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.
“There is a technique for peace just as there is a technique for war. The technique for organising peace involves everything that affects the lives of men. To prevent men from fighting with each other, we created this organization known as justice.”
(Henri 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 international arbitration.
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 intellectuals.
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 live.”
(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 technical skills.
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 personal papers.
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.
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 its ideas.
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 and travels
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 mountains.
He published a number of accounts of his experiences in the Alpine Club journal.
Curator — Jacques, Gillen, archivist