The Growth of the Modern World Via The League of Nations

The Growth of the Modern World Via The League of Nations

A Review of Susan Pedersen's The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire

By KJ Mullins-Toronto

History Today:  For historian Susan Pedersen the League of Nations was a fascinating period of restructuring the Imperial World to Nation States while attempting to maintain old school ideals of how to govern the masses.
Susan Pedersen (middle) wins the Cundill Prize Nov. 2015

Pedersen was in Toronto this November as part of the shortlist for the 2015 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature.  Just hours before she took the prize we sat down to discuss her book The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire.  "I didn't write my book as a comment to current affairs, that is for the reader to draw on." Pedersen stresses that she is a true hardcore research historian and that her focus is on the world prior to 1945, not on the present day. Narrowing in on the mandate system Pedersen spent 10 years researching the League in depth. When asked what she does during her free time a sly smile comes into play, “Academics are academics all the time. I write history in my spare time.” She also travels with her family and summers in Berlin but history is her true passion.

In The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire  Pedersen explores the transformation from empires to nation states that took place within the League of Nations that took place after the Great War. Founded in 1921 the Geneva based League of Nations helped to bring debate and compromise for the emerging nation states after centuries of Empire rule. Pedersen contends that although it is widely thought that the League was created to be a transition of the old to new ways of governing the organization was more an attempt, in part, to bring Imperial standards to this new world of Nation States.  In doing so it ensured that the old ways of Imperial rule would in fact not completely die.

"What I try to do in my book is show the role that the League of Nations played in International debate," Pedersen says. Geneva was a place of appeals and argument but protests were not a beginning function for the League of Nations. By using the power of sanctions and International pressure nations often agreed to the mandates that came down from the League. While these bargaining chips didn't change the rules completely it did make countries at odds with other powers more cautious to take on the wrath of the International community. Not every super power cared what the rest of the world thought. For instance when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 using poison and chemical weapons to kill hundreds the League openly condemned Italy's actions. As the League readied the use of sanctions for Italy's actions Mussolini simply left the League thumbing his nose to the rest of the world. Of course Mussolini was not the norm for the League. 

As Pedersen researched the League she was surprised to discover how closely involved Germany was both pre-Nazi and during the Nazi years. Germany intensely felt the loss of their colonies and often campaigned for ways of having those lands returned. It was not just the lost lands that Germany was wanting but the economic interests that they had held along with trading in Africa.  “All members of the League could trade freely under the mandates,” Pedersen explained the importance of these wants.

“A system like the League will fall apart if too many great powers are not in agreement,” Pedersen states adding that the League was not NATO. 

"When people think of International organizations it is when something complicated or bad happens in the world and they (the organizations) will go in. But International organizations like the League is actually a space where a lot of people enter, you have states and in some case empires,  along with humanitarian interests, all in this one space vying for something. They are all trying to get what they want," Pedersen says. Intervening, while one aspect of the League was far from the overall core of the Leagues mandates. More important for the international community was the actual time spent debating and discussing issues among the members instead of their nations going to war to solve differences. “Talk brings understanding,” says Pedersen, “ Reasonable people often have different ideas. Compromise is a good thing bringing a multiplicity of voices.” 

Toronto's KJ Mullins is one of Canada's most important on-line journalists. She is also the Editor of  


Susan Pedersen Wins The Cundill Prize

Susan Pedersen Talks About The Prize


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