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The League of Nations: An Ambition Out of Its League

Have You Ever?

You might have heard that the United Nations was established after WWII to facilitate cooperation between countries to prevent another conflict of that scale. But have you ever wondered what happened after WW1, often called The War to End All Wars? 

Explanation

As a matter of fact, there was an earlier attempt at global cooperation. After the fall of the German Empire in the First World War, several world powers gathered and established the first intergovernmental organization. Called the League of Nations, the organization strove to promote world peace, solve conflicts without military force, and ensure global welfare. The idea was to not repeat the mistakes of World War I and to prevent another World War.

The League Of Nations

The League Of Nations was an intergovernmental organization established after the First World War. The League of Nations originated from the Treaty of Versailles during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. 

History

The First World War ended when Germany signed an armistice on November 11th, 1918. With Germany defeated, the leaders of the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy convened during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to draft a peace treaty and start negotiations with Germany. This treaty, known as the Treaty of Versailles, was made without German input since Germany was not invited to the conference. Besides outlining the terms of settlement, the Treaty of Versailles also established The League Of Nations to promote peace and cooperation between countries.

The push for an international peacekeeping organization is often attributed to US President Woodrow Wilson. In his speech to the joint sessions of Congress on January 8th, 1918, Wilson articulated fourteen points about the aftermath of the war. Apart from talking about self-determination and disarmament, he also stressed the need to create an international body to promote peace. Even though Wilson’s Fourteen Points of sovereignty and unity were building blocks for the League, Congress prevented the US from ever joining the League of Nations.

The first meeting of the League was convened on January 16th, 1920. The League consisted of a General Assembly for all member states to attend, the Council with four permanent members, and the Secretariat for administrative purposes. The Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) was also established to resolve international disputes. The four permanent members of the council were Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. Forty-eight countries had already joined the League by 1920. Germany was only allowed to participate in 1926. The League eventually disbanded on April 20th, 1946.

The League of Nations undertook several missions to promote peace and resolve conflicts but was only partly successful. The Geneva Convention was devised under this league in the 1920s with the aim of preventing chemical and biological weapons. It also got involved in the Jewish-Arab conflict by approving Palestine to be a mandate under the United Kingdom in 1922. The League also sent 400 thousand prisoners of war back to their homes with the help of member states. It also approved the Slavery Convention in 1926, which facilitated the suppression of the slave trade. Even though it had some success in stopping conflicts, the eventual rise of Hitler in Germany led to the downfall of the League and the start of the Second World War.

Why Care?

The League of Nations tried to be the international arbiter regarding war, but it fell short. This failure can be traced back to the very moment of its creation. The Treaty of Versailles imposed harsh conditions through the War Guilt Clause, attributing blame and responsibility to Germany by naming it the sole creator of WWI. Germany had to pay reparations equivalent to two hundred sixty-nine billion dollars today, and concede territorial gains. With its military crippled and economy in shambles, Germany was humiliated. This humiliation is thought to have created a climate that allowed for the success of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. 

After its lackluster beginning, the League of Nations failed to rise to greater heights. Hitler withdrew Germany from the League after coming to power. He violated the treaty by stopping reparations and increasing the size of Germany’s army. Even though the League and member states such as Britain and France condemned Hitler’s decision, no penalty was placed on his actions. When the USSR invaded Finland in 1939, it was expelled from the organization. Lacking the US and the USSR, the League struggled to establish authority over other countries without the membership of two major world powers. It came to a boiling point when Germany began invading France and Poland. With no active military force, the League of Nations could not exercise hard power and could not enforce treaties because of its lack of influence globally. These key weaknesses led to the League’s ultimate failure to stop another global conflict.

However, the League laid the groundwork for the creation of the United Nations, as well as its structure, which also includes a secretariat, general assembly, and the smaller Security Council. The PCIJ evolved into the International Court of Justice, the judicial organ of the UN. The League of Nations may have failed to prevent a second world war, but it was a precursor to a more stable international organization that has been in place for over 75 years.

Think Further

  1. What do you think the League of Nations would’ve needed to do to prevent the Second World War?
  2. How could the allied powers have approached Germany regarding reparations after the First World War?
  3. Would the United Nations still have been created if the League of Nations was never established? Would another attempt at a peacekeeping organization have been made, and what differences would it have?

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  1. BBC. “How Did World War One End and What Happened next?” BBC Bitesize, BBC, 14 Jan. 2020, www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/topics/zqhyb9q/articles/zkb86v4.
  2. Blakemore, Erin. “Germany’s World War I Debt Was So Crushing It Took 92 Years to Pay Off.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 27 June 2019, www.history.com/news/germany-world-war-i-debt-treaty-versailles. 
  3. Château de Versailles. “The Treaty of Versailles, 1919.” Palace of Versailles, 7 May 2020, https://en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/history/key-dates/treaty-versailles-1919.
  4. Khan Academy. “The League of Nations.” Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/rise-to-world-power/us-in-wwi/a/the-league-of-nations.
  5. History.com Editors. “League Of Nations.” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, 12 Oct. 2017, www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/league-of-nations#section_3.