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Bertha von Suttner and the German Peace Society – a long standing relationsship which is still alive

Contribution by Guido Grünewald to the seminar „Friends of Bertha“ on occasion of the celebrations of the 175th birth day of Bertha von Suttner in Den Haag 8-9 June 2018

The German Peace Society-United War Resisters (DFG-VK = Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft-Vereinigte KriegsdienstgegnerInnen) was formed in 1974 when three pacifist organisations merged. The oldest of these organisations is the German Peace Society (DFG = Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft). It’s foundation in November 1892 was due to an initiative of Bertha von Suttner who gave a lecture in March 1892 in Berlin and afterwards persistently pushed Alfred Hermann Fried – who was living in Berlin at that time – to work on the foundation of a German peace organisation despite all obstacles; liberal politicians who had been approached reacted with reserve for example. For Bertha von Suttner it was a small triumph that the foundation of the DFG was successful in Berlin, the “citadel of militarism”, as she called the city.
Until her death Bertha von Suttner remained a shining example for many members of the DFG. They admired her for evoking morality and appealing to emotions in order to arouse abhorrence to war which she called a crime in her speeches and writings. At the same time many members of the DFG read Bertha von Suttner’s “Randglossen zur Zeitgeschichte” (marginal notes to contemporary history) which she wrote from 1892-1899 and from 1906-1914 in the monthly journals “Die Waffen nieder!” (lay down your arms) and “Die Friedens-Warte” both of which were published by Fried. In her commentaries Suttner astutely analysed developments in the society and in international politics and warned shrewdly of the consequences of a great war (the later WWI) for the European societies and the international system. For Bertha von Suttner was not only a tireless agitator and admonisher but also an excellent journalist of high competence and with an alert antenna for current events.
In the 1920s parts of the German peace movement distanced themselves from Bertha von Suttner.  In 1924 for example Carl von Ossietzky accused her of lamentation and unworldliness and labelled her as priestess of the sentiment reducing Suttner to the role of a moral denouncer. Since 1945 Bertha von Suttner is again in high esteem within the DFG as this is the case for today’s DFG-VK.
As time is short just some remarks why Bertha von Suttner is still relevant for activists in the DFG-VK:
We appreciate the tireless agitator who issued vivid warnings of the horrors of war by using explicit and unambiguous expressions like “work of murder” or “ordered mass crimes”. Also today it’s important to charge morally those who prepare wars, build-up arms, produce murder weapons or sell them. The DFG-VK does this with activities against the arms trade currently.
We value the political journalist for her often shrewd analyses and commentaries. Also today it’s one of the responsibilities of pacifists to observe and comment current events with high competence, to try to deescalate conflicts and to point to non-military alternatives.
There are quite a few insights and aims which were formulated already by Bertha von Suttner and are still on our agenda:

  • Global problems like climate change or the legal and political containment of digitalisation can’t be solved on a national level but only by international cooperation.
  • Peace based on armaments and military alliances is not durable. A durable peace requires an international system based on international law. Then we wouldn’t have any longer the unacceptable situation as today where often governments or even single rulers decide about war or peace.
  • Bertha von Suttner pushed time and again to escape the spiral of violence. During her lifetime there were only few non-military means of conflict resolution. Today the toolbox for civilian unarmed crisis prevention and conflict transformation is well-stocked. It is our task to make this known and to campaign for using these instruments as well as for sufficient funding.
  • Peace is not an issue of class or gender but a problem of humanity (as Gorbachev called it later). What is needed is a broad cooperation of many. Suttner trusted in the peace skills and the vigour of the individual. The right to live was inviolable for her with the exception of national self-defense. We share these views but in contrast to Suttner we regard conscientious objection as a valuable means of action against war preparation.  

Education and upbringing were keys to peace for Bertha von Suttner. There is no time for me to elaborate that further. It’s a core task of the Bertha-von-Suttner foundation of the DFG-VK  (founded in 1993) to foster a culture of peace and to promote a capacity to think from the perspective of peace. Topics of meetings promoted during the last years were for example “Commemorative Culture in the Ukraine and in Germany”, “Demilitarisation of the Lower Rhine Area”, “Civilian Solutions for Syria” or “The Future of Political Pacifism”. In planning is a competition of schools which bear the name of Bertha von Suttner and are requested to launch a major project dealing with Suttner’s life and work.
We should be careful not to iconize Bertha von Suttner despite her great personality and all her merits. Heroes usually remain distanced from ordinary people. Becoming human with their failings they get much closer to the public. Together with Alfred Hermann Fried Bertha von Suttner stands for the beginning of the German Peace Society. An end for her impact is not in sight.

Dr. Guido Grünewald is the international speaker of DFG-VK and peace historian

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