Peter Holquist Discusses New Book Project, “By Right of War”

On Friday, May 9th Peter Holquist, Writer in Residence at the Jordan Center, led academic year’s final event. Holquist is Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and specializes in World War I and the Russian Revolution. His latest effort is a book project, By Right of War: Imperial Russia and the Discipline and Practice of the ‘Laws of War’ (1868-1917). Holquist shared his chapter, “Codifying the ‘Laws of War’: Brussels, 1874” with visitors of the Jordan Center and discussed the origins of the international conventions on warfare and specifically Russia’s experience.

Director Yanni Kotsonis introduced Holquist as a “very influential” scholar who has published extensively on historical continuities from 19th-century Russia to the 20th century, with particular focus on the emergence of International Law and war.

Holquist began with a brief discussion of the three major narrative trajectories he employs in By Right of War to describe how International Law emerges as a discipline – via state institutions, university departments of law, and the lives of three scholars. The major question he hoped to answer with the book is how the laws of war changed the conduct of the Russian military and “whether the rubber hits the road, whether there’s any traction to this.”

Holquist began by pointing out that, contrary to most scholarship and the general understanding of the aims of these legal developments, “International Law does not make wars less brutal,” instead, “it shapes the parameters of how violence unfolded.” The fifteen sovereign states who participated in the Brussels Conference of 1874– including Russia, Great Britain, France, and Austria-Hungary– were not effectively agreeing to sign away their right to make war, which Holquist argued is one of the most important attributes of a sovereign state. Rather than fulfilling an altruistic mission, or voluntarily limiting their power, the most powerful states were being more pragmatic than existing scholarship might lead us to believe, and were guided by their experiences in recent wars.

As for his work’s contribution to the field, Holquist said: “I hope this project will also influence methodological ways of looking at International Law.” His research challenges two arguments which dominate historical accounts. Firstly, Holquist’s research findings topple the debate about the motivations of the participants which holds that states participated in the codification of International Law either because the leadership was full of idealists who hoped to make war more humane, or that states were simply embracing codification from a realist standpoint. “I show this is a false dichotomy,” Holquist said. Secondly, his work confronts the assumption that the vanguard of international law includes only the states where rule of law was firmly established. “In the 19th-century, it’s the liberal states that are most opposed to international law,” he said.

Holquist said he hopes his work will function as a “critique of neoliberal triumphantilism of international humanitarian law.” Instead, he is seeking to demonstrate that codification of the laws of war was driven by 19th-century power politics. “This was not a Utopian project,” he said.

Finally, Holquist added, he hopes to confront the accepted chronology of the development of international law. The legal strictures did not inspire new developments on the ground, instead, he argues, the laws were a reflection of existing experiences.

Following his discussion, Holquist welcomed questions and suggestions from the audience. Kotsonis volunteered the first question– he wondered if the author grapples with terms such as “humanity,” in the book.

 “‘What is ‘humanity?’ is a fulcrum for [the emergence of international law],” he said. Holquist pointed to the varying definitions of “humanity” amongst the international participants at the Brussels conference. Whereas in the English and French languages “humanity” implies both the physical embodiment of all humans as well as the abstract essence of what makes us human, in German and Russian there are separate words for the two meanings. “Many of these concepts were generic terms [in French] so you wonder how the hell Russians understand this?” Holquist said.

Leslie Peirce, Professor of History at NYU, commented on this divide. “It’s interesting that Russians look quite flexible compared [to the British, the French, and the Germans,]” she said. “Was this a geographic thing? Is there something about your neighbors?”

“It’s not that the British were intransigent,” Holquist argued. Rather, they were wary of the potential for inflexibility when the laws were applied. “Instead of drawing large block stereotypes about national legal cultures, I want to show how they are not intransigent,” he said.

Brigid O’Keeffe, Assistant Professor of History from Brooklyn College, wondered how the new laws of war were conveyed to the troops. In the case of new conscripts, she suggested that perhaps they were provided with pamphlets. “Could they even read these?” She also asked Holquist to account for the broader implications of the late 19th-century military reforms in Russia.

Holquist pointed out that, in order to legally qualify as a “legitimate combatant”, a person must be under the control of an officer. This is based on the idea that only the officers are expected to know international law. It was the officers who were responsible for shaping the conduct of their inferiors.

As for the broader implications of the reforms, “I think the 19th century is very important,” Holquist said. “The seed of what will be ‘total war’ is ‘people’s war’– it really grows out of the French Revolution.” At this time, how the military functioned was undergoing fundamental change. For example, Holquist argued that compulsory male military service “civilianized” the military by bringing in non-professionals for the first time. And as for the laws of war, “codification was a response to what was happening on the ground.” He added, “there is a dialectic here, it’s not purely intellectual history.”
O’Keeffe wondered if these developments inspired a new consciousness in “Ivan from the village,” as well as Russian military officers. She pointed out:  “It seems this is about cultivating a new type of person, they are cultivated to think about the international context.”

Holquist agreed and explained, in his view, the army becomes the driving force for this process.

Olga Bertelsen of Columbia’s Harriman Institute, commented that Holquist’s work could also be discussed in the context of the 1860’s reforms in Russia, and has implications for the debate about whether the code has a top-down reform effect or is a collection of existing norms.

Holquist pointed out that international law is distinct from Russian domestic law. “It is a discipline rather than a set of codes and conventions,” he said.

Kotsonis closed the discussion with a final question for Holquist of contemporary relevance. Though he was generally disappointed in that ways in which 19th-century historians have participated in the discussion of the current crisis in Ukraine, Kotsonis wondered if Holquist had an opinion in the matter.

“To my mind, what’s happening in Ukraine is most similar to 18th-century Russian conduct towards Sweden and Poland,” Holquist said. During this period, Poland was partitioned three times between Russia, the Habsburg Empire, and the Kingdom of Prussia. During the final stage, Poland was wiped from the map completely.

Kotsonis thanked Holquist for his presentation. Stay tuned for By Right of War: Imperial Russia and the Discipline and Practice of the ‘Laws of War’ (1868-1917).