The League of Nations

Foundation, structure, work and decline of the League of Nations

  • Foundation: The idea of US President Woodrow Wilson.  The League was designed to treat war as an illegal act, rather than the nature of relations among states as it had been viewed under the old balance of power ideas. The league would decide who had broken the peace and then all the members would punish the "aggressor" nation.  It was located in Geneva, Switzerland.
  • Structure of the League. First there was the Secretariat, Council and Assembly. The secretariat served as the bureaucracy of the league and the leader, the Secretary General, was in charge of this bureaucracy. The League Council was responsible for the primary job of maintaining world peace. Decisions had to be unanimous to take action. It had four permanent members (Britain, France, Japan and Italy with the US expected to be added later, but Germany took the spot instead). Non permanent members varied from four to eleven. The Assembly was where the member states voted on general issues.
  • Work. WWII revealed the league as a failure at keeping the peace. However, subunits of the League had some success.  A World Court, and commissions on Disarmament, Health, Mandates, Refugees and Slavery met with some success. The Court was supposed to mediate disputes between states while the Disarmament commission oversaw the massive naval disarmament of the 1920s as well as the outlawing of chemical weapons. Finally, the Kellogg-Briand Pact made declaring war practically illegal and was the basis for post-WWII prosecutions of war criminals. The Health Commission was a forerunner of the World Health Organization while the pre-existing Refugees commission was able to help with the terrible amounts of refugees created by WWII.  The Mandates commission oversaw the foreign governance of areas deemed not ready for self-rule (e.g. Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Tanzania, etc.)
  • Decline. The 1920s were the golden age of the League. It was a period without major war that oversaw great success in disarmament, the settling of refugees, combating the Spanish Influenza pandemic, as well as welcoming Germany back into the family of nations as a Permanent Member of the League Council. The 1925 Treaty of Locarno saw Germany formally recognize its western borders with France and Belgium. The League left open the question of Germany's eastern borders and the very touchy issue of ethnic Germans living outside of Germany. However, this issue after Locarno was expected to be solved by peaceful diplomacy. The US did not belong to the League, but Wilson's dream was mostly coming true.
  • However, the 1930s would undermine the League. First Japan and then Germany left in 1933 with Italy (1935) leaving over the League reaction to it's invasion of Ethiopia. Losing three permanent members critically damaged the ability of the League to act. This left Britain and France to police the world. However, both nations were reluctant to use military force due to rampant pacifism combined with and unwillingness to use economic sanctions during the Depression. Perhaps the critical blow was when Italy invaded Ethiopia and expected its allies France and Britain to go easy on them. An ugly anti-Italian debate erupted in both nations and mild sanctions were applied. Finally, neither Britain nor France were ready for war and neither wanted to be drawn into a war over Ethiopia. Mussolini quickly recognized that his fear of Collective Security was unfounded and that the League was incapable of taking action. After initially staying close to France and Britain to keep Hitler out of Austria, he now cut a deal with Hitler.
  • Finally, the issue of ethnic Germans would first work within the league, and then finally destroy it. The Locarno Treaty of 1925 had left open to revision Germany's borders to the east. This meant the large German populations in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, as well as the "Free City" of Danzig. It was forbidden to Germany to unify with Austria as part of the Versailles Treaty, but most felt this was one of the cruelest aspects of Versailles. Thus, when Hitler moved troops into Austria, Europe hardly flinched. Later, when Hitler threatened war over the Sudeten German region of Czechoslovakia, Britain in particular was flatly unwilling to get into a war over peoples and places of which they knew little. The policy of Appeasement simply recognized the right of Germany to bring Germans back into its own borders and undo some of the wrongs of Versailles. However, when Germany sent troops into the non-German Czechoslovakian regions, all of Europe took notice. Hitler had gone outside the League framework and had engaged in a naked land grab. Britain and France then guaranteed Poland with a formal alliance (clearly giving up on the League and Collective Security). When Germany invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany as states unto themselves--not as part of the League.