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 (], 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 ( or CC-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 ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], 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.