The League of Nations 101 is a series that historically analyze the work of the League of Nations. The League of Nations was the first international organization that has aimed to control international affairs and, in order to achieve that, it launched its own international bureaucracy. Through its main organs (the Secretariat, the Assembly and the Council) it was able to form a new, multilateral system by the end of the 1920s.
The League of Nations 101 series' aim is to examine the system-level operations, the possible strategies used by state representations and the activities of the people that were operating the system or intended to prevail in it, as well as to find the place of the League of Nations in the history of diplomacy and international institutions.
The series are divided into the following chapters:
1. A New Spirit
8. Biggest Failures of the League of Nations
9. The Past Versus The Future
10. The League of Nations' Place in the History of International Institutions and Bureaucracy
The Biggest Failures of the League of Nations
In the last article of the 101 series the biggest successes of the League were explained. This article will discuss the organization's biggest failures.
The League of Nations was the most important international forum aiming to control international affairs and to end secret diplomacy. Thus, in the 1920s and 1930s offended parties usually asked for the help of the League during actual political crises. The League, however, did not have any real coercive measures, and it could only count on three main factors: international law, public opinion and some modest – mostly economic – sanctions.
International law, however, was quite new and had many leaks, which frequently left the League of Nations and its huge legislative apparatus without real solutions. (Ortega, 2003) The idea of putting pressure on political decision-makers with the help of public opinion was not effective either regarding real-politics and crisis management. The only solution left in the hands of the League was to introduce sanctions, which were far from being efficient in tense situations when military were also involved.
On the other hand, the League was also unable to end secret diplomacy. Despite its huge achievements regarding a new, multilateral system on that field, it was a failure from the beginning, as secret treaties like the Treaty of Rapallo between Germany and the USSR were settled one by one.
In the 1920s, no serious political problems arose; the world was busy with domestic stabilization and the settlement of a new era. However, in the 1930s the powers which had claims against the status quo yet were weakened by World War I became strong enough to act. Political crises started to emerge one by one, and the League had no coercive measures against them.
The first was the Manchurian crisis (1931-1933): in 1931 Japanese troops invaded Manchuria (Northeast China) and established Manchukuo, a Japanese-dominated state. The question was presented to the League of Nations and as usual its Council appointed a Commission to examine the details. That was the Lytton Commission, which found both parties guilty and labeled Japan as an aggressor. Japan rejected the conclusion and resigned from the League of Nations. (Britannica, 2022)
In October 1934 two terrorist organizations, the Croatian USTASA and the Macedonian ORIM decided to use the diplomatic method of the Yugoslav king to assassinate the king they had previously sentenced to death. The terrorists assassinated King Alexander of Yugoslavia and the French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou in Marseilles.
Supported by France and the Little Entente, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia brought the matter before the League of Nations and submitted a memorandum in which it held Hungary responsible for the assassination. Due to the numerous political maneuvers that involved Italy and England as well, and despite the obvious involvement of Hungary, the League of Nations adopted a unitary solution against terrorism as such, stating that the fight against terrorism was a universal interest in which all countries must be involved. (Kádár, 2009)
Meanwhile, Benito Mussolini elevated the imperial idea to doctrine (Ormos, 2000) and decided to occupy Abyssinia (nowadays Ethiopia). The attack has started on October 3, 1935. On October 7, the League of Nations labeled Italy as an aggressor and imposed an embargo, which, however, did not apply to coal, iron and oil for the sake of British trade interests, that is, the very materials that were essential during a war. (Taylor, 2011)
After the clear failure of the League of Nation in controlling the crisis, in May 1936 Halie Selassie, the emperor of Abyssinia, had to flee the country. He was already well known in Europe due to his successful efforts to join the League and his trip to the continent in 1924, (Sík, 1964) thus, he went to the Council himself to ask the League and the public to help his country.
However, the fate of Abyssinia has already been decided: on January 7, 1935, the French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval visited Mussolini and the two politicians agreed that in exchange for Austria's protection against the Anschluss, France accepted the Italian conquest of Abyssinia. According to their agreement, should the matter brought before the League of Nations, Italy would not have to fear retaliation. (Taylor, 2011) Although Laval later also made a pact with Samuel Hoare, the situation did not change significantly, and Abyssinia fell. This kind of striking failure showed the powerlessness of the League to its member states and made their efforts to find alternative routes to security even more decisive. (Kershaw, 2015)
Although the League applied some limited economic sanctions against Italy, after the Abyssinian crisis the general opinion was that the League of Nations had failed and so did the concept of collective security embodied in the League’s covenant. That also urged the stakeholders interested in the enforcement of international law to analyze the question and provide solutions and possible ways for reorganization, should similar problems emerge in the future. (Fenwick, 1936)
Meanwhile, it became obvious as well that, despite the League of Nations continuous efforts on general disarmament, militarization was widespread, and the whole world was successfully arming itself, leaving the League a failed attempt.
These opinions were backed by the upcoming new crises: the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939, the complete occupation of China by Japan, the Anschluss in 1938, the Soviet invasion of Finland and at the end the German invasion of Poland. In these serious crise,s the League of Nations was completely helpless on a political level.
As the League of Nations itself was not able to control the great powers, what’s more, it also had to maneuver between them, it could not control the serious political crises emerging one after another either. As the US did not join the organization, it became a field for the French-British rivalry, while those states that could not or would not gain its end within the frameworks of the League could simply withdraw from the organization.
With the League of Nations failure on the political level, the noble idea that emerged during and after World War I to enforce peace also has failed and the political realignment ended up in World War II.
• Eckhardt, T., Kádár, Lynn Katalin and Strausz, P. (2009): Királygyilkosság Marseille-ben. Eckhardt Tibor visszaemlékezései. L’Harmattan
• Fenwick, C. G. (1936): The "Failure" of the League of Nations. The American Journal of International Law 30 (3) 506-509.
• Kershaw, Ian (2015): To Hell and Back. Europe 1914-1949. Penguin Books
• Lytton Commission (2022): Lytton Commission investigation team. Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Lytton-Commission
• Ormos, Mária (2000): Mussolini. Budapest
• Ortega Y Gasset, José (2003): A tömegek lázadása. Nagy Világ.
• Sík, Endre (1964): Fekete-Afrika története II. Budapest
• Taylor, A. J. P. (2011): A második világháború okai. Budapest
Ortega Y Gasset, José (2003): A tömegek lázadása. Nagy Világ.
• A bounded League of Nations. Why did the League of Nations failed? https://www.historyonthenet.com/why-did-the-league-of-nations-fail
• Cain (n.d). The League of Nations using sanctions. http://theleagueoffailure.weebly.com/collective-security.html
• Halie Selassie addressing the League of Nations and condemning Mussolini's aggression, 1936. Boyd van Dijk. Twitter. https://twitter.com/boyd_vandijk/status/1338969172999606273/photo/1
• Marseilles Assassination – Lieutenant Colonel Piole knocking down the assassin with sword blows. Branko Bogdanovic: Assassination Of Alexander – Marseilles 1934. OruzjeOnline. Retrieved from https://oruzjeonline.com/2020/01/20/assassination-of-alexander-marseilles-1934/
• The Treaty of Rapallo in 1922. Chancellor of Germany Joseph Wirth (second from left) with Leonid Krasin, Georgi Chicherin and Adolph Joffe from the Russian delegation. Wikipedia. https://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapallói_egyezmény_(1922)#/media/Fájl:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R14433,_Vertrag_von_Rapallo.jpg
Cain (n.d). The League of Nations using sanctions. http://theleagueoffailure.weebly.com/collective-security.html