Nobel’s intentions, but blunder or not, both men had their beliefs validated: The Nobel prizes were finally instituted in 1901, and Branting’s idealism and  achievements would earn him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1921.

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Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament

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.