The League of Nations was an international parliamentary organisation committed to disarmament and the prevention of war through negotiation, using force only when absolutely necessary. Just so you know, this procedure was known as collective security. The organisation was also pretty pro-health, education and living and working conditions, which makes sense because its main aim was to protect every country in the world.
The organisation, which was the brainchild of US President Woodrow Wilson as the last of his Fourteen Points, met annually after being set up in 1920. It comprised 42 members, and each one had a single vote. Because it was a democratic organisation, decisions of the assembly had to be unanimous. Should you want to know, the League of Nations was governed by a Covenant.
Because history likes to be complicated, you should know there was also a Council of the League of Nations, which had just four permanent members (this later rose to nine) and met four times a year at its neutral Switzerland headquarters. Confusingly, this council actually made most of the League’s decisions. Each permanent member had a veto over all of the council’s decisions.
The permanent members of the Council changed over the years:
1920-1926: UK, France, Italy and Japan.
1926-1933: UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.
1933-1934: UK, France, Italy and until March 1933, Japan and Oct 1933, Germany.
1934-1937: UK, France, Italy, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Soviet Union had been isolated after 1917 because other countries feared the spread of Communism. So, the fact that the Soviet Union joined in 1934 represented a pretty important success.
1937-1939: UK, France, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, until December 1939 when it was excluded from the League.
1939-1946: UK and France.
As you might have already gathered from the above breakdown, all countries were allowed to join the League of Nations – saving the defeated Central Powers and Communist Russia. The Central Powers were eventually allowed back in the club after proving their commitment to peace – Communist Russia was never allowed to join.
But now to the important stuff; let’s talk about what the League of Nations actually did! For starters, the League was pretty key in settling disputes between countries. It generally went about this through a process of arbitration, and by using the Court of International Justice, which was an enquiry by the Council of the League. The first step would involve asking a neutral country to arbitrate any given dispute, and the League would sometimes organise an enquiry by the Council of the League, or send the dispute to be decided at the International Court of Justice. From here, the pressure of world opinion could be applied. Force was only used as a last resort after economic sanctions aimed at damaging the aggressor through trade had failed, which is pretty nice when you think about it.
Should you want to know, the Court of International Justice also settled legal disputes between member nations. Meanwhile, the League had a number of Special Commissions which dealt with international problems such as poverty and injustice, when they were believed to be the causes of war. These also looked at help for poor nations, minorities’ rights and refugees, slavery, health, drugs and mandated colonies.
The League was pretty active during the 1920s, successfully settling several international disputes, for example the invasion of Albania by Yugoslavia (1920), the invasion of Bulgaria by Greece (1925) and disputes between Germany and Poland concerning Upper Silesia and between Finland and Sweden over the Aaland Islands (both 1921).
During the 1920s it also experienced a good degree of success in its aim of achieving peace, especially when Germany joined in 1926. The work of the Conference of Ambassadors was responsible for creating an atmosphere in which disputes could be agreed without recourse to war.
Fast-forward to the 1930s and the Great Depression, though, and things weren’t looking too good for the League; a lack of funding made it increasingly difficult for it to achieve its aims. And as trade and manufacturing slowed down, millions faced unemployment and hunger. The Great Depression was also directly linked to the rise of fascist dictatorships, and was responsible for the increase in international aggression during the 1930s.
Another thing worth remembering about the League is that it suffered because of membership. Both before and after WWI, the US pursued a policy of isolationism, preferring to stay out of world affairs. Woodrow Wilson was President at the time, but he was unable to get the US to agree to membership of the League of Nations – despite it having been his idea. Meanwhile, Russia stayed out of the League because of its Communist government and Germany was not invited to join as part of its punishment following WWI. The absence of these important countries represented a serious source of weakness for the League.
This isn’t to say the League was ever in a position of dire weakness; at one stage, it even considered building up its own army. This plan probably would have gone ahead, had Britain not objected. The UK didn’t want the League to have its own army because it didn’t want it to take on the role of world policeman. This was probably a good idea, when you think about it.
Britain actually got in the way of the League’s progress on more than one occasion; the League was weakened by the fact that Britain and France were often unable to agree over policies relating to Europe. This was because France was very concerned by the economic and military growth of Germany, while Britain was more concerned with its overseas Empire and the domination of Europe by France.
Making matters worse, the domination of the League of Nations by Britain and France was already working against its effectiveness; excluded countries saw it as a victor’s club that was able to manipulate policy-making decisions thanks to its never-ending presence on the Council. Poor Britain and France; you clearly couldn’t take them anywhere.