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Bertha von Suttner and The Hague

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Speech by Mr. Steven van Hoogstraten LLM about Bertha von Suttner and The Hague, on 21 June 2014, Harmannsdorf (Austria)

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

On the occasion of the centenary of her death, I am truly honoured to be allowed to speak today about the baroness of peace Bertha von Suttner. More particularly about the time she spent in The Hague on the occasion of the peace conferences. You are perhaps aware of the fact that Bertha von Suttner kept a diary about her experiences during the First Peace Conference in The Hague in 1899. This diary – intended for publication from the start – gives a detailed account of all her activities, the places she visited, the people she talked to, of her worries and afflictions. [i] No diary of her was issued about the conference of 1907, but the relevant contributions of Bertha to the public debate in 1907 can be found in the so-called “Courrier de la Conférence”. Issued on an almost daily basis, this paper, edited by British journalist William Stead, exclusively dealt with the events in and surrounding the peace conference. In this speech I do not wish to primarily talk about Bertha von Suttner’s fame as an apostle of peace but about the political environment of her work and on how she experienced it. I therefore cannot escape the image that Bertha von Suttner had to work in a difficult climate, that in many countries there were major military sympathies versus a limited number of fighters for international peace. Nor can I bypass the observation that the peace efforts never resulted in curbing armament, at least not at the time. However, an international arbitration tribunal was established, and it still is as relevant as ever. The peace conferences of The Hague were definitely trail-blazing in that respect

Ladies and Gentlemen

On 21 June 1899, while the Peace Conference has been underway for 5 weeks, Bertha von Suttner writes that she is quite disappointed about the press in Germany. The press ridicules the peace initiatives, which bothers her. The Berliner Post published an article about the British proposal to establish a Court of Arbitration. She is annoyed by this article because it doubts the sincerity of the United Kingdom’s will for peace. This German newspaper says that England “behind a mask of peacefulness and humanity wishes to establish a Court in The Hague, … enabling England to interfere in all issues in a way which could be detrimental to its main rivals on the continent and which could set them up against each other.” In her diary Bertha von Suttner continues “So this is the level of political cowardice, generally thought to be political wisdom. It does not matter that the intention of which the nation is accused is logically unfounded, and practically impossible to carry out (because England is only one of the 20 powers): it is a matter of course to come up with angry insinuations if someone else seems to be willing to do good…”Steven van Hoogstraten

Also elsewhere the worries and disappointment of Bertha von Suttner about the gap between the conference in The Hague and the involvement of the press are evident. She expressed her regret for instance to a friend, an editor, that the Berliner Tageblatt published nothing about the Peace Conference. “The meeting was closed to the press, which embittered many journalists”, was the reply. But in the German press the conference was mainly mocked: “all that wicked nonsense will not fail to incur the rightful wrath of all clear-headed men who feel German”, according to a German newspaper. And the grumbling was not just limited to Germany, in Paris and London, too, critical, disparaging and spiteful articles were published, as Bertha observed. The Austrian press mainly published political cartoons of ‘Friedens-Bertha’ much to her amusement. This was contrasting sharply with American newspapers which reported very favourably and constructively about the peace efforts in The Hague. “Public interest is nowhere else so keen as in this country” said the American delegate Frederick Holls to her. According to him (Holls) excluding the journalists had been a big mistake”, but unfortunately not everyone shared that opinion.

So in the public opinion of the major European powers the Peace Conference of 1899 was not very well thought of. Governments were still too busy to view war as an instrument of national politics, and the newspapers of that time thought likewise. The Peace Conference failed to make an impact on the curbing of armament, and the press applauded the failed attempts to reach agreement in that respect. The relatively cheerful start of the First World War – “diese frische und fröhliche Krieg“ as we learned in school – was one of the most blatant expressions of that general militaristic attitude at that moment. For a proper understanding, and as a personal aside: in 1914 the Peace Palace had opened its doors, and the international arbitration mechanism had been up and running for over ten years. Apart from Serbia nobody in the year 1914 had asked to submit the cause of the war to The Hague.[ii]

The diary of Bertha about her time in The Hague in 1899 is also very interesting because in the margin of the conference the various hot spots of the world at the time come to life. The occupation of Finland by Russia resulted in criticism on Russia and the Czar, and the same applied to the British military intervention in the Boer Republics Transvaal and Orange Free State in South Africa. These issues were mainly raised during the public debates, organized for instance by William Stead, the British pacifist and journalist, in the well-known Diligentia theatre in The Hague, which were covered by Bertha in detail. During the Peace Conference the British House of Commons decided to free a substantial amount of money for the fight in South Africa, from which he (Stead) openly distanced himself. At the same time the conference in The Hague was deliberating about a standstill of armament expenditure, which was totally at odds with this British decision. The proposal of President Kruger (South Africa) to submit the issue with the United Kingdom – about the rights of the Outlanders, British subjects working in the gold industry in the free Boer Republics – (to submit that issue) to a court of arbitration, was immediately rejected by the British, according to Bertha von Suttner in her diary. She denounced the British attitude by remarking “Sir Alfred Milner, who seems to be totally oblivious of the principles pronounced in The Hague, replies that such a proposal cannot be considered for one moment.“ [iii] It must have been rather strange too to discuss the solution of international disputes in The Hague, and to see at the same time that classic power play was stronger than all the good intentions.

After all, the next day the possible freezing of armament expenditure by the conference was referred back to the individual countries, which meant in effect a rejection of the proposal. Bertha writes “Rejected! Referred back to the governments of the big powers for further consideration. But a resolution proposed by Leon Bourgeois and adopted by the Conference has yet saved the principle“. That was a great disappointment for all pacifists, only mitigated by the fact that a positive decision about the international arbitration tribunal had been reached. In her diary, Bertha tells about an interesting and repeated conversation with Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross. In the opinion of Henry Dunant mediation was a far better solution of disputes between countries than arbitration. A very topical debate indeed. Has any prominent person already suggested to submit the issues of the Crimea or those of the islands in the South China Sea to the Court of Arbitration or the International Court of Justice? For issues like this, mediation seems to be a useful instrument, especially if there are no legal pitfalls. If both parties only wish to accept that a deadlock can be broken out of without a party being considered the loser.

Bertha von Suttner was aware of the fact that her diary of 1899 did not really create a stir, much to her regret. “The contemporary world is either indifferent or unfriendly in its attitude toward the Hague Conference, she writes in her Memoirs (p. 327). During her time in The Hague Bertha von Suttner did not deliver many public speeches, she spent much more time in the lobby surrounding important delegates, of the press or opinion makers. On 27 June 1899 she was to deliver a major speech in London, but she turned ill all of a sudden and could not go. Her speech was subsequently read out by somebody else. Bertha’s approach in 1899 was that of the salons, something she had learned from a Dutch hostess, where many important participants of the conference frequently gathered.  Due to its tremendous influence her salon in the Kurhaus Hotel in Scheveningen gained widespread fame.

On 7 July 1899 – the conference is still ongoing – Bertha leaves The Hague by train. In her diary she writes “that this place, where the first international court of mediation was established, may become the place of pilgrimage for posterity. By now a firm conviction to ponder on the homeward journey”.

During the 1907 conference she did make regular public appearances, among others delivering a speech on 20 June about the non-existing but always invoked “droit de la conquête/ the right of conquest.” [iv] In her view conquest was the foundation and leitmotiv of war. All great rulers have always expanded their territories. That is the alleged glory of war. She strongly argued that it would be far better to forget this conquest principle.

On 28 June 1907 Bertha elaborated on the role of Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the United States, and the actual initiator of the Second Peace Conference. Only out of politeness he let the Russian Czar deal with the invitations. The name of President Roosevelt did not go down well with all pacifists, because he was actively expanding the American fleet. Bertha said that all countries at that time were increasing their weapon arsenals “in the interest of Peace.” No, Roosevelt had provided the PCA with its first case, and it had been Roosevelt who personally managed to end the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 by getting both countries to the mediation table. Partly on that basis Roosevelt had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. And in his expectations of the Second Peace Conference he had sided many times and in public with international justice. [v]

Especially during the Second Peace Conference Bertha regularly held her famous salons where she or another distinguished guest would address the audience. They were also referred to as the Cercle International.

Bertha von Suttner left the conference in 1907 before it was officially concluded, namely on 25 August. She wanted to prepare herself in Vienna and Munich for a conference on power and the organisation of Public Opinion. In her view Public Opinion was the real driving force for the actions of the delegates, and therefore an invisible impediment to change. “The delegates are like the hands on a clock – the mechanism which operates them is invisible” according to Bertha in the Courrier.[vi]

Later on in 1913 she was invited once again to the Netherlands to contribute to a public debate about women and world peace. The debate on the eve of the opening of the Peace Palace was organized by the Dutch Women’s Suffrage Movement, presided over by Aletta Jacobs, renowned in the Netherlands. She was the first woman with a university degree in the Netherlands. [vii] “What us women wish to achieve through our efforts..” our apostle of peace said, “is freedom, and even more, justice. We, the women of the peace movement have ample reason to envy our sisters of the suffrage movement, because they are much closer to their goal than we pacifists are. In many states of America and also in a few European countries women already have gained the right to vote. We are jealous of that fact, and we are also jealous of the multitude of their members and the power of their organisation. That we, fighters for peace and for women’s suffrage belong together, is best evidenced by the fact that we have not only the same friends but also the same enemies. In our respective movements we can expect to benefit much from those nationalities which are not in a state of traditional militarism. And those happen to be the young nations on the other side of the ocean….”

After this speech Bertha was loudly cheered and applauded and she left the hall, according to the newspaper, with a huge bunch of flowers. Earlier on, however, this merging of feminism and pacifism did not seem so logical. When Aletta Jacobs first met Bertha von Suttner in 1898 there was no click at all. “Immer das Wahlrecht” Bertha sighed over Aletta Jacobs’ effort. And Aletta noted in her own book [viii] about the meeting in 1898 “Bertha stated without reserve that I had taken the wrong road. All my efforts should be for peace, women suffrage propaganda could as well be dealt with by others … I argued, however, that Bertha von Suttner’s ideals could only become reality if women had gained full political rights.”

In 1907 Bertha had commented as follows. During a discourse for the Cercle International she had already been of the opinion that both movements (feminism and pacifism) were mutually reinforcing. [ix] “The elements of Power and Oppression have to make place for Justice and Freedom“ – according to Bertha – and to that purpose a new type of human being has to be formed. Every male or female characteristic should be part of this new type of human being. But the motto remains “Working for Peace.”

You may find it interesting to know that during the celebration of the centennial of the Peace Palace Bertha von Suttner was honoured with a bust situated in the Hall of the Palace. A second statue, of a much younger Bertha, was offered by us to the Municipality of The Hague. [x] The bust in the Peace Palace [xi] was unveiled on 28 August 2013 by Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. She received the prize for her non-violent struggle for the rights of women.[xii] This bust truly confirms Bertha’s role as the First Lady of the Peace Palace. At the opening of the Palace in 1913 she was the only women to be invited.

Now that we talk about First Ladies, it is nice to conclude with a little anecdote of Hillary Clinton at the time when she was Secretary of State of the United States. She visited the Netherlands on the occasion of the top conference on Afghanistan, which was held in The Hague on 31 March 2009 and which soon became known as the “big tent conference” where she organised her salons.

Hillary Clinton insisted on staying at the Kurhaus Hotel in Scheveningen, because – she said – she was a great admirer of Bertha von Suttner, who had occupied an apartment in the Kurhaus Hotel during the Peace Conferences. This proves that Bertha’s call still reaches the highest echelons: an honour fully befitting her.

When Bertha von Suttner travelled to The Hague in 1899, the first sentence she wrote in her diary was “to the place where Peace will be born.” I don’t think nowadays this phrase would be used anymore, now that the UN is such a decisive factor in the handling of all sorts of conflicts in the world. But partly as a result of the construction of the Peace Palace The Hague has become an international city of justice and peace, not only accommodating the important courts of justice, but also harbouring an active climate of dialogue and contemplation about Peace and Justice. That is a result everybody can be proud of, and all of Bertha’s followers in particular.

Thank you for your attention.

[i] Den Haag en de Vredes-Conferentie by Bertha von Suttner, translated by J.C. van Riemsdijk. Amsterdam, Cohen Zonen 1900.

[ii] Serbia specifically mentioned this option in their answer to the Austrian ultimatum.

[iii] Page 169 of the diary of Bertha von Suttner.

[iv] See the Courrier de la Conférence of 21 June 1907.

[v] Courrier de la Conférence of 29 June 1907.

[vi] Courrier de la Conférence of 25 August 1907.

[vii] Report published in the Algemeen Handelsblad of 27 August 2013.

[viii] Memories of Dr Aletta H. Jacobs, van Holkema & Warendorf, Amsterdam 1924.

[ix] Courrier de la Conférence of 8 August 1907.

[x] This bust on an iron pedestal with the words “die Waffen Nieder” in many languages was made by artist Ingrid Rollema from The Hague.

[xi] This more traditional statue was made by Judith Pfaeltzer, a sculptress from Amsterdam.

[xii] Leymah Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize together with two other women being Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen.


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