Bertha von Suttner: What would she say about nuclear deterrence?

On 16 June 2016, the Peace Palace Library in The Hague held a commemorative lecture in honor of Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914). Lecturers Dr. Hope Elizabeth May (Professor of Philosophy, Central Michigan University, USA), Dr. Laurie Cohen (Professor of History, University of Innsbruck, Austria) and Dr. Regina Braker (Professor of German, University of Eastern Oregon, USA) discussed Suttner’s outstanding political engagement, her life, major works and philosophy.

Baroness von Suttner was a CzechAustrian pacifist and novelist, the only women to be recognized by a bust in the Peace Palace, and  the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905, being the second female Nobel laureate after Marie Curie‘s 1903 award. This remarkable biography led Dr. May to question what Bertha von Suttner would have said about the ongoing debate on nuclear deterrence.

The current state of International Law, according to Dr. May, is as to render the use of nuclear weapons legal under the condition that it fulfills both the requirements of proportionality and necessity. Necessity, in this context, refers to the situation where the use of nuclear weapons would be necessary to achieve a given goal; proportionality demands that the costs of nuclear deterrence would be out-weighted by its benefits. However, as Bertha already pointed out in her 1889 Die Waffen nieder! {Lay Down Your Arms!}, how could one possibly measure the actual costs and benefits of nuclear detonation with mathematical precision – is it the number of lives taken versus square meters of territory gained?  For Bertha, this utilitarian approach would not only be flawed, but evil. In her opinion, as humanity matures, our preferences associated with certain goods, for example sovereignty, honor and territory, would shift to a new composition of higher humanitarian values, for example human life and the right to peace. Therefore, humanity would finally conclude that no military gain could possibly justify the actual costs of nuclear detonation on humanity.


Certainly, Bertha von Suttner would be disappointed about the current state of nuclear weapon deterrence,  but she would welcome the efforts being towards a Nuclear weapons Prohibition Treaty. In accordance with her principle that “everything helps,” in this evolution of human kind, it would be essential to practice “prudence and thoughtfulness” and to realize that every individual must act in the pursuit of peace. So let’s take action!

Guest post by Clarissa Luttmann