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Bertha von Suttner: Mounting doubts about war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Women writers on peace and war

Bertha von Suttner: Education hardens children against natural horror which terrors of war awaken

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Bertha von Suttner
From Lay Down Your Arms
The Autobiography of Martha von Tilling

Translated by T. Holmes

Peace is going to be maintained. My wishes, despite of all theoretical admiration of the battles of the past, were, of course, secretly directed to the preservation of peace, but the wish of my spouse called openly for the other alternative. He did not say anything out plainly, but he always communicated any news about the increase of “the black spot” with sparkling eyes; while, on the contrary, he always took note of such peaceful prospects as occurred now and then (but, alas! they became always rarer) with a kind of dejection….

The humane point of view, viz., that whether lost or won every battle demands innumerable sacrifices of blood and tears, was quite left out of sight. The interests which were here in question were represented as raised to such a height above any private destiny, that I felt ashamed of the meanness of my way of thinking, if at times the thought occurred to me: “Ah! what joy do the poor slain men, the poor cripples, the poor widows, get out of the victory?”

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“It means that the last word of the diplomatic formalities, the one which precedes the declaration of war, has been spoken. Our ultimatum to Sardinia calls on Sardinia to disarm. She, of course, will take no notice of it, and we march across the frontier.”

“Good God! But perhaps they may disarm?”

“Well, then, the quarrel would be at an end, and peace would continue.”

I fell on my knees. I could not help it. Silently, but still as earnestly as if with a cry, there rose the prayer from my soul to heaven for “Peace! peace!”

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“Battlefields”- it is surprising how this word suddenly presented itself to my mind in two radically different meanings. Partly in the accustomed historical signification, so pathetic, and so calculated to awake the highest admiration; partly in the loathsomeness of the bloody, brutal syllable “fight”. Yes, those poor men who were being hurried out had to lie stricken down on the field, with their gaping, bleeding wounds, and among them perhaps – and a loud shriek escaped me as the thought passed through my mind.

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Yes, during the whole time my lord was absent, I determined to beg so earnestly for the protection of Heaven, that it should turn aside every bullet in the volley from Arno. Turn them aside! Whither? To the breast of another, for whom, nevertheless, prayers were also being made?…And, besides, what had been demonstrated to me in my course of physics about the accurately computable and infallible effects of matter and its motion?…What, another doubt? Away with it.

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Since from Herodotus and Tacitus, down to the historians of modern times, wars have always been represented as the events of most importance and of weightiest consequence, I concluded that at the present time also a war of this sort would pass with future historians as an event to serve for the title of a chapter.

This elevated tone, overpowering in its impressiveness, was that which prevailed everywhere else. Nothing else was spoken of in rooms or streets, nothing else read in the newspapers, nothing else prayed about in the churches. Wherever one went one found everywhere the same excited faces, the same eager talk about the possibilities of the war. Everything else which engaged the people’s interest at other times – the theatre, business, art – was now looked on as perfectly insignificant. It seemed to one as if it were not right to think of anything else whilst the opening scene in this great drama of the destiny of the world was being played out. And the different orders to the army with the well-known phrases of the certainty of victory and promise of glory; and the troops marching out with clanging music and waving banners; and the leading articles and public speeches conceived in the most glowing tone of loyalty and patriotism; the eternal appeal to virtue, honour, duty, courage, self-sacrifice; the assurances made on both sides that their nation was known to be the most invincible, most courageous, most certainly destined to a higher extension of power, the best and the noblest….

Such bad qualities, however, as these – lust of conquest, love of fighting, hatred, cruelty, guile, were also certainly to be found, and were admitted to be shown in war, but always by “the enemy”. To him, his being in the wrong was quite clear. Quite apart from the political necessity of the campaign just commenced, apart also from the patriotic advantages which undoubtedly grew out of it, the conquest over one’s adversary was a moral work, a discipline carried out by the genius of culture.

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The first time that I read the names of the slain – and I had been four days without news – and saw that the name of Arno Dotzky was not among them, I folded my hands and cried aloud: “My God, I thank Thee!” But the words were hardly out of my mouth when it seemed to me like a shrill discord. I took the paper in my hand again and looked at the list of names once more. So I thank God because Adolf Schmidt and Carl Müller and many others were slain, but not Arno Dotzky. Then the same thanksgiving would have been appropriate if it had risen to heaven from the hearts of those who trembled for Schmidt and Müller, if they had read “Dotzky” instead of those names. And why should my thanks in particular be more pleasing to Heaven than theirs? Yes, this was the shrill discord of my ejaculation, the presumption and the self-seeking which lay in it, in believing that Arno had been spared in love for me, and thanking God that not I but Schmidt’s mother and Müller’s affianced and fifty others had to burst out in tears over that list.

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