Over a century ago, Bertha von Suttner was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for her audacity to oppose the horrors of war”. As one of the most vocal and inspiring representatives of the anti-war and pacifist movement, her ideas have laid the groundwork for contemporary world federalist thought.
This article has been originally published on Medium.
I personally have learned about Bertha von Suttner at the very beginning of my involvement with world federalism, when I began reaching out to local pacifist organizations in hope of support. Her main literary work, Die Waffen nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!), had been on my reading list for quite some time, after having been recommended multiple times. When I finally did get around to reading the novel, I was impressed: both by the detail and plausibility of her argument for peace, and by the familiarity in the proposed solution to the problem of war.
Lay Down Your Arms! tells the story of Martha, a young woman born into 19th century Austrian nobility. Over the course of her life, she loses her first husband in battle, her family due to an epidemic brought about by troop movements and unsanitary conditions in the military, and her second husband because his activism for peace was regarded as espionage. The story highlights the arguments in defence of war — it is necessary, inevitable, character-building, beneficial, self-defence, honourable, God-given — and contrasts it not only with the horror and futility of the reality of war, but also with the naive, insufficient, and contradictory justifications that these arguments for war are necessarily based on.
Bertha von Suttner urges us to reconsider the perspective that we have become accustomed to and that we have been taught at all ages: that war, rather than peace, is the natural state of the world.
But if ever, at the sight of a great evil, the doubtful question has forced itself on one’s heart, “Must this be so?” then the heart can no longer remain cold; and, besides pity, a kind of repentance springs up. Not a personal repentance indeed, but how shall I express it?, a protest against the prevailing conscience of society.
She draws attention to the hypocrisy that centuries of war have made us internalize: in times of war, “murder does not count as murder anymore, robbery is not robbery, but requisition, burning villages are no fire catastrophe but rather ‘captured positions’”. With this sentiment she joins the ranks of thinkers like Kurt Tucholsky, Voltaire, Saint Cyprian, Rosa Luxemburg, and Heinrich Heine. Peace is a human right that one must be able to demand in a global court of law.
But Bertha von Suttner didn't only criticize, she also offered alternative solutions to international conflicts. In her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, she outlined the three components necessary for her campaign for peace:
A peace union between nations
An international body with strength to maintain law between nations, as between the States of North America, and through which the need for recourse to war may be abolished
Here, the overlap between pacifist and world federalist movements becomes most obvious. World federation — a federal union between nations with the means to create, interpret, and enforce global laws — is an essential part of the struggle for a peaceful world.
Also in Die Waffen nieder!, the protagonist Martha raises the topic of a court of arbitration and a union of states. She highlights the hypocrisy of having two sets of rules — one between citizens, and one between nations.
It is, however, to be wished that in the behaviour of communities the same elevated civilisation should be reached, as has banished from the behaviour of individuals the rough self-worship, resting on fist-law, and that the view should prevail more and more that one’s own interests are really most effectually furthered by avoiding damage to those of foreigners, or rather in union with the latter.
She stresses that law must be respected and enforced not only in times of peace and between individuals, but also between peoples and countries. Conflicts should be resolved by a neutral third party, operating on the principles of globally binding laws.
When disagreements begin, an arbitration tribunal — not force — is to decide.
Arbitration courts with global jurisdiction and a federal union of states are traditional focal points of world federalists. One of the successes of the World Federalist Movement was the push for the establishment of the International Criminal Court. The court has the authority to persecute individuals for four recognized international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. There is a campaign to add ecocide as a fifth international crime to this list. The court’s effectiveness, however, still rests on the recognition by individual national governments. World federalists are only too familiar with the counter-arguments to these solutions, that Bertha von Suttner brought up already in her 1889 book.
The sovereign states would never betake themselves to such a tribunal, nor would the peoples.
Indeed, suggesting that international conflicts could be resolved peacefully through binding and enforceable court decisions meets similar resistance today.
Replying to the assertion that sovereign states and people would not submit to a supranational court of arbitration, Bertha von Suttner draws our attention to the distinction between governments and peoples. While governments further national interests first and foremost, people on the other hand have a personal interest in a safe and peaceful life. Furthermore, national governments cannot ensure peace, since matters of war and peace are not entirely under national control — they are a matter of inter-national and global relationships.
The peoples? The potentates and diplomatists would not, but the people? Just inquire, and you will find that the wish for peace is warm and true in the people, while the peaceful assurances which proceed from the governments are frequently lies, hypocritical lies or at least are regarded as such on principle by other governments.
Assuming then that the citizens of a country would be opposed to sharing sovereignty, is misrepresenting human needs for national gain, and is doing a disservice to the rights to life and dignity that every human being has.
Pacifists have traditionally understood their mission as a call to non-violence and resistance against concrete acts of war. They see themselves as fighters against war and emphasize the personal commitment that every pacifist needs to make.
I enter the service of the peace army. A very small army indeed, it is true, and one whose combatants have no other shield or sword than the sentiment of justice and the love of humanity. Still, everything which has ultimately become great has started from small or invisible beginnings.