At the dawn of the 20th century, European nations invested heavily in building professional armies and marine fleets. All experimented with the development of newer and faster weapons that could be used on a wider scale. From the years 1891 to 1919, a real arms race between Germany, France and Russia took place. Specifically, Germany's envy of Britain's superior navy resulted in a costly building competition of Dreadnought-class ships. Unfortunately, one year after the inauguration of the Peace Palace in 1913, World War I broke out.
Against this backdrop, the Russian Tsar Nicholas II took a remarkable initiative. On 24 August 1898, at their weekly reception at the Foreign Office in St. Petersburg, the ambassadors and ministers of the major nations accredited to the Russian Court were presented a written statement to be forwarded to their respective governments. In it, the Tsar invited the governments 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.
Initially, his call met with a great deal of disbelieve and scepticism. After all, Nicholas II was one of the many European rulers who were building up their military power. And how noble and great-hearted were the motives really that prompted this autocratic despot and monarch, who never felt the pressure from constitution or parliament, to call for peace? It was only after the United States reacted positively that the Russian initiative gained momentum.
At Russia’s request, The Hague was chosen as the venue for this First Peace Conference. Several reflections may have been taken into consideration. The Netherlands had the right profile. Dutch humanists and jurists like Erasmus, Grotius and Van Bynckershoek had stood at the cradle of international law and the Netherlands had always stayed relatively neutral in European conflicts. Furthermore, The Hague had proven to be a good host city for the 1893 and 1894 conferences of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Hague Conference on Private International Law. Friedrich Fromhold Martens, diplomat and jurist in service of the Russian Empire, had been very much pleased by the way the Dutch had organized the meetings.
The kinship of the Dutch royal family to the Russian monarchy may conceivably have been of influence in the Tsar’s choice. Young Queen Wilhelmina offered to host the conference at her summer residence in The Hague, the Palace 'Huis ten Bosch', not far from the city centre.
Nicholas and the Peace Palace
The ceremony of the laying of the foundation stone of the Peace Palace was scheduled at the same time as the Second Peace Conference of 1907. The nations represented at the peace conference were asked to contribute to the new to be built ‘Temple of Peace’. Many countries responded positively to this call and donated a work of art or a national product to decorate the building. Tsar Nicholas II donated an impressive vase made of green jasper adorned with gilded ornaments (more information on the right).
In celebration of the First Peace Conference, the Royal Manufacturer of Pottery Rozenburg produced a collection of five Peace Vases richly decorated with Jugendstil ornaments, flowers and leaves. The vases were made for the World Exhibition of 1900 in Paris, where they were admired by many. Until half a century ago, the vases were located in Amsterdam, until it was decided to grant them a special place in the Peace Palace. On one of these vases ‘N II’ is shown, referring to Czar Nicholas II as the initiator of the peace conference. The last Tsar of Russia is also represented through his portrait in the Small Court Room.
(Below: photograph of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (1868-1918). Published in Conférence de la Paix, La Haye, Mai-Juillet 1899: Exemplaire de M. le Jonckheer J.C.N. van Eys, ministre-résident de S.M. la Reine, secrétaire général de la Conférence, Paris/Varsovie, B. Matuszewski. Photographic album on the occasion of the First Hague Peace Conference of 1899. Photograph taken by Bolesław Matuszewski (1856-c.1943 or 1944), Polish businessman, photographer and cameraman, pioneer of cinematography and documentary film. Matuszewski was photographer to Tsar Nicolas II since 1897.)