Twenty-five years after Bertha von Suttner wrote her prophetic essay, Die Barbarisierung der Luft (The Barbarization of the Sky), the scenes of horror and devastation raining down from the sky came true in the small Basque town of Gernika, not far from Bilbao, in northern Spain. The barbarous attacks on an open, peaceful town on 26th April 1937 by bombers from Nazi-Germany caused a furious Picasso to paint his eponymous masterpiece, perhaps the greatest anti-war painting of all time. Earlier this year, the Gernika Peace Museum was at the heart of the programme to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the ignominious event. With the onset of World War II a few years later, it was followed by similar and even more brutal attacks from the skies above London, Coventry, Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki – to mention only some of the most devastating ones. Especially the peace museums that were established after the war in those Japanese cities bear witness to the Moloch that war has become, that Bertha von Suttner had foreseen, and that her essay was meant to help avoid. Kamikazi aircraft, V-2 rockets and, in our time, the suicide attacks of 9/11 in the USA, and drone warfare in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, demonstrate the seemingly unending process of the barbarization of the sky.
Although compelled to write the essay because of the first use of aerial bombardment in the Tripoli campaign, the subject was not a new one for Bertha von Suttner. Indeed, already many years earlier she had taken a close interest in the development of aviation technology and she speculated about its impact on the future of international relations. We can follow her hopes and fears through the monthly column modestly entitled ‘Footnotes to contemporary history’ that she contributed in the two decades before the start of the Great War in 1914 to the leading German-language peace periodical. She wrote her last column a few weeks before her death (June 1914).These perceptive and often fascinating comments were collected together in two substantial volumes (of over 600 pages each) that were published, posthumously, in neutral Switzerland during the war, thanks to the efforts of her friend and close collaborator, Alfred H. Fried (‘The struggle to avoid world war’, Zurich 1917). It is largely this work, a monument of peace journalism, which made the author the first female political journalist in the German language.
In the decades following the publication of ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, its author was observing how aviation was bringing arms to the sky. She wrote about the seeming impossibility of continuing ‘above and beneath the clouds the work which up to now had been pursued on and beneath the earth (and on and beneath the oceans)’. Was the hell of war now going to be extended to the heavens? Was the madness of mutual murder going to be pushed into the clouds? Using these and similar images, she tried to alert her readers to the prospect of ‘air-fleets, air-torpedoes, and air-mines’, and was disturbed by the absence of popular opposition to these developments. Here was a new field for the wastage of milliards and which put human genius again at the disposal of the forces of hell. She also noted how the emergence of military aviation, and the danger it represented to every country, was being countered by the development of canons which would shoot vertically high up into the sky since ‘not only the fatherland but also the father-sky had to be defended’. What was happening now, she wrote in one of her columns, was a veritable revolution in war which amounted to its total discrediting. Humanity was now faced with a stark choice: ‘flying or war-making’, she wrote ‘ – one or the other will have to retreat in face of the other’. Decades earlier, Henry David Thoreau, the great American author and advocate of civil disobedience, had already given his verdict when he wrote, ‘Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth’.
I am delighted that this small yet poignant and prophetic essay of Bertha von Suttner is now available also in a Japanese translation. I am most grateful to Professor Osamu Itoigawa and Professor Mitsuo Nakamura for the work they have undertaken and which means that this essay, in the year of its centenary, is not forgotten, at least not in their country. Like nowhere else, Japan experienced mass murder from the skies, and the effects of which deeply continue to affect its people but also many outside the country. In the beautiful summer days of August 1945, the barbarisation of the sky reached its nadir in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is incomprehensible and unforgiveable that the urgent demand emanating from both cities – ‘No More Hiroshima, No More Nagasaki, No More Nuclear Weapons, No More War’ – has still not been realised. Peace museums, as well as the movements for the abolition of nuclear weapons, in Japan are in the forefront of ensuring that this message is heard loudly and clearly throughout the world. Also in this campaign, Bertha von Suttner’s essay still speaks to us today. I am grateful to my good colleague, Professor Kazuyo Yamane, for her encouragement of and involvement in the translation project, and for kindly having translated this preface.
Peter van den Dungen
International Network of Museums for Peace (INMP)