Hope on the eve of the Great War, August 28, 1913

It had taken years to build, and it was built to last for centuries. When the Peace Palace, home to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, opened in August 1913, it was hoped it would herald the beginning of a new era in international relations: one in which force of argument rather than force of arms settled international disputes.

This was not an aspiration of starry-eyed activists alone. The original Hague conference of 1899 was convened at the suggestion of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. Arbitration had already been applied to a number of delicate situations over the previous few years. Much of the finance to build the Peace Palace came from Andrew Carnegie, the hard-nosed Scottish-born American tycoon. The floors were made of Austrian wood. Switzerland gave a clock, the French several artworks, while the Germans provided the wrought-iron gates. 'Diplomacy can meet the inauguration of this temple with head held high and a heart full of hope,' the Dutch Foreign Minister told guests at the building's inauguration. The next day there was to be a garden party.

Europe had experienced a series of crises, most recently in 1911 when a German gunboat was sent to Agadir to protest creeping French colonization of Morocco. But the scare passed. Cooler heads prevailed. The same year Italy invaded Libya, asserting her new-found status. In early 1913 war raged in the Balkans, with the countries of southeastern Europe fighting to secure a share of the Ottoman Empire's territories in Europe. In London the Great Powers -- Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy -- met to hammer out their collective solution to the Balkan problem, leading to a peace treaty in May. A fresh Balkan war over the spoils of the first broke out almost immediately. A new treaty was signed a few weeks before the opening of the Peace Palace.

It was far from clear that the various antagonisms between the Great Powers were getting worse, however, or that they could not be contained. While some anticipated a wide and bloody conflict -- and some wanted one -- many thought it unlikely. Perhaps the moment of greatest danger had passed. In such an economically interdependent world war as a tool of state policy had become unprofitable, it was argued. Would not socialist parties mobilize the European workers against war if one appeared in prospect? The possibility of a general war had been a spectre in the background of European societies for years. But would it really come? Scare fatigue set in.

Of course, there were those prepared to whip up patriotic sentiment into paroxysms of nationalist fury. France had its chauvinists demanding revenge over Alsace-Lorraine, Russia its pan-Slavists, and Germany its militarists and armchair strategists worried that the country was being progressively hemmed in. Sometimes nationalist outbursts had government sponsors who wanted to use fear of war in the media to improve their position at home. Foreign ministries often subsidized journalists abroad to write stories which suited them. Hawks argued for, and often got, bigger budgets for their militaries.

But there were pragmatists and peacemakers too in Europe in 1913. Some, including German nationalists, counted the erratic Kaiser Wilhelm II among them. In 1911, the president of the University of California nominated the Kaiser for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1913, Wilhelm was thought a factor restraining Vienna from intervening in the Balkans. Germans, more broadly, were prominent in the peace movement. Socialists were the largest group in the Reichstag.

The painting intended to hang in pride of place in the Peace Palace -- Peace by Arbitration -- was not finished for the building's opening in 1913. Artist Albert Besnard finally signed his canvas in July 1914. A few days later, Europe was at war. The painting ended up travelling the world to raise money for French troops. The dream of peace was put on hold.

Charles Emmerson is author of '1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War', and a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House


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