Forward Into Light: Bertha von Suttner Master Class 2015


The Forward Into Light: 2015 Bertha von Suttner Master Class was held in the Japanese Room of the Peace Palace from June 16th to 18th. It included a public lecture on June 16th in the Great Hall of Justice. The second annual Master Class was a part of the Bertha von Suttner commemorative week to honor her life, to learn from her legacy, and to consider how her philosophy has shaped the development of international law. The Master Class was a collaborative effort amongst the Bertha von Suttner Project, the Peace Palace Library, the Carnegie Foundation of the Netherlands and Central Michigan University.

By Professor Dr. Hope Elizabeth May and Ms. Taylor Ackerman

The 1915 International Congress of Women at The Hague

One of the themes of the Master Class was the 1915 International Congress of Women at the Hague, a largely forgotten event of which we are celebrating the centenary in 2015.  In 1915, over 1100 women gathered in The Hague in an attempt to develop a peaceful process that would end World War I. This process not only included a framework for a sustainable, permanent peace, but it also included the ‘citizen diplomacy’ of women who lobbied numerous foreign ministries with their peace framework in the same way that NGOs do today.  Bertha von Suttner, who died in 1914, was not present at the 1915 Congress, but her influence was nonetheless present at that meeting, and also at the women’s subsequent 1919 meeting in Zurich.  The 1919 Zurich meeting was held concurrently with the peace talks in Versailles, and it was at that 1919 meeting when the women formally named their movement “The Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom.” The Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF) is the oldest international women’s peace organization in the world.

Peace Heroes and Power Couples

The Master Class helped bring the 1915 meeting to life with sessions on individuals crucial to that gathering. Chrystal Macmillan was a peace activist from Scotland who worked with Jacobs to help organize the meeting. Louis Lochner was one of the few men at the 1915 International Congress of Women in The Hague. Jane Addams - who presided over the 1915 meeting - linked the suffragist movement with the pacifist movement and appealed to the universal experiences of women to ground a new global ethic.

The Master Class also included sessions which examined the lives and philosophies of Bertha von Suttner’s contemporary pacifists and partnerships between men and women - and in some cases ‘power couples’ - devoted to the peace cause. Alfred Hermann Fried won the 1911 Nobel Peace Prize, and, as a young publisher, he collaborated with Bertha von Suttner on the journal Die Waffen Nieder. William Stead, a journalist and crusader also worked with von Suttner on the Courier de la Conference - the newsletter of the 1907 Hague Peace Conference. Stead died in the Titanic disaster before he could be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Aletta Jacobs and her husband Carel Gerritsen were a power couple: Jacobs was a Dutch suffragist who organized the 1915 International Congress of Women, and it was Gerritsen - a liberal politician who introduced her to the organized peace movement when he brought her to meetings of the Interparliamentary Union.

The Gerritsen Collection of Aletta Jacobs

The Gerritsen/Jacobs union led to a joint collection of written works (journals, newspaper articles, conference proceedings) related to the women’s movement. The Gerritsen Collection of Aletta Jacobs contains numerous sources on the peace movement and the organization of nations because of the strong link between women’s rights and peace. The connections between peace and suffrage are illustrated in the suffragists’ interests in peace.  Within the feminist newspapers and woman's journals one finds numerous articles advocating for the peace movement and the development of international law. Strikingly, the anti-suffragist journals and newspapers attacked the pacifists and any movement towards global governance. Exploration of the Gerritsen collection is possible for any member of the Peace Palace Library. Log-in information for access to the collection can be obtained at the front desk of the Peace Palace Library. Sources are in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Norwegian and more.

Jane Addams and Bertha von Suttner

Bertha von Suttner famously criticized Aletta Jacobs for not caring enough about the peace cause. She also made a similar complaint to Jane Addams. Nevertheless, there are some important similarities between Bertha von Suttner and Jane Addams. First, they were the first two women to win the Nobel Peace Prize (Bertha von Suttner in 1905 and Jane Addams in 1931). Further, both women emphasized global citizenship. Third, both held strong convictions about peace despite backlash. During the lecture in the Great Hall of Justice, Dr. Laurie Cohen shared political cartoons that mocked Bertha von Suttner, and reminded the audience that when Mark Twain met Bertha von Suttner, he said her work for peace was useless. Dr.Mary Jo Deegan’s Master Class session reminded the participants that Jane Addams’ criticism of World War One was not well received and led to a number of criticisms including one from US President Theodore Roosevelt who questioned her ‘patriotism.’ These criticisms point to a fourth and final similarity between the two women, namely, that their warnings and wisdom eventually proved correct. Dr. Cohen read Stefan Zweig’s eulogy of Bertha von Suttner, which conveys that although people didn’t want to listen to Bertha von Suttner, her warnings became reality after her death. Similarly, Dr. Deegan concluded that the Great Depression increased acceptance of Addam's observations about society and her proposed solutions.

Women Organizing for Peace

The initiative to organize women internationally paved the way for women to organize for peace. During the lecture in the Great Hall of Justice, Dr. Hope Elizabeth May shared how the 1915 International Congress of Women in The Hague arose from the 1888 International Council of Women (ICW), the first entity to organize women internationally in an effort to “overthrow all forms of ignorance and injustice.” This broad focus on eradicating ignorance and injustice crystallized into widespread support for the international arbitration movement. Spearhearded by Margarethe Lenore Selenka’s international demonstration of women in support of the 1899 Conference, a few weeks later, the ICW’s peace advocacy was formalized at their 1899 London meeting when the ICW officially adopted international arbitration as a primary goal. The resolution (moved by Bertha von Suttner and seconded by Margarethe Lenore Selenka) read as follows: “That the International Council of Women do take steps in every country to further and advance, by every means in their power, the movement towards international arbitration.”

When the second Hague Peace Conference opened in 1907, the ICW sent a delegation and delivered a statement to the President of the Conference. Bertha von Suttner was one of several women who signed the statement. With the 1899 and 1907 actions as precedents, the foundation for the 1915 meeting was laid.

Art and Gender in the Peace Palace

There were two sessions on art at the Master Class. Ms. Jacobine Wieringa, a Peace Palace art historian, discussed the role of women as artists within The Hague, the art within the Peace Palace and what the art represents. Much of the art featured in the Peace Palace emphasizes the righteousness of justice and peace over war and its subsequent misery. Often, within the art, women can be seen as a goddess or a figure representing justice or peace. Perhaps this suggests the role women have in establishing peace and justice. While fictitious women are featured in much of the artwork, Jacobine Wieringa mentioned that, in recent years, the first two busts of women were placed in the Peace Palace. Busts of Bertha von Suttner and Aletta Jacobs were revealed in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Their presence represents a growing understanding of the role women had in the peace movement and in the development of international law. The second Master Class session on art was led by Ms. Ingrid Rollema, who designed one of the busts of Bertha von Suttner that was commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation in 2013. Ms. Ingrid Rollema reminded the audience that art can send powerful messages about our past and present. The placement of Bertha von Suttner ‘s bust in the Peace Palace in 2013 is both an invitation to tell her story, and an invitation to link that story with other women involved in the peace movement and the corresponding development of international law.

International Law and Gender Justice

At a 1914 meeting of the International Council of Women, a resolution notes the “odious wrongs” which attend women during war and are “contrary to international law.” Although it has taken over 100 years, a framework has been developed that acknowledges this insight. The Master Class had participants understand this framework with sessions led by the 2014 and 2015 winners of the Bertha von Suttner Award. Brigid Inder, who won the 2014 Bertha von Suttner Award, discussed her organization Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice. The Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice focuses on bringing justice to women in conflict situations through domestic channels and the International Criminal Court.

A session led by U.S. Ambassador Stephen J. Rapp, who won the 2015 Bertha von Suttner Award, explained how international criminal law has evolved to hold individuals accountable for various offenses, including violence against women.  Speaking on the 16th anniversary of the amendment to the Akayesu indictment which conceived organized, systemic rape as an act of genocide, Ambassador Rapp reminded participants that in Rwanda, propaganda prior to the genocide included cartoons of Tutsi women as seductive demons. The cartoons not only denigrated the Tutsi women based on race but on gender as well. Consequently, when the genocide in Rwanda began, sexual assault was part of the program of humiliation. Ambassador Rapp noted that through the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda, the use of rape as a form of genocide was recognized as a war crime. Through international criminal law, justice for war crimes involving sexual violence can be procured through peaceful means.

The Bertha von Suttner Project arose as a way to provide education about her life and legacy to English speaking audiences. In addition to its annual Master Class, the Bertha von Suttner Project brings von Suttner’s ideas to the public. Currently, the Project is financing a number of translations of von Suttner’s works into English for the first time. For more information about Bertha von Suttner and the Project, visit

Images by D. Blom and C. Alihusain

Painting of Dr. Aletta Jacobs by Anna Duszczyk