The first international intergovernmental organisation to develop a large-scale bureaucracy was the League of Nations. Set up after the First World War to ‘promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security’ it produced an administration of more than 700 people from around 40 different countries that managed its diverse activities ranging from international security to finance, economy and health. With no precedents to build on, the League Secretariat was, as one former employee summarised it,”a uniquely adventurous journey into unexplored territory […] with no familiar landmarks, mapped charts or itineraries to direct the traveller”
By setting out on this journey, the League Secretariat added an important and genuinely new aspect to the international political and bureaucratic landscape of the inter-war years that came to have a long term effect on the development of international administration throughout the 20th century. The League administration became an important reference point in discussions about the new international institutions created after the Second World War and its staff went on to work for the many new international organisations of the post-war world; 200 employees were transferred to the UN and others, like Jean Monnet and Per Jacobsson went on to work for economic and monetary institutions like the EC and the IMF. It is the aim of this project to shine a light on the roots of international bureaucracy and its particular characteristics by exploring the principles, practices and formative effects of the League of Nations Secretariat.
Even if this project ventures into unexplored territory, it speaks to a key debate in contemporary history: how should we understand the inter-war period and its role in European and international history? For many years, the dominant historical narrative about Europe’s inter-war history was one of conflict and violence. Struggling to understand the outbreak and atrocities of the Second World War historians focused almost exclusively on nation state rivalries and political and economic crisis and conflict. Over the last two decades however, new research has demonstrated that the inter-war years also saw the emergence of new forms of international cooperation through organisations, associations and networks that continued or at least had effects into the post-war period. Central to many of these processes was the League of Nations that has been the object of a rapidly growing research literature as Patricia Clavin, Susan Pedersen and many other historians have explored its activities in policy areas such as refugees, national minorities, international mandates, disarmament and economic affairs. The present project draws substantial inspiration from this literature but also adds two new and original perspectives. Firstly, it shifts focus away from the political activities of the League towards its organisational, bureaucratic dimension. Secondly it develops the open-ended reading of the inter-war period further by exploring the constitutive effect it had on subsequent forms of international administration.