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The League of Nations

These pages offer a guide to the League of Nations and the range of resources held by the British Library.

The League of Nations | Practical Work | The End of the League | A Short Bibliography

Some form of international organisation for the purposes of diplomacy is evident as far back as classical times in the form of the federations of the Ancient Greek states. A more recent example is the Congress of Vienna, set up in 1815, which ended the Napoleonic wars.

However, rapid industrialisation lent most of the impetus to the creation of transnational organisations. As communications and transport links around the world rapidly improved, the need to provide regulatory agencies not only for trade purposes but also for social ones such as the curbing of disease and crime, made the setting up of such bodies inevitable.

International organizations were created by a variety of institutions, among them pressure groups, professional associations, humanitarian agencies and regulatory commissions. The British Museum Library, later the British Library, dedicated several pages of its catalogue to headings for these bodies, many of which donated their publications to libraries around the world.

Figure 1. Catalogue entry from the British Museum Library's General catalogue of printed books

Figure 1. Catalogue entry from the British Museum Library's General catalogue of printed books © The British Library Board

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Among them were a number of organizations with the preservation of peace as their aim. Their efforts were recognised by awards of the Peace Prize from the newly established Nobel Committee.

The events of the First World War prompted demands that such a cataclysmic event should never be allowed to happen again. An international organisation imbued with powers to investigate disputes was seen as part of the answer.

League of Nations

The League of Nations was the first truly international organisation to have responsibility for managing international peace. Set up in 1920 in the aftermath of the First World War, it was championed by a number of prominent men and women, including the United States President Woodrow Wilson, who argued that the Treaty of Versailles – which ended the First World War – should include provisions setting up a peace-keeping body to police international affairs. These provisions eventually became the Covenant of the League of Nations, and the British Library has several copies of the draft Covenant in Manuscript Collections Cecil papers (Additional MS 51116).

The irony is that despite the President's efforts, the U.S Senate refused to ratify America's membership of the League of Nations.

The new League's bureaucracy was divided into legislative, executive and judicial arms in the forms respectively of an Assembly which met periodically, a Council of four permanent members (comprising the main Powers, along with four other members from the lesser Powers), and an International Court at The Hague. These bodies were serviced by a dedicated and professional Secretariat headed by a Secretary-General, the first of whom was the resourceful Sir Eric Drummond. Other sub bodies (including the International Labour Organization and the Mandates Commission) were set up with specific functions in mind.

In practice, however, the League's powers were limited. The absence of the United States weakened it from the outset, and although the French would have welcomed a strong League to safeguard her own frontiers from a resurgent Germany, many of the other nations, including the British, refused to allow the decisions of the League to impinge upon national sovereignty.

Practical Work

The League's practical work manifested itself in a variety of ways. One of its important functions was to protect minorities, a responsibility which was extended to embrace the protection of the Free City of Danzig in the Polish Corridor (which had been set up as part of the Treaty of Versailles) [fig. 2].

Figure 2. Minorities report of the League of Nations, 1929 [UNe11/12]

Figure 2. Minorities report of the League of Nations, 1929 [UNe11/12] © The British Library Board

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Figure 3. Saar report of the League of Nations, 1934 [UNe/58]

Figure 3. Saar report of the League of Nations, 1934 [UNe/58] © The British Library Board

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The vital role of administering the heavily industrialised Saar region also fell to the League, as did the regulation of the mandated territories through the Mandates Commission [fig. 3].

Legal responsibilities formed a substantial part of the organization's day-to-day business and these included the drafting of conventions as well as the assigning of arbitrators to disputes. A great deal of the League's work echoed the concerns which confront governments and international organisations today, such as terrorism and the trafficking of drugs [figs. 4 & 5].

Figure 4. Terrorism report of the League of Nations, 1938 [UNd.214]

Figure 4. Terrorism report of the League of Nations, 1938 [UNd.214] © The British Library Board

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Figure 5. Drugs report of the League of Nations, 1938 [UNw.31]

Figure 5. Drugs report of the League of Nations, 1938 [UNw.31] © The British Library Board

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Perhaps the League's most enduring legacy was that of its work in the fields of social welfare. Many of the important humanitarian agencies now in existence have their origins in the work of the League of Nations. War creates humanitarian crises and even where the League failed in its efforts to avoid a conflict, it managed to have a positive impact on the aftermath of such events. The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees was first appointed in 1921 in the person of Fridtjof Nansen of Norway, and under his leadership the agency's organisational skills were put to the test two years later when war in Turkey resulted in the creation of nearly one and a half million refugees, most of them women and children. The League's work in sending doctors to the region and its provision of aid was of enormous help and was one of the first examples of the efficacy of structured international relief.

The League was involved in numerous other practical activities. As well as organizing conferences and promoting the regulation of narcotic drugs, it committed itself to the creation of a unified communications and transit organization, and protected women and children through various committees set up to tackle trafficking, the age of consent and children's rights. Many of its sub bodies continued to function after its demise: its Health Committee and Health Section, which investigated epidemics and set up vaccination programmes, was eventually to become the World Health Organization.

The End of the League

The League of Nations gained a reputation for failing as a peace keeping organisation. However, where the parties to a dispute were well disposed towards acts of mediation, it was able to facilitate agreements using its limited powers. In the border conflict which broke out in 1925 between Greece and Bulgaria it was able to effect a troop withdrawal and arrive at an agreement for maintaining the peace to which both parties could subscribe. It was also able to arbitrate in the dispute between Finland and Sweden over the Aaland Islands in 1921.

However, the League of Nations' reputation suffered at the hands of the European dictators who flourished throughout the latter years of its existence. The Weimar Republic in the Germany of the 1920s coexisted peaceably with the League, but the Nazi Government of the 'thirties exposed its weakness in the face of determined aggression. In the Saar, in the Rhineland and in the takeovers of Austria and Czechoslovakia the organization's inadequacy was amply displayed. The Italian government under Mussolini showed a similar disregard for its strictures during the Abyssinian crisis, disregarding the League's attempts at conciliation and its threats of sanctions. Later, the League was undermined still further by the Hoare-Laval Pact which effectively handed Abyssinia over to the Italian dictator.

The legacy of the League of Nations to its successor the United Nations was a varied one. Clearly it had been too weak to solve the problems posed by the aggressive dictators. On the other hand, it had made encouraging progress on a number of humanitarian fronts. These lessons were learned. One of the UN's first actions was to set up a peacekeeping force which could enforce its decisions, and its member countries began to recognise that the task of keeping the peace might require modifications to their ideas about national sovereignty. The importance of the humanitarian missions was also recognised in the granting of agency status to many the League's former departments (such as the World Health Organization) so that they became largely autonomous, with substantial budgets.

A Short Bibliography

The archive of the League of Nations is held in Geneva

The League of Nations 1920-1946: organization and accomplishments
League of Nations Library at Geneva
New York and Geneva: United Nations, 1996 [DSC 9097.010240 96/6]

Miller, David Hunter, The drafting of the Covenant
New York: Putnam's, 1928 [08007.h.37]

Northedge, F.S.,The League of Nations: its life and times
Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1986 [OPL 341.22 Open Access]

Walters F. P., A history of the League of Nations
Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1986 [9012.b.10]