Undercover political fairytales, frustrated peace promoters, and an Enoch-type island utopia fill the minds of those who attended the 2021 P.A. Christensen Lecture.
Would you fight for peace? Bertha von Suttner determinedly grasped at it her whole life to no avail. Bettina von Arnim and Gisela von Arnim Grimm, however, found it a “practical, achievable possibility,” said Associate Professor Michelle Stott James. Von Suttner, von Arnim, and Grimm lived during times of unrest and recognized the necessity of peace in their writings, even if they didn’t all think it was possible.
Dr. James, a faculty member in the German & Russian department, has spent her career researching German-language women authors and compiling an online database of early German women’s texts. During her 2021 P.A. Christensen lecture, titled “Visions of Peace: The Interrogation of Violent Resistance by 19th-Century German-Language Women Authors,” she described Germany in a time of crisis. James placed the audience firmly in the shoes of these three authors by illustrating the “visions of peace” found in their writings.
There is always danger in expressing controversial views, and for von Suttner, von Arnim, and Grimm, it was no different, explained Dr. James. These early writers circumvented this danger by crafting their opinions into stories. Not only were romantic novels easier and more fun to read than political treatises, they could also spread ideas faster and in a more palatable way.
Bertha von Suttner was an Austrian who promoted peace throughout her career as a journalist and author. At a time when most authors wrote of the glory in violent resistance, von Suttner’s novel, Die Waffen Nieder (Lay Down Your Arms), denounces war and its supposed glories, said Dr. James. The novel dives into the tragedy of life if a woman’s purpose is only to raise soldiers, and a man’s, only to fight and die. Dr. James then reiterated von Suttner question, “‘What joy do the poor slain men, the poor cripples, the poor widows, get out of victory?’” She then opines that if the ultimate goal of war is peace, then why not just have peace to begin with?
On both sides of each war are humans who would rather find joy in and live their lives than give them up in battle. Dr. James expressed von Suttner’s question why “the precepts of humanity cannot be applied equally,” then gave the haunting conclusion: peace doesn’t exist because “[people] don’t desire to eradicate the spirit of war from their hearts.”
While von Suttner may have resigned herself to this negative view of humanity, Dr. James continued the lecture by illustrating the resilient hope for peace held by von Arnim and Grimm as described in The Life of High Countess Gritta von Ratsinourhouse. This book starts off as a fairy tale with castles, towers, love, elves, and all sorts of mishaps. By the end of the story, the main character Gritta and her friends have been shipwrecked on the island, Sumbona, where Gritta eventually marries a prince and becomes the queen.
The lessons of the novel culminate on this island when Gritta and her friends create a “peaceful utopian paradise,” said Dr. James. The girls use their collection of unhappy experiences from the societies they have escaped to structure a better community. While Gritta may be queen, the group has no real leader. Each person is instead part of an island council where issues are debated, discussed, and resolved collectively. The island civilization is based on unity, cooperation, and mutual assistance rather than competition. Each member actively chooses to be a part of a counter culture that creates peace and prosperity for all. Eventually, the island and its inhabitants achieve a state of perfection and, as Dr. James read, the narrator reports that “God the Father has tacked the bit of paradise named Sumbona back onto heaven.”
“Is this not Zion?” Dr. James asked. She then pointed out the similarities between the truths in this fairytale and the truths in the gospel: peace is a choice, and it brings salvation. While von Suttner did not believe peace would be possible, von Arnim and Grimm (like Latter-day Saints) believed in the possibility of a utopian society where the citizens work together and daily choose to be peaceful. This may seem impossible now, but the view of the millennium in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes peace brought by Christ’s reign.
The need for peace in the modern world is as apparent as it was in the 19th century. Conflict abounds and while it is impossible to create a universal utopia without Christ, Dr. James believes that members of society can start making these visions of peace a reality in their personal lives. Whether von. Sutter’s doubts or von Arnim and Grimm’s hope resonates more, Dr. James encouraged listeners to choose to utilize the power of Christ and change their hearts to be worthy of Zion. Only then can small groups and communities create spaces for these authors’ visions of peace.