In light of the recent pandemic, which has struck our planet with a force like no other, international organisations such as the WHO have taken major steps to ensure our safety. However, doesn’t this make us ponder about the origins of the WHO? In essence, it was one of the commissions of the League of Nations, specifically ‘The Health Commission’. It is important that we explore the League of Nations, and come to a conclusion as to whether it was a success, albeit for a short time, or was it a failure.
Formed in January of 1920, the LON was initially a 42 member international, diplomatic group, developed after World War I to solve the disputes between countries, before they erupted into open warfare and further conflict. It faced early issues that required handling, and crucial decisions were made in the later years, which would change the outcomes of the future.
The League – VILNA AND ALAND
Focusing primarily on the early years of the LON, their first test of handling conflict was in 1920 due to the new independent countries as a result of the break of the Austria-Hungary Empire. Lithuania was one of these states, its capital the city of Vilna. However the population of Vilna were adamant that they wanted to be a part of Poland. Poland immediately sent their army to seize Vilna and take control. It was obvious conflict was on the horizon, and this was most definitely not favourable for any country, following the devastating effects of WW1. It was the LON’s main aim to tranquillise spewing conflicts and spread peace. Their attempt in this however, was weak, with no troops being sent to Vilna from France or Britain. This was a clear failure for the league, regardless of the fact that they had ultimately ended up with peace, an act of aggression was carried out and not acted upon.
Focusing on some of the LON’s successes we must move forward a year to 1921, in the conflict of the Aland Islands. These are a strip of islands between Sweden and Finland, and both countries had claimed ownership fo the islands. Consequently, conflict and another war seemed like a most likely outcome. However the league handled it well, handing the islands to Finland on the condition that they do not fortify the islands. The LON had avoided war, damage and devastation; something that was necessary after ww1.
Long Term Failure to the Fatalities
Now we have explored the successes and failures of the league in their early years, let’s move onto the later years and for many, the years which caused the league to be seen as the useless, powerless and impotent organisation that falls as the devil to peoples eyes.It is commonly agreed that the failure of the League of Nations was one of the main reasons for the outbreak of WW2, but what had caused the failure? Additionally, the outcome of war from a mere failure must mean the failure of the league was not a minor occurrence.
One of the main reasons for the failure was because the league seemed weak right off the bat. The seizure of Vilna was the LON’s first official task to make wrongs right, but it was to no avail. Also, the Manchuria Crisis in 1931 was one of the main portrayals of failure, so let’s see how they dealed with it.
In the 1930’s the world was hit by an economic depression. Japan in response believed the extension of their empire was a perfect way to recover as well as become a major and important country. Japan had control of the Manchuria railway in China so in September 1931, the Japanese attacked the Chinese army, in response to the execution of a spy and for their empire. The Japanese army invaded regardless of the precise orders given by the government to withdraw. In May 1932, they had captured Shanghai itself. The League was yet to act. A shocking response, again showing their clear inability to act on aggression.
By February 1932, the Japanese had conquered the whole of Manchuria, and set up a Japanese-controlled state called Manchukuo. Thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians had been killed by the modernised yet ruthless Japanese army.China appealed to the League of Nations, after they were doing nothing on their own incentives. The League sent a delegation to Manchuria and recommended Manchuria to be returned to China. A Special Assembly of the League was held in February 1933, 17 months post the invasion, where 40 nations voted that Japan was to blame for the war and should withdraw. Instead, Japan walked out of the League. In 1933, Japan invaded Jehol, the Chinese province next to Manchuria. It seems like the League had left no mark on the Japanese determination, further portraying their weakness.
The League could do nothing. A cartoon of 1933 shows a Japanese soldier using the League of Nations and its Covenant as a doormat, while the League did nothing. The League consistently suggested economic sanctions, but nothing was done again because Britain wanted to keep trading with Japan. The League had also failed to cease arms supply, due to the incessant fear of the Japanese waging war.
The League was powerless and presented their impotence to the highest level in their attempt to stop a powerful, determined country.
But why war from this failure? Adolf Hitler was undeniably one of the most determined and patriotic leaders in all of modern history and law. The LON’s failures in Manchurian exposed weaknesses which encouraged Hitler ‘s war triggering actions of invasion. Hitler saw these weaknesses of the League and believed that if he invaded a country the League would be too weak to stop him. This was very important reason because if Hitler thought he had powerful oppositions, he might not have started war.
TSo, we’ve seen the short term successes (and failures) of the League, how they averted war over the Aland Islands but this arouses another question whether this aversion of conflict could ever outweigh the seemingly undeniable causation that the League was to WW2.
- Eric Hayes,”The Åland Islands Question – A League Success Story” https://projects.au.dk/inventingbureaucracy/blog/show/artikel/the-aaland-islands-question-a-league-success-story/
- “The League in Manchuria” https://www.johndclare.net/league_of_nations6.htm