Peace by legal means: The League of Nations

Around Christmas people worldwide hope to find some comfort and hope for peace for all mankind. In the face of oppressive governments and institutions this hope can easily seem an illusion. Yet even lawyers aware of the struggle to bring effective justice have dedicated and still dedicate their forces to the works of peace. One of the international organizations often criticized for its apparent or real shortcomings and failures are the United Nations. However, as a historian I would hesitate to issue such quick verdicts. The League of Nations (1919-1945), the predecessor of the United Nations, seems a much more unsuccessful attempt to bring peace and an easy target for negative comments. A comparison of both organizations is made easier by a number of online guides to digital materials concerning the League of Nations. In fact, the number of online guides is surprisingly large. This post offers a tour of some of the relevant websites for researching the history of the League of Nations.

Visions for peace

The origin of the idea for a worldwide peace in which the rule of law is an essential element is often associated with the essay by Immanuel Kant on eternal peace, Zum ewigen Frieden (1795). You can find on the web several good websites concerning this text. One of the more recent research projects is the Perpetual Peace Project. An English translations can be found for example at Early Modern Texts. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is helpful in sketching the context of Kant’s vision.

The foundation of the League of Nations was not a creation ex nihilo or an isolated attempt only prompted by the disasters and bloodshed of the First World War. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century a number of peace conferences had been organized, some of them in The Hague, which had already led to some international agreements and treaties concerning warfare, prisoners of war, and the protection of civilians against violence in times of war. The role of the United States of America in ending the First World War and proposing the idea for a League of Nations invites a comparison with the start of the United Nations in 1945. A primary distinction between both organizations is the membership of the United States which did not become a full member of the League of Nations. American influence and a distinctive vision became famously visible in the Fourteen Points of president Woodrow Wilson (1918), but it is not correct to view it as the only decisive document leading to the creation of the League of Nations. Legal pacifism has a history that started already much earlier. A post by Cécile Formaglio at the blog of the Bibliothèque nationale de France alerts to the proposal for eternal peace written by the Abbé Saint-Pierre, one of the people active in negotiating the Peace of Utrecht (1713).

When I looked at the online guide at GlobaLex created by Gabriela Femenia for researching League of Nations documents I was impressed with its quality. Apart from the guide on Scottish legal history by Yasmoin Morais her guide is the only legal history guide at GlobaLex. The guide ends with a string of similar guides created by other universities, among them Harvard, Princeton and Oxford. The main online resource for treaties is the League of Nations Treaties database made available by the United Nations. The English text of the Covenant of the League of Nations is most conveniently found online in Yale’s Avalon Project. The Universität Heidelberg has created the LONSEA website, the League of Nations Search Engine where you can also find a useful online bibliography.

Among the most important online resources are the guide to the archives of the League of Nations held by the library of the United Nations Office at Geneva and the historical information on the League of Nations offered at this organization’s website. In its digital library the Northwestern University in Chicago has created space for the statistical and disarmament documents of the League of Nations. Indiana University presents the public an online League of Nations Photo Archive. The history of the League of Nations is also the subject of the website of a network for researching this subject.

Earlier I wrote for my blog about the nutshell guide to legal history at the website of the Peace Palace Library (PPL) in The Hague. In passing I noted in that post the presence at the PPL’s website of similar guides for a number of specific historical subjects. For the League of Nations the PPL has created a nutshell guide well worth looking at. In a succinct manner you get information about the main special bibliographies for publications concerning the League of Nations, a selection of links to some of the websites I mention here, and the librarian gives his choice of recent books on the subject. Using the catalogue of the PPL will help you to become aware of other relevant publications in its rich holdings. In my view it is most helpful to look carefully at the resources offered by the PPL. Another online guide worth special attention is the pocket guide to archival records at the website of the British National Archives (Kew) which offers a basic bibliography, too.

The roads towards peace

Comparing the League of Nations and the United Nations can help to bring contemporary judgments on international organizations into a more balanced perspective. Not every attempt of the League of Nations for peaceful problem solutions failed. Some of its creations, for example the International Labour Organization, and even the building in Geneva of the League of Nations, were taken over in its entirety by the United Nations. The sheer wealth of guides at GlobaLex concerning international law and elsewhere shows in itself already how great the role of international cooperation has become in many fields of contemporary society and law around the world.

Creating peace for all world is surely the most difficult and ultimate goal to achieve, but the work done internationally at so many levels does in the end help paving the roads towards more peace around the world. Of course the role of law in creating peace can be deceptive and at its worst downright destructive, but it shares this quality with many other human efforts. Hopefully the failures to bring peace effectively will not stop people and organizations to keep striving for an aim that rightfully is at the heart of so many dreams, visions and actions. Insight into and understanding of the history of attempts to create peace serve both as necessary reminders and powerful motivations to continue the eternal search for peace, a search aiming at making the earth a safe place to live for all mankind. Charles Péguy coined the proverbial saying of hope leading its sisters faith and love. Let’s hope that despair in the face of failures on the road towards peace will not get the better of mankind!

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