League of Nations Secretariat

The Directors

by Torsten Kahlert, Dr. Phil, History, Research Associate, Marbach Weimar Wolfenbüttel Research Network

The Directors were the highest international civil servants below the Secretary-General and its DSG/USG. Taken all together they formed the so called “High Directorate” or “Haute Direction”. As has been said, the League’s Secretariat was divided into several functional sections, the Political Section, the Economic Section, the Mandates Section, the Legal Section, the Health Section, the Minorities Sections, the Social Questions and the Communications and Transit Section and so on. Each Section was headed by a Director. They were responsible for leading their Section and managing their staff and resources in accordance with the general policies of the League laid out by the Council and the General Assembly. The Directors can be seen in a way as “the men behind the man”. They reported to the Secretary General about their work during the so-called director’s meetings (often once a week). Additionally, a selected group of Directors were part of an advisory group for the Secretary-General dealing with questions of appointments, promotions, and dismissals of higher officials of the Secretariat: the so-called Appointments Committee. They were in contact with networks of their home countries and with the respective diplomatic, economic or governmental experts, as well as institutions and organizations of their field of expertise.

Over the course of the League’s existence 32 officials from 15 different countries served for a shorter or longer period of time as Directors of one of the Secretariat’s Sections. They formed an expert diplomatic elite and were decisive in shaping the rules and practices of the new administrative body together with the Secretariat’s leadership. In this way, they defined their own role, the notion of the international civil servant, laying ground for its long-term perception throughout the twentieth century.

Director positions were hard-won, prestigious positions in a new international administration. But who made it there and for how long? The Secretariat’s development in general, and specifically in terms of its personnel, was influenced by many processes and events from inside and outside the organization. None of the directors held the position for the entire span of the Secretariat’s existence from 1919 to 1946. Some had long careers in it, some stayed very briefly. Even though according to the Covenant all positions were equally open to women and men alike, only one woman was appointed as head of a section. It was Rachel Crowdy, who served at the head of the Social Questions and Opium Traffic Section from 1922-1931, though, tellingly, she never made the rank of Director.

Haakon A. Ikonomou 2023

Recruitment and career

Formally, the Directors were appointed by the Secretary General, a right which was written in Art VI of the Covenant. The first Secretary-General, Eric Drummond used this opportunity for recruitment of a first group of Directors, which was comparatively young, with an average age of around 40, when appointed, of which many had experiences in war time cooperation in technical organizations, and which knew each other from the Paris Peace Conferences. This was also the main recruitment ground. While Drummond’s personnel policy aimed for an international composition and securing the necessary language skills and diplomatic experience, he was also looking for individuals with a certain mindset, to build up an efficient new administrative body. Drummond had to ensure both that the governments of the candidates' origin agreed with the nomination and that the candidates were acceptable to the Great Powers, as appointments had to be approved by the Council.


UN Archives Geneva

Erik Colban

Erik Colban (1876-1956) was the Director of the Minorities Section from 1919-27. In this position he was a crucial figure in setting up and developing a policy on minorities (which was an important task of the League after the re-ordering of the European landscape in the aftermath of WWI with many minorities now in “new” countries). He is seen as the spiritual father of the Minorities System of the League with repercussions well into the UN.

In 1928 he moved to the Disarmament section, being the only official of the Secretariat having led two sections. Having little room for maneuver and less success there he returned to the Norwegian Foreign Office in 1930. He served as envoy for Paris, Brussels and Luxembourg. After the war, he was appointed delegate to the UN First Assembly in 1945 and even though he retired as a diplomat in 1946, was active in different positions for the UN. In 1948-50 he was personal representative of UN-SG Trygve Lie in the negotiations between India and Pakistan concerning Kashmir.

UN Archives Geneva

Dame Rachel Crowdy

Dame Rachel Crowdy (1884-1964) was a volunteer nurse working on the Western Front during World War I. For her successful work in organizing medical support for the wounded soldiers she received the title Dame among other awards after the War.

In 1921 she was made head of the Social Questions and Opium Traffic Section, a section that dealt with opium trade as well as humanitarian work to protect women as well as children from abuse and human trafficking.

Crowdy was the only woman of the League’s Secretariat leading a section but formally never received the title of a director, but had the title of a chief of section. Nevertheless, she was an outspoken supporter of the League and continued to work for the British Government in humanitarian organizations after she had left the League’s Secretariat in 1931.

Anatomy of the group

While the group was multinational it was also heavily dominated by Western Europe. This initial composition was quite stable, but not completely resistant to changes. It became a bit more diverse in terms of its national composition, but not in terms of gender. The only woman as head of section was eventually replaced by a man. Directors appointed at a later stage were slightly older than the group in the beginning and they were more often equipped with a combination of education in law and some professional background in the foreign office of their country.

After their services for the League’s Secretariat the officials would either go back into their national foreign service or academia or remained in some way or another in the realm of international organization. Some Directors of the 1930s and early 1940s would for example continue to work for one of the new UN international organizations. 

Three generations of Directors

Name Y.O.B.* Nationality Dates of Directorship Section
Erik Andreas Colban 1876 Norwegian 12.06.1919-17.12.1927 Minorities Section
Joost Adriaan van Hamel 1880 Dutch 12.06.1919-20.02.1926 Legal Section
James Arthur Salter 1881 British 13.06.1919-14.07.1931 Economic and Financial Section
Bernardo B. Attolico 1880 Italian 01.07.1919-14.12.1920 Transit & Communications Section
Pierre Comert 1880 French 21.07.1919-31.12.1932 Information Section
Inazô Nitobe 1862 Japanese 07.08.1919-31.12.1926 International Bureaux
Sir Herbert Brown Ames 1863 Canadian 01.09.1920-15.01.1927 Financial director of the Secretariat
Paul Joseph Mantoux 1877 French 10.01.1920-15.01.1927 Political Section
William E. Rappard 1883 Swiss 01.11.1920-31.12.1924 Mandates Section
Ludwik Rajchman 1881 Polish 01.11.1921-31.01.1939 Health Section
Dame Rachel Crowdy 1884 British 01.08.1922-14.01.1931 Social Questions Section

*Year of birth

Name Y.O.B* Nationality Dates of directorship Section
Salvador Madariga 1886 Spanish 01.01.1927-31.12.1927 Disarmament Section
Erik Andreas Colban 1876 Norwegian 17.12.1927-09.07.1930 Disarmament Section
Yotaro Sugimura 1884 Japanese 15.01.1927-31.03.1933 Political Section
Manuel Aguirre de Cárcer 1882 Spanish 08.10.1928-31.01.1930 Minorities Section
Juan Antonio Buero 1884 Uruguayan 01.02.1928-01.02.1935 Legal Section/Legal adviser
Vito Catastini 1879 Italian 01.01.1929-01.12.1935 Mandates Section
Pablo de Azcárate 1890 Spanish 10.07.1930-01.07.1933 Minorities Section
Thanassis Aghnides 1889 Greek 10.07.1930-01.06.1939 Disarmament Section
Robert Haas 1891 French 01.01.1931-03.11.1935 Transit & Communications Section
Pietro Angelo Stoppani 1879 Italian 01.04.1931-07.03.1939 Economic Relations Section
Alexander Loveday 1888 British 01.04.1931-06.08.1940 Financial Section & Economic Intelligence Service
Erik Einan Ekstrand 1880 Swedish 07.04.1931-04.07.1939 Social Questions and Opium Traffic Section

*Year of birth

Name Y.O.B* nationality Dates of directorship Section
Arthur Sweetser 1888 US-American 01.07.1933-31.12.1942 Information Section
Adrianus Pelt 1892 Dutch 01.01.1934-31.12.1940 Information Section
Helmer Rosting 1893 Danish 14.01.1934-01.02.1936 Minorities Section
Peter Christian Schou 1883 Danish 02.07.1936-30.06.1937 Minorities Section
Pierre Henry Watier 1882 French 15.02.1937-20.08.1937 Transit & Communications Section
Valentin Joseph Stencek 1884 Czech 01.01.1937-25.10.1947 Internal Administration
Edouard de Haller 1897 Swiss 01.01.1938-31.07.1940 Mandates Section
Rasmus Skylstad 1893 Norwegian 01.01.1938-01.03.1942 Minorities Section
René Charron 1894 French 01.06.1939-31.07.1946 Economic Relations Section
Emile Giraud 1894 French 14.07.1940-31.12.1946 Legal adviser

*Year of birth

Further readings

Rachel Crowdy’s papers are held in: J.A. Symonds Collection, University of Bristol Archives. The papers include an unpublished autobiography “To Ourselves Unknown”.

Personnel Files  - A good start to get into careers and lives of the directors

Appointment Committee files - S954 - 958

Directors meetings