HomeIntroductionThe League of Nations

The League of Nations

Likewise, while theoretically a global international organisation, in reality the League was a regional system of arbitration that was based in Europe, for Europe. The League had the primary purpose of achieving international peace and security, and the secondary objective of preventing future wars through the establishment of international co-operation and arbitration. The basic foundations of the League were embodied in the Covenant, which was signed by thirty-two states. These states were allied and associated powers of the Great War and their international supporters. By 1921, membership of the League had increased to 51 nations worldwide and Germany joined the League in 1926.

The League did not act as a ‘super-state’, but rather transacted its business through individual Government representatives and involved the general interests of the world in state disputes. The challenge with any organisation of this kind is to attempting to avoid interference with the rights of sovereign states, while trying to establish the idealistic view that the world is constituted of formally and legally equal sovereign states. A distinctive feature of the League was its ‘publicity conscious character’.[1] Appealing to public opinion was a primary weapon of the league with regard to the value of justice and peace. For this reason, the Publicity Section was the largest section of the League and it published ‘immediately and in full’ discussions, decisions and minutes as well as the Covenant itself.[2]

The structure of the League was unusual in that the League Council only met several times a year; the Assembly only met once a year; the Permanent Mandates Council met bi-annually; and thus the Secretariat embodied the operations of the League for the large majority of the year.[3] The secretariat was a small organ that was ‘overwhelmingly European and rather patrician’.[4] It held administrative responsibilities in assisting the Assembly and Council and dealing with League documents.

The League of Nations Union was a voluntary organisation that started in Britain towards the end of the Great War to endorse the creation of an international organisation that could support and maintain world peace. After the formation of the League, a primary objective of the LNU was to pressure governments to abide by the Covenant and to promote the League through mobilising mass support. The LNU quickly moved to the dominions and established branches in each Australian capital city, with approximately 40% of members being women.[5] The LNU survived the hand over from the League to the United Nations (‘UN’) and following the outbreak of the Second World War, the reduced membership of the LNU focused on the reconstruction of the post-war world and looked for more effective approaches with regard preventing future wars and maintaining peace.

A major failing of the League was its decision to terminate the sanctions against Italy for its invasion of Absynnia. This created a sense of gloom in Geneva, as the League overtly failed to defend a weak nation from attacks by a strong one. For this reason, the extraordinary meeting of 4 July 1936, in a sense, marked the beginning of the end of the League. While the league continued to exist until 1947, a year after its final meeting that was held in April 1946, a sense of gloom was cast over the power and values of such an institution. A gloom which was further entrenched through the commencement of the Second World War on 1 September 1939, following the German invasion of Poland. This paved a nice trail for the United Nations to follow and soon led to the establishment of the UN in October 1945, shortly following the July United Nations Charter and the end of the Second World War.

[1] Susan Pederson, “Back to the League of Nations”. The American Historical Review. Vol. 112, No. 4. (2007): 1097.

[2] ‘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), 16.

[3] Hudson, Australia and the League of Nations (Paramatta: Sydney University Press, 1980), 134.

[4] Hudson, Australia and the League of Nations (Paramatta: Sydney University Press, 1980), 135.

[5] Hilary Summy, “Countering War: The role of the League of Nations Union”. Social Alternatives. Vol. 33, No. 4 (2014): 15 ; Nicholas Brown, “Enacting the International: R. G. Watt and the League of Nations Union”, in Transnational Ties: Australian Lives in the World, eds. Penny Russell and Angela Woollacott (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2008), 84.