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Library of Congress
Library of Congress

The Peace Palace Opens

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 83rd installment in the series. 

August 28, 1913: Peace Palace Opens

The story of the Great War is filled with ironies: the fact that an intricate alliance system meant to keep the peace instead plunged the world into chaos; that decades of military planning left all Europe’s Great Powers completely unprepared for the conflict; that empires which fought to stem the tide of change hurried it instead, bringing about their own collapse. But perhaps the greatest irony of the Great War is that it occurred at a time when the civilized world seemed to have banished war forever.

The first years of the 20th century were a time of great optimism, fueled by the undeniable progress of European civilization and belief in science and technology. Disease and malnutrition were in retreat, travel and communication were easier than ever, and Europeans directed the affairs of most of the planet with a patronizing sense of “duty” to the “lesser races.” Amid all these triumphs of “Reason” (frequently capitalized) it wasn’t unreasonable to believe humanity might also be freed from the terrible, irrational suffering and waste of war. 

This was more than just a hope: It was “proved,” with typical confidence, by social scientists and pundits like Norman Angell, a British economist and member of the Labour Party, who in his book The Great Illusion cited the complex connections between industrial states in areas like trade and finance to argue that a major war would simply be too disruptive to the modern, interdependent global economy. A European war would cut Germany off from British finance, and Britain off from continental markets, leading to total economic collapse; therefore neither country (nor their allies) could afford to start a fight. 

Kurt Riezler, a German philosopher and diplomat who wielded a great deal of influence as foreign policy advisor to Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, argued something similar in his book The Fundamental Features of Contemporary Geopolitics, published in 1914, just prior to the war. Riezler observed that “the world has become a [single] politically unified area,” as nations were drawn together by interlocking economic interests. At the same time, the destructive capacities of modern weaponry meant war would result in “political and financial ruin.” Therefore armed struggle was an “outdated form of conflict"; future wars would instead be “calculated” around a negotiating table, rather than fought out on battlefields, thus sparing everyone the misery of actual bloodshed.

Negotiation and compromise were central to Angell and Riezler’s visions of a world without war—and the world seemed to be taking steps in that direction with the creation of new, international institutions dedicated to the peaceful resolution of conflicts. August 28, 1913, saw the opening of the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, to house some of these promising new institutions.

The Peace Palace was built with generous support from Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American industrialist, philanthropist and peace activist, as a home for The Permanent Court of Arbitration—an international tribunal agreed in a treaty signed at the First Hague Peace Conference in 1899 (convened at the behest of Tsar Nicholas II with the goal of reducing armaments and preventing war through mediation).

Participation in the tribunal was strictly voluntary, so its value was more symbolic than anything else—but in an idealistic age, this still mattered. A bit weirdly, the Palace was originally supposed to be the central feature of “city of world peace,” a sort of proto-world capital, sketched out for the beach near The Hague by the Dutch spiritualist and pacifist Paul Horrix; the somewhat impractical design produced for Horrix by the architect K.P.C. de Bazel, but never built, called for a circular city with streets radiating out from the Peace Palace at the center.

At Carnegie’s insistence, the Peace Palace was also home to an extensive library of international law. Meanwhile several more international courts were proposed at the Second Peace Conference in 1907 but never agreed upon; the war intervened before the Third Peace Conference, scheduled for 1915, could take place. In subsequent years the Peace Palace also became home to the League of Nations’ Permanent Court of International Justice, added in 1922; the Hague Academy of International Law, added in 1923; and the International Court of Justice, formed by the United Nations to replace the Permanent Court of International Justice in 1946.

But as demonstrated by the rocky history of these institutions, the vision of a world ruled by Reason, with peace maintained by international institutions, remains more a dream than anything else. Despite a lukewarm suggestion from Tsar Nicholas II, the Peace Palace sat unused during the July Crisis of 1914; after the First World War the League of Nations was most notable for its failure to prevent the Second; and the United Nations has for the most part proved sadly impotent in the face of wars, civil wars, and genocide. The international rules of war, agreed to at The Hague Peace Conference in 1899, have also been routinely flouted. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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