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  • (R)Evolution:From Edelleute to Edelmenschen – Bertha von Suttner’s Pathway to Peace
  • Helen G. Morris-Keitel

Leider ja, es ist verlockend, solang die Weltgeschichte – das heißt diejenigen, welche sie schreiben – die Heldenstandbilder aus Kriegstrümmern aufbauen, solang sie den Titanen des Völkermordes Kränze reichen.

(Bertha von Suttner, Die Waffen nieder! 306)

Austrian peace activist Bertha von Suttner’s (1843–1914) novel Die Waffen nieder! (1889) has been acknowledged by scholars as the first German-language novel to contradict the norms of nineteenth-century war literature and historical novels (cf. Biedermann; Häntzschel). As Rudolf Schenda writes:

Die Kriegsliteratur des 19. Jahrhunderts ist staatlich oder oberschichtlich manipuliert; die negative Kritik an der kriegerischen Auseinandersetzung ist bewußt unterdrückt worden. […] Kriegsliteratur verniedlicht den Konflikt und schürt dadurch die Lust am Konflikt. Die populäre Kriegsliteratur des 19. Jahrhunderts ist nichts als Aufruf zu neuen Kriegen.


Similarly, historical novels of the same period were intent on preserving the status quo and preventing any change (Peterson 12). In contrast, Suttner’s work is predicated on a “Fortschrittsideologie” of positive change leading to a world defined by humanity (Hamann 70, 71). For her, war ran counter to this development and was “eine uns aus den Zeiten des Barbarismus überkommene Institution” (Suttner, “Wie” 105) as well as a “Verneinung der Kultur” (Waffen, 244). As Suttner had already expressed in Maschinenzeitalter (1889), her “intense” engagement with works of science and philosophy spanning from the late eighteenth century up to the manifesto published by the Peace and Arbitration Association formed in London in 1880 led [End Page 34] her to believe that the seeds of a truly civilized society had been sown (5).1 A consequence of this evolution of human society would be the eradication of war.

Yet given Suttner’s own background as a member of the Austrian aristocratic-military class, she was highly cognizant of how central the bellicose nation-state was to the identities – national, social, and gender – of her peers. Therefore, she decided to write a novel that exemplifies the transformation from “Edelleute” into “Edelmensch[en]” (Maschinenzeitalter 109). This new identity would be characterized by freedom, dignity, respect, justice, reason, and compassion (cf. Maschinenzeitalter 109). This is a precision of Kant’s first proposition in “Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht” (1784) that “[a]lle Naturanlagen eines Geschöpfes sind bestimmt, sich einmal vollständig und zweckmässig auszuentwickeln” (144). Equally important for Suttner is that Kant links this proposition to the idea of a “weltbürgerlichen Zustand” that will help the “Erhaltung des Ganzen” and avoid war (cf. Kant 154). Becoming noble human beings would allow her peers – male and female – to move from a blind acceptance of the social reality into which they were born to an honest and critical analysis of the discourse used to justify war as well as of an aesthetic of war that did not allow its “Greuel” to be named (cf. Waffen 267). Furthermore, it would end a dichotomy that allowed individuals to have one way of thinking as members of a nation and another as human beings (cf. Waffen 288).

For the “Edelleute” Suttner was primarily addressing, she needed to directly debunk the patriotic clichés of war that overwhelmingly and intricately formed their social identities, such as duty, honour, heroism, and self-sacrifice (cf. Waffen 278–80). In the novel, she deconstructs these ideals with each new conflict the protagonists – Martha (the narrator) and her second husband, Friedrich – experience. Their reactions to the Franco-Austrian or Second War of Italian Independence of 1859, the Second Schleswig War of 1864, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 depict a growing level of critical consciousness vis-à-vis the rhetoric and realities of war. Incrementally, Suttner’s readers are exposed to the scepticism and grief of a young bride and widow (1859 and 1866), to images that reveal the reality and magnitude of suffering associated with war (1866), and to a more detached analysis of war made possible by Martha’s and Friedrich’s new identities as “Edelmenschen” (1866 and 1870–71). Their development stands in stark contrast to virtually...


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