The 100th anniversary of a Nobel Peace Prize - Google Cultural Institute
Henri La Fontaine (1854-1943), Nobel Peace Prize in 1913
Despite being one of Belgium’s
Nobel laureates, the name Henri La Fontaine has been somewhat
forgotten. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913, he was
a key figure in the pacifist movement. The prize was given in
recognition of the work he led at the International Peace Bureau.
In 2013, the Mundaneum, the archive
and exhibition center of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, and the
Henri La Fontaine Foundation, are commemorating the 100th anniversary
of the Henri La Fontaine Nobel Peace Prize.
is a technique for peace just as there is a technique for war. The technique
peace involves everything that affects the lives of men. To prevent men from fighting with each other, we created this organization known as justice.”
La Fontaine, 1931)
Peace through international law
Henri La Fontaine was born in
Brussels in 1854 in a comfortable middle-class family. His parents,
Marie-Louise Philips (1826-1899) and Alfred La Fontaine (1822-1882)
were progressive thinkers. While studying at the Université Libre de
Bruxelles he developed a passion for international law, which he
regarded as the best possible way of guaranteeing global peace. After
graduating in 1877 he embarked on a career as a lawyer, while at the
same time, devoting his energies to promote equality and democracy.
Henri La Fontaine aimed to create a system of arbitration between
nations, the creation of the League of Nations, the emancipation of
women, the widening of democracy and access to knowledge for all.
Henri La Fontaine was a key figure in
the pacifist movement that became prominent during that period. From
1907 until his death in 1943, he headed the International Peace
Bureau (IPB), which organized global peace congresses, and he
attended the conferences of the Interparliamentary Union on being
elected to the Belgian Senate in 1895.
Henri La Fontaine believed in
pacifism “through law” and favored legal means for resolving
international conflicts. For him, as for other pacifists of his age,
the only way to guarantee lasting peace was to codify international
law, apply international arbitration, the creation of a League of
Nations and the establishment of an International Court of Justice.
During the early 1880s, Henri La
Fontaine committed himself to the pacifist cause. He met Hodgson
Pratt (1824-1907), founder of the International Association for
Arbitration and Peace in London. Pratt’s ideas about arbitration
and support for workers struck an immediate chord. The two men went
on to create a Belgian section of the organization, officially
founded in 1889 and known as the Société belge de l’arbitrage et
de la paix.
In Belgium, La Fontaine tried to
unite pacifist societies around shared objectives. In 1913, he
succeeded in organizing the first National Peace Congress in Brussels
and in creating a Permanent Delegation of Belgian Peace Societies,
which had just begun to spread its message when it was derailed by
the outbreak of World War I.
The outbreak of the First World War
was a crushing blow to pacifists. Henri La Fontaine went into exile,
first to London in September 1914, then to the United Sates in April
1915, in continued to spread his pacifist message. In 1916, he
published his major work, Magnissima Charta, which sketches a
constitution for guaranteeing peace in the world.
At the end of the war, Henri La
Fontaine was appointed as technical advisor at the Paris Peace
Conference of 1919. This conference decided to set up the League of
Nations, which was the forerunner of the United Nations. He was the
Belgian representative at the League of Nations Assembly in 1920 and
1921, before being sidelined due to his differences of opinion with a
number of the major powers.
Although the League of Nations was
the realization of the hopes of many pacifists, Henri La Fontaine
soon warned about the risk that the continuing international tensions
and the dangers that economic and financial crisis would lead to new
conflict. He advocated the introduction of an international
jurisdiction to which states would be obliged to turn in case of
conflict. In the 1930s, disappointed by the League of Nations'
inability to guarantee peace, Henri La Fontaine took his message
direct to the public.
La Fontaine continued to campaign
until the end of his life for the establishment of an international
law code that would guarantee human rights and maintain world peace.
The Second World War destroyed his dream. Even so, La Fontaine was
instrumental in laying the foundations for much of the peaceful
postwar order built on the United Nations and European Union.
“First, it must be a citizen of the
world, then a citizen of Europe and then citizen of a nationality. We
must consider our country in terms of the great worldwide fatherland.
There is a need to constitute it and a people will be respectable
only if its whole life is the expression of its loyalty and its
subordination to the world community. Apart from such a conception,
there can be no salvation. Any narrow nationalistic conception is
fatally selfish and generates hostility.”
(Henri La Fontaine, 1924)
Henri La Fontaine’s political
career really began in 1895 when he entered the Belgian Senate. He
remained a senator until 1935, with two brief absences, one in
1898-1899 and the other in 1932-1935. He also served as secretary and
first vice president of the Senate. At the start of his mandate
especially, he played an important role in local and parliamentary
elections, giving many speeches and attending meetings. In the
Senate, he was active in debates on the campaign for universal
suffrage, promoting secular, open-to all schooling, and improving
working conditions. He fought hard for Belgium to speak out for
Henri La Fontaine set out his view of
socialism in a brochure entitled Le collectivisme, published in 1897.
He advocated for eliminating the intermediaries between producers and
consumers and advocated close cooperation between manual workers and
Henri La Fontaine’s desire to put
his project for society into practice led to his involvement in the
development of the Maison du Peuple in Brussels and the functioning
of several cooperatives set up by the Workers’ Party of Belgium,
including the Prévoyance sociale which offered insurance to workers.
“Humanity is a society of free
peoples, of peoples aware of their duties and obligations and entitled to the
equal enjoyment of the same inalienable rights. Above all, peoples have an
inherent and unquestionable right to dispose freely of themselves, and their
most vital duty is to unite in a world community to fulfill their desire to
(Henri La Fontaine, First World War)
“Call to women”, poster issued by the General Party of Belgian Women (created at the initiative of the Belgian League for Women's Rights), signed by Marie Parent and Léonie La Fontaine, 1921
Henri La Fontaine was committed to
the feminist cause. Their mother exposed him and his sister Léonie
(1857-1949) to the principles of emancipation from a young age. In
1879, Henri La Fontaine became the secretary of the Association for
Vocational Training for Girls and a member of the board of governors
of Bischoffsheim School. This vocational school for girls, founded in
1864, provided a secular education combining general instruction and
In 1888, Henri La Fontaine came out
in support of Marie Popelin (1846-1913). A law graduate from the
Université libre de Bruxelles, this young woman was refused entry to
the Bar because of her gender.
His campaign culminated in 1892 in
the creation of the Belgian League for Women’s Rights, Belgium’s
first feminist organization. La Fontaine was a member of the
League’s governing committee. The League worked to unite the
different feminist movements.
Knowledge for peace
Henri La Fontaine believed that one
of the major obstacles to lasting peace was the mutual ignorance
between peoples. This belief underpinned the projects he pursued with
Paul Otlet, regarded as one of the founding fathers of documentation
and the information sciences. In 1895 they organized, in Brussels,
the first International Bibliography Conference, which led to the
creation of the International Institute of Bibliography (IIB) and the
International Office of Bibliography (OIB).
The OIB aimed to create a universal
bibliographical repertory that would index details on all the
publications in the world and on every subject. About 16 million
references were entered between 1895 and 1930. For a classification
system, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine developed the Universal
Decimal Classification (UDC). The UDC gave a number, not a word, to
classify bibliographical files. From 1895, Henri La Fontaine began
working on this system. The UDC underwent many developments and was
adopted by many libraries all over the world.
Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine
worked to include all types of information sources other, not just
published texts. The Universal Repertory of Documentation, the
International Institute of Photography and the International Museum
of the Press, for example, are all today important elements of the
collections currently held at the Mundaneum.
In 1907, Paul Otlet and Henri La
Fontaine founded the Central Office of International Associations,
which in 1910 became the Union of International Associations (UIA).
The aim was to coordinate the actions of non-governmental
organizations promoting peace and help make Brussels an international
center. Henri La Fontaine and Paul Otlet also suggested that Brussels
should be chosen as headquarters for the League of Nations. Given his
position within the organization, Henri La Fontaine was able to
promote this preference, particularly in the debates about the
creation of the International Committee for Intellectual Cooperation.
The body was finally based in Paris and was the precursor of Unesco,
which was founded after the Second World War.
On the occasion of the World Fair,
the Central Office of International Associations created the
International Museum, which later found a home in a wing of the
Palais du Cinquantenaire. It was there that all Otlet and La
Fontaine’s activities were housed. Know as the Palais mondial and
later the Mundaneum. It also became a venue for the International
University, which was designed to instruct students on international
affairs and was supported by the League of Nations.
In 1934, the Belgian Government
closed the Mundaneum. The collections remained inaccessible until
they were transferred to a building in the Parc Léopold in Brussels
in 1941. In 1993, the Mundaneum collections found a permanent home in
Mons. The Mundaneum’s archive center houses Henri la Fontaine’s
Henri La Fontaine continued until his
death to work in the fields of bibliography and documentation. When
the IIB was renamed the International Institute of Documentation in
1931 (and the International Federation of Documentation in 1937), he
remained as its general secretary.
Humanism and freethinking
La Fontaine was initiated in 1882
into the lodge of the Amis philanthropes in Brussels. He was
Venerable Master of the lodge from 1908 to 1911 and from 1922 to
1925. In Freemasonry as in the others areas to which he devoted his
energies, he defended peace, democracy and the emancipation of women.
Henri La Fontaine favored the
initiation of women into freemasonry, He helped create the mixed
Masonic order, Le Droit humain in 1912. In 1928, he created, within
the Belgian Federation of the Droit humain. This was at the origin of
a Masonic action committee against war. In 1932, the La Paix lodge
merged with the Sincérité lodge to become Sincérité et la paix.
Front illustration of the program of
the inaugural meeting of the Temple of the Belgian Federation of
Human Right in Brussels, 1935
In 1913, La Fontaine helped found the
Universal League of Freemasons (ULF) or the International League of
Freemasons (ILF). This was an autonomous body that brought together
freemasons on an individual basis. Within this League, Henri La
Fontaine organized a pacifist group that sought to win the support of
freemasons at pacifist congresses. He headed the Belgian section,
created in 1929.
The commitment of freemasons to work
for the progress of humanity struck a p strong chord with La
Fontaine. He was convinced that freemasonry should come out from
within the walls of the temples and take concrete action to spread
During his childhood, La Fontaine
played the piano and frequented artistic and musical circles in
Brussels,. His favorite musicians were Mozart and Wagner. He attended
concerts in Brussels and when travelling abroad, took extensive
notes, and joined groups such as the Mozart Circle and the Wagnerian
Association. La Fontaine saw art and music as disciplines that could
help maintain international friendships.
In 1885 he published the first French
translations of Die Walkûre and Götterdamerüng, the prologue and
first act of Der Ring des Niebelungen. He also gave lectures about
composers, sometimes performing. In his home on the Square Vergote in
Brussels, Henri La Fontaine and his wife, Mathilde Lhoest (1864-1941
organized musical evenings for their circle of friends.
The Belgian Alpine Club: encounters
In his private life, Henri La
Fontaine had a second passion: alpinism. He helped found the Belgian
Alpine Club in 1883, serving as its president in 1891-1892 and again
from 1925 until his death. It was an activity that also brought him
into contact with important figures from Belgium’s political,
cultural and scientific circles. In particular, it was a shared
interest that enabled him to develop close ties with the socialist
leader, Émile Vandervelde.
Henri La Fontaine was an active
participant in the Alpine Club’s activities. During his many trips
abroad, he took every opportunity to make excursions to the
He published a number of accounts of
his experiences in the Alpine Club journal.
Contributor: Curator—Jacques, Gillen, archivist