The League of Nations was an international organisation that came into existence to prevent war and settle disputes after the 1st World War. It was formed on January 10, 1920. The same day when the treaties of Versailles, St. Germain, and Sèvres came into existence. Praised as the great miracles of history by South African statesman Jan Smuts, the organisation stood straight until the 1930s. It was successful in resolving minor international disputes and the refugee crisis. But, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (1931) and the Italian attack on Abyssinia(1935) undermined the League’s authority. Moreover, Germany’s disputes with Czechoslovakia and Poland triggered the second world war, and the League of Nations was helpless to control it. It eventually got dissolved in 1946 with the establishment of the United Nations.
Formation of the League
The suggestions of the world statesmen after the first world war and Woodrow Wilson’s significant contribution made this organisation come into existence.
The famous 14 points of Wilson include ;
- Abolition of secret diplomacy;
- Free navigation at sea for all nations in war and peace;
- Removal of economic barriers between states;
- All-round reduction of armaments;
- Impartial adjustment of colonial claims in the interests of the populations concerned;
- Evacuation of Russian territory;
- Restoration of Belgium;
- Liberation of France and restoration of Alsace and Lorraine;
- Readjustment of Italian frontiers along the lines of nationality;
- Self-government for the peoples of Austria-Hungary;
- Romania, Serbia and Montenegro to be evacuated and Serbia to be given access to the sea;
- Self-government for the non-Turkish peoples of the Turkish Empire and permanent opening of the Dardanelles;
- An independent Poland with secure access to the sea;
- A general association of nations to preserve peace.
The main aim of the League was to maintain peace through collective security. If one state attacked another, the member states of the League would act together collectively to restrain the aggressor nation either by economic or military sanctions. The League also aimed to encourage international cooperation to solve economic and social problems.
Organization of the League
The League was of 55 member states in 1926, and the number kept changing. The organs of the organisation include ;
1. The General Assembly
This contained the representatives from all member states having one vote each. Its function was to decide general policies like the revision of peace treaties etc. All the decisions had to be unanimous, and it was also tasked with maintaining finances. This assembly gave chances to small and medium-sized states to raise their issues and have their say on world developments.
2. The Council
The council contained four permanent members for three years – Britain, France, Italy and Japan. The USA didn’t join the League. The non – permanent members were nine by 1926. Special political disputes were to be solved by the council, and the decision had to be unanimous.
3. Permanent Court of International Justice
This was established at the Hague of Holland (Netherland), consisting of 15 judges of different nationalities. It started in 1922, and by 1939 it had successfully dealt with 66 cases. It dealt with legal disputes between states rather than political disputes.
The organisation had higher authorities from over 30 countries. They looked over the paperwork, implementation of league resolutions and agendas.
5. ILO (International Labour Organization)
This was formed as an organ of the League. It was aimed at upholding worker rights, ensuring minimum wages and thus improving the working conditions for the labour class amongst member countries.
6. The Disarmament Commission
It was formed in 1924, with an objective to oversee all member states work towards reducing their arsenal size in a mutually verifiable manner.
Assessment of the League
The LON failed in upholding its core objective i.e. protecting the territorial integrity of member states, primarily due to organisational, structural and functional weaknesses. However, it was not a total failure. The Immediate humanitarian assistance provided by LON played an important role in limiting the death and destruction unleashed by WW 1. Many of the committees of the League achieved valuable results to foster international cooperation. And it also helped in solving several minor political disputes.
- The International Labour Organisation(ILO) improved the conditions of labour all over the world by persuading the governments to – fix a maximum working day and week, specify adequate minimum wages, introduce sickness and unemployment benefits, old-age pensions etc.
- The Refugee Organization solved the problem of thousands of former prisoners in Russia. At the end of the war, about half a million returned home. After 1933, valuable help was given to thousands of people fleeing from the Nazi persecution in Germany.
- The Health Organization investigated the causes of epidemics, and it was successful, especially in combating a typhus epidemic in Russia, which seemed likely to spread across Europe.
- The Mandates Commission supervised the government of the territories taken from Germany and Turkey, while yet another commission was responsible for administering the Saar (a German region). It did this very efficiently and concluded by organising the 1935 plebiscite in which a large majority voted for the Saar to be returned to Germany.
- Despite the achievements mentioned above, Disarmament Commission made no progress in persuading member states to reduce armaments even though they had all promised to do so at the Covenant.
The role in Political Disputes
- The PCIJ (Permanent Court of International Justice), an organ of the League of Nations played a positive role in intervening on minor disputes amongst member states and resolved around 40 disputes in 1924-1940.
- In the quarrel between Finland and Sweden over the Åland Islands, the verdict went in favour of Finland (1920).
- Over the rival claims of Germany and Poland to the important industrial area of Upper Silesia, the League decided that it should be partitioned (divided) between the two (1921).
- When the Greeks invaded Bulgaria, after some shooting incidents on the frontier, the League swiftly intervened: Greek troops were withdrawn, and damages were paid to Bulgaria.
- When Turkey claimed the province of Mosul, part of the British mandated territory of Iraq, the League decided in favour of Iraq.
- Further afield, in South America, squabbles were settled between Peru and Colombia and between Bolivia and Paraguay.
Although the League helped in addressing these issues, the real concerns were not addressed by the League.
Issues with the axis powers
- In 1904 Japan had invaded Korea. In 1931, it invaded the fertile Manchuria regions of China. While its actions were criticised by the League of Nations, it failed to take any economic or military actions against it. Responding to this criticism, Japan resigned from the League of Nations in 1933.
- In 1936, Axis Coalition came into existence with Japan, Germany and Italy. In 1937, Japan launched an invasion of the Nanjing region in China. This was a bloody Japanese expansion in which more than 3 lakh Chinese individuals were killed within three weeks. The event is infamously known as ‘ the rape of Nanjing/Nanking’.
- In 1935, Italy invaded Abyssin (Ethiopia) to colonially expand its presence in North Africa. As the League imposed minor economic sanctions on Italy, Italy resigned from the League in 1935.
- In 1935, Hitler introduced Military Conscription under which teenagers were also inducted in army. This largely increased size of German army and was clear violation of Treaty of Versailles.
- Hitler gave orders for reestablishing the Navy and forming Air Force. Moreover, he sent troops to remilitarise the Rhineland region.
- In 1938, in clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany annexed Austria. However, the League of Nations did not take any action and simply ignored it.
- The western portion of Czechoslovakia, which was called the Sudetenland region, also had a German-speaking population. Hitler sent troops and tried to occupy the region.
- Czechoslovakia appealed to LON. In 1938, the Munich peace conference was called in which Germany agreed to not expand any further in Czechoslovakia while its control over the Sudetenland region would be recognised.
- However, Hitler broke the treaty a couple of months later to annex Czechoslovakia completely, while LON failed to take any swift action against it.
- In 1939, Despite the earlier professed strongly anti-Communist views, Hitler signed a non-Aggression pact with the Soviet Union. He sought to invade Poland, reunite Eastern Prussia, and create a Greater Germany, leading to the second world war.
Factors Responsible for the Failure of LON
The former British prime minister, Lord Balfour, remarked about the League as ‘The danger I see in the future is that some powerful nation will pursue a realpolitik, as in the past. I do not believe we have yet found, or can find, a perfect guarantee against such a calamity.’
Unfortunately, several such challenges occurred during the 1930s, and on every occasion, the League was found wanting. The factors for the failure of the League can be discussed as follows
A close link with the Treaty of Versailles
The League seemed like an organisation created for the benefit of victorious powers. It happened to defend a peace settlement that was far from perfect—the territorial gains of the Italians and the inclusion of Germans in Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Rejected by the USA
USA’s policy of isolation, termed as Munroe doctrine(1823), had a devastating effect on world affairs by not joining the League and not accepting the Treaty of Versailles.
Few important powers were not involved
Germany was not allowed to join till 1926, and USSR joined in 1934 only when Germany left. So, initially, League was deprived of major powers.
Paris conference of ambassadors
This conference, though initiated to run until the formation of the League, took precedence over the League in many issues such as ;
- League in 1920 supported Lithuania for its claim over Vilna, which was seized by poles. But when the ambassador’s conference insisted to handover Vilna to Poland, the League accepted it.
- In the Corfu incident of 1923, a boundary dispute arose between Greece and Albania. Three Italian officials were killed. Mussolini held Greece responsible. When Greece appealed to the League, Mussolini threatened to leave. As a result, the ambassador conference held Greece responsible and ordered it to pay the full amount as demanded.
A weak covenant of the League
League’s Covenant was weak as it had no decisive powers due to unanimous vote and no own military force. Article 16 of the Covenant calls for collective security by sending troops from every country, but it was not held in practice. Britain’s Geneva protocol was not accepted by the next governments and hence left the League with no authority.
It was a British or French affair
The League didn’t had the USA & USSR as its members. Italy, too was hostile, and only British and France stood as strongholds. However, Britain attitude of non – involvement and signing of Locarno Treaties(1925) outside the League made it a weak organisation after 1930.
World economic crisis of 1929
The world economic crisis of 1929 brought unemployment and low standards of living to most of the countries. Extreme right-wing governments came into power in Japan, Germany. Along with Mussolini, they took radical measures for expansion. The occupation of Manchuria by Japan (1931), Abyssinia by Italy (1935) led to the League’s failure.
Policy of appeasement
British PM Chamberlain emphasised the policy of appeasement under which Britain & France deliberately ignored Germany’s actions, partly as efforts to undo the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. Britain expected that Germany would eventually limit further expansion after Austria and Czechoslovakia annexation in 1938. However, Germany saw the inaction of Britain and France from 1935-38 as a lack of willingness and capability of these powers. It interpreted the policy of appeasement as a sign of their weakness and continued its expansion further.
World disarmament conference failure (1932-33)
Germany asked for equality of armaments along with France, but France wanted to postpone it for eight more years. With this, Hitler drew Germany out of this conference and from the League later on.
The League of Nations was not an organisation of total success nor total failure. While the 2nd World War is seen as a devastating failure of the League, it also paved the way for the formation of the United Nations. It taught many valuable lessons for the international community. The mistakes made in the League of Nations were not repeated at United Nations. We can confidently say that the UN has served well for the last 75 years and continues to do so.