The successes of the League of Nations are frequently obscured by its failures – especially in the 1930’s when Europe and eventually the world moved towards war – the one thing the League of Nations was set up to avoid. However, in the honeymoon period of its first few years when there appeared to be a genuine desire for peace after the horrors of World War One, the League did have successes, though these tended to be in areas that had little strategic or economic importance.
In view of the League’s desire to end war, the only criteria that can be used to classify a success, was whether war was avoided and a peaceful settlement formulated after a crisis between two nations.
The League was successful in the Aaland Islands in 1921. These islands are nearly equally distant between Finland and Sweden. They had traditionally belonged to Finland but most of the islanders wanted to be governed by Sweden. Neither Sweden nor Finland could come to a decision as to who owned the islands and in 1921 they asked the League to adjudicate. The League’s decision was that they should remain with Finland but that no weapons should ever be kept there. Both countries accepted the decision and it remains in force to this day.
In the same year, 1921, the League was equally successful in Upper Silesia. The Treaty of Versailles had given the people of Upper Silesia the right to have a referendum on whether they wanted to be part of Weimar Germany or part of Poland. In this referendum, 700,000 voted for Germany and 500,000 for Poland. This close result resulted in rioting between those who expected Silesia to be made part of Weimar Germany and those who wanted to be part of Poland. The League was asked to settle this dispute. After a six-week inquiry, the League decided to split Upper Silesia between Germany and Poland. The League’s decision was accepted by both countries and by the people in Upper Silesia.
In 1923, the League was successful in resolving a problem in Memel. Memel was/is a port in Lithuania. Most people who lived in Memel were Lithuanians and, therefore, the government of Lithuania believed that the port should be governed by it. However, the Treaty of Versailles had put Memel and the land surrounding the port under the control of the League. For three years, a French general acted as a governor of the port but in 1923 the Lithuanians invaded the port. The League intervened and gave the area surrounding Memel to Lithuania but they made the port an “international zone”. Lithuania agreed to this decision. Though this can be seen as a League success – as the issue was settled – a counter argument is that what happened was the result of the use of force and that the League responded in a positive manner to those (the Lithuanians) who had used force.
In the same year, 1923, the League faced further problems in Turkey. The League failed to stop a bloody war in Turkey (see League failures) but it did respond to the humanitarian crisis caused by this war.1,400,000 refugees had been created by this war with 80% of them being women and children. Typhoid and cholera were rampant. The League sent doctors from the Health Organisation to check the spread of disease and it spent £10 million on building farms, homes etc for the refugees. Money was also invested in seeds, wells and digging tools and by 1926, work was found for 600,000 people.
A member of the League called this work “the greatest work of mercy which mankind has undertaken.”
In 1925, the League helped to resolve a dispute between Greece and Bulgaria. Both these nations have a common border. In 1925, sentries patrolling this border fired on one another and a Greek soldier was killed. The Greek army invaded Bulgaria as a result. The Bulgarians asked the League for help and the League ordered both armies to stop fighting and that the Greeks should pull out of Bulgaria. The League then sent experts to the area and decided that Greece was to blame and fined her £45,000. Both nations accepted the decision.
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