An extract from H.A.L.Fisher, A History of Europe (1938)

Fisher was a British Cabinet minister and friend of Lloyd George who became an Oxford University professor.   This is what he thought about the Treaty of Versailles  just before World War II

 

 

chapter xcviii [A LEAGUE OF NATIONS]

 

The idea of a League of Nations.   Ideas embodied in the Covenant.   Initial setbacks.  Work of the League.   Disarmament - the persistence of international rivalries.   The war clouds of 1935. 

 

The dream so often entertained, so often frustrated, of a world organized not for war but for peace, once more became alive in the thoughts of men.   After the torments of the war the Covenant of the League of Nations furnished to most Englishmen a gleam of consolation and of hope.  

The importance of the League of Nations is that it offers to the world as much world-government as the world can stand.   The framers of the Covenant saw that it would be idle to create a super-state to override the national governments.   Accordingly they rejected the idea much favoured in France of a League army, or of a League police, or of any other predetermined mode of coercion by which a member state might be compelled to bow to the will of an external authority.   Rather than violate by one jot or tittle the sovereign rights of the nation states, the founders were prepared that their League should be an association of national states, each, however insignificant, entitled to equal justice and consideration, and protected from invasion of its domestic prerogatives by the requirement that any decisions of the League should receive a unanimous assent.  

How often in the past had men of good will met in conference to promote the cause of peace, and after much eloquent talk and virtuous resolve separated with nothing done!   The League of Nations was to be altogether different from these ephemeral and ineffective manifestations.   It was to be a permanent organ, supported by national governments, for the transaction of international affairs, with an Assembly of delegates from all the member states, meeting once a year for a month in Geneva, and a Council, originally of nine delegates (five from the larger states), meeting more frequently, while the business of Assembly and Council alike was pre- pared and executed by an international Civil Service or Secretariat.   Other organs were  subsequently  added,  an International Labour Office, for the levelling up of Labour conditions throughout the world, and a Court of International Justice at The Hague.   Of this carefully planned machinery for world government the nations were free to make as much or as little as they chose.  

  

The idea of a League of Nations

The pith of the Covenant consists in the obligation assumed by every member-state to submit his quarrel to the League before resorting to arms.   The Covenant does not exclude the possibility of war, but provides tribunals (the Council and the Court) before which member-states undertake in advance to lay their disputes, and prescribes a period during which, should the decision of the League prove to be unacceptable, the aggrieved party undertakes to preserve the peace.   Were the League universal, and were its members prepared to obey the Covenant in letter and in spirit, these provisions for conciliation, arbitration, and delay would be sufficient to rid the world of the spectre of war.  

Another function entrusted to the League was to obtain, if possible, from its member-states an agreed and progressive reduction of armaments.   The evil of competitive armaments was generally admitted; their burden universally deplored; the theory that no state should arm in excess of its strict needs for home defence and the discharge of its international obligations was conceded by all reasonable men.   The difficulty was to translate these principles into action, with Germany chafing under her compulsory disarmament, and With France nervously feeling that perhaps after all she was not sufficiently secure from a German attack.   It is a measure of the strength and vitality of international fears and animosities that, despite the steady efforts of the League, the load of armaments pressing on Europe in 1935 was actually heavier than was on the eve of the war.  

Among other fruitful ideas embodied in the Covenant is the need for fostering international co-operation of all kinds in times of peace.   It was not sufficient that the member-states should abjure war, practise open diplomacy, or reduce their armaments.   They must learn to work together through the League not only in the great tasks of humanity, but in all matters of common interest, such as the protection of the standard of life among the workers, or the campaign against the traffic in women and children, or the regulation of the opium trade, or the framing of measures of international hygiene.   Perhaps it is in this humanitarian sphere that the league is destined to achieve its most certain triumphs.

At the end of the Napoleonic wars the Congress of Vienna had taken up the question of the abolition of the Slave Trade.   In a like spirit the framers of the Covenant took note of the fact that European states had obligations not only to the racial and religious minorities in their midst, but also to the weak and backward peoples in other continents who had come under their control.   The principle of trusteeship, the idea that the power of the governor should be exercised for the benefit of the governed, had long been familiar to the British Empire.   This principle (under a term borrowed from Roman law) it was now decided to affirm in connection with the territories taken by the allies from the Germans and the Turks.   The crudity of conquest was draped in the veil of morality.   The annexed territories (with some exceptions) were regarded as mandated by the Allied and Associated Powers, and the annexing States as mandatories obliged at fixed intervals to give an account of their stewardship to a League Commission.   That such a requirement was made and assented to was a clear advance in international morality.  

 

Ideas embodied in the Covenant

A league of peace, comprising ultimately all the nations of the world, and having the Anglo-Saxon race as its solid nucleus and the governments of the British Empire and the United States as the principal instruments of its activity and influence, such was the vision which filled the minds of President Wilson and his English associates, as they sat down in Paris to work at the framework of a new international order.   These large hopes were swiftly killed.   When the first Assembly of the League met in the autumn of 1920 in Geneva forty-four states only were represented.   Russia stood aloof.   Germany, Turkey, and other ex-enemy states were not yet deemed ripe for admission: but the gravest blow of all was the absence of the power whose concurrence was essential to the enforcement of economic sanctions against offending members, and upon whose impartiality great reliance had been placed.   The work of President Wilson had been repudiated in his own country.   America had refused to join the League.  

The League of Nations can be no better than the member states of which it is composed.   If they wish for peace, the League provides machinery by which peace may be the better secured and maintained, but League or no League, a state which is resolved on war can always have it.   Not till the mind of man is filled with the conviction that modem war offers a peril for civilization so great that it is a crime, certain to be visited by condign punishment, for any state acting in pursuance of its own national interest to initiate it, will mankind be effectually rid of this menace.   At present the world neither entertains nor is prepared to act upon these salutary and intelligent beliefs.  

 

Initial setbacks

Meanwhile the League transacts so much international business for which there is no alternative machinery that if it did not exist it would be necessary to invent it.   Statesmen have become acclimatized to the strange atmosphere of cosmopolitan consultation which prevails at Geneva.   The secretariat has been so composed as to inspire confidence.   The work grows, the area of international co-operation extends.   For the first few important years the ideals of the League were expounded to the Assembly with authority and conviction by Robert Cecil, one of the framers of the Covenant.   At the annual meetings at Geneva the leading statesmen of the smaller nations can make their contributions to international wisdom.   Here Hymans of Belgium, Branting of Swedten, Nansen of Norway, Motta of Switzerland, Benes of Czecho-Slovakia, and Politis of Greece have rendered service to the Commonwealth of Europe.   More important still is the opportunity which the League meetings afford for the formation of friendships, the comparison of ideas, the enlargement of knowledge, and the adjustment of differing points of view.   Amid the rough jolts and jars of international life the annual month of cool conciliation at Geneva, though little respected by the warlike idealists of Japan, is like Christmas Day and our nearest approach to the mediaeval truce of God.

 

Work of the League

Yet many as have been the services of the League during the first fifteen years of its existence, it has brought, as we have seen, no moral or material disarmament to Europe.   Though much labour has been expended on the problem of how best to reconcile the French demand for military security with the German claim for equality of treatment, the problem has in fact, given the greater population and higher birthrate of Germany, resisted solution.   Save in Great Britain, there has been no serious effort to reduce land armaments.   British pacifism has not been shared by the governments of Paris or Berlin, of Rome or Moscow, of Tokio or Prague.   The Fascist master of Italy has never scrupled to express his belief in force.   The Soviet Republic, though lately reconciled to, the League, keeps on foot an army nine hundred and forty thousand strong.   Japan and Germany have marched out of Geneva.   In 1935 the Third German Reich, after more than a decade of secret and illegal arming, openly reverted to conscription and came before the world once more as a military power of the first class.  

A general agreement as to political objectives is the only sure basis for a policy of disarmament.   Such an agreement was reached with regard to the problems of the Pacific in 1921 by the United States, Great Britain, France and Japan, and furnished the groundwork for the only substantial measure of disarmament which was reached by diplomatic methods during this period.   When the four great naval Powers discovered that they were at one in desiring the policy of the open door in China and the preservation of the territorial integrity of the Chinese republic, naval disarmament became a relatively easy problem.   Foreseeing no occasion of political variance, the four Pacific Powers found it easy to agree upon naval ratios, to curtail the size of capital ships, and to provide against the fortification of new naval bases in the Pacific.   But when in 1933 Japan broke away from her allies, and by unilateral action seized a province of China, the whole plan for naval disarmament contained in the Treaty of Washington was placed in peril.   In point of fact.   Japan lost no time in announcing that she did not propose after 1936 to renew the treaty.   She was developing a bigger and very controversial policy in China and was resolved upon a bigger navy with which to support it.  

 

Disarmament - the persistence of international rivalries

As yet there is no agreement as to political objectives in Europe.   Germany wishes to absorb Austria.   Italy and France are resolved that Austria should maintain her independence.   A deep chasm of sentiment and policy sunders Nazi (National Socialist) Germany and the Communist rule of the Soviets.   The year which witnessed the return of the Saar to Germany, so far from ushering in a happier period of international relations, has seen darker storm clouds over Europe than any period since the guns stopped firing in the Great War.  

War clouds of 1935