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League of Nations

1. Background

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. On the same day when the treaty of Versailles was signed, St. Germain, and Sevres also also came into existence. It was praised as one of the greatest miracles in the history by South African statesman Jan Smuts. The organisation stood straight until the 1930s. It was successful in resolving several minor international disputes and the refugee crisis. However, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (1931), the Italian attack on Abyssinia(1935), Germany’s disputes with Czechoslovakia and Poland undermined the League’s authority and triggered occurrence of the Second World War. As a result, the League eventually got dissolved in 1946 with the establishment of the United Nations.

2. 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;

  1. Abolition of secret diplomacy;
  2. Free navigation at sea for all nations in war and peace;
  3. Removal of economic barriers between states;
  4. All-round reduction of armaments;
  5. Impartial adjustment of colonial claims in the interests of the populations concerned;
  6. Evacuation of Russian territory;
  7. Restoration of Belgium;
  8. Liberation of France and restoration of Alsace and Lorraine;
  9. Readjustment of Italian frontiers along the lines of nationality;
  10. Self-government for the peoples of Austria-Hungary;
  11. Romania, Serbia and Montenegro to be evacuated and Serbia to be given access to the sea;
  12. Self-government for the non-Turkish peoples of the Turkish Empire and permanent opening of the Dardanelles;
  13. An independent Poland with secure access to the sea;
  14. 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 the international cooperation to solve economic and social problems.

3. Organization of the League

The League consists of 55 member states in 1926, and the number kept changing. The organs of the organisation include;

3.1 The General Assembly

This contained the representatives from the entire member states having one vote each. Its function was to decide the general policies like the revision of peace treaties etc. All the decisions had to be unanimous, and it was also tasked with maintaining the finances. This assembly gave chances to small and medium-sized states to raise their issues and have their say on the world developments.

3.2 The Council

The council contained four permanent members for three years – Britain, France, Italy and Japan. The USA didn’t join the League. While, the non – permanent members were nine by 1926.The special political disputes were to be solved by the council, and the decision had to be unanimous.

3.3 Permanent Court of International Justice

This was established at the Hague of Holland (Netherland), consisting of 15 judges of the different nationalities. It started in 1922, and by 1939 it had successfully dealt with 66 cases. It also dealt with legal disputes between states rather than political disputes.

3.4 Secretariat

The organisation consisted of the higher authorities from over 30 countries. They looked over the paperwork, implementation of league resolutions and agendas.

Image: ILO

3.5. 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 the member countries.

3.6. The Disarmament Commission

It was formed in 1924 with an objective to oversee all the member states working towards reducing their arsenal size in a mutually verifiable manner.

4. Assessment of the League

The LON failed in upholding its core objectives i.e. protecting the territorial integrity of the member states, primarily due to its 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 the by World war 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.

5. International Cooperation

The formation of the League of Nations proved fruitful in enhancing the cooperation among the nation states through its organisation at variety of occasions:

  • 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, and old-age pensions etc.
  • The Refugee Organization solved the problem of thousands of the 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.

However, despite the achievements mentioned above, the Disarmament Commission made no progress in persuading the member states to reduce the armaments even though they had promised to do so at the Covenant.

6. The role in Political Disputes

The political disputes have the capability to escalate into full-fledged wars, necessitating the need of mediation to resolve the disputes at the earliest possible stage.

For instance, 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. Some of the examples of the disputes solved by PCIJ were:

Image: Aland Islands by the New York Times
  • The quarrel between Finland and Sweden over the Å land Islands, where 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).
  • Even 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, in the South America, squabbles were settled between Peru and Colombia and between Bolivia and Paraguay.

It was seen that although the League helped in addressing these issues, the League failed to address the real concerns.

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7. Issues with the Axis Powers

A. Japan

In 1904 Japan invaded Korea and in 1931, it invaded the fertile Manchurian 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.

Then in 1936, the Axis Coalition came into existence with Japan, Germany and Italy and the very next year 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’.

Image: The Nanking Massacre

B. Italy

In 1935, Italy invaded Abyssin (Ethiopia) to colonially expand its presence in the North Africa. As a result, the League imposed minor economic sanctions on Italy, Italy resigned from the League in 1935.

C. Germany

In 1935, Hitler introduced the Military Conscription under which teenagers were to be inducted in the army. This largely increased the size of the German army and this was a clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles.

Hitler gave the orders for re-establishing the Navy and forming Air Force. As a result of increased military forces, he sent troops to remilitarise the Rhineland region and in 1938 he annexed Austria. The League’s response to the invasion was not favourable enough and it chose to stay outside of the issue.

The similar response was also witnessed in League’s stand on the issue of Sudetenland region, the western portion of Czechoslovakia which had a sizeable population of German speaking people.

Then in 1939, despite the fact that the former professed strongly the anti-Communist views, Hitler signed a non-Aggression pact with the Soviet Union. He also sought to invade Poland, reunite Eastern Prussia, and create a Greater Germany. All these conditions contributed to the conditions favourable for the occurrence of the Second World War.

8. Factors Responsible for the Failure of LON

The former British Prime Minister, Lord Balfour, remarked about the League that: ‘The danger I see in the future is that some powerful nation will pursue realpolitik, as in the past. I do not believe we have yet found, or can find, a perfect guarantee against such a calamity.’

Image: Lord Balfour

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:

The League seemed like an organisation created for the benefit of the 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.

2. Rejected by the USA

The USA’s policy of isolation, termed as Munroe doctrine (1823), had a devastating effect on the world affairs by not joining the League and not accepting the Treaty of Versailles.

3. Few Important Powers were not Involved

Germany was not allowed to join till 1926, and USSR joined in 1934 only when Germany already left. So, initially, the League was deprived of major powers.

4. Paris Conference of Ambassadors

This conference was, 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 the polls. But when the ambassador’s conference insisted to handover Vilna to Poland, the League accepted it.
Image: The Corfu Incident
  • In the Corfu incident of 1923, a boundary dispute arose between Greece and Albania. Three Italian officials were killed and Mussolini held Greece responsible for the whole incident. Further, when Greece appealed to the League, Mussolini threatened to leave. As a result, the ambassador’s conference held in Greece responsible and ordered it to pay the full amount as demanded.

5. A Weak Covenant of the League

The league’s Covenant was weak as it had no decisive powers due to unanimous voting and no military force of its own. The Article 16 of the Covenant, further, also calls for collective security by sending troops from every country, but it was not held in practice. Moreover, Britain’s Geneva protocol was not accepted by the next governments and hence left the League with no authority.

6. It was a British or French Affair

The League didn’t have the USA & USSR as its members. Italy too was hostile and only British and France stood as the strongholds. However, Britain attitude of non – involvement and signing of Locarno Treaties (1925) outside the League made it a weak organisation after 1930.

7. World Economic Crisis of 1929

The world economic crisis of 1929 brought unemployment and low standards of living to most of the countries. The extreme right-wing governments also came into power in Japan and Germany. Along with Mussolini, they took radical measures for expansion. These events of expansion such as the occupation of Manchuria by Japan (1931)and Abyssinia by Italy (1935) led to the League’s failure.

8. Policy of Appeasement

The 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.

9. World Disarmament Conference Failure (1932-33)

Image: The World Disarmament Confer

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.

9. Conclusion

The League of Nations was not an organisation of total success or 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, as a result the mistakes made in the League of Nations were not repeated at United Nations. In the end, we can confidently say that the UN has served well for the last 75 years and continues to do so.

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10. Multiple Choice Question

1] Why the LON came into being?
a) To prevent war and settle disputes
b) To decide the geopolitical arrangement of the world
c) To decide the economics principles for the conduct of the world trade
d) To regulate the environment

Show Answer

Ans: a) To prevent war and settle disputes

2] Which of the following forms the part of the 14 points introduced by Woodrow Wilson?
a) Abolition of the secret diplomacy
b) Restoration of Belgium
c) Reduction of the armaments.
d) All of the above.

Show Answer

Ans: d) All of the above.

3] How many permanent members are there in the Council?
a) Four
b) Five
c) Three
d) Six

Show Answer

Ans: c) Three

4] Where the Permanent Court of International Justice was established?
a) Germany
b) USA
c) Russia
d) Netherlands

Show Answer

Ans: d) Netherlands

5] What do you mean by the Nanking Massacre?
a) Holocaust of Jews
b) German invasion of Poland
c) Japan invasion of China
d) Italian invasion of Abyssin

Show Answer

Ans: c) Japan invasion of China

6] What are the features of the Great depression of 1929?
a) Unemployment
b) Deteriorating living standards
c) Both a and b
d) None of the above

Show Answer

Ans: c) Both a and b

7] Which article of the League’s covenant calls for the idea of collective security?
a) Article 10
b) Article 12
c) Article 14
d) Article 16

Show Answer

Ans: d) Article 16

8] The Aland Islands were a zone of conflict between which two nations?
a) Finland and Sweden
b) Sweden and Denmark
c) Russia and Japan
d) N. and S. Korea

Show Answer

Ans: a) Finland and Sweden

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Suraj

Thank you for putting it out so wonderfully!

Mayur

Happy to help you Suraj. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any further assistance.