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League Of Nations

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Published: Mon, 10 Jul 2017

The League of Nations was an international association established by the victors of the First World War 1914-1918 as a result of the last point in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. It was set up to prevent future disputes, protect world peace and ensure security, thus the member states pledged to follow procedures when dealing with international crises. However it was not an easy job to set up an assembly that would have control over all nations, so in the end the League of Nations was not very long-lived, already by 1946 it was dissolved and replaced by the United Nations.

An investigation will be carried out, taking into consideration the facts and the aftermath of international affairs, from the early 1920s to the 1940s. The essay will deal with two key questions. Firstly, for what reasons did the League of Nations fail and was it doomed from the start? Secondly, to what extent could this collapse be blamed on the lack of cooperation between Britain and France?

The setting up of the ‘World Parliament’

After the end of the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, by Germany and the Allies of the Entente. As the result of this treaty an organization for international cooperation was founded. The American President, Woodrow Wilson was the one who actually drafted its creation and came up with the idea that international arguments should be sorted out and solved by the League which would be like the ‘World Parliament’ [1] . His views and ideas clearly differed from those of Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau. The League of Nations had a council, which was made up of 4 permanent members Britain, France, Italy and Japan along side the other 38 founder nations. Nevertheless throughout its existence the League did not manage to work up to its expectations of ‘performing wonders’ as President Wilson has put it.

Wilson hoped that the League of Nations would stop disputes and wars, improve people’s lives and working conditions and bring fairness and stability to Europe.

However once the League was set up and he returned back home to the United States, he only found that the American Congress refused to join it. The Americans felt that by joining the LON they would be dragged into other countries’ conflicts and problems, which was not something they needed, thus they pulled out.

This was just the very first weakness of the so called ‘World Parliament’. [2] The absence of the United States was not only a bitter blow which created a sense of incompleteness, but it also led to the major glitch in the Global Representation of the League. The United States was the driving force behind the LON and now there also would be no financing from their side. The League was all about embodying every nation and seeing that USA turned the LON down, any other minor member could feel like they had the right to leave any time. In 1922, it felt like the League was made up of sub nations since the worlds’ most powerful countries were not involved. The USA, the USSR and Germany were not members which left the League not as strong as it should have been and having an incomplete membership. Among other things the League did not have an army which was a big thing since their aim was to stop disputes and wars, the question arising, was whether they could do that if they had no fear-authority. Thus they relied on the members for military assistance who in turn refused to send their people to fight and for foreign lands, when they had no interest in that.

The Treaty of Versailles left unhappiness, grief which stimulated jealousy, resentment and rivalry. [3] The inter-war economic situation exaggerated political reactions, condemned democracy and constitutionalism needed for lasting settlement. It slowly failed because there were no adequate guarantees. The Treaty of Versailles along with other treaties passed through the LON, were slowly going bankrupt and losing support. The International Labour Organization (ILO) failed too, in its attempt to convince the nations to adopt a different working policy. The League was already in danger of losing its’ popularity and authority.

The League’s aim was to maintain collective security and replace international anarchy. From the start it was supposed to be an organization that would use economic and military sanctions to stop aggressors. However the sanctions did not work since some nations managed to find ways to get around them, thinking that they would solely lose out on them. In 1931, at the time of the Manchurian crisis the League could not even agree upon the economic sanctions and later on in 1935, it failed again when attempting a ban on the sale of arms, rubber and metals to Italy, when the French and the British opposed these sanctions. They believed that this move would lead to Mussolini allying with Hitler.

Also the League of Nations had been obliged to introduce a reduction of the armaments to the lowest, allowable for safety, level. A lot of time was put into this along with the ‘effort’ from the Allies who have been bound to disarm together with the losers of the WWI. This was thought to be a step towards future peace development. [4] 

The problem with this however was, that the policy failed later on in 1923 because Germany refused to have lower armaments than everybody else. This led to other countries going against and bypassing the disarmament. This showed that there was not enough commitment and effort involved in the International decisions and actions.

Another major difficulty for the League was handling disputes and solving problems. The specialized parts of the LON needed to cooperate but at the time of crisis they could not come to common understanding and decide on what was best for society. Also the decisions made within the League were unanimous which made it even harder for the organization to act out, it took them a long time to do anything and they were too slow to react.

There were quite a noticeable number of international arguments in the years of 1919 to 1935 not dealt with properly, by the League of Nations for various immoral and to some extent, self-centered reasons.

Too much pressure on the League of Nations

The first instance of the League’s passiveness is seen in early 1919, when the Italians took over the Fiume Port, which was previously granted to Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Versailles. The League of Nations did nothing despite the fact that it was their duty to prevent aggression and keep peace. In the end, an Italian by the name of Gabriele D’Annunzio governed the newly taken over port for over a year.

Later on that same year, Poland and Czechoslovakia fought over Teschen Silesia, which was a bordering region between the two countries. The area was rich in iron, coal, railway lines, and a notable part of the Silesian coal fields and since both nations were just recently created, they both felt the need to strengthen their economies by acquiring Teschen. When the League was summoned to help solve the territorial dispute, what it did was just divide the region, among the two countries. Poland was unhappy with what they got and ignored the League’s decision. The two countries argued over this issue for years to come.

After 1919, town Vilna was considered to be the Capital city of Lithuania. However about 30% of the city’s population was made up of Poles. In 1920, the Polish took over Vilna and when Lithuanians asked the League for help, it failed at making the Poles withdraw. They stayed in town until the start of the World War II. The League of Nations was once again powerless. We can see how many times within the same year the League failed at doing what it was created for.

The second time the Polish broke the rules of the League, was in 1920. Poland invaded Russia and its army conquered Russian land. By 1921 the Russians finally signed the Treaty of Riga, agreeing to hand over financial compensation, railway materials and nearly 80 000 km2. The League of Nations did encourage them to make peace, however it did nothing to stop the Poles. Since Russia was communist, they would only gain advantage from such an operation, because they feared it and wanted to prevent it from spreading. To countries that were not members of the League, it might have seemed like the LON was selectively picking who is good enough and who is not to get help. This was another failure since it only angered the Russians and made them more hostile towards the Allies.

Since the end of the First World War, one of the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles was that Germany had to pay reparations for the losses and damages that it had caused. [5] However when the Germans failed to do so in 1922, the anti-German feeling in both France and Belgium grew. Ignoring the laws of the League of Nations, both being members, France and Belgium invaded the Ruhr – an important industrial area in Germany. But the arising question was whether the League would stop them. France was one of the main members and yet one of the aggressors. Britain could not afford to stand up against its powerful ‘associates’. The League failed this time, twice. Firstly and fore mostly because it broke its’ own rules and secondly, because of the example that was set for the other countries. This was not the first time that something like this happened, this was the second alarming authority-defying example the members of the League have set.

Another dispute occurred in 1923, when an Italian commander Enrico Tellini, together with his assistants, was murdered on the border of the Greek territory. The Italians were sure and blamed the Greek nationalists for attacking their general. On the other hand the Greeks blamed criminals from Albania. Italy then demanded reparations and to be allowed to deal with the murderers, but the Greeks could not identify and find the killers. This sparked off an Italian attack on the Greek island of Corfu. The assassination of their General was not even the real reason, they have concealed the true motive all along.

When Greece appealed to the League for help, the LON did not do anything but directed the matter to the Conference of Ambassadors who forced Greece to comply with Mussolini’s conditions. [6] This was another failure since everybody knew that the Italians were just looking for an unjust excuse to invade Corfu and gain its coastline entrance position to the Adriatic Sea.

Later on, in 1928 nearly all nations decided to sign, the ‘Kellogg-Briand Pact’. The pact prohibited any aggression and use of war unless required in need of self-defense. However the Pact of Paris did not live up to ideal expectations and did not succeed at preventing war. [7] It proved to be ineffective and did not manage to prevent the two future conflicts which together in turn sparked off WWII. These two were the real tests for the League.

After the years of Depression, Japan still remained under its effects. She tried to overcome this by strengthening her empire although she lost many of her markets. This resulted in the Japanese searching for raw materials and trade markets. The province of Manchuria seemed perfect since right before; the Japanese had a strong economic presence there. Once the Japanese invaded Manchuria, the Chinese turned to the League of Nations for help. So what the League did was sent in, officials to Manchuria to analyze and study the root of the problem. They were very slow, it took them one year to do that and finally in 1933 Japan was ordered to step back and leave Manchuria. At the time the League did not seem as much of an authority any more which resulted in the Japanese ignoring the Leagues’ command. The League could do nothing about it. Japan was considered to be the greatest power in Eastern Asia and many countries supported trading with her. The Allies did not want a war and the LON could not even impose sanctions. The League of Nations has yet terribly failed at encouraging peace.

The other major problem of the League was that it seemed to be ‘scared’ to anger the aggressors, instead of having a higher position of authority to suppress the assailants it just stayed neutral not to make them resentful.

Benito Mussolini’s idea of glory and popularity led him to believe that he could do anything he wanted. In 1934 he laid his eyes on the only African territory which was left without any control by the European Colonial Authority – Abyssinia. [8] Italians had a previous encounter with the Ethiopians. In the year of 1895, Italians lost a humiliating battle and now were keen to get revenge.

When Haile Selassie appealed to the League for help, the LON talked to Mussolini but with no success. He would not compromise and just ignored them and used the moment to his advantage to send an army into Africa and invade Abyssinia. The League tried putting sanctions but those did not work, there was nothing else it could do, because Mussolini was considered a potential ally against Hitler and the LON did not want to risk making him ‘resentful’ towards the Allies.

This was the last straw, after the Manchuria and Abyssinia crises the people just saw the League as a “useless fraud”, and once Hitler actually started to break the Treaty of Versailles there was no other way but to start off the World War Two since it would be the only way to stop him.

All these unresolved disputes led to one another and in the end there was nothing left to do but to go to war. Also among the League’s many failed crises there were the failed treaties and the Locarno Pact of 1925. The Washington treaty was a naval-limiting agreement signed in 1921 by Britain, United States, Japan, France and Italy; but it failed when the naval restrictions merely became unrealistic in the 1930s. The Dawes plan of 1924, that made Germany dependant on American loans failed when USA demanded the money back after going through a Depression and still did not get much back. [9] And finally the Geneva Protocol of 1925, proved to be ineffective when the disputes broke out.

The lack of cooperation between the two main members of the League

One of the big problems that the League of Nations faced was the fact that it had no army and thus it depended fully on Britain and France once USA did not join. And as a matter of fact, these two members were unwilling to share and help the League. Britain and France were very passive and as long as their own interests were not involved they preferred to stay in the dark. [10] They did not feel the need to or even want to use sanctions which as the members of the League they should have supported.

Many historians fully blame France and Britain for the League’s failure. They believed that since the USA was not a member, all the responsibility of taking control of the League lay on Britain and France who felt like they had their more important responsibilities towards their nations, outside of the organization. They ignored what had to be done to keep international peace and instead put their own priorities first. France feared Germany and did anything to ensure self-security because of suffering great devastation during the war, whilst Britain plainly concentrated on strengthening her empire. [11] These two members were the heads and yet they were not fully willing to commit. And what organization can survive without somebody managing it properly and willing to put in enough work and effort to run it – especially when the heads of that organization fail to work together and fight towards the same goal.

If we closely look at the crises that the League of Nations faced, we can see a pattern. In many of the cases the leaders of Britain and France were the ones to stir trouble. Taking the Vilna Crisis as an example, where France actually wanted to keep on the right side of Poland since she saw it as a potential ally against Germany and Russia in case a war would arise and as a buffer zone against communism. Britain was never prepared to act alone which resulted in the League not taking action against the aggressors. The two countries acted without thinking about the League and what was best for it.

The main problem however was that the two members were unable to work together and thus bring any efficiency to the League of Nations.

Each one had their own priorities and a lot of times they failed to reach agreements and come to compromises regarding the problems of Europe after the war. They clearly had different ideas of what the role of the LON was.

As mentioned before France feared that Germany’s bigger number of population would be a threat to her own, whilst Britain saw it as a “commercial opportunity” towards a quick and efficient economic recovery. Despite this being the time when the French needed the British support in case of a future encounter with Germany’s aggression, Britain was not so keen on disarming Germany, which once again posed a threat to the entire stability of Europe. Both countries were obliged to show support for the LON in public, but really when in private they felt “deep cynicism and pessimism” for the organization but more importantly they had no faith in it.

In order to properly understand the relations between Britain and France we have to consider looking at their past. During the years of the First World War, the British and French were allies and worked against the Central Powers.

They strongly co-operated towards a common goal and in the end when the war was over they both were the victors. Immediately after the war, the British and French had been co-operating together, as their interests were very similar. They both needed countries like Germany and Russia weakened since they posed a bug threat to their nations and to the spread of Communism. Another similarity between them was that they both needed each other if they were to expand and strengthen their empires. At some point, there even was a very strong popular feeling in Britain towards France and when the leaders visited each other at latter countries they got warm receptions. [12] 

When the League of Nations was created, they both were the heads, and they had to accept the defense of countries between themselves. However after a while France started to see itself as a very powerful independent stand-alone power whilst Britain did not want to risk losing close relationships with Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

This caused tension between the two and at one point the British were even thinking about free trade which would put France at stake by placing tariffs on its goods.

Analysis

There are various reasons as to why the League of Nations failed. The main ones being that it did not have enough support and a driving force willing to push it on. As a historian by the name of A.J.P. Taylor once said “The League died in 1935. One day it was a powerful body imposing sanctions, the next day it was a useless fraud, everybody running away from it as quickly as possible. Hitler watched.” [13] The actual idea ‘of’ the League ensuring peace was great but since most of the member nations put their interests and priorities first, the League of Nations Failed. From the very beginning it was Wilson’s idea to set up the League but then America was the one strongest nation whose presence was noticeably yearned. The league could not act alone and it was based and dependant on the two main members, Britain and France.

This is where the bigger question comes in. Should these two be completely blamed for the collapse of the League? The answer is – ‘to a certain extent’. [14] They only dealt with the smaller, weaker countries and did not dare to stand up to aggressors because they felt threatened. However that was not the main reason behind them being blamed.

It is one thing when they do not feel secure and try to protect themselves and it is a completely different thing when they are not willing to work together even though the ‘World Parliament’ relies on them. Japan and Italy betrayed the League thus Britain and France were its last hope.

Nevertheless although Britain and France did not really betray the League, neither did they try to strengthen it and help it. [15] By invading the Ruhr, France let the League’s authority down. Another example would be the Abyssinian crisis where Britain and France were the ones who actually confidentially gave up Abyssinia to Italy. The longer they kept this up, the less everybody believed and put their hopes in the League. At the end everybody just started to ignore it. Another factor was the Great Depression which made every country fight for itself and try to gain more and more power.

The problem was that Britain and France were allies and had the same level of authority within the League but at the same time they lacked cooperation. Many times the two nearly went against each other to support their own self-interest only to be stopped by their own self-conscience that they needed each other. [16] 

One historian said “It is not altogether impossible to bring the French and the British to see eye to eye- only their eyes are so different”. It could be reasoned that Britain and France were at fault for the League’s failure because had they cooperated more and worked their way up towards a common goal, together they might have been strong enough to stand up to the aggressors and prevent the crumpling of the world peace and the League of Nations. It was also said that the League was merely a field that Britain and France chose to fight on.

On the other hand one can argue that other countries played a big part in the LON’s collapse too and no matter how strong the bond between the two main members would have been nothing could have prevented the League’s collapse and thereby the start of the WWII.

All the crises that the League had to go through were not just the result of the lack of cooperation between Britain and France, but also the never-ending desire for more power within other strong countries like Germany and Italy, whose leaders knew just how to use the moment to manipulate others to get what they wanted.

Conclusion

In conclusion we can see that all of the events and crises that occurred in the inter-war years contributed to the fall of the League of Nations. However the most notable reason was the inability of Britain and France to effectively work together without competing against each other for full domination.

Their mistrust, constant divisions and preoccupation with only their own affairs had cost the League some serious lack of development and effective performance which in the end resulted in a stalemate leading to new disputes and in 1939, the start of World War Two.


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