See also the article "The Paris Peace Conference (1919)" in the EHNE.
International organisations are institutionalised places of interaction between groups, societies and states, with the goal of agreeing on common norms, values, technical standards or mechanisms for establishing peace. The League of Nations was the first international organisation to unite social, cultural, technical, economic, political and military cooperation under one roof and to claim to represent all regions of the world. By including as many important fields as possible of human life, the League of Nations was to become a forum for the promotion of peace and the prevention of war. The hopes linked with this promise were first disappointed as a result of the world economic crisis, and finally dashed by the outbreak of the Second World War. Since then, the League of Nations has been seen as a symbol of the Janus-facedness of the interwar period: as well as standing for a number of innovations in technology, health and social policy that smoothed the path for the work of the United Nations after 1945 and established the League of Nations as a participant in the processes of globalisation, it embodies European rivalries, the continued existence of colonial structures, and the inviolability of national rights of sovereignty. This article sketches this double aspect of the League of Nations. Following the introduction to the significance of the League of Nations and the role of Europe comes a glance at the roots of the new world organisation within the European internationalism of the late 19th century. This is followed by an exposition of the fields of activity, innovations, structural distortions and the legacy of the League of Nations in the United Nations.
The many faces of the League of Nations
"The League of Nations, created to preserve peace after a world cataclysm, expired tonight and willed to the United Nations its physical assets in the hope that the new organization might succeed where the League has failed."1 In view of the catastrophic extent of the Second World War, it was hardly surprising that in April 1946 a prominent newspaper such as the New York Times should have connected the League of Nations with the failure of the global order that had been heralded with such optimism in the 1919 Paris peace treaties. By forging a link of multilateral politics and transnational cooperation in economic, cultural and social questions, the League of Nations served as the central pillar of an architecture of peace that the American president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) had presented to the public in his 14-point programme in January 1918. 2
The sobering estimate that the League of Nations had failed as an organisation also had an effect beyond the immediate post-war period. This was combined with the view that the League of Nations had remained a paper tiger in questions of security policy and had failed to realise its universal claims, since from the beginning it had remained a European institution dominated by the great powers France and Great Britain. With its seat in Geneva and two General Secretaries recruited from the British and French administrative systems, Sir Eric Drummond (1876–1951) and Joseph Avenol (1879–1951),3 the European influence remained dominant despite the number of member states peaking at 61, particularly since the 26 European member states financed approximately 65 percent of the budgets of the League.4 In addition to this, from 1920 onwards the humanitarian, social and economic committees of the League concentrated on aid measures and reconstruction in Central and Eastern Europe.
Only with the declining political importance of the League of Nations in the 1930s did the organisation begin to turn its attention to big social and health projects in Asia and Africa.5 The same applied to the classical diplomatic disciplines of safeguarding peace, conflict resolution and the regulation of rights of sovereignty, which had been defined by the victorious powers of the First World War as the first task of the League of Nations. With the exception of the Manchurian crisis of 1931, the Italian-Abyssinian conflict in 1936 and the mandate policy, which dealt with the trusteeship of the formerly German colonies and Ottoman territories, here too the emphasis was on Europe. The cities placed under the international supervision of the League of Nations, Danzig and Fiume (Rijeka), together with the Saar region were the legacy of the collapsed European empires. The right to national self-determination was applied only to minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, and the cases of successful solution of conflicts in the 1920s resulted primarily from frontier conflicts between European states.6
In retrospect, the League of Nations realised its greatest effect in the sphere of humanitarian and technological cooperation. The General Secretariat in Geneva was provided with departments that supported work on problems of trans-frontier cooperation in the fields that had before 1914 already been the object of inter-state cooperation of civil social initiatives.7 This included the Business and Finance organisation, the Health Organisation, the Organisation for Transit and Communication, and the Organisation for Intellectual Cooperation. There was also the Social Section, focusing on the trafficking of opium and other narcotics, child protection and prostitution, together with the League refugee organisation with Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) as its first High Commissioner.8 This "Third League of Nations"9 rediscovered in recent years rendered possible meetings and exchanges of opinion between state representatives, civil society groups and experts in various fields, and helped to mould them with its self-created norms of international law.10 Its social, humanitarian, economic and technological activities show the League of Nations today as an innovative experiment that has left its mark on the 20th century in many ways. The view of supposed failure in the field of power politics has thus been replaced by the picture of "many Leagues of Nations". Civil society groups were able to internationalise their initiatives, which opened a new chapter in the history of transnational cooperation. 11
From Pre-war Internationalism to the League of Nations
The First World War proved to be a catalyst for the idea of a post-war order based on principles of collective security and cross-border cooperation. Shortly after the outbreak of war, private organisations were founded in France, Great Britain and the USA that pressed for peace and put forward ideas for shaping the post-war period. The British League of Nations Society, founded in 1915, the Association française pour la Société des Nations of 1918 and the League to Enforce Peace, founded in New York in 1915, acquired several hundred thousand members during the war years, who propagated an international union of states among the general public and the various governments. This idea was not to abolish national sovereignty, but to integrate it into a kind of federalist order based on international law. Behind this lay the hope that political conflicts could be settled when decisions on an international level were matched with the interests of nation states.12 This tradition of liberal internationalism can be traced back to 1860. Its goal was, by means of the foundation of a number of international organisations, to standardise regulations of communication, railways, the postal service, intellectual property, time zones or weights and measures.13 In a second wave from the 1880s onwards, topics of social policy, hygiene, dealing with international conflicts or, as the Universal Race Congress and the International Council of Women showed, the emancipation of legally disadvantaged groups came onto the international agenda.14 On the one side, these organisations documented the gradual development of an international civil society (though restricted to Western bourgeois elites). This demanded active political rights of participation in decisions, and acquired influence on national governments by forming a transnational community of interests. On the other hand, prominent representatives of organized pacifism, the international women's movement or advocates of international arbitral jurisdiction made an active contribution to drafting a new peace order. By making a connection between disarmament, the establishment of an international court of law, the regulation of working standards, or the prohibition of the opium trade, they prepared the way for the idea of a world organisation, and propagated a broad concept of peace. 15
Pre-war internationalism was reflected in the charter of the League of Nations. Article 14 provided for the establishment of a Permanent International Court of Justice which was to settle disputes between the member states. It took up work 1922 at The Hague, thus fulfilling the promise of the Hague conferences of 1899 and 1907, which provided for the peaceful settlement of international conflicts, and still failed in 1907.16 The International Labour Organisation (ILO), whose founding was laid down in Article 23 and whose statute was a component of the Versailles Peace Treaty, carried on the approach to an international social policy. This had acquired attention across frontiers since 1901 with the International Association for the Protection of Labour and the connected International Labour Office in Basel. With the declaration that "universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice", the founder states of the League of Nations and the ILO reacted not least to the Russian Revolution.17 The intention, also proclaimed in Article 23, to act against opium trafficking as well as that of women and children, was not without foundation: the fight against the so-called white slave trade was taken up in the charter on the initiative of the International Council of Women (founded in 1888), and developed into a central field of activity of the Social Section, headed by the British social reformer Dame Rachel Crowdy (1884–1964).18 Through the fight against opium, the League of Nations took the initiative in a field of social policy that had already established itself in the mid-1870s as a global field of politics under the aegis of civil society pressure groups. This movement became a part of international law with the international Opium Agreement of 1912.19 In Article 24 of the charter, finally, the explicit attempt was formulated to dissolve the pre-war internationalism in the League of Nations. This was to succeed by incorporating the already existing organisations and following the principle of placing all future international organisations under the patronage of the League of Nations.20 Although a section of the General Secretariat had been established for this purpose under the Japanese Inazō Nitobe (1862–1933), the project was a total failure. Among other things, there was a lack of personnel to coordinate an estimated 300 international organisations. Furthermore, large organisations such as the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property simply refused to give up their autonomy.21
The League of Nations: "A Great Experiment in International Administration"
The charter of the League of Nations22 also constituted the first 26 articles of the Versailles Peace Treaty, and was thus indissolubly connected with the end of the First World War. The fact that the name of an organisation whose goal was the establishment of a peaceful post-war policy was incorporated into a treaty that ended a traumatic war was held against the League of Nations from the beginning, despite broad public support. In the long term, the League gave the impression of a peace agency imposed by the victorious powers. This was reinforced by the imbalance in the structure of members: among the great powers, only France and Great Britain were permanent members. The USA never ratified the charter, although president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) had been among its leading architects. Germany, as the defeated power, was not granted entry until 1926 and the Soviet Union entered in 1934, by which time when Japan and Nazi Germany had already left.23
The political organs were the General Assembly of the member states and the Council. This initially consisted of the four permanent members Great Britain, France, Japan and Italy, together with four alternating members elected by the General Assembly (increased to six in 1922). In 1926, the Council was again expanded, when Germany as a new member acquired a permanent seat and Spain and Poland in return each received a semi-permanent seat. "Semi-permanent" meant that Poland and Spain, after the expiry of their 3-year membership in the Council, could be repeatedly re-elected, whereas the other member states could only be members of the Council once each. Both organs passed their resolutions unanimously. This went together with the overlapping of their jurisdiction, which constituted a constructional fault in the League, for the Council was in the tradition of the European concert of major powers, and thus pursued the customs of the old diplomacy, whereas the notion of an international parliament was applied in the form of the General Assembly. In this way, the demand of pacifists and proponents of the League for a new, democratized diplomacy was acceded to.24
This simultaneity of conventional diplomacy and new political structures left its mark on the League of Nations. Its charter laid down the principle of national sovereignty, whose inviolability was postulated by several articles: Article ten guaranteed territorial and political integrity, Article five demanded unanimity in all resolutions, and Articles 11 to 17 regulated the procedure for solving conflicts between member states.25 Contrasting with these were the placing, provided for in Article 22, of the erstwhile German colonies and areas of the disbanded Ottoman Empire within a system of the "sacred trust of civilisation" as well as the application of the principle launched by Woodrow Wilson in 1918 of national self-determination. This offered ethnic and religious minorities the possibility to call upon the League of Nations as mediator in cases of state discrimination or disadvantage.26 The tension involved in putting these principles into practice reflected how unbalanced their relations with one another were: the inviolability of national rights of sovereignty contrasted with the ambitions of the great powers for territorial expansion. These could in turn be restrained by a petition procedure bypassing the nation state, which granted minority and mandate policy to whole populations. This became evident in the case of minority protection. The great powers had explicitly withdrawn dealings with their own minorities from international access; additionally, the scope for action of the section headed by the Norwegian Erik Colban (1876–1956) was limited, despite a number of disagreements in the new states of East Central Europe. This was due to an unclear petition procedure, together with a lack of possibilities of sanctions and checks. The protection of politically or culturally threatened minorities was in practice limited by the sovereign rights of states.27 With the mandates, the League of Nations favoured a colonial policy that made use of a rhetoric of trusteeship and a civilising mission.28 Although the mandate powers had to submit an annual report, and the regions under mandate could and did exert pressure on the mandate powers,29 the latter retained sufficient instruments to expand their colonial influence. In doing so, they made use of language which, in the sense of "imperial internationalism",30 linked the right to political emancipation, transnational cooperation and trusteeship with thinking in terms of stages of civilization.
The General Secretariat was an innovative achievement that in many respects opened up new territory, and chiefly pursued the programme of new diplomacy, a policy based on public legitimation. Institutionally, it brought three innovations. In order to guarantee the independence of the organization, its officials enjoyed diplomatic rights such as tax and criminal immunity, which were otherwise granted only to diplomats of sovereign states. In addition, in the early 1930s the approximately 700 officials, who came from 40, mainly European countries, were bound by loyalty to the League of Nations and thus absolved from their loyalty as citizens of their states.31 Article seven of the charter prescribed equality of the sexes in appointing officials, even though – with the exception of Rachel Crowdy – most women were employed as shorthand typists or copy clerks.32
From the beginning, the information department of the League of Nations was among the large departments. In the manner of a propaganda department, it was responsible for the preparation of information, and was tasked with ensuring positive press reports. Its relations with the outside were, however, difficult, on account of the tension between national sovereignty and the will to political community. Because the League of Nations only represented the international community of states, it was required "not to make propaganda under any circumstances, not even propaganda for the League".33 The information department thus performed a tightrope act: on the one hand, it was supposed to shape international public within the world community as imagined by the League, and on the other it was to limit itself to preparing information on the numerous activities of the League, and to leave the influencing of public opinion to the national correspondents.34
The League of Nations in the "golden" 1920s
In the 1920s, the principle of collective security appeared to justify itself by the internationalization of conflicts. Several frontier conflicts between European states were able to be settled. In the case of the conflict over the Åland Islands between Sweden and Finland in 1921, the Council resolved, after protracted investigations, that the islands should belong to Finland. The Åland Islands were made an autonomous and demilitarized zone in which the population (of whom the majority were Swedish-speaking) received full political, cultural and linguistic rights.35 There followed the resolution of the conflict between Albania and Yugoslavia in 1921, between Bulgaria and Greece in 1925 and in the case of the occupation of Corfu in 1923 by Fascist Italy the Council resolved the conflict, and prevented the proclamation of a casus fœderis.36
The partition of Upper Silesia 1921 into a Polish and a German region was an example of the settling of disputed frontiers in ethnically mixed areas. The course of the frontier was fixed following a plebiscite on the basis of an agreement with 606 articles, which emphasised the rights of the national minorities and set up a German-Polish committee to supervise frontier cooperation.37
Refugee aid was one of the most urgent tasks of the League of Nations. As well as the repatriation of approximately 430,000 prisoners of war from Russia to their home countries, the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen, who was in 1921, on the initiative of the Red Cross International Committee, appointed High Commissioner for Refugees, concerned himself with the situation of an estimated 1.5 million refugees who had gone into exile in cities such as Paris and Constantinople or to the Black Sea. As many refugees had lost their identity papers or had been stripped of their citizenship by the Bolsheviks, the High Commissioner issued them provisional papers. This so-called Nansen Passport was, by 1942, recognised by 52 governments as an official document.38 Alongside the partial repatriation of the Russian refugees, aid was provided for 20 million Russians who were threatened by drought with starvation. The support of the High Commission by the Red Cross, the Save the Children Fund, the Quakers and the American Relief Administration made it clear how dependent the humanitarian actions of the League of Nations were on internationally operating aid organisations. They supplied staff, expertise and logistics, and supported the High Commission with their budgets.39
The Economic and Financial Organisation (EFO) also worked with lasting effect in war-torn Europe.40 The EFO was founded in 1920, when the continuing unstable economic situation of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe had made it clear that economic stability would not establish itself automatically, but needed to be achieved by international cooperation. To begin with, the EFO collected data and drew up statistics on the situation of individual national economies in Europe. In view of the threatening national bankruptcies of Austria and Hungary 1922 it developed into an advisory organ functioning as an independent economic factor. At Austria's request, the EFO arranged for fresh credits for the two countries, and a commissar appointed by the League of Nations placed supervision of the Austrian and Hungarian budgets temporarily under international control. In the 1930s, the EFO, with a staff of 65, was the largest department in the General Secretariat. It was seen as an innovative think-tank whose statistical service played a foremost part in the collection and processing of data. Leading economists, bankers and economic experts who helped to reconstruct the European economic area after 1945 met in its committees, such as Jean Monnet (1888–1979).
The counterpart to the EFO was the Commission for Intellectual Cooperation, founded in 1922, which defined science, education and culture as the common field of endeavour of the member states. The Commission, to which was added the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation in Paris in 1926, remained controversial on account of its numerous activities and lack of concrete results.41 The Commission was intended to promote intercultural activity through the circulation of ideas, individuals, cultural goods and knowledge, with the active inclusion of universities and other educational establishments, experts and social groups.42 With the collaboration of prominent intellectuals such as Albert Einstein (1879–1955) or Marie Curie (1867–1934), it was to complement military disarmament with "moral disarmament".43 This was seen as a dialogue between civilisations which rested on a Eurocentric view of culture: literary or intellectual texts from extra-European regions were procured, e.g. in the form of the Collection ibéro-américaine, the Collection japonaise, the book series Civilizations or the establishing of the International Museum Office in Paris in 1927.44 The Commission pursued a practical aim with the project to eradicate nationalist or aggressive content from national schoolbooks or textbooks. Instead of the original idea for a unified international history manual, proposals for the revision of schoolbooks according to particular criteria were now sought. This plan was supported in 1927 by an international declaration concerning the teaching of history, but was only regionally effective on account of the lack of mechanisms for implementation.45
The League of Nations in the 1930s
The first international disarmament conference met in Geneva from February 1932 to June 1934. It failed, owing to the persistence of national security interests and the refusal of the European powers to recognise the disarmament scenarios carefully worked out by the Preparatory Commission for the Disarmament Conference since 1926.46 Japan and Germany left the League of Nations in March and November 1933 respectively, and thus in the middle of negotiations full of political tension. This increased the view of observers that the political ambitions of the League of Nations had failed at the same time as the Disarmament Conference had failed to establish a system of collective security. On the other hand, the Disarmament Conference made it clear that the League of Nations had gained in significance since 1919 as a contact point for transnationally active pressure groups. The Conference was involved in a disarmament campaign involving the public and through the media, supported by a broad coalition of groups active throughout Europe, from the League of Nations national associations via international organisations for the promotion of culture and education such as the International Student Service or the PEN Club, religious humanitarian organisations like the Quakers, to transnational political ones such as the International Federation of Trade Unions.47 This made the League of Nations an attractive meeting point for transnational networks and initiatives in civil society.
The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and the Italian attack on Abyssinia (Ethiopia) 1935 confirmed the lack of willingness of the European great powers to make use of the League of Nations as an instrument for keeping the peace. These two events demonstrated how the tradition of European great power and colonial policy had survived the postulate of democratized diplomacy and the institutional inclusion of non-state interest groups. A symbol of this was the much-reported exit of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie (1892–1975) from the General Assembly of the League of Nations in June 1936, after Great Britain and France had acceded to Italian plans for annexation. Haile Selassie's appeal to the General Assembly to recognize his country’s right to territorial integrity had remained ineffective.48 The committee of investigation sent by the League of Nations to Manchuria in 1931 to clarify the situation and headed by Lord Lytton (1876–1947), consisted of former British, French, German and Italian colonial officials who, despite a balanced appraisal of the situation, broadly recognised the Japanese interest in regional dominance.49
Despite the political stalemate, the technical organisations continued their work. Whereas the health organisation left the European refugee scene behind and instead focused its attention on the social conditions of diseases in Africa and Asia,50 the Organisation for Communication and Transit addressed itself to the European network of relations, pursuing in its own way a project for European integration with plans for a pan-European motorway and electricity network.51
Towards a New World Order: from the League of Nations to the United Nations.
When the Second World War broke out, the Secretariat in Geneva found itself on the fringe of events; the new building, the Palais des Nations, which had been dedicated but a few years previously, was used by only a few officials. Whereas the ILO, at the invitation of the Canadian government, transferred its seat in summer 1940 to McGill University in Montreal,52 the EFO and the Department for Transit moved at the invitation of the Rockefeller Foundation and the University of Princeton to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. The Interim Secretary-General Sean Lester (1888–1959), who had been installed in September 1940, remained in Geneva with a much-depleted staff.53
The officials in Princeton continued their work. They produced path-breaking studies on economic recovery and paved the way for the Bretton Woods System in cooperation with the US government.54 The Bruce Report of August 1939 had a similarly lasting effect.55 This report was to herald a reform of the League of Nations aimed at strengthening its economic and social activities. The committee, headed by the former Australian Prime Minister Stanley Bruce (1883–1967) proposed placing all social and economic activities together in a Central Committee for Economic and Social Questions. This was to receive its own budget, work separately from the Council and the General Assembly, and permit the cooperation of non-members – an initiative aimed above all at the official inclusion of the USA in the economic policy of the EFO.56
On 19th April 1946, the League of Nations formally ceased to exist, a day after a final session of the General Assembly, which had officially appointed the United Nations, whose Charter had already been signed on 26th June 1945 in San Francisco. The General Assembly transferred its powers and duties to the UN, and at the same time made over to it the Palais des Nations in Geneva, together with the library and archives of the League of Nations, finally distributing the remainder of its budget to the remaining member states.
The League of Nations continued, however, to have an effect beyond its formal end. In particular, the Princeton Mission and the Bruce Report pointed the way to the post-war political order, which was marked by the shift of the political balance of power between Europe and the USA and the North-South conflict. The proposals of the Bruce Committee were taken up by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, whose member states and fields of activity are still predominantly in the extra-European world. With the move of the main seat to New York, the United Nations overcame the Europe-centeredness of the League of Nations.