The Hotel Majestic and the Origins of Chatham House

One hundred years ago, Lionel Curtis first proposed the idea of an institute of international affairs. Katharina Rietzler takes us back to this important moment in the history of Chatham House.

Expert comment Published 30 May 2019 Updated 5 October 2020 2 minute READ
The Hotel Majestic in Paris.

The Hotel Majestic in Paris.

On 30 May 1919, at the Hotel Majestic in Paris, the idea for the Royal Institute of International Affairs began to take shape. A group of scholars, attending the Paris Peace Conference as members of the American and British delegations, were brought together by Lionel Curtis to discuss the need for an institute to host critical discussion and promote the study of international questions.

Historian Katharina Rietzler speaks about how the meeting came together and how it led to the creation of Chatham House.

The meeting on 30 May 1919 marks the origin of Chatham House as the first British international relations think-tank – but the meeting matters in a wider sense because it cemented the idea that intellectuals and scholars should have a systematic and structured input into the making of foreign policy and the shaping of world politics.

The most important context of this meeting is, of course, the First World War. The war was a traumatic event for Europeans and Americans and completely upended world politics.

But it also created, from an intellectual perspective, new opportunities. The Allied governments created expert committees, made up of historians, geographers and other scholars, to draw up guidelines based on objective facts to direct the creation of the peace after the war. This was a very difficult task. The First World War caused unprecedented global destruction, redrew the map of eastern Europe and dismantled the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. It also mobilized entire societies, which raised the issue of democratic participation in deciding questions of war and peace.

The French created their expert committee, the Comité d’études, in 1917, while the British founded the Political Intelligence Department and the Americans the Inquiry, a group of about 100 scholars set up by Colonel House, the trusted aide of US President Woodrow Wilson. Many members of the expert committees attended the Paris Peace Conference, and around 30 of them from the American and British delegations met at the Hotel Majestic, the residence of the British delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, on this day.

There were government officials and what we might call public intellectuals at this meeting, but the most important attendee was Lionel Curtis. If the consequences of the First World War form one part of the intellectual imperative behind the foundation of Chatham House, Curtis brought another element, which was his focus on the reform of the British Empire.

This concern goes back to the years before the First World War, a period of intense pressure for the British Empire. It had many rivals; it was overstretched; it faced urgent demands for social reform. Curtis, an important figure in the making of the Union of South Africa, sought ways to apply British ideas of liberal imperialism to international politics and became an advocate of the idea of the British Commonwealth as a blueprint for international cooperation.

At the Hotel Majestic, Curtis gave a rousing speech where he told the assembled scholars and officials that it was up to them, people who operated at the intersection of high politics and scholarship, to shape the new peace by educating the public on international issues.

There was also an expectation, underpinned by Anglo-American social connections and institutions such as the Rhodes scholarships, that it would be up to Britain and the United States to determine the course of international politics in the post-war period.

In the end, the peace that was drawn up at the Paris Peace Conference was not what many of the Anglo-American experts wanted, as it contradicted their recommendations. They were left with the sense that their ideas were not as influential as they would have liked them to be – but this instilled a new sense of urgency.

The original idea was for an Anglo-American institute to provide libraries, research facilities and group discussions. It was to be based on a very intimate link between the two countries, an English-speaking ‘common market of ideas’. There was also the idea of common publications, including an annual Survey of International Affairs (which was eventually taken up by Chatham House). But in the end, as the political climate became increasingly hostile to an Anglo-American institute on both sides of the Atlantic, the paths of the two delegations diverged.

Once they were on their separate tracks, the British institute, which was to become the Royal Institute of International Affairs, successfully established its programme of lectures, publications and study groups. The American group that attended the Majestic meeting and originally planned to set up an American Institute of International Affairs merged with another group made up of New York-based lawyers and businessmen in 1921. The resulting body, the Council on Foreign Relations, took a slightly different direction, and did not manage to rival Chatham House’s research programme on international questions until the era of the Second World War.


Chatham House Centenary 2020 Stamp

Chatham House Centenary:
Throughout our centenary year in 2020, Chatham House marks a century of influence, independent analysis and trusted dialogue with a number of exciting initiatives. Throughout the year, we explore key political moments from the institute’s history and reflect on how Chatham House and other think-tanks should approach the future.