Among its many goals the League of Nations hoped to oversee a new way for European colonialism to manifest around the world.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 5 - League of Nations Part 2: Around the World. This episode I would like to thank everyone who has followed the podcast on Twitter and Facebook, you can find the podcast on Twitter @WorldWar2Pod and on Facebook at facebook.com/historyofthesecondworldwar both of those links are also in the show notes. You can also find that information over at the website at historyofthesecondworldwar.com, along with links to support the podcast or join other listeners like you on the History of the Second World War discord server. In the negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference one of the topics that would occupy discussion for an extended period was the fate of the territories of the German and Ottoman Empires after the war. Germany was always going to have its overseas territories stripped away, and the Ottoman Empire was going to be dismantled, but the question became what, precisely should be done with their former territories. Some nations, particularly those most likely to gain control, wanted them to just be distributed as colonies in kind of the European grand tradition of trading territories around the world. However, there were enough leaders who spoke out against this kind of transaction that some kind of compromise would have to be crafted. The outcome of this compromise would be the mandates system. The mandate system was based on the idea that European colonial rule could and should help the people being ruled, and specifically it should help them on the path to self-governance and eventual independence. This meant that the countries given control of the mandates, the mandatory powers, were seen less as owning the new territories as colonies and instead as caretakers, they were guides to provide support for the mandates on their path to independence. The League of Nations was given the responsibility of monitoring and enforcing the mandate system, to make sure that those within the mandates were treated fairly and the mandatory powers stayed true to their goals. What would rapidly develop was a situation in which the original purpose of the mandates could only be upheld if the League was united enough to enforce the mandate idea, and it would become apparent that it was not. This failure would be followed in the early 1930s by the first major test of the League’s ability to protect and ensure the security of its members. This test would not come in Europe but instead in Asia, where Japanese expansionism would cause an international incident in Manchuria, testing the unity of the League and its willingness to not just speak the rhetoric of collective security, but to also act on it when necessary.
The problems with the mandates system became clear very quickly after the end of the First World War. One of the largest problems was described by Susan Pedersen in The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire like this “League oversight could not force the mandatory powers to govern mandated territories differently, instead it obliged them to say that they were governing them differently.” This was important, because from the very beginning the mandate system had been a compromise. On one side of that compromise were the most powerful members of the League, many of which had large colonial empires and also found themselves as mandatory powers of vast swaths of Africa and the Middle East. The most important two nations were the British Empire and France. Due to the relative strength of both nations, and the fact that they both already held large colonial empires, it was always unlikely that they would strongly defend mandate rights, or too directly criticize the action of the other out of concern that it would cause greater scrutiny on their own mandates. This allowed both empires, and then any other mandatory powers, to pay a lot of lip service to the goals and expectations put upon them by the mandate system without having anyone to call their bluffs. It would not be until Germany entered the League in 1926 that a large European nation would truly speak out against the situation in the mandates. For the Germans the choice to defend mandate rights was an easy one, because they did not have any, and so speaking out on their behalf cost the Germans nothing.
Germany would join the League in 1926 under the leadership of Gustav Streseman. The desire of the German leaders to join the League would only increase in the years before 1926, especially after the events of the Ruhr Crisis, in which French and Belgian troops occupied areas of the Ruhr region as punishment for Germany not making its scheduled reparations payments. In the ensuring stand-off, which involved mostly peaceful protests throughout the region that involved German mines shutting down to prevent the French from requisitioning their output, both the French and German nations found the campaign to be ruinously expensive. After the disaster of the Ruhr Crisis Streseman hoped that joining the League and becoming more involved in international politics would benefit Germany. This would lead to Germany officially joining the League in September 1926, and they would enter with several goals relating to mandates and their former colonies. There were two that were the most important, the first was that they wanted to use the open nature of the mandates for economic benefit, especially in Africa and the Pacific. Before the First World War these areas had a strong German presence and Germany hoped to reestablish it through the open economic arrangements insisted on by the League. The second was a desire to make sure that the mandates provided to the other nations, and especially the French and British, were not just folded into their already existing colonial empires, and this put them in the role of defenders of the mandates system. They would be able to obtain a seat on the Mandates Commission, which was resisted by the French and British, but it would take them over a year before a German representative was in place for a meeting of the Commission. From that point until Germany’s exit from the League Germany would lead other nations against the attempts by the large colonial empires to turn their mandates into de factor colonies, although they would be more or less successful depending on the mandate being discussed.
Much like the minority groups within League members, the people who lived in the mandates had the right to petition the League should they feel that their rights were being impinged upon. The exact process for how a petition would be created, sent to the League, and reacted to was not really determined until after the League began to function. The number of petitions that began to arrive in Geneva overwhelmed all of the systems that were setup to accommodate them. There were always concerns with the petition process as it had been created, primarily because all petitions had to be routed through the mandatory power which caused concerns about censorship, but even with these concerns petitions were written, and they were received. Of those petitions that arrived, 10% were deemed to be valid complaints, and the mandatory power was called upon to act. It was generally at this point in the process that problems started. The League had no ability to force change within the mandate, or to change the actions of the mandatory power. All it could do was publicize and expose the actions of the mandatory power, and hope that public pressure would prompt some actions. This essentially changed petitions from a system that interacted with the rule of law and shifted it to be a system that used politics to hopefully accomplish its goals. However, the mandatory powers were also very good at using politics and public opinion, and so they let petitions through that would give them easy actions that could be taken, and then they acted only on the ones that they wanted to.
Along with assuring that the treatment of the people within the mandates was up to a certain standard, another of the core goals of the mandate process was to bring European style civilization to the mandates, specifically what this meant was, fluid. It generally intersected with the idea that was much discussed by those who supported the establishment of colonies around the world. Essentially this meant that by controlling the areas around the globe the European countries were providing the mandates with order, and structure, and they would in time give the mandates the ability to do this themselves. This is another quote from Susan Pederson, but it is just too good to pass up “The programme that emerged was at once paternalistic and authoritarian, rhetorically progressive and politically retrograde—a programme perfectly tailored to the task of rehabilitating the imperial order at its moment of greatest disarray.” What would emerge over the interwar period was a system in which the mandatory powers were happy to discuss how the mandate process was helping t hose within the mandate to become more independent and to move their nations on the path toward a European defined civilization. At the same time if the mandates ever deviated from the path set for them by the mandatory powers, or tried to assert themselves in an unexpected way, they were brought back into line, with violence if necessary. When that violence then erupted it would be beyond the power of the League to intervene in any meaningful way. An example of this limitation would be seen in Syria in 1925. the Syrians would revolve against French control in the Mandate,a nd the violence would continue for almost two years, Damascus would be fired on by French artillery. Even with this violence occurring, the League Mandates Commission did not intervene. Instead they just waited for the French to complete their actions, and then waited for the official report from the French detailing events.
During events like the Syrian revolt one of the key ambiguities of the mandates system became very important. This was the question of who precisely had sovereign power over the mandates. For most of the 1920s this question was studiously avoided by the mandatory powers. They wanted the ability to act as if the mandate was their own territory, and then to make decisions to that effect. However, technically, within the initial concepts of the mandates they did not have that level of power, they did not freely and solely control the mandates. They would be one of the angles of attack that Germany would take after joining the League and they would eventually establish that the mandatory powers were not sovereign in the mandated territories. They put limits on their powers within the mandates, but it also did not clear up exactly who had sovereign powers, and this would be a question that was never fully answered, and it would just sort of disappear as the years went by.
This question of who held final control over mandates was important for many reasons, and one of these was economics. Almost all of the mandates were forced to adopt an ‘open door’ policy when it came to economic activities. This meant that free trade with other nations was expected, and that when it came to outside investment and business dealings it should be done without favoritism or restrictions based on the nation of origin. Free trade was seen as an important way to boost the economies of the mandates, and some also thought that it would reduce the chances that the mandatory powers would seek every greatly control over the mandates, because there was a limited scope to how much they could economically benefit from that control. During the immediate postwar years this arrangement was quite good, but then during the 1920s it soon became less and less important. There would be an economic slump after the war, and then another during the early 1930s, this drastically reduced the amount of money European governments and private companies had to spend in the mandates. Without this money to spend on the mandates many found money for infrastructure improvements and economic investments hard to come by. It also made it far more difficult for the mandatory powers to justify further investments in the territories. This made some of the mandatory powers begin to question whether or not the expense of the mandates was worth it, which had some benefits to those who lived within the mandates because it would cause the mandatory powers to begin contemplating moving the mandates closer to independence.
Both the British and French would have problems in their attempts to retain control over their mandates and territories in the Middle East. For the British this would come in the form of the revolts in Iraq and Egypt in the early 1920s, and for the French in the aforementioned Syrian revolt. There were also problems economically justifying continued control, due to the constraints on how the mandatory powers could economically interact with and exploit the mandates. In 1929 the British were prepared to try a new solution to the problem, and they would announce that they planned to support the inclusion of Iraq in the League of Nations as an independent state in 1932. Iraq would be the first and only mandate to move through the entire process from mandate to independence, but before this could happen the Mandates Commission specified some of the requirements that the new nation would have to satisfy before it could be brought to independence. It had to have a civilian administration, the ability to defend its territory to some degree, to keep internal order, some sort of solid financial footing, and the ability to guarantee a justice system. Basically, it had to have everything that a real “nation” as defined at the time needed to have. During the 1920s the British had worked with the Iraqi leaders to try and make all of these things happen. Political, judicial, economic, and security arrangements were created and Iraq was ready to take the step to independence. Up to this point, the description of events sound very positive, and they were designed to, but there was a downside. The agreements made between King Faysal and the British government meant that the British had a lot of power within Iraq. The British had the ability to base the Royal Air Force within the country, there would be British judges, and British advisors within all levels of the government. There were also clauses within the agreements that made it clear that Faysal had to follow British advice on many different concerns. in essence, the British were trying to take the Mandate of Iraq and turn it into the client state of Iraq. There were some things that they could not do, for example the League would insist that Iraq not give economic privileges just to the British, but there were way to work around such policies due to Iraq’s sovereignty. At the start of the process the concern was that the French would move to block the process due to concerns that their mandates would be endangered due to a desire of the people within them to also move towards independence. However, instead of blocking the British plans, the French began to consider them as an attractive alternative to the mandate arrangement. The mandates were proving to be expensive, and for a nation like France which was in the middle of a deflationary period due to the Great Depression, a cheaper option like what was being created in Iraq was seen as a possibly superior option. They would however not have the opportunity, the move of Iraq to independence and then into the League was one of the last times that large scale consensus would be found within the League to make large changes. After 1932 the League would instead begin to fall apart. In December 1932, Japan would walk out of the Assembly, and the in October 1933 Hitler would withdraw from the Geneva disarmament conference and then the League. Soon after the Ethiopian Crisis, then the Spanish Civil War, then the slide into protectionism and rearmament in the late 1930s would cause the mandatory powers to move to exert more control over their territories in an attempt to hoard resources in case of future conflict.
With the growth of tensions in Europe in the late 1930s, there was one final attempt to involve the mandates in further European politics. After the Ethiopian Crisis it was clear that some nations felt that they were in a disadvantageous position on the world stage. Italy and Germany specifically were amplifying international tensions, and this led some politicians in London to begin to push for a distribution of mandated territory to those European nations without any. This would be a form of appeasement, and by handing African territories to Germany and Italy it was hoped that those two European nations could be made more content. There were many debates before the transfer of mandates was included in one of the 1938 appeasement offers made by Chamberlain to Hitler. This offer was rejected by the German leader, Hitler’s aspirations were far closer to home. It does show just how far from the the initial ideal the mandate concept fallen by the late 1930s. Much like European colonies from the preceding centuries, mandates were just another chip to be horse traded for the benefit of European politics. It was a sad end to a system that was initially seen as a huge step forward from the previous colonial system, but much like the League itself it was found to be a hollow promise.
One of the groups that hoped that the League of nations would be able to implement some of its promises was the Chinese. The Chinese hoped that they would be able to finally achieve legal equality with other nations, something undermined by the various treaties signed in the previous century between China and several Western nations. Even with a large amount of instability within domestic politics, almost all of the various Chinese governments of the 1920s and 30s could agree that removing those treaties was the correct move for the future of China, and with the assistance of a relatively stable Chinese foreign service they hoped that it was the League of Nations that would be the avenue for achieving their removal. However, to a large extent if China was to achieve this, they were heavily dependent on the actions of other nations and working against them would be Japan. Japan had many advantages when it came to controlling events in Eastern Asia. The most important advantage was that they were the only Asian power that had a permanent sat on the League Council. They were also a common participant in many commissions and committees related to European affairs because they were seen as a clearly disinterested foreign power. However, while these were both benefits, the League also did not have a huge influence over Japanese regional affairs. The only other nations that was a member as China, with the Soviet Union not joining until late in the 1930s after Japan had already left. This became a larger and larger problem for Japan during the 1920s as the Soviet Union recovered from their devastating Civil War and Chiang Kai-Shek began to consolidate power in China. This, along with the physical distance of the League caused support for the League to wane late in the 1920s, which would cause many to question why Japan was involved in the group at all during the early 1930s.
These questions and concerns would come to the forefront in 1931 when Japanese military forces moved into Manchuria. On September 18, 1931 there was an explosion on the South Manchurian Railway, which was an event that the Japanese military used as an excuse to move into the region and occupy it. The exact nature and purpose of this occupation is something that we will discuss in a later episode, but for the purposes of the League and its necessary decisions the reasons were less important than what was actually happening. News of the new military occupation would reach Geneva the next day and it would prove to be a critical turning point for the League. This was the first time since the League had solidified itself that a member nation had militarily occupied parts of another member nation. From the Chinese capital of Nanking Chiang Kai-shek issued a messages that the Chinese in Manchuria should not cause problems, and the matter was being referred to the League of Nations. The discussions in Geneva would take time though, and during that time the Japanese military occupation of Manchuria continued. In defense of their actions the Japanese leaders would make two key claims. The first was that they had to move into Manchuria to protect the lives of the Japanese people who lived there and the Japanese property that was owned and operated by Japanese companies. The second was that continued occupation was justified by the fact that after the initial military invasion the Chinese had put in place a prohibition of the import of Japanese goods. Japan would claim that this was an act against the Kellogg Pact, the 1928 agreement that both Japan and China signed that said that nations would never try to resolve differences except by pacific means. The boycott of Japanese goods was seen as an act that was not pacific, and so was already in breach of the Kellogg agreement. In the end the Japanese would turn to delay as their primary weapon against decisive League action. On November 21st they would request that before any final decision was made a commission be sent to China, then this commission was delayed by several months, not arriving in China until early 1932. By that time plans were underway for the creation of Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state with a former Chinese emperor at its head. By the time that this action was complete support for continued membership in the League was already waning, and the nation would officially leave in February 1933.
The failure of the League to act against Japan was an important turning point in the history of the League. It represented an incident in which a member state was clearly in violation of its agreements, and that should have triggered drastic action by the League and its members. They had pledged to maintain the territorial sovereignty of all members, and yet at the first test of that pledge they had decided against collective military action against Japan. In the final report concerning the occupation of Manchuria, the League found Japan at fault for its actions, but simultaneously refused to enact any economic or military sanctions. This was a clear signal to the smaller nations of the League that they could perhaps not count on the great powers to apply all of their promises in the event that they required assistance from them. It was also a message to any possible aggressor states that if they acted aggressively it was very possible that the members of the League would not move against them. In many ways this would signal the beginning of the end of the League as an international organization because without the assurance that the League would fulfill its commitments, continued support for the League began to be questioned in many nations.