This Day in Jewish History

1921: Peace Activist Unloved by His Country Dies

Austria's Albert Fried performed a scientific analysis of war, and he won a Nobel Prize. But he couldn’t stop World War I.

George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)/Wikimedia Commons

May 5, 1921 is the day on which Alfred Hermann Fried, the Jewish Austrian peace activist whose efforts won him the 1911 Nobel Peace Prize, died at age 56. Fried’s relentless but highly practical advocacy against warfare brought him praise and accolades internationally – but not in his native Austria or his sometime-home of Germany, where he was heavily criticized.

Fried was born in Vienna on November 11, 1864, the son of Samuel Fried and the former Bertha Buchler. He left school at 15 and began working at a bookstore in his native town. Two years later he left for Berlin, where in 1887 he opened his own book shop. At the same time, he was becoming enamored of socialism and related left-wing ideas.

It was in Berlin that Fried became aware of the work of Baroness Bertha von Suttner, a prominent writer and pacifist.

At first Fried approached her in the hope that she could fund his publishing activities, but learned that despite her lofty title, she too was short on funds. Yet they discovered that they were of like minds, and began cooperating professionally.

In 1891, von Suttner published a pacifist novel called “Die Waffen Nieder!” (“Lay Down Your Arms!”). Fried then persuaded her to establish a journal with the same name, which she would edit and which he would serve as publisher. After 1899, it changed its name to The Peace Watch, and is still published today in Germany under that name.

In 1892 Fried founded the German Peace Society, which had its own monthly publication, which he also edited.

His belief that there was a better way to solve problems than war was not simply based on nave or romantic notions. He did not, for example, believe it was realistic to expect a ban on increasingly deadly weapons to be successful. Rather, his scientific study of war led him to conclude that it was caused by anarchy. And the means for eliminating it would be international agreements and economic cooperation. Disarmament would follow from that.

In this regard, Fried was deeply influenced by the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, which resulted in a number of multilateral agreements on warfare, regarding treatment of both combatants and civilians, as well as the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

So Fried called for passage of international conventions, increased trade between countries, and for the establishment of a global body that would provide a means for peaceful resolution of conflicts between states.

In the aftermath of World War I, such a body came into existence – the League of Nations. It didn’t prevent the next world war, however.

Sympathetic to nationalism

Fried’s practical nature also meant that he was sympathetic to nationalism, or at least the need of peoples to retain a national identity. He looked to the Pan-American Union (today the Organization of American States) as an example of a cooperative body that could accommodate individual states.

In 1911, Fried was recognized for his efforts with the Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Tobias Asser, co-founder of the Dutch Institute of International Law. (Fried’s friend and colleague Bertha von Sutter had herself won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.)

In the summer of 1914 Fried was organizing an international peace conference, to be held in Vienna that September, when war broke out. Accused of treason at home, he went into exile in Switzerland. There he threw himself into the effort to bring the war to a rapid conclusion – to little avail. He was one of those who advocated for improved conditions for prisoners of war on all sides, a cause that the International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Switzerland, took on as its own.

Fried’s profession was journalism, and over the course of his career he wrote thousands of articles on the subject of peace. He was also a believer in the gospel of Esperanto, the international language that was meant to allow all the world’s residents to communicate with one another.

Fried had invested his money, including the cash he received on winning the Nobel Prize, in Austrian-Hungarian government bonds, which lost all their value after World War I. He was left penniless, and he died in Vienna of a lung infection on this day in 1921.