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Bertha von Suttner: Outgrowing the old idolatry for war

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

Women writers on peace and war

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

Translated by T. Holmes

I had soon exhausted the provision of historical works to be found in our library. I begged our bookseller to send me some new historical work to look at. He sent Thomas Buckle’s History of Civilisation in England….

It is not till now that, after fifteen or twenty years I have read the book again and have studied other works conceived in the same spirit, I may, perhaps, take it on myself to say that I understand it. One thing, however, was clear to me even then: that the history of mankind was not decided by, as the old theory taught, kings and statesmen, nor by the wars and treaties that were created by the greed of the former or the cunning of the latter, but by the gradual development of the intellect. The chronicles of courts and battles which are strung together in the history books represent isolated phenomena of the condition of culture at those epochs, not the causes which produce those conditions. Of the old-fashioned admiration with which other historical writers are accustomed to relate the lives of mighty conquerors and devastators of countries I could find absolutely nothing in Buckle. On the contrary, he brings proof that the estimation in which the warrior class is held is in inverse ratio to the height of culture which the nation has reached; the lower you go in the barbaric past, the more frequent are the wars of the time, the narrower the limits of peace, province against province, city against city, family against family. He lays stress on the fact that, as society progresses, not only war itself, but the love of war will be found to diminish. That word spoke to my innermost heart. Even in my short spiritual experience this diminution had been going on, and though I had often repressed this movement as something cowardly or unworthy, believing that I alone was the cause of such a fault within me, now, on the contrary, I perceived that this feeling in me was only the faint echo of the spirit of the age, that learned men and thinkers, like this English historian, and innumerable men along with him, had lost the old idolatry for war, which, just as it had been a phase of my childhood, was represented in this book as being also a phase of the childhood of society.

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“So on what grounds should I abandon my way of life?”

“Because killing people is repulsive to you.”

“If it is a question of defending one’s life against another man attacking it, one’s personal responsibility for causing death ceases. War is often, and justly, styled murder on a large scale; still, no individual feels himself to be a murderer. However, that fighting is repulsive to me, that the sad entry on to a field of battle causes me pain and disgust, that is true enough. I suffer from it, suffer intensely, but so must many a seaman suffer during a storm from sea-sickness; still, if he is anything of a brave man, he holds out on deck, and always, if needs must, ventures to sea again.”

“Yes, if needs must. But must there then be war?”

“That is a different question….”

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“The best thing, my dear Tilling, to give you a shake up,” said my father, “would, I am certain, be a jolly rattling war, but unluckily there is no prospect of that before us. The peace threatens to last as long as one can see.”

“Well,” I could not help remarking, “that is an extraordinary collocation of words, ‘war’ and ‘jolly,’ ‘peace’ and ‘threatening’.”

“To be sure,” assented the Minister, “the political horizon at the moment does not show any black point, still storm-clouds sometimes rise quite unexpectedly all of a sudden, and the chance can never be excluded that a difference – even unimportant in itself – may cause the outbreak of war. I say that for your comfort, colonel. As for myself, since I, in virtue of my office, have to manage the home affairs of the country, my wishes must, to be sure, be directed exclusively to the maintenance of peace as long as possible – for it is this alone which is naturally adapted to further the interests lying in my domain. Still this does not prevent me from taking note of the just desires of those who from a military point of view are, to be sure -“

“Permit me, your excellence,” interrupted Tilling, “as far as I am myself concerned, to protest against the assumption that I wish for a war, and also to protest against the underlying principle that the military point of view ought to be different from the human. We exist in order to protect the country should an enemy threaten it, just as a fire engine exists in order to put out a fire if it breaks out, but that gives the soldier no right to desire war any more than a fireman to wish for a fire. Both involve misfortune – heavy misfortune – and no one, as a man, ought to rejoice over the misfortunes of his fellow-men.”

“You good, you dear man,” I said, in silence, to the speaker.

The latter continued: –

“I am quite aware that the opportunity for personal distinction comes to the one only from conflagrations and to the other only from campaigns; but how poor of heart and narrow of mind must a man be before his selfish interests can seem to him so gigantic as to blot out the sight of the universal misery! Peace is the greatest blessing, or rather the absence of the greatest curse. It is, as you said yourself, the only condition in which the interests of the population can be furthered, and yet you would give to a large fragment of this population, the army, the right to wish for the cessation of the condition of growth and to long for that of destruction? To nourish this ‘just’ wish till it grows into a demand, and then, perhaps, obtains its fulfilment? To make war that the army may anyhow be occupied and satisfied is just as if we set fire to houses that the fire brigade may distinguish itself and earn renown.”

“Your comparison, dear colonel, is a lame one,” replied my father, giving Tilling, contrary to his habit, his military title, perhaps to remind him that his opinions were not consistent with his calling. “Conflagrations do nothing but damage, while wars may get power and greatness for the country. How else have states been formed and extended except by victorious campaigns? Personal ambition is surely not the only thing that makes soldiers delight in war. It is above all things, pride in one’s race, in one’s country, that finds its dearest nourishment there – in a word, patriotism.”

“Especially love of home?” replied Tilling. “I do not really understand why it is we soldiers in particular who make as if we had a monopoly of this feeling, which is natural to the majority of mankind. Every one loves the soil on which he grows up; every one wishes the elevation and the good of his own countrymen. But happiness and renown are to be reached by quite other means than war; pride can be excited by quite other exploits than deeds of arms. I, for instance, am much prouder of Anastatius Grün than of any of our field-marshals.”

“Well, but can anybody even compare a poet with a commander?” cried my father.

“That is my question too. The bloodless laurel is by far the more lovely.”

“But, my dear baron,” said my aunt at this point, “I have never heard a soldier speak so. What becomes, then, of the ardour of battle, of the warlike fire?”

“Dear lady, those are feelings not at all unknown to me. It was by them that I was animated when as a youngster of nineteen I took the field for the first time. But when I had seen the realities of butchery, when I had been a witness of the bestialities which are connected with it, my enthusiasm evaporated, and I went into my subsequent battles, not with pleasure, but with resignation.”

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