Known as the “predecessor of the United Nations”, the League of Nations (1920 – 1946) was an intergovernmental organization with the aim “to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security ”.
The creation of the League of Nations marked a new era of international relations: governments from all parts of the world sat at one table to find peaceful solutions to political problems and disputes. This was in stark contrast to how intergovernmental relations were previously handled: in a net of (sometimes hidden, sometimes fragile) alliances and often enough through the application of mere force.
But the world had just emerged from a devastating war that had caused millions of victims, destroyed cities and left people everywhere struggling for survival. A different approach was needed.
Foundation of the League of Nations
After a series of bilateral armistices had brought an end to the hostilities, the victorious powers of World War I met at the Paris Conference in 1919 to negotiate comprehensive peace agreements. They drafted and signed the Treaty of Versailles which officially ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied and Associated Powers. Part I of the Treaty was the Covenant of the League of Nations, the document that constituted the League of Nations and laid out its purpose and activities.
The Covenant covered many aspects regarding the organization including the conditions of membership, the appointment of a Secretary-General, the establishment of the League of Nations Secretariat at Geneva, and its budget. Other articles within the Covenant dealt with the subject matter of the League including disarmament, political and social mandates as well as clarifying the obligations and rights of the Member States in order to promote international cooperation.
The League of Nations could only begin to function, formally and officially, when the Treaty of Versailles came into effect after its ratification by all parties. Thus, the League of Nations officially started its activities on 10 January 1920.
The organization was open to all states, providing they fulfilled certain requirements and obtained a 2/3 majority of votes in favor of their admission. In January 1920, 42 nations were members of the League.
The League at Work
As laid out in the Covenant, the League of Nations consisted of three main organs: The Assembly, where all member states were represented on equal footing; the Council which was composed of permanent and non-permanent members; and the Secretariat which performed the day-to-day work at the League’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
In addition, an International Court was established in the Hague, the Netherlands, to solve disputes between nations in a peaceful manner. Lastly, the International Labour Organization (ILO) was formed with the aim to improve working conditions for people globally. While their beginnings were directly linked to the creation of the League of Nations, both organizations worked independently of the League.
The League resolved several international disagreements peacefully, notably in its earlier years: The disputes between Sweden and Finland, and between Greece and Bulgaria were settled. Germany’s admission to the League in 1926 as a result of the improved relationship between its government and the Allies of World War I created a great optimism across Europe.
The League of Nations also achieved remarkable successes in the field of international cooperation. Conferences, intergovernmental committees, and meetings of experts were held in Geneva, in areas as diverse as health and social affairs, transport and communications, economic and financial affairs and intellectual cooperation. This fruitful work was validated by the ratification of more than one hundred conventions by the Member States.
Transition to the United Nations
In the 1930s , the spirit of cooperation gradually yielded to a rising sense of nationalism. Important members such as Germany, Italy, and Japan left the organization, and by the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, many had abandoned the League of Nations and had instead returned to the traditional system of defensive alliances and power blocs. For the second time in less than three decades, cities, landscapes and whole populations were razed to the ground.
At the end of the war, 43 states were still Members of the League of Nations, though for all intents and purposes the organization had ceased to exist. What had prevailed was the understanding among nations that a global partnership would be crucial to protecting their peoples from yet another destructive war.
In 1945, 50 governments came together to form the United Nations: an organization with remarkable similarities to the League of Nations but built on a more resilient structure, with committed members, and equipped with more effective tools to prevent or contain conflicts.
When the League of Nations officially ceased to exist in 1946, all its assets and documents were transferred to the United Nations, including its buildings and grounds, its library, and last but certainly not least, its archives and historical collections. The legacy of the League of Nations is still present today: Geneva-based UN staff continues to work inside the historical Palais des Nations where the League of Nations documents are maintained until today. Appreciating the value of the League of Nations documents, all files are currently being digitized in order to allow total access to the history of multilateralism.