HomeStudent Archival EssaysInterwar Internationalism: Refugees

Interwar Internationalism: Refugees

by Evan Freidin

Communications from Women's International Organisations
How the League of Nations Works Told for Young People
Australia and the League of Nations

When the League of Nations first began, one of its key goals was having the ability to inspire and facilitate a worldwide system of protection for refugees of conflict and oppression. In Australia there was a similar drive in the interwar years to give aid to refugees, yet the actual actions taken in regards to refugees were of a cautious nature. In the 1920s there were calls to action by Australian groups, such as the International Peace Campaign, to help refugees from the conflicts in Russia and Spain. Although in the 1930s, this sense of international goodwill dissipated, especially in regards to Jewish refugees attempting to escape Nazism. During the interwar years, the League of Nations’ efforts to inspire the world to protect those in need slowly became weak, as a combination of difficult economic struggles and resurging racial tensions lead nations such as Australia to fall back from their drive to protect non-Australians from conflict. The Australian government preferred to maintain an isolationist policy during the interwar period and any efforts made in the name of internationalism were either symbolic or rudimentary. Therefore the proclamations of the League of Nations had little effect on Australia’s actions.

The League’s efforts

In the aftermath of World War One, the League of Nations was hastily formed as a vanguard against further conflicts of devastating scale. It was an organisation designed to facilitate co-operation amongst both powerful and vulnerable nations as it declared that in the modern age “humans beings depend more and more upon one another.”[1] The League particularly aimed to create more co-operation and compassion in regards to refugees of conflict due to how “non-combatants and even neutrals cannot escape from the effects of conflict.”[2] It intended to achieve this not by direct action, but through discussion between the nation members of the League, encouraging the stronger nations to take a hand in helping the less fortunate in times of conflict. This notion of popular mobilisation was based on the assumption that “public opinion would be pacific and hence pro-league.”[3] Sadly this turned out not to be the case, as nations would instead fall back on their old policies and traditions that would work against the international peace and prosperity that the League had hoped to create.

When it came to the refugee problems that occurred during the interwar years, the involvement of the League of Nations was the first of its kind, as it was “the first time a serious attempt was made to deal with it systematically, and along international lines.”[4] This meant that the League was dealing with refugee problems on a scale that had never happened before. As such, they were at a loss regarding how to properly deal with the issue. The League’s organisation, dedicated to dealing with refugees, was known as the League’s High Commission for Refugees. This organisation was run by the Norwegian scientist Dr Nansen, who was appointed the commissioner in 1921. Till his death in 1930, Nansen worked tirelessly to deal with international refugee crises, and remarked that one of his greatest obstacles was convincing the member states of the League to actually give aid or take in refugees as “replies from governments were almost all unsatisfactory.”[5] His difficulty in attaining adequate help for refugees throughout the world illustrates how the League of Nations was unable to inspire the international safety net it was hoping to. There were too many old prejudices amongst its members that prevented unified movements.

The reason that nations such as Australia were so unhelpful to the League’s efforts to aid refugees was that in wanting to avoid any direct involvement in international affairs, the League made their efforts entirely dependent on the wishes of the nations. The League was “not a super-state, it [could not] issue orders.”[6] This also meant that the League had little “military or economic or financial power.”[7] The actions of the League rested with the decision made by the notion members as it could not force it members to actually commit action. This dependence weakened their efforts as it was “at odds with the domestic preference for strong immigration restrictions” with its nation members.[8] There was also the problem that because of the League’s preference for multilateral solutions and a universal state membership, each refugee problem would “inevitably arouse the hostility of some potential or current members of the League.”[9] Finally the League used various methods in an attempt to persuade the citizens of its member nations to take interest in the League’s causes. The League was extremely hesitant when it came to issuing propaganda. Therefore, nations that were isolated, like Australia, only received their information about the League in an objective and dry manner which was ultimately found to be boring and of little interest to the populace.[10] Australia’s own isolation and xenophobic attitudes allowed it to ignore the cries for assistance from the League and avoid being more greatly involved in the international concerns.

Australia’s Outlook

In the interwar years Australia, much like many members of the League, took on an isolationist stance in regards to international issues. This extended beyond government policy and into the public consciousness. This can be seen in the rise of the popularity of nationalistic and xenophobic ideals and their increased influence on politics. During this period, the Nationalist Party dominated the political field, partly due to its propaganda of old school Australian ideals and loyalty to the imperialism of Great Britain. They painted the Labor Party as being disloyal to the ideals that Australia was founded upon, based on its links to Great Britain, such as Labor’s support of both domestic and international far left groups, hailing from communist groups in Australia to the Bolsheviks in Russia.[11] The Nationalist party framed themselves as being the safe and traditional political option “which generally proved decisive” when it came to elections from 1916 to 1931. The Nationalist dominance of politics in this period illustrates that the Australian public preferred to stay true to the British Empire and keep with the traditions created before the Great War.

The importance of the Nationalist party’s vow of loyalty towards the British Empire in regards to refugees is illustrated in how Australia followed Britain’s lead in international matters. During meetings with the League of Nations, delegates from Australia had the tendency adopt the decision made by the British delegates. Despite the fact that the British citizenry was in favour of the internationalism ideals of the League, the British government preferred to follow an isolationist policy that inspired Australia’s own. They were also intent on maintaining peace for themselves, which can be seen in their focus on appeasement when dealing with nations such as Germany in the 1930s. As such, in their dealings with the League they would often only seek to appear that they were working towards the League’s goals. For example, at the 1932 Disarmament Conference the British Statesmen “sought less to come to an agreement than to give the appearance of trying to come an agreement.”[12] The British would only pay lip service to the ideals and goals of the League, and the Australians mirrored this response.

In response to the Nationalists’ painting of the Labor party as disloyal and non-Australian, the Labor party adapted to the changing political climate and repositioned themselves as a more conservative force, since “the dominant ‘spirit of Australianism’ had been transformed from a radical notion of a national identity free of the past traditions to a notion synonymous with conservatism and conformity.”[13] The ALP depicted themselves as supporting ‘true Australianism’ by their adherence to ideals that included “the insistence upon the primacy of Australia’s interest.”[14] Within both parties there was need for the reaffirmation of being the real Australian party that was untainted by foreign influence, be it Russian Bolsheviks or British imperialism. Ultimately, this meant that, like the Nationalist Party, Labor was aiming for the xenophobic vote, but in a more direct way.

These isolationist policies lead Australia to ultimately hinder the efforts of the League to help resettle refugees. Communications between the Australian government and the League show that when the League attempted to settle Russian refugees in 1921 in Australia, the Australian government refused to grant asylum.[15] This was the start of a negative trend in Australian attitudes towards refugees during the interwar years. Due to the White Australia Policy, the racist governmental practice of disallowing those who were not European or members of the Brittish Empire to immigrate to Australia was a normal occurrence. The policy goes back to the federation of Australia in 1901 and, specifically, the Immigration Restriction Act. The policy was cited as reason for calls for asylum to be denied, as refugees from Russia or Eastern Europe were not considered ‘true’ Europeans. Since Australia had no refugee policy during this period, the government simply decided that refugees would be accepted or rejected depending on how “well they met the standard immigration requirements.”[16]

International Peace Campaign

The International Peace Campaign was an anti-war organisation that started off in Britain in early 1936.  It stated its goal as being “to defend the peace of the world,” and in 1939 had a sum total of 400,000,000 members.[17] Before ending in 1941 due to World War Two, the organisation had up to 40 chapters all over the world, including Australia. The Victorian chapter was known as the “Victorian Council of the International Peace Campaign.” This chapter aimed to assist the League’s efforts in reducing and preventing war and, as such, was involved in attempts to help refugees around the world. They did this mostly by petitioning against the government. In similar standing to the League, the Council made sure to note that “the I.P.C has ties with no political party, and must not be made the instrument of propaganda of any political party.”[18] Thus they declared their purpose to mobilise others to become directly involved in international crises. Although this allowed them to liaison with various political groups regardless of their affiliation, it also meant that they restricted themselves to being an indirect force against these issues. This is demonstrated with their efforts in aiding the refugees of the Spanish Civil war the 1930s.

In the midst of the Spanish Civil war there were calls from the League of Nations for foreign nations to send aid to Spain and help deal with the resulting refugee crisis. The I.P.C groups in Australia heard this call and organised to give aid and convince the Australian government to do the same. The I.P.C in Victoria worked to “collect money, clothing, and medical supplies,”[19] to be sent to refugee camps in Spain. Alongside this, there was a need within the group to do more for the refugees by convincing the Australian government to grant the refugee’s immigration to Australia. Australia wasn’t the only nation who was being asked to take in Spanish refugees, with Mexico taking upwards to 60,000,[20] but regardless of Australia being asked to take around 15,000 it would not budge in its adherence to the White Australia policy.[21] The I.P.C in Australia would only be able to achieve its goal of worldwide cooperation through indirect charity.

Jewish Refugees

As Nazism took hold of Germany in the 1930s and was threatening to spill further in Europe, there were a vast number of Jewish Europeans seeking to immigrate to countries free of Nazi influence. From 1933 to 1935 at least 80,000 Germans fled the country, 80% of which were Jewish.[22] Australia was a particularly sought-after location for Jews seeking asylum, but many were denied. Australian communications reveal that Jewish refugees were considered “illegal aliens” and could not enter Australia under any means. There were possibilities for European Jews to immigrate to Australia On a small scale, but the Foreign Office of Australia believed that Jews from countries such as Poland “[could not] be considered a desirable type of [immigrant].”[23] There was pushback against any major force of refugees as “the Australian government would strongly object to a large number of these [immigrant].”[24] This apathetic reaction to the plight of Jewish refugees was not unique to Australia. Nations around the world denied asylum for similar reasons, including the “fear of offending Germany.”[25] The Australian government preferred to follow Great Britain’s policy regarding Germany and “dutifully sought every opportunity to avoid giving offence to Germany.”[26] The lack of assistance to these refugees illuminates the failings of the League in its inability to bring about the worldwide protection it initially promised.

One of the reasons that Jewish refugees had difficulty in being able to travel to Australia is the negative views that the Australian public held in relation to Jews as an ethnic group. This anti-Semitic sentiment was pervasive in Australian society, with Jews considered to be an ethnic group that was “a threat to the racial hegemony that underpinned the concept of an Australian nation,”[27] and overall this mindset influenced Government restrictions regarding immigration. This is demonstrated in newspaper articles which warned of the threat of mass Jewish immigrants disrupting racial harmony.[28] In 1938, there were rumblings of the possibility of a mass number of Jewish refugees from Europe immigrating to Australia and settling in Western Australia. Despite work by various Jewish-Australian political groups, the government quashed this idea and created various governmental documents to show that European Jews were considered unsuitable inhabitants for Australia and could not be allowed to immigrate on mass. [29] Despite the obvious threat to the minority, the prejudices of Australia stopped the country from embracing the League’s goal of a global safety net for the oppressed.


The attempt by the League of Nations to usher in a new era of international cooperation and peace in the wake of the Great War was stymied by its inability to convince its member nations to give proper assistance to the League, and its own reluctance to directly involve itself in the international crises. As demonstrated by Australia’s lack of feasible aid given to refugees during this period, there was little sense of internationalism in the country’s actions. Instead, the country’s international policy was influenced by isolationism, xenophobia, and an adherence to traditional ideals. The League of Nations was unsuccessful in its goal to create the global network that would protect the less fortunate because it hoped as it failed to motivate nations such as Australia that made up its membership.


[1] ‘The Covenant of the League of Nations’, in The Aims and Organisation of the League of Nations (Geneva: Secretariat of the League of Nations, 1929), 13.

[2] Ibid

[3] Susan Penderson, “Back to the League of Nations,” The American Historical Review, 112.4 (2007): 1096.

[4] Carlile. A. Macartney, Refugees: The Work of the League, (London: League of Nations Union, 1931), 5.

[5] Macartney, Refugees, 27

[6] Raymond G. Watt, “The League of Nations: Has It Failed? What of Its Future?” The Australian Quarterly, 5.20 (1933), 105.

[7] Ibid

[8] Phil Orchard, A Right to Flee: Refugees, States, and the Construction of International Cooperation, (London: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 105.

[9] Orchard, A Right to Flee, 128.

[10] Watt, “The League of Nations,” 106

[11] Neville Kirk, “Australians for Australia: The Right, the Labor Party and Contested Loyalties to Nation and Empire in Australia, 1917 to the early 1930s,” Labour History. 91 (2006), 107.

[12] Penderson, “Back to the League of Nations,” 1097.

[13] Kirk, “Australians for Australia,” 95.

[14] Kirk, “Australians for Australia,” 98.

[15] Home and Territories Department, 'Russian Refugees Constantinople. Admission of' (National Archives of Australia: A1, 1922/956.

[16] Charles Price, “Immigration Policies and Refugees in Australia,” International Migration Review 15, (1981): 99.

[17] International Peace Campaign, “International Peace Campaign Flyer 1939,” Interwar Internationalism: An Archival History, accessed October 4, 2015,

[18] Ibid

[19] International Peace Campaign, “Circular letter on the Spanish refugee problem,” Interwar Internationalism: An Archival History, accessed October 4, 2015,

[20] “Circular letter on the Spanish refugee problem.”

[21] Department of the Interior “Spanish refugees – Admission,” National Archives of Australia, A433, 1939/2/174.

[22] Orchard, A Right to Flee, 123.

[23] Department of External Affairs “Immigration Restrictions Jews” National Archives of Australia, A458, N156/2

[24] Ibid

[25] Orchard, A Right to Flee, 123.

[26] Michael Blakeney, Australia and the Jewish Refugees: 1933-1948, (Sydney: Croom

Helm, 1985), 48.

[27] Andrew Markus, Australian Race Relations 1788-1993 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin,

1994), 131.

[28] Department of the Interior “Admission of Jews to Australia,” National Archives of Australia A434, 1949/3/3196

[29] Ibid