Today, the last Tsar, St. Nicholas II is remembered by historians as a mostly inept ruler who oversaw the final days of the Russian Empire. By the Church, this is glossed differently. The Tsar may not have been the best ruler, but he and his family were pious and what they lacked in political prowess they made up for in devotion and holiness, despite their questionable association with Rasputin.
What is not often remembered is the saint's main accomplishment and most lasting contribution to the world: his leadership of the pacifist movement at the turn of the century. It was this work that led to the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, giving the world formal laws of war and definitions of war crimes. Moreover, it was for his leadership in this area that St. Nicholas was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.
By today's meaning of the term, St. Nicholas was no pacifist. He oversaw the Russo-Japanese War as well as Russia's participation in WWI, not to mention the fact that Bloody Sunday, where soldiers fired on unarmed peaceful protesters, occurred on his watch (though apparently without his knowledge or blessing). Nonetheless, the word pacifist meant something different at the dawn of the 20th century. From the Latin pacificus, which is derived from pax (peace) + facio (to make), meaning peacemaker, pacifists were originally just those who wished to make the world more peaceful. After all, in the Vulgate Jesus blessed the peacemakers by declaring beati pacifici. Thus, pacifism at the time was a doctrine of ends. Pacifists were those who wanted to see peace by any means, and many politicians, religious figures, activists, and even soldiers and generals considered themselves pacifists in this sense. After all, ending wars by winning them was one way to bring peace. Nowadays, pacifism is a doctrine of means. A pacifist today is someone who refuses to use violence to achieve any end.
Of the two notions, it is the early one of peacemaking which Jesus blessed in the beatitudes, and by this standard St. Nicholas II indeed deserved the blessing. In 1898, for example, the Tsar published a stunning document titled Rescript for Peace. In this document, St. Nicholas proposed an international peace conference of the world's governments, unlike any that had ever occurred before. The purpose of this conference, according to St. Nicholas, was "ensuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and durable peace, and, above all, of putting an end to the progressive development of the present armaments."
The Tsar's proposal speaks of the desire of nations to prevent war and ensure peace through the creation of alliances and the building up of deterrents through the development of terrible arms and machines of war. The logic at the time was that if they created defensive pacts and weapons terrible enough, that war would be altogether averted for the costs would be too high. St. Nicholas presciently lamented this arms race and predicted it could backfire, as it indeed did during WWI,
The maintenance of general peace, and a possible reduction of the excessive armaments which weigh upon all nations, present themselves in the existing condition of the whole world, as the ideal towards which the endeavors of all Governments should be directed.…The preservation of peace has been put forward as the object of international policy; in its name great States have concluded between themselves powerful alliances; it is the better to guarantee peace that they have developed, in proportions hitherto unprecedented, their military forces, and still continue to increase them without shrinking from any sacrifice. All these efforts nevertheless have not yet been able to bring about the beneficent results of the desired pacification….Hundreds of millions are devoted to acquiring terrible engines of destruction, which, though today regarded as the last word of science, are destined tomorrow to lose all value in consequence of some fresh discovery in the same field…. Moreover, in proportion as the armaments of each Power increase, so do they less and less fulfill the object which the Governments have set before themselves….It appears evident, then, that if this state of things were prolonged, it would inevitably lead to the very cataclysm which it is desired to avert, and the horrors of which make every thinking man shudder in advance. To put an end to these incessant armaments and to seek the means of warding off the calamities which are threatening the whole world-such is the supreme duty which is today imposed on all States.
It is chilling to read these words today, as the nations of the world in the 21st century are pursuing the same strategy: deterrence through defensive alliances and the maintenance of terrible weapons of war, such as nuclear arms. One recoils at the thought of what a global war would look like if these deterrents again fail.
While St. Nicholas did not succeed in preventing WWI, he did succeed at convening two peace conferences, the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions. The first, began on May 18, 1899, the Tsar's birthday. At this meeting, a number of important laws of war were adopted, though the Tsar did not succeed in achieving disarmament. However, the saint did succeed in the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which still exists to this day. This court was meant to settle international disputes such that war would be obsolete as a mechanism of conflict resolution. Other provisions of the treaties adopted include: the adoption of the provisions of the First Geneva Convention, the outlawing of poisons and gas weapons, the outlawing of killing prisoners of war, protections for civilians including the outlawing of looting, quartering, collective punishment, forced military service, and the banning of shelling civilians and civilian infrastructure. Land and air provisions were also adopted, protecting humanitarian vessels, and outlawing air bombardment. The Second Hague Convention was more modest in its accomplishments, but updated and expanded upon these provisions.
As the horrors of the 20th and 21st centuries indicate, these provisions were not entirely successful at preventing atrocities. Nonetheless, they are an accomplishment. First and foremost these conventions are a vision for a more humane way of settling disputes. Furthermore, it is likely that at least some atrocities have been prevented due to this vision. In fact, it is possible that these efforts could have averted WWI, and therefore many of the subsequent bloody wars of the 20th century, had personalities been different. On the eve of WWI, St. Nicholas exchanged a series of telegrams with his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm. While the Kaiser's tone was rather formal, St. Nicholas pleaded for peace,
I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war. To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far. Nicky.
In another telegram, St. Nicholas even suggested arbitration at the Hague as a way to prevent the war,
It would be right to give over the Austro-servian problem to the Hague conference. Trust in your wisdom and friendship. Your loving Nicky
The Kaiser ignored this proposal. One can only wonder what the subsequent decades would have looked like had St. Nicholas's efforts prevailed.
The World's First Peace Movement
Laws of war and the banning of war crimes are not just an invention of St. Nicholas. There is a long history that led to this pivotal moment, and this history has deep Christian roots. Noncombatant immunity was first proposed as an international law of war by the Peace and Truce of God movement. This was arguably the first popular peace movement in history. This movement began in the tenth century in pre-schism France with a series of "Peace Councils" held by the Church. The first peace council occurred in 975, when Bishop Guy of Le Puy threatened to excommunicate soldiers unless they took an oath of peace. The bishops who led this movement used relics and the cult of saints to draw large crowds in marches for peace.
The bishops then issued several canons which anathematized those who acted unethically during war. These canons formed the basis for all subsequent “laws of war” in the West. In 994, at one of the Peace Councils, the bishops released the following statement: “Since we know that without peace no man may see God, we adjure you, in the name of the Lord, to be men of peace.”
The proposals of the Peace and Truce of God movement went beyond noncombatant immunity, and became a powerful force in western European society in the coming centuries. By the 11th century, fighting was not permitted from Wednesday evening until Monday morning each week, and also banned on all Christian feast days. Post-schism, at the Second Lateran Council in 1139, this movement succeeded in banning all range and siege weapons from use in warfare within Christendom (though much like St. Nicholas's efforts that ban was not entirely successful in its implementation). Such Christian-originated regulations are remarkable not only for limiting the harms of war, but also for setting a precedent for international cooperation on war law. It is this precedent that St. Nicholas built upon with the Hague Conventions.
Today we are seeing the spirit of St. Nicholas being disregarded. In Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, the retreat of Russian forces has revealed that civilians had their hands bound behind their back and were executed. In Kharkiv, a family with children was burnt to death in their car. Two young boys were murdered by Russian troops while trying to flee Kyiv. A pregnant woman was killed in the bombing of a hospital in Mariupol. Children were found dead in Irpin with signs of rape. Prosecutors at the Hague have announced they will investigate Russia for war crimes. These war crimes are just a small fraction of the horrors that have been brought by Russian forces in Ukraine, and a grim reminder that many of these same crimes were perpetrated by Russian forces in Syria.
It does not have to be this way. St. Nicholas worked for a world where even in war there are rules and there are lines that are not crossed. While we are a far way from a world where aerial bombardment is outlawed, or where all international conflicts are resolved in international courts, at the very least we can spare children and civilians. To do anything less is to betray not only the legacy of St. Nicholas, but to betray God.
The saintly Tsar himself experienced firsthand the horrors of violence, executed by Bolsheviks along with his children. Nonetheless, through it all, he remained committed to peace. A letter written by his daughters records his sentiments during the end of his life, "My father asks that I convey to all those who have remained devoted to him ... that they should not take vengeance on his account, because he has forgiven everyone and prays for them all. Nor should they avenge themselves. Rather, they should bear in mind that this evil which is now present in the world will become yet stronger, but that evil will not conquer evil, but only love shall do so."
May it be so.
Editor, In Communion