Home > Uncategorized > Bertha von Suttner: War’s sophistry. At last the monster creeps out.

Bertha von Suttner: War’s sophistry. At last the monster creeps out.


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

Women writers on peace and war

Bertha von Suttner: Selections on peace and war


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

Translated by T. Holmes

“Treaty,” the word sounds so promising of peace. It was not till afterwards that I learned that international treaties very often only serve, by means of opportune violations of them, to introduce what is called a casus belli. Then it is only necessary for one party to charge the other with “a breach of treaty,” and immediately the swords spring out of their sheaths with all the appearance of a defence of violated rights.


“Martha is frightened,” said Aunt Mary, who was present at this conversation, “of exposing her only son to danger, but she forgets that if one is destined to die, that fate will overtake one in one’s bed as surely as in battle – “

“Then, suppose 100,000 men to have fallen in a war, they would all have been killed in peace, too?”

Aunt Mary was not at a loss for an answer. “It was the destiny of these 100,000 to die in war.”

“But if men had the sense not to begin any war,” I suggested.

“Oh! but that is an impossibility,” cried my father, and then the conversation turned again into a controversy such as my father and I used often to wage, and always on the same lines. On the one side, the same assertions and principles; on the other, the same counter assertions and opposite principles. There is nothing to which the fable of the hydra is so applicable as to some standing difference of opinion. No sooner have you cut one head off the argument, and settled yourself to send the second the same way, when, lo! the first has grown again. Thus my father had one or two favourite positions in favour of war which nothing could uproot: –

  1. Wars are ordained by God Himself – the Lord of Hosts – see the Holy Scriptures.
  2. There have always been wars, and consequently there always will be wars.
  3. Mankind, without this occasional decimation, would increase at too great a rate.
  4. Continual peace relaxes, effeminates, produces – like stagnant water – corruption; especially the degeneration of morals.
  5. Wars are the best means for putting in practice self-sacrifice, heroism – in short, the firmer elements of the character.
  6. Men will always contend. Perfect agreement in all their views is impossible; divergent interests must be always impinging on each other, consequently everlasting peace is a contradiction in terms.

None of these positions – in particular none of the “consequentlies” contained in them – could be kept standing if stoutly attacked. But each of them served the defender as a bulwark, if compelled to let another of them fall, and while the new bulwark was being reduced to ruins he had been setting the old one up again. For example, if the champion of war, driven into a corner, has to confess that peace is more worthy of humanity, more rich in blessing, more favourable to culture, than war, he says: “Oh, yes; war is an evil, but it is inevitable”; and then follow Nos. 1 and 2. Then if one shows that it could be avoided and how – by alliances of states, arbitration courts and so forth – then comes the reply: “Oh, yes; war could be avoided, but it ought not”; and then come in Nos. 4 and 5. Then if the advocate of peace upsets these objections, and goes on to prove that on the contrary “war hardens men and dehumanises them”. “Oh, yes; I allow that, but – ” No. 3. This argument, too, is overthrown, for it is admitted that Nature herself will see that “the trees do not grow up to the sky,” and wants no assistance from man to that end. This, again, turns out not to be the result which the possessor of force has in view in making war. Granted, but No. 1. And so there is no end to the debate. The advocate of war is always in the right; his reasoning moves in a circle, where you may always follow, but can never catch him. “War is a horrible evil, but it must exist. I grant it is not a necessity, but it is a great good.” This want of consecutiveness, of logical honesty, all those people incur who defend a cause on principles which are not axiomatic, or else with no principles, merely from instinct, and to that end will make use of all such phrases or commonplaces as may have come to their ears, and which have obtained currency, in the maintenance of that cause. That these arguments do not proceed from the same points of view, that accordingly they not only do not support each other, but even do directly neutralise each other, makes no matter to them. It is not because this or that reasoning has originated from their own reflections, or is in harmony with their own convictions, that it comes into their train of argument; they merely use to bolster the latter up, without any selection, the conclusions which others have thought out.


“…But if the others are going on still to behave themselves in an impudent and arrogant way, and so to make war inevitable, then our victory is assured, and with it conquests which are absolutely incalculable. It were to be wished that it would break out – “

“Oh yes! and you do wish it too, father, and the whole Council of War seems to be with you! Then, I should like it better if you said it out plainly! Only do not let us have this falsehood – this assurance to the people and the friends of peace that all this purchasing of weapons and demands for war-credits are only for the purpose of your beloved peace. If you are already showing your teeth and closing your fists, do not whisper soft words all the while. If you are trembling with impatience to draw the sword, do not make believe that it is only from precaution that you are laying your hand on the hilt.”


Now followed a time of fluctuating hopes and fears. To-day it was “Peace is secure,” to-morrow “War inevitable”. Most persons were of the latter view. Not so much because the situation pointed to a bloody arbitrament, but on this account, that if once the word “war” has been pronounced there may be a good deal of debating one way and the other, but experience shows that the end always is war. The little invisible egg which contains the casus belli is brooded over so long that at last the monster creeps out of it.

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