Two Testaments Remembered – Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner

On 27th November 1895, 125 years ago, Alfred Nobel wrote his last will and testament, in the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris. Of the five prizes for which he left a large fortune in his will, the most controversial was the one for ‘champions of peace’. This should be awarded to ‘the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses’ (1). Whereas Nobel’s testament is famous, a ‘testament’ by his friend Bertha von Suttner – intended as a dramatic performance by an actor – is unknown.

After their last meeting (in Zurich, at the end of August 1892), he wrote to her on 7th January 1893 and alluded to his testament for the first time: ‘ … I should like to dispose of a part of my fortune by founding a prize to be granted every five years – say six times, for if in thirty years they have not succeeded in reforming the present system they will infallibly relapse into barbarism. – The prize should be awarded to him or her who had caused Europe to make the longest strides towards ideas of general pacification. – I am not speaking to you of disarmament, which can be achieved only very slowly …’ (2).

Three weeks later she replied: ‘Dear Sir and friend – I am writing to you in pencil because I am ill. Have you received my “testament”? [Italics mine] …  I hope to be alive to see the coming of a healthy condition between the nations. You speak of thirty years? I have a more ardent belief: I think that it will arrive in 7 years, if not before; but, certainly, one cannot write 1900 whilst preserving the condition of anarchy and barbarism that prevails among states today. Unless the great war explodes, in the meantime one can hope that the coming of the 20th century will be an incitement for such progress – but for this it is necessary that everyone who works for it (and you see that there are already many) – must do so with all their energy. Governments will not be able to resist such a push by their peoples and will take the initiative for a conference which will deal with the pacification of Europe …’ (3).

Perhaps surprisingly for such a thorough researcher, Biedermann does not comment on the question von Suttner raised at the start of her letter to Nobel – ‘Have you received my “testament”?’ We do not know whether he replied; the next letter from Nobel that is preserved was written on 17th May and makes no reference to von Suttner’s January letter. In the intervening months, von Suttner had sent him several letters. On 28th April she wrote to him, ‘You have not given me a sign of life for a very long time – how is your health? Mine has improved – but I remain weak and depressed …’ (4).

There is no copy of von Suttner’s ‘testament’ in Alfred Nobel’s archive at the Swedish National Archives in Stockholm. The document that Bertha von Suttner sent to Nobel is not an early version of her last will but a piece of fiction titled ‘Ein Testament’. It was first published as a ‘Feuilleton’ on the front (and second) page of the leading Viennese newspaper, Neue Freie Presse, in its morning edition of 18th January 1893. In all likelihood, she enclosed a cutting of it with her letter to Nobel later that month. ‘Ein Testament’ was also published in her monthly journal, Die Waffen nieder! later that year (No. 3) (5). The following year it was included in an anthology for which she wrote a foreword and that was edited by her friend, Leopold Katscher (6). However, ‚Ein Testament‘ is not mentioned by her biographers or included in any of the published bibliographies of her writings; perhaps the most complete and authoritative is the one compiled by Edelgard Biedermann in Erzählen als Kriegskunst: Die Waffen nieder! von Bertha von Suttner (7). However, it is included in the bibliography compiled by Gerhard Lindenstruth in 2014 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the death of Bertha von Suttner (8).

As is so often the case with von Suttner, ‘Ein Testament’ has strong autobiographical features. She wrote it when she was ill. The story opens with a dialogue with a sick man asking his doctor to tell the truth – if he is going to die soon, he wants to know. ‘I would still like to do so much but feel my powers are fading’. The doctor admonishes him, ‘Do not get excited. You will get better when you rest and abandon this struggle for an unobtainable cause – when you forget all that foolish stuff about peace societies and congresses, it makes you worry … And you won’t live to see it anyway, even if you would live to be a hundred’. The patient, advised again by the doctor to try to sleep, says there is something urgent he must do. When the doctor surmises this is a reference to the drawing up of a testament, the man replies, breathing with difficulty: ‘My testament? … Yes … There is already one at the lawyer’s … but I would like to write another one … Everything that is burdening my heart …  on a single page … to put together the most dearly felt wishes …’ The doctor hints that, although he can call the lawyer, the matter really is not so urgent. The patient retorts, ‘No, not the lawyer. It should not be a dry document to be read out in a lawyer’s office – it should … Doctor, please leave me alone, I will try to sleep’.

As soon as the doctor left, the patient, despite the fever, went instead to his desk and, hands trembling, started writing a letter that he addressed at the top of the page to a well-known actor. One day he will have an opportunity to stand behind the lectern, with a scroll in his hands facing an audience that will be captivated and stirred by his performance. He pleads with the actor to lend this power to him for only a few minutes by declaiming ‘this artless page’ – which is a testament. He tells the actor the circumstances in which it was written: in fearful haste during a feverish night, with death knocking at the door. He still had endless work to do – inform so many fellow citizens, plans for actions and books. All of this he has now condensed into one page – my ‘last will’. Therefore, the text should not only be printed and read but also spoken and heard and spoken by one whose heart is moved by the painful longing expressed in the text. Then the audience will be responsive to the bequest – which involves a struggle as hard, and conveys a hope more glorious, than any other.

Great changes are afoot which will transform the earth into a hell or heaven. Everything is speeded up a hundred- and even a thousandfold, whether in creation or destruction. The war of the future will be a mad suicide of millions with ferocious machines killing also from the air above and the water below. And all this with no prospect of reward, victory, or rest. Exhausted and devastated, all parties will tumble into the abyss. The art of war will give way to new slayers – hunger and pestilence. Our heads and hearts are too feeble to conceive the titanic sorrow. But when we reduce the horizon and picture the death of a beloved husband or a sweet and only child, then we realise our own misfortune and its multiplication a million times over. This will stir the individual to be no longer indifferent or apathetic, to demand truth and openness, and to reject the rubbish catchphrases and ‘thinking on command’ of the past. Not pain, suffering and death are sacred, but joy and life. People today have been given the power to re-make themselves, see the light and throw out – in the name of human dignity, and justice – the murderous weapons of hate and violence. What is sacred above everything else is …

The story concludes: ‘At this point, it appears that the pen dropped from the hand of the feverish and dying man whose dead body was found lying in front of his desk. His document will be left unfinished for ever. Only the last sentence can easily be concluded: What is sacred above everything else is love!’

In the above, the story has been summarised (and translated). The well-known actor to whom ‘Ein Testament’ was addressed might have been a reference to Joseph Lewinsky. Professional actors may well have found the piece shallow and melodramatic and unlikely to engage an audience. However, a ‘performance’ took place very soon after the piece had been written. According to an editorial note that was published with ‘Ein Testament’ in the Neue Freie Presse of 18th January 1893, von Suttner had written the work for a recitation evening of the Viennese Business Club (Vortragsabend des Wiener Kaufmannischen Vereins) that had just taken place. It was delivered by R. Faelberg, following a recitation by von Suttner’s literary friend Heinrich Glücksmann. We do not know whether it was also performed on other occasions – during her lifetime, or since.

In her youth, von Suttner wanted to be a singer or actor and it is well known that later she made use of all the means of communication available to her in her campaign to promote peace,  including the performing arts. Brigitte Hamann writes, ‘she got it into her head to win over the best-known Viennese actor, Joseph Lewinsky, to her cause. He was an “intellectual,” a very educated and ambitious actor and was even admired by Empress Elisabeth, who allowed him to read Heine and Goethe to her in a very intimate circle. An appearance of this particular, extremely popular person had enormous propaganda value; Bertha knew that very well – and, when Lewinsky declined at first, in a letter she insisted “at the danger of being unpleasantly obtrusive – once more with pleading hands I ask you: take part in our peace evening …! There will only be artistic things, no club speeches – but it will give us new impetus and supply us with additional funds for our exhausted treasury. I know that my imposition is no small one, no modest one – but I am not modest and am not shy when it comes to service to this cause.” – Finally, Lewinsky accepted, and even got his wife, the great actress Olga Lewinsky, to agree to join him in performing for the peace cause. Both were a big success’ (9).

The letter, in the Stadtbibliothek Wien (City Library of Vienna), is unfortunately without year. It is possible that the occasion is the one von Suttner referred to in her Memoirs where she reported about ‘a festival meeting of the Peace Union, at which, among other things, Peter Rosegger and the court actor Lewinsky made addresses’ (10). This is the only reference to the actor in her memoirs; there is also one reference to his wife. It concerns the publication in 1894 of a new novel by von Suttner, Vor dem Gewitter (‘Before the Storm’): ‘The newly founded Austrian Literary Society issued it as its first publication in an edition of three thousand copies, and this inauguration was celebrated by a banquet given by the publisher, Professor Lützow. The actress Lewinsky, from the royal theatre, read a chapter from my novel’ (11).

The relapse into barbarism – that Alfred Nobel predicted would inevitably come about in thirty years if the international system was not reformed (in his letter to von Suttner in 1893, quoted above) – came true in World War I. Likewise, in ‘Ein Testament’, also written in 1893, she foresaw the looming abyss if a future war was not avoided. She proved to be far too optimistic at times, believing that the beginning of a new century would inspire society to make a decisive break with the past and renounce war. This is not to deny that there were grounds for hope in the years around the turn of the century, not least because of the 1899 and 1907 peace conferences in The Hague where the agendas of the international peace movement and those of governments seemed to have come closer together than ever before. Even Alfred Nobel, in his last letter to her, written three weeks before his death on 10th December 1896, wrote: ‘ … I am enchanted to see that the peace movement is gaining ground. That is due to the civilizing of the masses, and especially to the prejudice hunters and darkness hunters, among whom you hold an exalted rank. Those are your titles of nobility’ (12). It is sobering to reflect that today the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stands at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to Armageddon it has ever been. More than ever, the world is in need of generous peace philanthropists like Alfred Nobel, and courageous peace movement leaders like Bertha von Suttner.

Peter van den Dungen

27th November 2020

Notes

  1. Nils Ståhle, Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Prizes. Stockholm: The Nobel Foundation, 1986, p. 12.
  2. Letter quoted in Memoirs of Bertha von Suttner. Boston: Ginn, 1910, Vol. 1, p. 438. Nobel wrote in French; the original text is reproduced in Edelgard Biedermann, ed., “Chère Baronne et Amie – Cher monsieur et ami”: Der Briefwechsel zwischen Alfred Nobel und Bertha von Suttner. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2001, p. 122.
  3. Letter of 27 January 1893 in Biedermann, pp. 125-6; she reproduces the letter which von Suttner wrote in French; the translation is mine.
  4. Ibid., pp. 125-131.
  5. I am indebted to Hugh Coyle for drawing my attention to these early publications of ‘Ein Testament’. The original publication is at https://anno.onb.ac.at/cgi-content/anno?aid=nfp&datum=18930118&seite=1&zoom=33
  6. Friedensstimmen. Eine Anthologie. Leipzig: Ed. Wartigs Verlag Ernst Hoppe, pp. 375-380; the book was reprinted in 1898 by Wilhelm Langguth in Esslingen a. N.
  7. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1995, pp. 329-336.(8) Bertha von Suttner – Eine Bibliographie; this 40-page PDF is a revised version of a bibliography first privately printed in 1993. Five publications of ‘Ein Testament’ in the period 1893-1896 are identified (p. 9).
  8. Bertha von Suttner: A Life for Peace. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996, p. 98.
  9. Vol. 1, p. 383. This is in part VII, covering the years 1892-1898.
  10. Vol. 2, p. 87. One letter from Olga Lewinsky-Precheisen is preserved in von Suttner’s archives in Geneva. Dated 14th March 1895, it is about a meeting of the Austrian Peace Society and her participation in it. Cf. Fried/Suttner Papers, Box 22/File 276/2; the same archives contain an 18-page manuscript of a theatre play entitled ‘L’ Education de Rosette’ written in 1876 – cf. Box 8/File 42/66.
  11. Memoirs, Vol. 2, p. 141; Nobel’s letter is dated 21st November 1896 and was written in French – cf. Biedermann, Briefwechsel, p. 191.