On April 8, 2014, the European Commission in Brussels awarded the Peace Palace the European Heritage Label along with Dutch World War II Transit Camp Westerbork. During the official celebration at the Peace Palace in one of the ceremonial offices, the Small Court Room, one of the speakers was Thomas von der Dunk. Mr von der Dunk, an architectural historian, well known for his sometimes rather confronting publications in Dutch academic circles and newspaper articles, held a highly original speech, tracing the history of the Peace Palace from its origins, referring to the Roman Empire, the League of Nations, the Korean war, right to the problems of modern times.
"The Peace Palace as European Heritage"
The construction of the Peace Palace in the Hague, completed 101 years ago, passed in a more peaceful way than was to be expected considering its chosen procedure and its chosen architect. Usually in those days, a competition preceded the decision whose design was to be executed. Such competitions rather seldom take place without a lot of quarreling in the architectural world.
A lack of anonymity and an abundance of animosity from the side of the participants, combined with prescience of the conditions and uncertainty about the maximum costs, results in a discussion about the fairness of the whole, in particular when the government of a town or state is involved and rumors of protection arise. In that case, there is always something to be found rotten in the state of Denmark. In the state of the Netherlands, that's mostly the case with a budget. Despite good intentions at the start, financial cuts and artificial reductions are unavoidable in the end, as indeed turned out to be the fate of the project for the Peace Palace too.
The winner of this competition in 1907, the French architect Louis Marie Cordonnier, had a painfull history in this respect. More than twenty years before, after winning another important Dutch competition for a new project (De Beurs) in Amsterdam, he was accused afterwards of plagiarism. Apparently, he had copied, for a big part , the old renaissance Town Hall of the French city of La Rochelle. Cordonnier, who was active in Lille in the far north of his country, may have thought: ‘Who the hell will know La Rochelle, but a Dutch reader of a trivial contractor-paper called De Opmerker - which means The Observer - did know it and thus the paper showed itself worthy of its name. It kicked up a row that caused widespread agitation, and after a lot of further quarrels and machinations, in the end it wasn’t Cordonnier, but the Dutch architect Hendrikus Petrus Berlage who got the commission.
That's the main reason architectural historians - and I originally am one myself - do like to study architectural competitions, as a kind of artistic warfare, as much as regular historians like to study real wars. Peace is rather dull, although people may be very happy when the restoration of it is achieved. Doesn’t every fairy-tale end with a sentence: "And they lived happily ever after?” The fairy-tale ends there, because from the moment the principal characters start to become happy, they are no longer of interest to the reader.
The best and wisest emperor of the Roman Empire perhaps could boast off during the four centuries of its existence, was Antoninus Pius, who reigned from 138 till 161 A.D. There were no wars to win or lose. There were no poisoners active anymore in the ruling circles of Rome. Antoninus Pius was happily married and liked his wife, his predecessor and his successor (one can't say all this about the first three Kings of Orange of the Netherlands in the nineteenth century, as three recently published biographies made clear). In Antoninus' time, one could travel totally safe from London to Alexandria. Pax Romana every-where, even without a Peace Palace. Boring, boring. For a historian there is nothing exciting to tell. The happy years of Antoninus Pius in most histories of the Roman World quickly passed over. Let us instead rather enjoy the Roman Civil War with the killing of the Gracchi brothers, the Spartacus Uprising, the murder of Caesar, the suicide of Cleopatra together with her beloved Mark Antony and a lot of other bloodshed. Thrilling! 'Emperors don't expire in their bedroom', the book title runs of one of the most famous Dutch historians of Antiquity, Fik Meijer. The book became a bestseller.
Well, to be sure: the newly established Peace Palace didn't achieve what it aimed for. Only a year after its completion the First World War broke out. One of the main war-actors, at least officially, was the tsar of all Russians, Nicholas II . Yes, the same who only sixteen years before took the initiative for the first Peace Conference at The Hague, that in the end resulted in the coming in to existence of the Peace Palace that has now been awarded the European Heritage Label. It was the Palace of Hope, the Palace of Hope for Peace and Justice, of a kind of hope that wasn't fulfilled very often during the first half of the twentieth century. It is of great importance, that the committee that was responsible for the Award, also gave it to Camp Westerbork, the place that within Dutch borders symbolizes the most absolute reverse of justice. The transit camp of Westerbork where the trains for Auschwitz left stands for the mass-murder and genocide of the Holocaust.
According to the Australian historian Christopher Clark, the problems of Eastern Europe and the Russian support for the Serbs played a more important role for the outbreak of the First World War,that is to be commemorated next summer, than has been common sense until now. Without neglecting the role of the Germans, the Austrians, the French and the English, he points his finger at the government in Saint-Petersburg. On a more basic level underneath, it was nationalism that caused what is called the primeval catastrophe of the last century for Europe. After an - also apart from the Holocaust - even more destructive Second World War, the answer to nationalism on our continent became international cooperation, which resulted in the European Union.
The League of Nations, founded due to the American president Woodrow Wilson in January 1919, had failed to maintain peace in the nineteen-thirties, as the initiative of Nicholas II had failed to do so in the nineteen-tens. The personal failure of the tsar himself in regard of the Russian share of guilt for the outbreak of the First World War resulted in his forced abdication in 1917 and his execution by the Bolsheviks one year later. As an autocrat upholding peace, he for a large part, will have believed in good relationships with other monarchs, with whom the Romanovs thanks to a lot of intermarriage were related. As recently as the 24th of May of the year 1913 the only daughter of the German emperor Wilhelm II had married. His cousins, Nicholas II and George V, with a lot of other relatives were attending the wedding-party. Not much over a year later the three cousins were at war with each other. Within five years the first had lost his throne and the second moreover his life.
Their belief in a kind of Monarchic International appeared to be an illusion, as nationalism had become stronger than the noble bands of blood. Nowadays, as the European integration has gone too far in the eyes of a big part of the European people, nationalism is rising again, mutually reviving old cliches and biasses. Just a month after the European Heritage Label was awarded to the Peace Palace, the present-day Russian government annexed the Krim.
The late successor of Nicolas II, Vladimir Putin, in his behaviour not less autocratic than the last official tsar, is out of deep-rooted nationalistic sentiments and frustrations, hailed by a large majority of the Russian people for 'bringing back' this peninsula to its home country. Well, to be clear: although the whole overhasty referendum to legitimate this illegal step of course is a fake, also in the case of a fair one there is a big chance that the outcome - a majority voting for joining Russia - indeed would be the same, although not with that ridiculous Northern-Korean 97 percent.
And let's be clear also in another point, when looking back at the whole century that separates us now from the completion of the Peace Palace. Nationalism and nationalist sentiments also nowadays aren't just a specialism of Russia or Eastern Europe. I've never seen in my life any Western-European nation so completely hysterical - I think there is no other suitable word for that - than thirty years ago. This nation, that since centuries regards itself as the most self-controlled of the whole world, thanks to its inborn tradition of the stiff upperlip. Yes, I mean the English during the Falklands War. All of you guessed it right. I still don't think it was a war of the kind of to be or not to be - perhaps for Margaret Thatcher it was, but even after eleven years Margaret Thatcher wasn't completely identical with Britain, although she herself behaved like that - but that this war was more about 'national honour'.
Anyhow, has the way the British nurse their own beloved historical rancor changed since then? They apparently haven't overcome their lost Hundred-Years-War with Germany for the dominance of Europe less than the Russians have. Last Monday the Dutch Volkskrant reported about a small uproar caused by a English newspaper none of you will read as it will make you disgust, although perhaps you better read it more often: The Sun, the ventriloquist of popular gut feelings of Good Old Britain.
It's about football this time - football often functions as the megaphone of society. Notwithstanding more than fifty years of European cooperation, old primitive anti-German feelings are nourished here in a way that even the German Bild Zeitung - not really a nuanced and learned newspaper for the intellectual happy few, to be clear - wouldn't dare to do in the reverse case. The English tabloid once even published an interview with the German ambassador under the title 'The Hun talks to the Sun'.
Compared to that even the way the Kremlin now is describing the Ukrains last week is rather civilised, but the nationalist card it is playing as such is very dangerous. I will leave aside for this moment to what extent the EU and NATO, by expanding their own territory and thus rolling back the Russian sphere of influence geographically, have caused this reaction. The Russians - regrettably not completely without arguments - accuse the West of having broken tacit agreements after the Falldown of the Berlin Wall on the base of the newly discovered right of national self-determination. It's not the moment to discuss here if the EU and NATO, regarding their own democratic principles could have done otherwise and could indeed have rejected the will of the people of Eastern Europe to join and so to get rid of the Russian domination with which they had so many bad experiences.
The history of international relations however is not in the first place about guilt and innocence, but about causes and effects. And a real statesman not only thinks about who is right but also how to get it right. This means that you realize the effects of your own acting by learning to understand the way of thinking of your opponents without beforehand agreeing with it. That's the main reason statesmen are rare and most politicians are average. Brussels fancies itself to live in another, postmodern era, where geopolitics doesn't count anymore, but is disabused in a crude way now. Angela Merkel stated angrily that Putin was living in another world. She was right - but the crucial question is, whose world in this case is the real one.
The Dutch world surely isn't. The Dutch can boast of a long tradition of reducing international politics to morals - and thus to just maintaining international law - on the one hand and to immoral trade on the other. Since a few years the second has become completely dominant again. The merchant has defeated the clergyman, as we say in Holland.
That already was the case during the Golden Age of Dutch trade, when our ships, transporting silk, spices, slaves and other nice merchandize, ruled the waves before Britannia did. The famous V.O.C.-mentality - the mentality of the regents of the Dutch East India Company - was recently even praised by a former prime-minister of ours. One of his predecessors with the same religious-political background, Hendrik Colijn, more than a century ago, participated in the Dutch conquest of the Indonesian sultanate of Atjeh. Yes, it happened all in those years that The Hague thanks to Nicholas II became the favorite city for Peace Conferences, and thus the foundation stone was laid for The Hague as the town of international justice. No, this Dutch seizing of Atjeh wasn't very peaceful nor justified according to any international law.
It had to do with nationalistic hysteria, Dutch imperialism and big business. Colijn later became, quite appropriately, the head of a big Dutch Oil Company. Part of that big business by tradition is arm trade. In the Golden Age, the Trip brothers from Amsterdam became very rich by doing that without discriminating any potential trade-partner. Their townpalace now functions as the proud seat of the Dutch Academy of Science. This undiscriminating arms trade already took place in our own Eighty-Year-War of Independence, when Amsterdam arms dealers sold weapons to the Spanish enemy, so we of course also do this when other people are fighting their war of independence against their own tyran. This was the case with Frans van Anraat, who delivered poison gas to Saddam Hussein to fight the Kurds and thus helped to kill thousands and thousands of people. Eventually, Van Anraat was sentenced by the Dutch justice to prison for seventeen years - one year less than Volkert van der Graaf, the murderer of Pim Fortuyn, who killed only one person. All victims are equal, but Dutch are more.
Maybe this is an extreme example, but stimulating trade has become the leading principle of Dutch international politics. It is no accident that the most mighty non-politician of the Netherlands on a list of De Volkskrant for a couple of years have been the president of the national employer's organisation. According to the Uri Rosenthal-doctrine, named after the former minister of Foreign Affairs, the Netherlands only stay as a member state inside the EU to make the selling of our potatoes abroad easier. Since his resignment official Dutch usage has become less bad, but behaviour in practice hasn't changed very much. As The Hague still wants to become the European gas hub, it sent everybody who at least looked important and handsome to Sochi to join the dictators of Africa and Asia in their skyebox and to toast with Putin, whereas Putin himself was preparing his invasion of the Krim.
After this happened, and international law was violated, the Dutch government didn't position itself in the forefront of those who were in favor severe sanctions, to put it mildly. Dutch bulb-dealers, fearing more for their lucrative trade than for the national sovereignty of the Ukrainian people, are not quite advocating a Russian bulb-boycott. With Dutch bulb-dealers being Dutch voters and Ukrainian citizens are not, the outcome of a Dutch political debate about the boycott-theme is rather predictable. That the Dutch sporting embassy at the Olympic Games is called the 'Heineken House' may help to explain the main feature of our national identity. Holland, as Benjamin Franklin already stated two centuries ago, is not a nation, but a shop.
It was a logic step that Franklins’ compatriot Andrew Carnegie decided to build the Peace Palace in Holland. It was the outcome of a discussion between an American and a Russian diplomat. As the Netherlands had become a neutral country at that time, since the humiliating outcome of the successful Belgian uprising, it was not interested in becoming a big European power any longer and concentrated on empire-building in the Far East. Therefore, it was granted the fame of the ideal inter-mediator.
And to turn all the negativity of the last paragraphs into its often inseparable positive counterpart: abiding international law for a small country like ours may be self-evident from the viewpoint of its own interests, it anyhow helps to buttress the rule of international law, which is at most times preferable to the law of the jungle. Although a country being obsessed only with the possibility of trading profit may seem very egoistical, at least it results in the wish to maintain good contacts with all potential trade partners. Good profitable contacts will end quickly when you go to war against them. For that reason the Dutch didn't go to war voluntarily for two centuries within Europe.
The only conquests we made to augment our territory were conquests of the sea - apart from the small conquests of the man who is hailed now by the Dutch public as the best prime-minister ever, Willem Drees. He delivered us the tiny German villages of Elten and Tudderen, which we took in 1949 as a kind of small compensation for the war damage caused by the Nazis. To be sure: Drees is not for that reason hailed as the best prime-minister we ever had. And to be clear: after fourteen years, when it proved itself to be impossible to turn the rustic German inhabitants of Elten and Tudderen into good Dutch merchants, we gave both villages back immediately.
The champions of international law inside the Peace Palace, I presume, will have nodded approvingly: good relations with your neighbors have more value than national expansion. Yes, Germany is our most important and thus most remunerative tradepartner. Your guess again is right.
Thomas von der Dunk, 6 april 2014