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By Irwin Abrams

Published as "Je me souviens..." in United Nations Library at Geneva: Catalogue of the Centenary Exhibition of the International Peace Bureau (Geneva: United Nations Office, 1992): 3-5.

Today's historians of the European peace movement have easy access to the treasure trove of documents in the Historical Collections of the United Nations Library in Geneva, where the archives of the Permanent International Peace Bureau and the papers of Baroness von Suttner and Alfred Hermann Fried are neatly arranged for scholarly research. It was very different when I came to Geneva in 1936. I was in Europe then on a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship from Harvard University, where I had begun my doctoral dissertation on the history of the European peace movement in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century. Armed with encouragement, good advice and letters of introduction from Professor Merle Curti, the pioneer historian in the field, I had planned a year of travel, research in libraries and archives, and interviews. I had also been asked by Jacob ter Meulen, Director of the Library of the Peace Palace at The Hague, to be on the look-out for old peace books for his library as I journeyed through Europe.

Arrival in Geneva

My first port of call was Geneva, the site of the League of Nations and headquarters for the internationalists of the day. There I was to meet such leading figures of the pre-war peace movement as Ludwig Quidde, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a refugee from Hitler Germany; Christian Lange, also a Nobel peace prizewinner and a leading scholar on internationalism, who was a member of the Norwegian delegation to the League Assembly; and Theodore Ruyssen, a veteran of the French peace movement, now secretary-general of the International Union of Associations for the League of Nations. I was also to interview Hans Wehberg, international lawyer and publicist, who had an unrivalled knowledge of the peace movement's history.

They were all helpful, and it was a privilege to meet such men, but a historian must have written records, and in Geneva I hoped to see what might be preserved of the archives of the IPB, which could go back to its founding in Berne by action of the World Peace Congress of l89l. I knew that it still occupied the same premises to which it had moved in l924. And I had also learned that the Library of the League had acquired the papers of Fried and Baroness von Suttner, both leaders in the peace movement in the 1890's.

The IPB Office

When I arrived in Geneva in September l936, I went first to the office of the IPB in the Rue Charles Bonnet, that I described in my journal as "a quiet little office, two rooms, desks surrounded by shelves of books." Henri Golay, who had been secretary-general of the IPB since l9ll, was away on holiday, and I was received by his assistant, Mlle. F. Montaudon "of ancient vintage," who had worked there almost as long. She told me that M. Golay had the key to the archives in his pocket, but she did take me downstairs to the basement, where there were piles of dusty books and cartons that I yearned to look through. Not until M. Golay returns, she said.

We did have a pleasant talk. "A well preserved old lady," I wrote, "with a well preserved sense of humor. She is vastly amused when I ask her questions which betray a deep knowledge about all the details of the peace movement. Here she has been associated with the Bureau for almost 40 years, and a mere stripling asks her about things she has forgotten years ago."

Visit to the League of Nations Library

My next visit was to the Library of the League of Nations, which had purchased Fried's collection of his own papers and those bequeathed to him by Bertha von Suttner. I found the new buildings of the League at the Palais des Nations "gleaming white in the sunshine, straight, solid, substantial, giving one renewed hope in the League. Surrounded by luxuriant park with view of the lake and the mountains. Very impressive."

But the buildings were not quite finished, and to find my way to the Library, I had to "crawl in through the back, walking on boards and dodging buckets of paint." The Secretariat had moved into its new quarters in the spring, and the Council was meeting in its new chamber in September. But the Assembly Hall would not be ready until the following year, and I was to interview Dr. Lange at Geneva's Batiment Electoral shortly before the l7th Assembly held its last session there.

The library was almost all moved in, but, as I wrote, "All is confusion. The loan desk is three floors away from the catalogue, the geographical institute is five floors distant from the map collection, and I am several miles away from the Fried-Suttner collection. These documents must be kept in the safe, and the safe is not yet installed. Meanwhile they have been good enough to bring over some of the documents and and let me have them through M. Breycha, who gives them to me in sections." Dr. Sevensma, the Head Librarian, eventually found space for me to work in the office of Mr. Rasmussen, who was the geographical institute. He "keeps amazing me by answering the phone in any one of four languages. Any frontier dispute springs up anywhere in the world, and he must know all about it." It was my first opportunity to watch an international civil servant in action.

It was Dr. Breycha-Vautier, the Assistant Librarian, who had negotiated the purchase of the papers from Frau Fried some years before. One day he drove me down to the old library and let me look at the whole collection. "C'est formidable," I wrote. But only a part of the Suttner papers had been put in some kind of order by Alfred Hermann Fried, and there was much to do before the collection could be effectively examined. As it turned out, when I returned to Geneva in May l937, my use of these precious documents was still limited, and it was only twenty years later that I was able to read through all the relevant Suttner papers in order to complete my research on the story of the Baroness and Alfred Nobel.

My 1936 journal is studded with expressions of my frustration: "Yesterday morning another time of troubles at the Library. 'Nobody knows de trouble I'se seen.' The morning wasted in waiting and running about." And when I finally gave up: "Afterwards to the Library to say my goodbyes. Had I waited until the paint dried, it would then have been that somebody was sick or something else. ... goodbyes to Breycha, who gives a powerful handshake and who was probably very relieved to hear my decision." And with good reason. These good people were dealing with all the problems of moving a library and trying to carry on business as usual, and here they were presented with an eager young researcher who wanted to use materials that were not yet either in place or in order.

Archives of the International Peace Bureau

For my dissertation the FriedSuttner papers were important, but the archives of the International Peace Bureau were absolutely essential. Here there were also difficulties, but eventually better luck. At first, after M. Golay was back from his holidays, I found him not very forthcoming: he "mutters things about 'delicacy' and how he is 'embarrassed' when I ask to see the documents. For 2 days he has been promising me that he will look and see if there is anything for me to use." I wasn't very optimistic. He was "cordial, but not over-enthusiastic. ... Nor does he have much respect for the history of the movement. Certainly the students should study it [he says] but only to prepare themselves to take part; and besides, few lessons can be drawn, for the old pacifists would be astounded if they could be confronted with the multiple problems of the peace movement today."

M. Golay opens the Archives

M. Golay kept telling me that he would look through the old files for me. On October 6 I wrote: "Golay finally opened the forbidden door yesterday but the archives ante 1912 were not there. So one of these days we search the basement again."

Several days later: "In the afternoon took place the search in the basement. And enfin the missing records have been found. Of course in no order at all they are as they were left years ago when the IPB moved from Berne to Geneva, and as M. Golay explained, 'I am no man for the bibliothèque!....' Some of the documents I uncovered in my preliminary investigation are invaluable, and the lot of them belong in a library, where scholars can have access to them. It's shameful."

It turned out that the records from my period of interest, when Elie Ducommun was secretary-general, were in apple-pie order, and I was able to make good use of them. And some of the old books I found in the basement M. Golay kindly permitted me to take to my pension, to study there in the hours when the office was closed.

The day when we found the old records was the day when "he told me a sad sad story about the plight of the IPB. Money is owed the bank, the societies contribute little, and not one cent comes from America. Keeping the interests of the Hague Peace Palace in mind, I cautiously suggested that G. sell the library. He was indignant: 'What, sell the library to keep alive!' But time and time again he tells me that what is in the old files and the old books is not important; what is important are the problems of today." Eventually, however, M. Golay did let me put together a packet of duplicates to send to the Peace Palace.

I came more and more to like the old gentleman (he was then 69): "He is really most 'gentil', and holds the most liberal convictions, always willing to expose them to self-criticism." When I tried to persuade him to consider sending the oldest records to a library where scholars could examine them and bring to light what the IPB had done in the past, "he was reluctant to consent. His is a hard lot, and I completely understand how he feels. The IPB is on its last legs, and it finds support nowhere, and particularly none from the large institutions which control millions. Consequently he is anxious not to lose treasures which the IPB might hold, and he is especially averse to helping out large institutions which have no interest in the IPB aside from what they can get from it."

Toward the end of my time at the IPB, I wrote, "Meanwhile I continue to hear G.'s tale of woe. Poor man, he is fighting a losing battle. Am translating some of his French into English for his letters. IPB is sending out a last desperate appeal for funds, attempting to have Societies "Friends of IPB" formed, members sending their 'oboles' to IPB." Saying that he knew I was possessed of discretion, he told me of certain personal problems among the English societies. I was glad that he had such confidence in me. He said "half to himself, so I know he meant it, '"Vous êtes gentil, eh bien, vous êtes gentil.'" I wrote of M. Golay: "He is really a very noble spirit, and so were they all, those pre-war pacifists, and he is one of them. I once mentioned Edmond Thiaudiere [1837-1930]. G. said, 'But he is a man of the past.' And I thought to myself, 'You too are a man of the past."

The glory days of the IBP had indeed been long ago. When Henri Golay had left his secure government job to join the staff in l9ll, it was the year after the IPB had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as the representative institution of the popular peace movement of the world. This status had been acknowledged by the Norwegian Nobel Committee early on in its special statutes which granted to members of the commission of the IPB the privilege of nominating candidates for the prize.

In l902, the year after the first Nobel Peace Prize was granted, the corecipient of the second prize was Elie Ducommun, the IPB's first secretary-general, which was also a recognition of the work of this institution. In a real sense Ducommun was the IPB, its organizing genius from the beginning, whose integrity and diplomatic talents kept all the many factions of the peace movement working together. In looking through the old files from the basement, I marveled at how he managed to keep in good touch through personal letters to all the peace societies of the world in 1901 there were 100 of them in 19 countries.

I also marveled at how Ducommun was able to win over the venerable London Peace Society, whose tenets of absolute religious pacifism differed so widely from those of the secular and more patriotic peace activists of the Continent. The London society, jealous of its own independence, had been bitterly opposed to the establishment of the Berne international bureau. Its secretary, William Evans Darby, insisted that "existing organizations" were already doing the work more effectively than could be done "by a new organization in an out-of=the-way continental town." Another peace leader wrote caustically in a private letter, "Darby would like to establish the Bureau at the office of the Peace Society at New Broad Street." Such confidence did Ducommun inspire once he took office, however, that within three years he received from Darby a large check for the Bureau as a peace offering. When Ducommun died in l906, Alfred Hermann Fried wrote that "the Berne Bureau has become an orphan, the heart of the whole Peace Movement has ceased to beat."

Ducommun's successor, Alfred Gobat, another experienced Swiss administrator, maintained the IPB's functions as clearing-house and point of coordination for all the peace societies of the time and organizer of their world congresses, but he caused controversy by departing from Ducommun's strict neutrality and taking positions in questions of international politics. Gobat died in harness at a meeting of the IPB Council in March 1914.

Decline of the Peace Bureau

Henri Golay inherited a Peace Bureau which still lacked executive authority

and was unprepared to face the divisions among its member societies in the First World War. It was further weakened after the war when peace societies proliferated, largely outside the old framework of the Bureau. Golay was devoted to the work and thoroughly conscientious, and he continued to organnize international peace conferences for those societies belonging to the IPB and editing the proceedings, but he was no longer in position to coordinate the popular peace movement as had his predecessors.

What I saw in 1936 in that quiet office was indeed an institution "on its last legs." When I would leave there at the end of the day, I would read headlines about the civil war that had just begun in Spain, hear Hitler's strident speeches on the radio, or watch newsreels of military parades and naval maneuvers. The shadow of war was lengthening in Europe, and not long after my last visit to the IPB in May l937, the outbreak of the conflict in l939 brought a suspension of its activities.

Golay wrote in a letter in 1941: "I have taken advantage of my leisure ... to put a bit of order into the archives." So he became a man of the ''bibliothèque'' at the last. It was a sad occupation: "It is a work which evokes overwhelmingly melancholy memories. ... One has the feeling of having made such useless efforts." After the war there was discussion of reorganization of the IPB, but no new initiative was taken, and Golay's death in l950 marked the end of the old organization.

The Swiss government held the IPB's assets for disposition, and in l959 the Swiss Federal Court decided that the Permanent International Peace Bureau had ceased to exist. Its assets were given to the International Liaison Committee of Organizations for Peace (ILCOP), which had been founded after World War II with aims similar to the former Bureau and with several of the same member organizations. It was then that Dr. Breycha-Vautier, now Head Librarian of the U.N. Library, saw to it that the archives and the book collection were given to that library. So my hopes of a quarter of a century before were finally realized.

Rebirth of the IPB

The ILCOP formally christened its new secretariat in Geneva "The International Peace Bureau," and the IPB began upon its second life. While the institutional continuity may have been broken, it is proper to celebrate the century of popular efforts for peace that the Berne and Geneva bureaus have facilitated. In the office of the IPB today there is the kind of excitement that one would have found surrounding the secretary-generals of an earlier time. I am sure that Henri Golay would rejoice could he see how the young dedicated administrators of today's IPB have been carrying on so energetically and imaginatively the work to which he devoted so much of his life.

Copyright 1992 by Irwin Abrams. All rights reserved.