In August 1913, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands formally opened the Peace Palace, the seat of the Permanent Court of International Arbitration at The Hague. World peace, it seemed, had broken out, and it resided in neutral Holland. The country, argued one of its leading international lawyers, Cornelis van Vollenhoven, was predestined, as a small power, to play the role of moral leader of internationalism and arbitrationism. The Great Powers, by contrast, could not further these causes, for ‘the foundation of their state affairs is nothing but egotism’. 1 Not all contemporaries were infected by such optimism. ‘The Peace Palace has been opened’, quipped a socialist-anarchist: ‘The war can now begin’. 2
His scepticism proved to be prescient. Less than twelve months after the grand opening of the building, their egotism had plunged the European powers into a global conflict, and the war would challenge Van Vollenhoven’s notion of neutrality. For the belligerents on both sides, the Netherlands, straddling as she did some of the main commercial arteries in North Western Europe, was of great strategic significance. For their part, the authorities at The Hague were only too aware of the potential risks entailed in a continental war. Within living memory, during the post-Crimean international crises and the critical year of 1870, Dutch neutrality had been challenged. Especially in the latter year, British diplomatic intervention had helped to shield the Low Countries against French hegemonic ambitions. 3 Since then, successive Netherlands governments had pursued a policy of cautious and equidistant neutrality, indeed pacific aloofness from European politics.