With the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in June 1815, Europe enjoyed a century of peace.  While avoiding a major continental war, this was not a period of universal peace.  Instead, conflict in the nineteenth century was characterized by the “wars of national liberation” in 1848; wars of national unification, such as Italy (1859-1861) and Germany (1863-1871); and small colonial wars around the globe.  These conflicts were generally short in duration and limited in scope, rarely involving more than two of the Great Powers.  During the course of the century, the Great Powers grew tremendously in economic power, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, and invested heavily in military expansion.  Technological advancement included the development of continental railroad systems, telegraphy and telephony, and aircraft, technologies that had dual military-civilian uses.  More importantly, the Great Powers began to compete in arms races by the beginning of the twentieth-century, primarily in battleship construction.  With the British introduction of technologically advanced HMS Dreadnought in 1906, European fleets became obsolete and the Great Powers engaged in massive warship construction programs that undermined relations.  The Industrial Revolution’s demand for raw materials and overseas markets and a mission for the new navies resulted in overseas expansion and the creation of new colonial empires.  Politically, the consolidation of Germany and Italy and the decay of the Ottoman Empire resulted in the elimination of neutral buffer zones between the Great Powers in Europe, while the race to gain colonies in Africa and Asia resulted in tensions that threatened to ignite a general global war.

The nineteenth century also marks the emergence of the peace movement.  Élie Ducommun credited the establishment of the first Peace Society in New York in 1815 and the concept quickly spread to Europe.  To coordinate the advancement of world peace, the British convened the first Congress of Peace in London in 1843, inviting delegates from peace movements from around the world.  In 1889, world peace congresses began to meet on an annual basis, beginning in Paris.  Delegates sought to combat militarism by sharing information and engaging public opinion in the cause of peace.  Champions of the peace movement advocated mediation and arbitration between hostile governments to solve outstanding disputes rather than deciding issues through force of arms.  To promote international peace and reconciliation, pacifists founded two international organizations.  Fredrik Bajer suggested the establishment of a bureau to facilitate correspondence between peace societies, support preparations for peace congresses, implement decisions reached at these conferences, and compile information on arbitration at the Third Peace Congress, held in Rome in 1891.  The International Permanent Bureau of Peace emerged in 1901 in Berne to support this mission.  The second organization, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, grew out of a meeting between British and French legislators in Paris in 1888.   They agreed to meet on an annual basis and invited legislators from other nations with constitutional forms of government to future conferences to advocate the adoption of arbitration agreements and other pacifist measures in national legislation.  Frédéric Passy, Charles Albert Gobat, Bertha von Suttner, Alfred Fried, and Henri La Fontaine played major roles in these organizations.

In addition to the arbitration treaties negotiated between governments during the nineteenth century to settle disputes, the peace movement championed the Hague Peace Conferences in 1899 and 1907 as the best way to promote world peace.  In 1898, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia proposed the First Hague Peace Conference and twenty-six nations sent delegates the next year to discuss disarmament and compulsory arbitration.  The delegates approved conventions for the settlement of international disputes, defined the laws of war, and founded the Permanent Court of Arbitration, but could not agree on arms limitations or compulsory arbitration.  Delegates again met in The Hague in 1907, at the invitation of Theodore Roosevelt, and enhanced voluntary arbitration while negotiating treaties on debt collection, the rights of neutral states, and the rules of war.  This conference marked the high water mark of the pre-World War I peace movement.

Despite advances in the world peace movement, the Europeans seemed destined to go to war.  An inflexible alliance system emerged by 1907, which pitted the Entente Powers (Britain, France, and Russia) against the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy).  The Great Powers no longer enjoyed the opportunity to shift alliances to maintain a balance of power and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary on 28 June 1914 was the spark that set off the Great War.  By August 1914, most of the European Great Powers became involved in a war that would last for four years, spread around the world, and result in the deaths of millions.

Related Links