While the League of Nations could celebrate its successes, the League had every reason to examine its failures and where it went wrong. These failures, especially in the 1930’s, cruelly exposed the weaknesses of the League of Nations and played a part in the outbreak of World War Two in 1939. During the 1920’s the failures of the League of Nations were essentially small-scale and did not threaten world peace. However they did set a marker – that the League of Nations could not solve problems if the protagonists did not ‘play the game’.
Article 11 of the League’s Covenant stated: "Any war or threat of war is a matter of concern to the whole League and the League shall take action that may safeguard peace."
Therefore, any conflict between nations, which ended in war and the victory of one state over another, had to be viewed as a failure by the League.
The first crisis the League had to face was in north Italy In 1919, Italian nationalists, angered that the "Big Three" had, in their opinion, broken promises to Italy at the Treaty of Versailles, captured the small port of Fiume. The Treaty of Versailles had given this port to Yugoslavia. For 15 months, an Italian nationalist called d’Annunzio governed Fiume. The newly created League did nothing. The situation was solved by the Italian government who could not accept that d’Annunzio was seemingly more popular than they were – so they bombarded the port of Fiume and enforced a surrender. In all this the League played no part despite the fact that it had just been set up with the specific task of maintaining peace.
The next crisis the League faced was at Teschen, which was a small town between Poland and Czechoslovakia. Its main importance was that it had valuable coalmines there, which both the Poles and the Czechs wanted. As both were newly created nations, both wanted to make their respective economies as strong as possible and the acquisition of rich coal mines would certainly help in this respect.
In January 1919, Polish and Czech troops fought in the streets of Teschen. Many died. The League was called on to help and decided that the bulk of the town should go to Poland while Czechoslovakia should have one of Teschen’s suburbs. This suburb contained the most valuable coalmines and the Poles refused to accept this decision. Though no more wholesale violence took place, the two countries continued to argue over the issue for the next twenty years.
Many years before 1920, Vilna had been taken over by Russia. Historically, Vilna had been the capital of Lithuania when the state had existed in the Middle Ages. After World War One, Lithuania had been re-established and Vilna seemed the natural choice for its capital.
However, by 1920, 30% of the population was from Poland with Lithuanians only making up 2% of the city’s population. In 1920, the Poles seized Vilna. Lithuania asked for League help but the Poles could not be persuaded to leave the city. Vilna stayed in Polish hands until the outbreak of World War Two. The use of force by the Poles had won.
In 1920, Poland invaded land held by the Russians. The Poles quickly overwhelmed the Russian army and made a swift advance into Russia. By 1921, the Russians had no choice but to sign the Treaty of Riga, which handed over to Poland nearly 80,000 square kilometres of Russian land. This one treaty all but doubled the size of Poland.
What did the League do about this violation of another country by Poland?
The answer is simple – nothing. Russia by 1919 was communist and this "plague from the East" was greatly feared by the West. In fact, Britain, France and America sent troops to attack Russia after the League had been set up. Winston Churchill, the British War Minister, stated openly that the plan was to strangle Communist Russia at birth. Once again, to outsiders, it seemed as if League members were selecting which countries were acceptable and ones that were not. The Allied invasion of Russia was a failure and it only served to make Communist Russia even more antagonistic to the West.
The Treaty of Versailles had ordered Weimar Germany to pay reparations for war damages. These could either be paid in money or in kind (goods to the value of a set amount). In 1922, the Germans failed to pay an instalment. They claimed that they simply could not rather than did not want to. The Allies refused to accept this and the anti-German feeling at this time was still strong. Both France and Belgium believed that some form of strong action was needed to ‘teach Germany a lesson’.
In 1923, contrary to League rules, French and Belgian troops invaded the Ruhr – Germany’s most important industrial zone. Within Europe, France was seen as a senior League member – like Britain – and the anti-German feeling that was felt throughout Europe allowed both France and Belgium to break their own rules as were introduced by the League. Here were two League members clearly breaking League rules and nothing was done about it.
For the League to enforce its will, it needed the support of its major backers in Europe, Britain and France. Yet France was one of the invaders and Britain was a major supporter of her. To other nations, it seemed that if you wanted to break League rules, you could. Few countries criticised what France and Belgium did. But the example they set for others in future years was obvious. The League clearly failed on this occasion, primarily because it was seen to be involved in breaking its own rules.
The border between Italy and Albania was far from clear and the Treaty of Versailles had never really addressed this issue. It was a constant source of irritation between both nations.
In 1923, a mixed nationality survey team was sent out to settle the issue. Whilst travelling to the disputed area, the Italian section of the survey team became separated from the main party. The five Italians were shot by gunmen who had been in hiding.
Italy accused Greece of planning the whole incident and demanded payment of a large fine. Greece refused to pay up. In response, the Italians sent its navy to the Greek island of Corfu and bombarded the coastline. Greece appealed to the League for help but Italy, led by Benito Mussolini, persuaded the League via the Conference of Ambassadors, to fine Greece 50 million lire.
To follow up this success, Mussolini invited the Yugoslavian government to discuss ownership of Fiume. The Treaty of Versailles had given Fiume to Yugoslavia but with the evidence of a bombarded Corfu, the Yugoslavs handed over the port to Italy with little problem.
All of these failures were secondary to the two major ones in the 1930’s. What they did show the world was that the League could not enforce a settlement if it did not have the ability to do so and dictators were keen to exploit this where they could. Prior to the troubles experienced in Western Europe in the 1930’s, the League had to deal with two major problems and it fell down on both – Manchuria and Abyssinia.