William Thomas Stead and the Peace Conferences at The Hague

In the summer of 1899 William Thomas Stead spent a long time in the Netherlands, mainly at The Hague. The reason of his stay was a major international peace conference in the Dutch residence.

The end of the nineteenth century was the period of armed peace, of high budgets for armies and navies and increasing tensions between the European countries. The aim of the conference was to reach an understanding between the European nations not to increase, for a fixed period, existing military and naval forces. New kinds of firearms and explosives had to be given up, and a system of mediation and international arbitration had to be set up. The conference was an initiative of the Russian Czar, Nicolas II, who could hardly finance the arms race any longer. The Czar proposed the conference in an international circular which was issued on August 24, 1898; on December 30, a second circular was issued containing the programme of the conference. Why the conference was held at The Hague can be explained by several reasons: The Hague was ideally situated on the coast and, therefore, easy to reach by sea. Furthermore, it was the residence of a small, neutral country where famous international lawyers had lived, among them Hugo Grotius.

Before the start of the peace talks at The Hague, Stead undertook a journey round Europe to promote the Russian initiative. In his travel report, The United States of Europe on the Eve of the Parliament of Peace, he tells us that he left his country on September 15, 1898, and returned on November 28. He visited, among other places, Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg and Livadia in the Crimea. During his tour he spoke with several politicians and diplomats. In Paris he discussed the peace plan with “le tigre” Georges Clemenceau, but he couldn’t change the militaristic anti-German attitude of the French statesman. In Berlin he tried to have an interview with Wilhelm II, but the Kaiser, who never talked with journalists, refused to speak with him. Stead’s trip became more succesful when he was on Russian soil. In St. Petersburg he met the Russian minister of Finance, Serge Yulevich Witte, who was in favour of the peace plan of his head of state because it could improve the Russian financial situation. Stead also happened to see in St. Petersburg Johann de Bloch, a friend of the Czar and the author of The Future of War, a six volume study on war as a technological, economic and social disaster. In Livadia Stead was warmly received by the Czar himself in his summer residence. Stead admired Nicolas, the “emperor of peace” as he lovingly called him. He immediately felt at home in the country villa of the Czar: “You might be in an English country house. Everything is simple and comfortable. The only features not quite familiar were the lovely baskets of fruit, which, both in colour and fragrance, added an element unusual but in delightful harmony with the sylvan character of the rural retreat” (Stead, 1898, 155). Stead wasn’t allowed to publish any report of his conversation with Nicolas, which he accepted without a complaint. Stead wrote: “As to what he said I can of course say nothing here, excepting to affirm in the strongest possible terms my absolute conviction that the Emperor is as passionately devoted to peace as was his father (Alexander III) …” (Stead 1898, 151-152).

The peace conference at the Hague started on May 18 and ended on July 29. Stead was there all the time to deliver reports on the deliberations in several newspapers, and to inform the Czar by letter about what was going on in Huis ten Bosch, the historical building where the conference took place. The peace talks were secret but he succeeded in getting some information from friendly delegates. Stead took up his abode in an elegant villa at the Van Stolkpark. As a countryman, he must have enjoyed the surroundings of The Hague: the dunes, the woods and the beach of Scheveningen. But most of the time, William the Hermit (as was his nickname) was working and writing for newspapers, not only for British papers – his own Review of Reviews and the Manchester Guardian – but also the Dutch Dagblad van Zuid-Holland en ‘s-Gravenhage, in which he started a chronicle of the deliberations. The chronicle became an important source of information about the progress of the peace talks, and was eagerly read by the delegates. They became more and more aware of the power of the press: “The delegates could not help reading it, and, reading, feeling the eyes of King Demos upon them and his voice in their ears, could not help being influenced” (Perris 1899, 29).

Below are Stead’s impressions of his stay at The Hague, as published in 1899 by G.H. Perris in A History of the Peace Conference at The Hague:

June 3rd: Today, anticipating the official publication of the protocols of the Conference, I commence, in the pages of the Dagblad, a chronicle of the deliberations written in English, translated into French, and printed side by side with the Dutch contents of the leading journal. I hope thus not only to be the herald of the Conference to the outer world but also to awaken in its members a sense of the unique grandeur of their mission. At present there is curiosity, scepticism, and just a little hope…

June 6th: The proposals for a restriction of more deadly weapons and explosives have not received unanimous support and have therefore collapsed. (…) A happier result is the progress of the idea of a system of mediation and a permanent Arbitration Court: these things, which seemed too good to be more than a dream a month ago, are now by way of becoming tangible realities.

June 17th: A month of amicable discussion of the gravest problems has worked the happiest change in the spirit of the Conference. The fact is that the intrinsic absurdity and unreason of the existing international anarchy are such that honest men cannot seriously consider them without the conviction growing that a little good faith and sincere effort are alone wanting for a great step toward a happier future.

July 3rd: On Wednesday I am fifty years old, and on Saturday evening I was at my first ball! I was brought up in an austere circle, where cards, balls, and theatres were as so many snares of the devil. (…) To this day I scarcely know the name of the cards; I have never witnessed a performance in a theatre; and, except for witnessing a Freemasons’ dance in a provincial town, I have never seen a ball.

July 28th: The road is clear now, and tomorrow all will be over. (…) There is the most astonishing agreement here, among the delegates and newspaper correspondents, that everything, humanly speaking, depends upon the extent to which the Conference is followed by a vigorous propaganda (Perris 1899, 16-25).

One of the main results of the conference was the founding of a Permanent Court of Arbitration, from 1912 located in the impressive Peace Palace at The Hague. Stead personally contributed to the building of the Peace Palace by asking Andrew Carnegie, a wealthy American industrialist and a convinced pacifist, for financial help. Carnegie gave $1.5 million for the building of the palace, including an extensive international law library.

In 1907 when a second peace conference took place at the Hague, Stead was again on the spot. With the help of the Dutch publishing house, Maas & Van Suchtelen, he started his own journal entitled, Courrier de la Conférence de la Paix, a journal with interviews with the delegates of the conference, reports of the general meetings, photo’s and cartoons.

After Stead’s tragic death in 1912 (on the Titanic, en route to New York to address a peace congress), one of his Dutch publishers, the young Nico van Suchtelen, continued his crusade for peace. Just before the outbreak of the First World War, Van Suchtelen pleaded for obligated arbitration and the founding of an international police agency. Although the war broke out, on July the 28th 1914, and no large-scale peace conferences took place after that date, The Hague developed during the twentieth century into a centre of peace, international law and human rights.

In general, it can be said that Stead was one of the pioneers of international peace thinking. His ideas were not forgotten after his death, and many were featured in Norman Angell’s famous book, The Great Illusion, which was translated into Dutch and many other languages, and which greatly influenced all those who, after the First World War, participated in making The Hague the legal capital of the world.

Copyright © 2005 Annemarie van Heerikhuizen

Webmaster’s Note… Annemarie van Heerikhuizen is a lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Amsterdam. I would like to offer my thanks to her for permission to reproduce her work here.


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Eyffinger, Arthur, The 1899 Hague Peace Conference. The Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World (The Hague/London/Boston 1999).

Hull, William I., The Two Hague Conferences and their Contribution to International Law (Boston 1908). G.H. Perris ed., A History of the Peace Conference at The Hague (London 1899).

Stead, W.T., The United States of Europe on the Eve of the Parliament of Peace (London 1899).

Suchtelen, Nico van, Verzamelde Werken. Deel XII (Verspreide Geschriften). (Amsterdam/Antwerpen 1956) 9-11.

Whyte, Frederic, The Life of W.T. Stead. Vol. II (London, New York, Boston 1925).