The League of Nations: Assessing Failure

The problem child of twentieth century history, the League of Nations often carries the blame for all the century’s ills. Stifled at its birth by the absence of the United States – one might well call it the bastard child Wilsonian liberalism – the seeds of its shortcomings are attributed to a deeper malaise of the ‘new world order’ that emerged after the Great War. The peace treaty was written by the Great Powers – Britain, France, and the United States – who paid little attention to the smaller states and other political groups, such as nationalist movements from European colonies, Jews represented by the newly formed Comité des Délégations Juives (Committee of Jewish Delegations), who were beating down the doors of the Quai d’Orsay in Paris to make their positions heard. They even ignored the pleas of emerging powers, such as Japan, when its proposal for a clause on racial equality in the Treaty of Versailles was rejected. Instead, we read about the leaders of the Great Powers – British Prime Minister Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, and American President Woodrow Wilson – hunched over maps of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, drawing new boundaries to suit their own visions of this new world order.

This is a dire view, greatly in need of moderation. A two-day symposium at Melbourne University in December 2015 showed that historians are turning back to the League of Nations to take a more nuanced view of its place in twentieth century history.[1] The symposium was presented with a range of new research into the League’s influence and its legacies, and its organisations and agencies, which have had lasting impact on such diverse matters as world health, the international regulation of labour, disarmament, assistance for refugees, and the international administration of colonised territories – a first tentative step in the much protracted history of decolonisation. New research was also presented on how the League of Nations inspired new social movements in Australia and elsewhere, such as the League of Nations Unions, as public support fell in behind the hopes invested in the League for world peace. This demonstrates nothing short of the democratisation of international affairs; governments were sensitive to public opinion on foreign policy issues, and were prepared to bend to the prevailing winds. Wilsonian liberalism, it seemed, had captured world imagination for its promises of a better way of doing things. And, indeed, the public, so greatly affected by the war, was now speaking loudly in the interests of peace.

These are all important topics, rich in the new possibilities for the understanding of the world in the twentieth century. This new research demonstrates a need for further research to into these possibilities.

For all this, the problem of the failure of the League of Nations remains. And for this reasons, historians have had difficulty coming to terms with this brief adventure in a new world order. Summing up the first day’s proceedings, Professor Nicholas Brown from School of History at the ANU discussed not so much the question of why the League failed, but how historians ought to assess its failure. There are many issues to consider, and many arguments about its failure hold true. One of the most compelling is that the League of Nations was still very much rooted in European Imperialism, and without American liberalism to moderate the European powers, there was simply not the time (or energy, it might be added) for Wilson’s ideals to become embedded.

This ‘history of failure’ with which the League of Nations is looked upon is something that I’ve given much thought to myself in writing my history of the League’s poor response to the refugees from Nazi Germany. If historians are to assess its failure rather than find reasons for it, I would suggest then that we consider the problem from the context of the idealism expressed in the League itself about the impact it could have on world affairs, and the poor realisation of these ideals. The expression of these ideals sustained belief in the whole project; the poor realisation of them was the result of the political realities of the time.

A change is clearly evident between 1928 and 1933 – a period that Zara Steiner calls the ‘hinge years’ in her monumental book The Lights that Failed.[2] The Great Depression not only turned states inward, it exhausted the spirit of international cooperation. Nationalism took the place of internationalism. The League was beset by a series of crises to which it could not response because, simply, its member states lacked the courage and willingness to engage in activities of doubtful benefit. Even serious breaches of the League’s Covenant – Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in 1931 was a watershed – went without serious challenge. The stalemate of the disarmament conference was symptomatic of the inertia that had beset the League by 1933. The rise of Nazism in Germany was a more significant factor than most historians might conclude. One of the major powers in the League since it was brought back into the international fold in 1926, its participation in international affairs was vital to the peace. But Hitler’s vitriol against the hated Treaty of Versailles caste a pall over the League. The Nazi’s rise to power was reason for many diplomats and foreign affairs officials in Europe and elsewhere to accept that Germany was harshly dealt with in the peace settlement of 1919, and that Hitler had legitimate reasons for demanding revisions. Finally, there is the matter of personnel. The power of the League Secretariat and the men within it is one area where new historical research is essential to understand the League’s fate.[3] Many officials were true believers, but many others were dubious, so deeply enmeshed were they in their own nations prestige and interests. The year 1933 saw its foundation Secretary General, the British diplomat Sir Eric Drummond stand down; his deputy, the Frenchman Joseph Avenol, replaced him. The transition was fateful. A conservative French nationalist from the political right, Avenol was recognised, and denounced, even at the time, for having brought more caution, bureaucracy, secrecy, and timidity into the League’s deliberations. He was also determined to appease Germany and would allow the League to do nothing to offend it.

The 1933 Session of the League Assembly began in a pall of despondency – the Dutch Foreign Minister spoke of a mood of pessimism that had fallen over the Assembly as it gathered in September. This was the first and only time the Nazis graced Geneva with their presence, and Joseph Goebbel’s departure from the Assembly Hall surrounded by his armed body guard made a lasting impression on all who witnessed it – suggesting, in the words of a French diplomat present at the time, René Cassin, the Nazi’s wish to defy humanity. But the Dutch Foreign Minister also spoke of the ways in which the League could recover its spirit of optimism that characterised its first decade. This would be found in the creation a High Commission to come to the aid of the refugees from Nazi Germany then troubling the economically depressed and socially stressed countries of Europe. The League’s work for refugees was, in the 1920s, one of its great successes. These successes could continue by the League’s humanitarian intervention on behalf of these new refugees. Because of Avenol’s intervention, and the timidity of the League’s member states in doing anything that might arouse German ire, the outcome did not match the rhetoric. On 15 October 1933, Two days after the League decided to appoint the High Commissioner for the German refugees, Germany announced its decision to quit the League, citing the failures of the Disarmaments Conference. Avenol, and the League Secretariat thereafter hoped for Germany’s return, and refused to allow the League to engage in any activity against German interests.

The records of the League Assembly and its various committees during the 1930s are replete with speeches on the need for the League to rekindle the spirit with which it was founded. Yet there is a tremendous disparity between the rhetoric and the reality, with so little enthusiasm for anything considered at all adventurous. This does not mean that historians should simply condemn it for its failures. The activities of the various agencies under the umbrella of the League of Nations remained vital and have had a lasting impact (and continue in new forms under the United Nations). And lessons can be found the failures. In their activities it is possible to see the foundations of international law and international humanitarian responsibilities that are such an important part of the world order today.

Greg Burgess: The League of Nations and the Refugees from Nazi Germany: James G. McDonald and Hitler’s Victims (London & New York: Bloomsbury) due for publication on 20 October 2016.


Note: Deakin University Library has a complete set of the League of Nations Documents (1919-1946) on microfilm, and access to the League of Nations Official Journal (records of the proceedings of the Council, Assembly and the committees) through Hein On Line: (Deakin University login required.)

[1] ‘League of Nations: Histories, Legacies and Impact’, 10 – 11 December 2015, Organised by Professor Joy Damousi (The University of Melbourne) and Dr Patricia O’Brien (ANU).

[2] Zara Steiner, The Lights that Failed: European International History, 1919-1933 (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[3] This new direction seems to have been already mapped out by Susan Pederson, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), which was cited by a number of speakers at the League of Nations symposium.
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