World War I (1914-1918) left 40 million dead or wounded, mostly by technologies hardly imagined in the years before the war… New weapons like machine guns, tanks, aerial bombing, and chemical weapons brought the mechanization and science of the Industrial Revolution to the battlefield – with industrial scale results… And for what?
The war was so horrible it had many people – especially in Europe, where most of “The War to End All Wars” was fought – questioning some of their really basic assumptions about how the world works. Questioning whether war was a reasonable way to solve human differences. Questioning whether countries as humans had known them should even exist.
Opening discussion: What is a country? Why do we have them?
A country is a group of people who have established their own government, occupying a particular territory. Countries are inventions of people – a way in which peoples organize themselves. Their laws and actions are a reflection of the people that make them. In theory, they are the way that we protect ourselves from chaos – through laws, through armies, through rules and order.
Highlight above to reveal a possible working definition of a “country.”
What is a war? Why do we have them?
War is state of conflict between countries – when diplomacy and compromise fail, countries try to force their will upon others through violence.
Highlight above to reveal a possible working definition of a “war.”
The League of Nations was an international organization founded after the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The League’s mission included:
- preventing war through collective security
- settling disputes through diplomacy
- improving global welfare
The League was composed of a General Assembly, which included delegations from all member states, a permanent secretariat that oversaw administrative functions, and an Executive Council. The Council consisted of four permanent members (the so-called Great Powers of Great Britain, France, Japan, and Italy) and four non-permanent members on a rotating basis.
Feature or Flaw? – Characteristics of the League of Nations
Each descriptor below outlines a characteristic of the League of Nations.
Divide the class into three groups.
Group one will portray Great Britain – victorious imperial power at the end of World War I, possessed of a powerful military, a vast colonial empire – and probably the richest country in the world as a result. Global dominance is their business, and business is pretty good!
Group two will portray Germany – on the losing side in World War I, forced to disarm and go deeply into debt. Germany is on its knees as a result of the strict terms of the Treaty of Versailles. One path forward is to play by the rules of the victorious Allies, prove that your country can be a good global citizen, worthy of joining that elite group on the Executive Council. The other path forward is, simply put, to defy the world order and take what Germany wants – by bending or breaking every rule in your path.
Group three will portray India – a once glorious nation with a proud ancient past. Hinduism and Buddhism originate here – so does the game of chess and the concept of zero. For the last hundred years now, India has been a British colony with few rights and no meaningful representation in the League. India’s wealth does not make the colony richer – when things go well for India, by definition, they are going better for Britain.
For each descriptor below, try to imagine what your assigned country would think – does your country like this arrangement, dislike it, and – most importantly in any history class – explain why you’ve arrived at this conclusion.
1. The aftermath of the First World War left many issues to be settled, including the exact position of national boundaries, which country particular regions would join, and Germany’s annual reparations – punishment for its role in instigating World War I. Most of these questions were handled by the victorious Allied powers in bodies such as the Allied Supreme Council (Britain, France, Italy, the US, and Japan) and were not subject to debate in the League of Nations.
2. Authorization for any action of the League of Nations required both a unanimous vote by the Council and a majority of the Assembly.
3. Most colonies controlled by European powers before the war were maintained as such in the League of Nations until they were deemed capable of self-government by the Executive Council. These so-called “mandates” were administered primarily by the Executive Council nations.
4. Economic sanctions against troublemaking nations could hurt League members as much as those singled out for punishment.
5. Member states were expected to “respect and preserve as against external aggression” the territorial integrity of other members and to disarm “to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.” In other words, war against one member was war against them all – and all nations should reduce their militaries to a bare minimum. All states were required to submit complaints to a Court of International Justice before going to war – and then to accept the court’s rulings on whether war was justified.
6. Membership was not mandatory for any nation, and member nations could withdraw at will. At its largest, the League of Nations was comprised of 58 member-states – an impressive number, but still missing many key players such as the United States, Japan, and the Soviet Union.
7. Issues addressed by various League of Nations commissions included the improvement of labor conditions, just treatment of native inhabitants, human and drug trafficking, the arms trade, global health, prisoners of war, and protection of minorities in Europe. Member nations were expected to change laws within their own borders to abide by these reforms.
- Are the founding principles of the League of Nations – disarmament, preventing war through collective security, settling disputes between countries through diplomacy, improving global welfare – reflected in the descriptors listed above?
- Does the League of Nations favor real reform of the global power structure to make a more inclusive, egalitarian world – or does it simply perpetuate the prewar status quo? Explain your thoughts.
- After considering the above list of characteristics, what reforms would you offer to make the League of Nations function more equitably?
- Is an international governing body like this a good or bad idea? Should the US and other nations surrender some of their sovereignty to an organization like this? Again – offer some ideas for and against and explain which of these arguments you personally find most compelling.
- The US is one of the most powerful nations in the world – do we actually want a fair global system? What would we have to give up to achieve such fairness?
Put It Into Action
Create a political cartoon or meme to persuade your classmates to support or reject the League of Nations. Your cartoon or meme should reflect at least one of the descriptors featured above, and your stance on membership should be clearly communicated! Try to incorporate some of the techniques seen in the examples below – symbolism, exaggeration, fear of the unknown… Bonus points including more than one descriptor! Even more for making me laugh by including some school appropriate humor!
Some historic examples from the United States in 1919: