League of Nations Secretariat

The Disarmament Section

by Haakon A. Ikonomou, PhD in History, Associate Professor, Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen

Disarmament was the first political issue inscribed in the League’s founding document (the Covenant, art. 8). The task of making sense of disarmament fell to the League of Nations Secretariat. However, it soon became clear that the Great Powers were less than eager to let a group of international bureaucrats develop schemes or elaborate studies on the problem of disarmament, lest they be forced to do something. As the British major general Charles Sackville-West laconically remarked in 1919: If there were to be a Disarmament Section it should “be merely a post office at Geneva”.

UN Archives Geneva

The Disarmament Section sometime between 1927-1930. A small section, with its Director – Erik Colban – standing as number three from the right.

Development and Tasks

The first League body created to spark discussions about general disarmament – the Permanent Armaments Commission (PAC) – was made up of military men, nationally appointed, with no interest in rapid general disarmament. Meanwhile, in the League Assembly, the smaller states – particularly the Scandinavians – pushed for a proper Disarmament Section, with high-ranking officials working independently of national interests. A small version of this section was created with the second attempt at creating a proposal for general disarmament: the Temporary Mixed Commission for the Reduction of Armaments (TMC).

The TMC was much broader than the PAC in its composition and produced the so-called Draft Treaty of Mutual Assistance (1923) – which would come into effect once a treaty on disarmament had been agreed. This treaty was eventually shut down, and a new proposal, the so-called Geneva Protocol (1924), was equally abandoned, both times by the British. It was only with the Locarno Treaty (1925) and the entry of Germany into the League of Nations (1926) that the question of disarmament became so urgent that a Preparatory Commission (1925-30) was created to negotiate a skeleton treaty on the basis of which a World Disarmament Conference could be convened (1932-34).

In this scenario, the League of Nations Disarmament Section was more than ‘a post office’ but would never have the technocratic impetus of for instance the Health Section or the Economic and Financial Section. In fact, after having been belatedly created, it would operate on a shoestring budget and – unlike any other part of the League Secretariat – have national military representatives working in its midst (and eating up a big chunk of its funds). Its leadership was changing swiftly and was kept in the hands of officials from ‘neutral’ countries, so as not to arouse any of the great powers.

Apart from secretarial services, the section’s most important job was to gather and disseminate information. From the mid-1920s onwards, its primary task was to collect and prepare statistics in two yearbooks: the Armaments Year-book and the Statistical Year-Book of the Trade in Arms and Ammunition. These were aimed at the Assembly, the Council and the various Commissions established to make proposals for general disarmament schemes.

The biggest test of the Disarmament Section came with the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments, or World Disarmament Conference. With British Labour politician and former Foreign Secretary Arthur Henderson as President, and the Director of the Disarmament Section Thanassis Aghnides as conference secretary, the conference – set up in the midst of the Great Depression and just as Japan invaded Manchuria - aroused unprecedented public engagement, but was, in the end, the League’s most unmitigated failure. The conference quickly collapsed in diametrically opposed proposals from the Great Powers, and eventually the withdrawal of Nazi Germany from the negotiations and the League as such. Following this, the Section lived a relatively obscure existence until the restructuring of the League Secretariat into Departments in 1940.


The Disarmament Section had many leaders. First the Italian Under-Secretary General Bernardo Attolico, then – briefly and unofficially – the Greek Thanassis Aghnides. The Spanish Salvador de Madariaga was made the first Chief of the Disarmament Section, only to leave in frustration in 1927. The Norwegian Erik Colban came from the Directorship of the Administrative Commissions and Minorities Section but left for a post in the Norwegian Foreign Service in 1930. At this point, Aghnides was ‘brought back’ as the compromise candidate for the Directorship. There was a norm of giving the Directorship to citizens of countries that were neutral during World War 1, which made Aghnides as controversial choice. But for the Germans it was better than the alternative: a British candidate.


The Disarmament Section had several heads of section during its lifetime, and its leadership was particularly muddled in its first years of existence. First, the Italian Director of the Transit Section Bernardo Attolico was promoted to the position of Under-Secretary General with the responsibility of the Disarmament Section, general administrative matters of the Secretariat and the section he came from. In reality, however, a temporarily transferred junior official, the Greek Thanassis Aghnides, had ‘alone by himself, provided for the proper running of the Section for the whole year [of 1922]’, making him the first de facto head of the Disarmament Section. In August 1922 Secretary-General Eric Drummond appointed the Spanish official Salvador de Madariaga to take care of the daily business of the section. In reality, Madariaga – as Aghnides before him – ran the Disarmament Section alone. Together with Rachel Crowdy (Social Questions and Opium Traffic Section), he was the only head of section to hold the lesser position of Chef de Service. Madariaga was made Director in 1927, only to leave his post the same year. The experienced Norwegian official Erik Colban took over as Director in the crucial years of 1927 to 1930, when the Preparatory Commission was meeting to create the draft treaty for the World Disarmament Conference. Colban left abruptly in 1930, and a political struggle ensued over who would take over. Secretary-General Drummond wanted to appoint his right-hand man, the British Frank Walter, for the important position in time for the conference. This was blocked, however, by the German Foreign Minister Julius Curtius, paving the way for the least controversial candidate: the Greek Thanassis Aghnides. Aghnides would direct the section through the World Disarmament Section and until its suspension in 1940.

UN Archives Geneva

UN Archives Geneva

UN Archives Geneva

UN Archives Geneva

UN Archives Geneva
Liba Hersch

The disarmament section’s primary task was to publish two yearbooks: the Armaments Year-book and the Statistical Year-Book of the Trade in Arms and Ammunition. Compiling these yearbooks were two precariously employed officials: Nahim Sloutzki, a Russian émigré and Nansen-passport holder, who was never offered a long-term contract. And the Polish official Liba Hersch. Doing the day-to-day work of making the statistical yearbooks, she analysed trade and production documents from 60 countries and 50 colonies and compiled and analysed more than 200 statistical tables. Working for the section between 1924 and 1940, she was never offered an international civil servant contract. Hersch’s and Sloutzki’s trajectories are important: they were exceedingly skilled, but marginalized people, who would uphold this fraught diplomatic task at minimum wage and with minimum complaint. 

Further readings

In Registry Files from 1919 to 1927, there is a vast array of material, sorted under topical headings, reflecting the scattered efforts at disarmament in the period. On the creation of the Disarmament Section, see particularly:

R182-R183/8/143 – “Disarmament - Difficulties of Disarmament”

R184-R185/8/247 – “Permanent Naval, Military, Aerial Commission Functions”.

Under its Section Files one will find the section’s working papers on:

S411-S444The Preparatory Commission

S445-S446: The London Naval Conference

S447-S452, S460-S465The Temporary Mixed Commission

Reg.1928-1932 7B and Reg.1933-1946 7B: Here one will find the section’s material on the World Disarmament Conference.

"League of Nations Official Documents” Disarmament Series. Here can one find the two yearbooks, and the proceedings of the many conferences on disarmament, including the World Disarmament Conference.

the Private Papers of Thanassis Aghnides has important material on the World Disarmament Conference.

Karen Gram-Skjoldager and Haakon A. Ikonomou “The League of Nations Secretariat – An Experiment in Liberal Internationalism?”, Monde(s) - Histoire, Espaces, Relations, 19:1, 2021, 31-50.

Haakon A. Ikonomou, “The administrative anatomy of failure: The League of Nations Disarmament Section, 1919-1925”, Contemporary European History, 30:3, 2021, 321-334.

Haakon A. Ikonomou Underpaid and Overperforming: Interwar disarmament and the woman that made sense of it” in History Matters (University of Sheffield) (2022).

Andrew Webster, ‘Making Disarmament Work: The Implementation of the International Disarmament Provisions in the League of Nations Covenant, 1919–1925’, Diplomacy & Statecraft, 16, 3 (2005), 551–69.