Hitler’s plan for monster railways across Europe


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In 1941, Adolf Hitler issued orders to Nazi Germany’s railway officials. He wanted them to develop a new type of railway. It was to be bigger, far bigger, than anything that had ever been seen.

Trains the height and width of a suburban house and the length of the Empire State Building would hurtle across the Greater German Reich, from Brest in the west to Bucharest in the east. They would be luxurious, providing unimaginable amenities for travellers.

And, unsurprisingly, they were never built.

Putting the mega into megalomania  

Hitler and his coterie of leading Nazis were not short on ideas for rebuilding Germany and their conquered lands. Their plans had some common threads. They were fans of the gigantic, the superlative and the technologically advanced.

Germany’s capital Berlin would be rebuilt with towering monuments to Nazi victories. Other German cities would be comprehensively redesigned, with Innsbruck becoming a world-class cultural centre and Nuremberg adorned as the sacred party city.

Nothing was too grandiose or impractical for their fervid imaginations.

If Germany needed more land for food, they would resettle the Steppes and drain the Mediterranean.

Raw materials would be stripped from a new belt of colonies seized from defeated powers.

And the Greater German Reich and its satellite dependencies would be drawn together by a comprehensive network of transcontinental autobahn roads and gigantic high-speed trains. From the Atlantic coast to the Urals, the Black Sea to the Baltic, all Europe would be connected.

Germany’s standard gauge of 4 foot 8 1⁄2 inches would be replaced by a monstrous track more than double that width. The three-metre wide Breitspurbahn, or broad gauge railway, would have featured towering, double decker trains topping seven metres – more than double today’s

high speed


These vast carriages, comparable in width and height to a typical suburban semi-detached house, would have stretched for half a kilometre and sped across the Reich at more than 200 km/h.

Where the foxes say goodnight

Otto hadn’t been on one of these ancient, tiny trains for years. The Kleinspurbahn was somewhat oversold as a ‘standard service’, but it felt like stepping back in time.

He had changed trains at Paris’s Gare de l’Est. The Breitspurbahn had rolled into its specially built annex, longer and taller than the old station which Otto had entered to take his connecting service.

Once the Breitspurbahn had been rolled out across the Greater Reich, Otto hadn’t had much need to travel on the historic routes of the former Reichsbahn.

Things move on.

Just like no one took horse-drawn carriages to travel to town once a railway had been laid. No one wanted to travel on an antiquated standard train when they could choose the flying palaces of broad gauge network.

But the Breitspurbahn didn’t reach everywhere, and that is why Otto found himself crawling through northeastern France in an oppressively small carriage.

When he stood, his head almost reached the ceiling. The seats were narrow and covered in mean and worn synthetic fabric.

When he asked about the restaurant car, the ticket inspector laughed and told him that there was a buffet in the middle of the train, but that it was hardly worth the journey.

The final indignity was needing to go to the toilet and finding that the pan flushed straight on to the track.

Otto thought back to the first time he had taken one of Hitler’s new trains.

There had been a huge amount of publicity. He remembered watching the news and seeing Hitler and Goebbels ride the inaugural service. Goebbels had brought the whole family, and the younger children screamed in delight as the train pulled in.

There was something unreal about the size of the engine.

It dwarfed the other trains in the station.

The Breitspurbahn gleamed with its immaculate black and red livery. Everything else looked like a shabby toy in comparison.

A metal eagle had been fixed to the front of the engine, wings outstretched and clasping a golden swastika that shone in the sunlight.

It was a few months before Otto had a chance to ride one of the trains for himself. He’d read all about the luxurious carriages, sumptuous seats and incredible amenities. But reading about them, even seeing photographs, wasn’t the same as experiencing one for yourself.

The first time he travelled, he treated himself to a second class ticket. He had walked past the washbasin, mirror and coat hanger and almost turned around. Surely he was mistaken and this was a first class carriage?

An elderly lady was fussing over her bags. He offered to help and asked whether he had the right compartment. She gladly handed over a suitcase to be placed overhead and confirmed that he was in the right place.

His deeply padded, richly covered seat was enormous. He could stretch out his arms fully and still not touch the next passenger.

But he’d been far too excited to stay in his allocated place for too long. He spent the journey exploring the train’s bar, the lounge, the reading room and the observation car before enjoying a sumptuous meal in the opulent dining car.

It felt as though he was at a fine Berlin hotel. He had to keep looking out of the window to remind himself that he was, in fact, hurtling across the country.

He let his three courses settle whilst sprawled in a comfy seat in the cinema car, letting the latest UFA flick wash over him as he drifted into a contented sleep.

He woke with just a few minutes left before the journey came to an end. He hadn’t even had a chance to try the barbershop or take a dip in the swimming pool.

He was rudely snapped from his memories back into the present when the sleeping man next to him rolled his head and smacked his shoulder. He barely roused and carried on snoring.

The problem with experiencing luxury, Otto thought to himself, is that it makes anything less seem quite intolerable.

Superlatives on wheels 

In the early 1980s, Anton Joachimsthaler unearthed plans for the broad gauge railway that had been stored away and forgotten in the German railway archives.

And these were neither amateur scribblings or aspirational drawings. Instead, Deutsche Reichsbahn officials had produced pages and pages of detailed technical specifications. These covered everything from the tracks and locomotives to passenger amenities and train stations.

The nearest comparison to the proposed comforts of the Breitspurbahnen were the luxury passenger liners that had, in more peaceful times, plied the transatlantic corridor.

In one proposed configuration, 48 first class passengers would enjoy four person compartments that were well over two metres by two metres. In comparison, roughly twelve passengers cram into the same space in the first class carriages of modern European trains.

Second class passengers were to have slightly less space – six people would fit into similar sized compartments.

But what really set the Breitspurbahnen apart were the opportunities to get out of your seat.

Passengers could choose to sink into an armchair in a cosy, lamp-lit and curtained lounge.

Or they could enjoy a drink or three in the sophisticated bar.

More retiring types could find refuge in quiet and comfortable map-lined reading rooms.

Even third class passengers would enjoy considerably greater comforts than most travelling today. They had less space than second class passengers, but would still enjoy use of two living rooms.

Something to eat? 

Passengers were not limited to their carriages in they wanted to stretch their legs or try out some of the Breitspurbahnen’s other amenities.

The designers planned dining carriages for first and second class passengers on a luxurious scale. Their sketches make it appear as though they planned to take the restaurant at Berlin’s fashionable Adlon Hotel and whisk it across the network.

Expensive wood panelling, expansive windows and tables covered in crisp white linens would greet up to 130 diners at any one sitting.

The restaurant car would have been full height with an ornate ceiling almost five metres above. At almost six metres in width and 27 metres long, this room would have truly demonstrated the monstrous scale of the proposed railway.


This being Hitler’s railway, there was to be provision for at least three of the Führer’s obsessions. Kennels were to take care of man’s best friend, up to six motorcars would be conveyed and a 196-seat cinema would help while away the longest of journeys.

Another clear signal that Hitler was personally involved was the provision of a larger non-smoking section than that provided for smokers in the restaurant.

The train would finish up with an observation deck, a hot buffet and refreshment room.

Keeping the Reich moving 

The Breitspurbahnen was not just designed for people. The wide gauge railway would be the backbone of the Reich, vital arteries to transport the raw materials and manufactured goods to support the Nazi empire.

Sketches produced by the Reichsbahn show freight transporters that almost anticipate modern container shipping. Standardised freight trucks would allow quicker loading and unloading. And, with freight trains promising to be up to a mile long, this was crucial.

Intricate designs show how coal and oil would be transported and, just as importantly, how the railway could move tanks, artillery and even aircraft. The Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine and Waffen-SS would undoubtedly have been the railways biggest customers.

Überbahnhöfe for the Übermenschen

Gigantic trains would need gigantic stations.

The Nazi mania for gargantuan, if largely unrealised, buildings ensured that they would be integral in plans for all of the main cities of the New Reich.

Berlin’s five kilometre long Avenue of Splendours would be anchored  at both ends by new railway termini.

Visitors arriving at the Südbahnhof would be greeted with a panorama of the capital in its full bombastic, imperial glory. They would be cowed before they even set foot in the city.

Speer recalled that “the architecture and with it the power of the Reich was to overwhelm travellers, literally to slay them”.

The station itself was to have been a confection of superlatives. It would have been three times as wide, long and high as New York’s Grand Central Terminal.

Grandiosity was not reserved for the new Berlin. Munich’s 16 platforms would be covered by a dome rising higher than St Paul’s Cathedral in London, but a diameter eight times greater.

Planes, trains and automobiles

For those more familiar with the image of Hitler flying over his empire or speeding in a convoy of gleaming black Mercedes cars, it might seem strange that he was so interested in trains.

They were, however, a vital component of Hitler’s vision for an impregnable land-based empire.

Comprehensive railway and motorway networks would be to the Greater German Reich what the Royal Navy, merchant navy and passenger liners had been to Britain’s empire of the seas.

Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and fellow dreamer, recalls the Führer describing the importance of his planned wide gauge track:

“Hitler had become obsessed with the idea; he decided that it was even more important as a binding force in his empire than the autobahn system.”

The first instructions were issued to the Deutsche Reichsbahn in October 1941. Those ideas would continue to obsess the Führer over three years later as his empire crumbled and his capital city lay in ruins.

Like many of Hitler’s dreams, the Breitspurbahn was grandiose, impractical and probably impossible to realise. Just as Berlin’s marshy ground would have confounded plans for a new capital, practical issues would have derailed plans for the great railway.

Windows were too large to be safe. Carriages were too big to be structurally sound. Bogies, axles and wheels would be placed under unimaginable strain with breakdowns, derailments and accidents the likely outcomes.

The monstrous railway would require monstrous tunnels and bridges which would be a huge challenge to today’s civil engineers and, even if possible, would have been ruinously expensive.

Almost 200 officials and engineers of the Deutsche Reichsbahn were engaged in the project. They undoubtably knew that it would never come to fruition, but their work had one positive consequence. By saving them from service on the eastern front, it probably saved their lives.

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A dream that burst into flames – the British Hindenburg disaster

Scores of people died when the airship burst into flames. It crashed into the ground just over 50 miles away from one of the world’s most important cities. Its demise marked the end of a national programme of airship construction and the death of an imperial dream.

But this is not about the Hindenburg disaster. Just under seven years earlier, the British faced a similar tragedy when His Majesty’s Airship R101 plunged to the ground north of Paris.


The story of LZ 129 Hindenburg’s tragic last flight is well known. Hundreds of people came to watch the famous airship land. A live account of its fiery destruction on 6 May 1937 was broadcast on the radio. The recording became famous around the world. HMA R101 did not have an audience to witness its last moments.

British Airship R101

R101 was the flagship of the Imperial Airship Service. The blimps were designed to bind the far flung territories of the British Empire with vastly improved communications. Sailing times of weeks and even months could be compressed into days. They might be slower than planes, but they offered the promise of cruise ship levels of comfort to well heeled passengers.

Airship R101 at mooring mast (1929)

The project was initiated at the fourth Imperial Conference in 1921. The crash of R101 meant it would be terminated before the seventh Imperial Conference in 1930.

R101, along with her sister airship R100, would ply the route from London to Australia via Egypt and India. Alternatively, they could head west, crossing the Atlantic and linking Britain with Canada.

Whichever route they plied, they would play an integral role in linking London with other capitals in the Empire and Commonwealth.

Cardington Shed By Mac from UK (Cardington Airship Shed) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Those dreams would go up in flames when the dirigible crashed in France on 5 October 1930. Out of the 54 people on board, 48 died including the Air Minister Lord Thomson.

Even if public faith in airship travel wasn’t fatally compromised, the crash had robbed the Royal Airship Works of its most important designers and engineers.

The State of California or the Province of New Albion?

California is one of the most iconic of America’s 50 states. Its film industry has shaped world culture and ensured that one of the most enduring images of America is the golden sands and rolling waves of its Pacific coastline. But what if America had been thwarted in its westward expansion? Could California, Oregon and Washington have become the 11th Canadian province of New Albion?


In summer 1579, English sea captain Frances Drake explored the Pacific coastline of North America. Whilst it is uncertain exactly where Drake landed, it is clear that the Elizabethan explorer claimed a vast tract of land to the north of New Spain as Nova Albion – New Albion.

Francis Drake in California, 1579

British interest in this remote, rugged and, in places, hostile region was limited – imperial energies were being spent in the more immediately lucrative Caribbean, in the trading riches of India and Asia and in New England – the much closer set of colonies strung along the eastern seaboard of North America.

Continue reading “The State of California or the Province of New Albion?”

China’s colonial escape

At the end of the nineteenth century, it looked likely that the age of imperialism would reach its apogee with the carve up of China. The world’s most populous and once most powerful state faced colonial rule, as Western powers considered ‘carving the Chinese melon’ following their ‘scramble for Africa’. In the end, China retained her sovereignty, but this was not the most obvious outcome. 

I’m doing a course at the moment on world history since 1760. It is throwing up some pretty interesting concepts and ideas. At the moment, we are studying the dizzying swirl of nationalistic imperialism that swept Western nations at the end of the nineteenth century and resulted in the ‘scramble for Africa’.


What I was less aware of was the ‘scramble for Asia’. Of course, Britain had imperial pre-eminence in the region. When it added Burma to its Indian possessions it was merely polishing the so-called jewel in the crown. With interests in modern day Malaysia, Brunei, Hong Kong and Singapore, Britain was well positioned to exploit Asian markets.

Continue reading “China’s colonial escape”

Garibaldi’s plan to divert the River Tiber and change Rome forever

In the nineteenth century, Rome was troubled by its river. The Tiber had produced the Great Stink of 1855 and had flooded the Eternal City in 1870. What should the dynamic leaders of a newly unified Italy do with the fetid river that ran through its capital? Giuseppe Garibaldi had a radical solution. He wanted to remove the Tiber from the city completely.


Tiber rolls majestic to the main

Paris has the Seine, London has the Thames and Rome has the Tiber.

It is hard to imagine any of these ancient cities without their rivers. The Tiber is particularly resonant, weaving its way through Rome’s geography, history and literature. The Roman poet Ovid described the river in a memorable verse from his Metamorphoses.

Those graceful groves that shade the plain,

Where Tiber rolls majestic to the main,

And flattens, as he runs, the fair campagne.

The Tiber, the bridge and the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, Italy by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

David Gilmour notes the importance of the River Tiber in his excellent book The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples.

The most hallowed river in Italy is Virgil’s gentle Tiber, the second-longest in the country, whose relationship with Rome is as famous as that of the Seine flowing through Paris or the Thames progressing through London.

As well as featuring in poetry stretching back to Ovid, Rome’s river is evoked in key passages in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony And Cleopatra. How was it possible, then, that Rome came close to losing the Tiber?

To examine on site the conditions of the River Tiber

Fast forward to the 1870s, and the Tiber was no longer seen as being majestic. There were times when it barely seemed to roll. Instead, it was a stagnant, stinking nuisance. Something had to be done.

Giuseppe Garibaldi (1808-1882), half-length portrait, posed to the left, face front, holding sword. By Duyckinick, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America. New York : Johnson, Fry & Co., 1869. (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And this is where Giuseppe Garibaldi stepped in with his ambitious, daring and possibly mad plan to divert the river away from Rome. According to Gilmour:

as late as 1875, in the last quixotic venture of his life, Giuseppe Garibaldi tried to have the river diverted to prevent it from flooding the capital.

This arresting passage was enough to make me want to research those plans a little more.

Why was this plan even on the agenda?

Gilmour goes on to point out that, although famous, the Tiber was not always a blessing for the Romans. He suggests that perhaps the Romans:

over-estimated the value of its river. Until the late nineteenth century the Tiber was anything but gentle and so prone to flooding that no other city had been built on it in antiquity.

Rome suffered from a Great Stink in 1855. This was three years before London’s own Great Stink. In London, the River Thames had become, in the words of Charles Dickens, ‘a deadly sewer … in the place of a fine, fresh river’. Conditions got so bad in the summer of 1858 that the windows of the Palace of Westminster were sealed with heavy, lime chloride-drenched drapes. It was enough to prompt action from national and civic leaders. Not so in Rome.

The authorities were finally spurred to action by a flood that broke on Christmas Day in 1870. The rising levels of the Tiber had wrought extensive damage, cost many lives and destroyed millions of lire of property. Following extreme flooding in December 1870, the Ministry of Public Works appointed a Commission to deal with the issue. The Commission’s remit was wide-ranging:

Esaminare sul luogo le condizioni del fiume Tevere e dei suoi principali affluenti

To examine on site the conditions of the River Tiber and its main tributaries

Citizens of Italy’s new capital looked enviously to London, where, by 1870, new embankments of the River Thames were being finished. Joseph Bazalgette’s monumental engineering project not only controlled the river but also neatly contained main sewers and mass transit – the District Line of the London Underground and the Embankment roads were built into the project.

London had been notorious for its fetid, stinking and choleric river in the earlier half of the nineteenth century. The Austrians, who had reigned in the mighty Danube and protected the imperial capital of Vienna, matched this achievement. Surely the newly unified, resurgent and dynamic Italy could now do the same for its capital city?

Draining the Viper’s Nest

Was Garibaldi’s audacious plan simply to protect Rome from flooding?

According to Gilmour, there was more at stake than periodic inundations. The plans to divert the Tiber were ‘motivated by the desire to prevent not only floods but also malaria.’

Garibaldi was also not one of Rome’s biggest fans. The city was, in the Liberator’s view, a swampy hell with the ever present threat of malaria. Politically, it was a ‘viper’s nest’, the home of the reactionary Catholic Church and some of the greatest opponents of Italian unification.

Garibaldi was not alone in his criticism of Rome. John Ruskin described the city as a ‘windowless urinal’. James Joyce was even more evocative when he noted that:

Rome reminds me of a young man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother’s corpse.

The nineteenth century was a golden era for the engineer and great projects. Various individuals came forward with plans to canalize or divert the Tiber. Garibaldi favoured a project developed by Paolo Molini and Alessandro Castellani. He saw it as a necessary sign of scientific progress and a great engineering feat to rival the great canals at Suez and Panama.

Tiber towards the bridge Sublicio. On the left, Aventine Tiber, on the right, Tiber Ripa By Federico86 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

His passion for the plans was revealed to the Italian public in an article he wrote for the newspaper L’Opinione on 30 November 1872:

I certainly don’t take credit for the initiative to channelize the Tiber. I support the proposals of the scientists Castellani and Molini, who recommend continuation of the plan to bypass Rome, which will result in benefits for the citizens there.

Under the plans, the Tiber would have been diverted away from Rome and would have to a new harbour at Fiumicino, close to Ancient Rome’s historic port city of Ostia.

With the draining of the Tiber, Rome would be free of flood and malarial fever. The surrounding marshes could be drained and farmland irrigated. The diverted river would be navigable, with docks boosting the local economy.

It was uncertain as to what would happen to the Tiber’s river bed in Rome. Some suggested a regulated and steady flow of water could be released into the channel. Others thought that it could provide space for a grand promenade. Garibaldi himself imagined a Parisian-style boulevard that would be a wonder of the modern world. [2]

Draw them to Tiber banks

In the end, political rivalries and cost concerns combined to first delay and finally thwart the plans.

Had the plans gone ahead, would Romans have lived to regret the loss of their river?

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare is strangely, if unintentionally, revealing of the possible reaction of a people divorced from their river.

Draw them to Tiber banks, and weep your tears

Into the channel, till the lowest stream

Do kiss the most exalted shores of all.

And, as Ian Thomson, writing in the Telegraph, notes:

At least the Tiber is still there, its Ponte Garibaldi embankments stinking like great pissoirs in the sun. [4]

Notes and sources

[2] Rome Or Death: The Obsessions of General Garibaldi By Daniel Pick

[3] http://www.isolatiberina.it/indexe.php

[4] Ian Thomson, A tale of the Roman riverbank, The Telegraph


Why did Italy join the Allies in 1915?

On 23 May 1915, Italy declared war on its former ally, Austria-Hungary. The Triple Alliance was reduced to an alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary and Europe no longer seemed quite as finely balanced into two opposing camps as it had at the outbreak of war. But why did Italy abandon the Central Powers? 

Italy had always been the shakiest member of the European alliance system. By 1914, the Triple Entente of Russia, France and the United Kingdom had developed into a working alliance. They faced the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Germany and Austria-Hungary’s military alliance was solid. Its strength was forged from a messy combination of compromise, necessity, exigency and shared geographic and political goals.

Cartoon showing the disparity between the Triple Alliance members - Italy strains to reach the heights of Germany and Austria-Hungary

These factors did not apply as clearly to Italy. In fact, there were real tensions between Italy and Austria-Hungary – a shared border, competing irredentist claims over Alpine and Adriatic territory and the prospect of territorial gains in the Balkans as a crumbling Ottoman Empire rolled back to its Anatolian heartlands.

Continue reading “Why did Italy join the Allies in 1915?”

Deporting Dixie to Brazil

After the defeat of the Confederacy, thousands of Americans decided to emigrate to Brazil. They dreamed of building a new slave-owning society in a country almost as large as continental America with plenty of undeveloped land. Ironically, their presence would highlight slavery as an issue and lead to its eventual abolition in Brazil.

The Economist’s 2013 Christmas Special tells the story of the murder of Joaquim Firmino de Araújo Cunha. The story goes on to show how America and Brazil were “once bound together by slavery, and how the end of the peculiar institution in one country helped, in a roundabout way, end it in another.”

Ruins of Richmond, VA., 1865

For those in favour of slavery, or at least to the way of life that the ‘peculiar institution’ permitted, the defeat of the southern Confederate States of America by unionist forces in 1865 was a calamity. Would they stay in their home states to watch their antebellum way of life destroyed? Or should they move on to find a new and more permissive home?

Continue reading “Deporting Dixie to Brazil”

Vengeance denied

Few spy thrillers have plots that are as implausible as the reality presented to French military intelligence in 1904. A German officer presented himself and offered to sell top secret war plans. He called himself “The Avenger” and met his handlers with his face entirely wrapped in bandages. The facts were so implausible that it was dismissed as a German ruse. If they had taken the documents seriously, could the French have averted the near-catastrophe on the Western Front?

By the time the continental Great Powers went to war in 1914 their armies had already created detailed battle plans. Germany’s Schlieffen Plan would be pitted against France’s Plan XVII. If successful, Germany would swing around to join its ally, Austria-Hungary and its Plans B and R to fight against Russia and its Plan 19.

Le Vengeur (the Avenger) appeared to his French intelligence handler disguised in bandages

A German officer working in the General Staff wrote to his French counterparts in 1904 and offered “documents of the highest importance”.  He was to remain anonymous, signing himself only as Le Vengeur – the Avenger. The only clue at this stage was a postmark showing that the letter had been sent from Liège in Belgium.

Continue reading “Vengeance denied”

Opening the Peace Palace on the eve of war

In the heart of the Dutch capital stands a gothic wonder set in immaculate grounds. It has the lofty bell tower and intricate brickwork that conjures images of the handsome guild houses and town halls of the prosperous trading centres of the low countries. But this is not an ancient building; it is the home of the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

It is commonly known as the Peace Palace and was intended to place a key role in ending armed conflict. With terrible irony, it opened on 28 August 1913; less than a year later Europe had slid into the calamity and horror of the First World War.


Utopia was the vision of Sir Thomas More, a perfect island society that was both a ‘good place’ and ‘no place’. It was a ‘good place’ in being perfect, but it was ‘no place’ on earth as the dream was both unreachable and impossible. More succinctly discerned that mankind is fallible and so an ideal society or world is an impossible dream.

The Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands By Peegmehh (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately a negligible or nonexistent possibility of success rarely stops dreamers from dreaming. Since Thomas More’s early 16th century work, philosophers, scholars and leaders have pondered how to forge a better or even perfect society.

Few attempts at societal change were as ambitious as the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ peace movements. Throughout the nineteenth century, great powers had sought to solidify and enhance their positions by developing armies and navies. Technological progress produced weaponry with the unrivalled capacity to destroy.

Total warfare combined with technological advances were put on brutal display during the American Civil War. Mass circulation newspapers combined with telegraphy and photography to bring first hand accounts of the slaughter first to American readers and then around the world. Europeans were given a firsthand demonstration of modern warfare in the brief but decisive Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

By the turn of the century, many realised that a European conflict fought with similar intensity to that waged across the Atlantic would be disastrous. A call to action came from a surprising quarter – the court of Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias. In 1898 he invited fellow rulers and nations to join in a conference to discuss peace and disarmament:

“On 24 August 1898, he invited the governments of all major nations to join an international conference on peace and disarmament. According to the Tsar, he thought it would be better for the prosperity and progress of mankind if governments sat down and talked and concluded agreements instead of being divided and hostile towards one another.

Statue in the Peace Palace with stained glass donated by France and England PetrusSilesius at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The result was the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, hosted by Queen Wilhelmina in the Netherlands. The Hague was developing a reputation as a centre for international law and the Netherlands was suitably unthreatening and neutral to be satisfactory to all the great powers.

The delegates set to work on a dizzying raft of proposals, pledges and principles. Attendees debated the merits of setting limits on military expenditure, discussed whether to ban new weapons such as submarine torpedoes and using dirigibles to lob bombs at targets far below on the ground. One of the most powerful and lasting principles was to advocate the use of mediation and arbitration in order to prevent or end future international disputes.

The result was the 1899 Hague Convention and the foundation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The foundation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration marked a new chapter in the development of international law. It is the oldest institution for international dispute resolution and was the great hope of those who wished the new century would bring a new age of peace.

It was clear that the Permanent Court needed a permanent home. Many thought that the Court deserved and needed a grand building, an iconic statement that would enhance its prestige throughout the world. Fundraising began almost immediately, and it became one of the favoured projects of one of the age’s most generous and important philanthropists.

Andrew Carnegie was swayed in part by entreaties from Andrew Dickson White, who suggested to Carnegie that:

“A temple of peace where the doors are open, in contrast to the Janus-temple, in times of peace and closed in cases of war (…..) as a worthy testimony of the people that, after many long centuries finally a court that has thrown open its doors for the peaceful settlement of differences between peoples”.

Portrait of Andrew Carnegie Theodore C. Marceau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Peace Palace emerged in the first years of the new century, a prominent brick building that is both a nod to Dutch civic architecture and reminiscent of an important train station. In British terms, it looks like the cross between St Pancras Railway Station and Manchester Town Hall. The New York Times was not impressed, criticising it for being wholly “imitative of the architecture of another age” and for failing to incorporate “the slightest effort at large symbolism of modern life”.

Whilst it may not have impressed some from its outside, its interiors are grander. It boasts a lavishly decorated interior with gifts from many nations – a 3.2 tonne vase from Russia, marble from Italy, a fountain from Denmark, wood from Indonesia and the USA, rugs from Iran/Persia, paintings from the Dutch, stained glass from the English and a copy of the white marble throne of King Minos of Crete from Greece.

One of the gifts from the nations to the Peace Palace - a vase donated by Russia - By Lybil BER (Oeuvre personnel) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It is, of course, a supreme irony that mankind’s palace to peace opened on the eve of one of the bloodiest conflicts. The official opening, on 29 August 1913, was attended by royalty, heads of state and huge optimism. It was its unhappy fate to enter the world at the start of a half century of European history unmatched in turbulence, death and destruction.