League of Nations Secretariat

The International Bureaux and Intellectual Cooperation Section

by Martin Grandjean, PhD in History, Junior Lecturer, Lausanne University

Note that there is a research guide dedicated to intellectual cooperation.

The International Bureaux and Intellectual Cooperation Section is not central in the overall activity of the League of Nations Secretariat. But despite its relatively small size, it occupies an important symbolic place for the League, for two reasons: first, it is the explicit connection with the internationalist spirit that pre-dated the institution, since it was supposed to be the link with all the international organizations created before the First World War. This "Belle Epoque" moment of international congresses and their permanent offices, from the second half of the 19th century, is indeed what the League of Nations sought to complement and coordinate, or even replace to some extent. The establishment of a multilateral system, of a centralized place where all political and technical questions are discussed, contrasts with the decentralization of all these offices previously in charge of technical cooperation in very specific fields. Secondly, this section was the place where the spiritual dimension of the League of Nations was expressed: "intellectual cooperation" was not only a scientific or technical project, it was also and above all an idealistic attempt to bring to life a "League of Minds" that created the necessary conditions for peace in a world that was emerging from a destructive conflict.

The coordination of the international bureaux having quickly proved to be limited, the Section is best known for having hosted the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (ICIC), which owes its high visibility to the famous scientific personalities who composed it, such as Henri Bergson, Marie Sklodowska Curie, Albert Einstein, Jagadis Chandra Bose and Hendrik Lorentz. The institute created in Paris to serve as its executive branch (IIIC) is often considered the ancestor of UNESCO.

UN Archives Geneva

The International Bureaux Section, in the early 1920s. From the left: Katherine Stafford, Oscar Halecki, Ken Harada, Inazo Nitobe and Mrs Marsault.

Coordinating the International Bureaux

"Great Scott! Must we coordinate all these? I am sorry for Dr. Nitobe!", wrote a member of the Section on September 10, 1919, on a note attached to the list of all existing international bureaux drawn up by the Union of International Associations before the war (LON Archives 13/299/1039). Indeed, the work of the section was based on surveys conducted before the First World War. And the first task of the Japanese Under-Secretary General Inazo Nitobe, Director of the Section, was to ensure that the list was up to date before departing on pilgrimage and trying to visit them or at least contact them. But the situation had significantly changed, and the lists were very heterogeneous and full of outdated information. Following a visit to fifteen Parisian offices in July 1920 with his secretary Miss Katherine Stafford, Nitobe decided to publish a Handbook of International Offices. The preparation of this document, the first volume of which was published in 1921 and was reissued and updated several times since, was to be the focus of a great deal of the Section's activity. Many of these bureaux had a more sustained relationship with the League, with some even planning a formal affiliation and a move of their headquarters to Geneva. But this coordination momentum clashed with the logic of these bureaux, created to gather delegates to regular congresses around very specific technical issues. These communities already existed and, for those that survived the war, were already sufficiently institutionalized not to wish to be taken over by this new multilateral political actor. The Section therefore only compiled lists of these organizations to facilitate the exchange of information but never really coordinated their activities.

Intellectual Organisation

Martin Grandjean 2023

Organisation chart of Intellectual Cooperation at the League of Nations in 1926-1930 (picture from Grandjean 2022). The Section is at the top, with the Committee on the left (ICIC) and the Paris Institute on the right (IIIC).

Intellectual Cooperation

The concept of "intellectual cooperation" was not precisely defined by the Assembly of the League of Nations. On the contrary, it was a term used to describe various concerns that arose as early as 1920 around scientific, educational and cultural issues. Some delegates first proposed the creation of an organization of intellectual work, on the model of the International Labor Office, but the Assembly voted a Léon Bourgeois resolution in 1921 to create a temporary and advisory committee tasked with clarifying needs around scientific and cultural collaboration (educational issues were too political and were left aside). The International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (ICIC) met for the first time in August 1922. It quickly became the focal point of the activity of the Section: as its sessions only brought its 12 to 18 experts together once or twice a year, the Secretariat had to ensure the continuity. The Committee's work covered a variety of topics, such as inter-university relations, conditions of intellectual work, student and professor exchanges, international bibliographic coordination, intellectual property, and artistic and literary issues. In 1924, the French government made it known that it wanted the work of the ICIC to benefit from a more efficient secretariat. The Committee therefore became a permanent organ of the Section, and an Institute was created with the financial support of France. The International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation (IIIC) is founded in Paris in 1926. It quickly became an important administration whose size exceeded that of the Section in Geneva. Soon, it was no longer simply a secretariat but a real executive center for intellectual cooperation, which made the link between the Committee (and the Section) and the National Committees for Intellectual Cooperation that were created in many countries. Under its first director, Julien Luchaire, the IIIC became so independent that the League feared that it would make decisions in total autonomy - and strongly influenced by the French government. For this reason, the Institute was reorganized in 1931 and entrusted to a new director, Henri Bonnet, who, while also French, was closer to the League of Nations. The Second World War, and the German invasion of France, interrupted the activities of the Institute in 1940, also putting an end to a final reform that would have consecrated the IIIC as a full-fledged international organization. In 1946, UNESCO was created by taking over some of the missions of the Institute and inheriting its archives.


Notable officials from the Section (and the Paris Institute):

  • Henri Bonnet, Director of the Institute (1931-1940)
  • Albert Dufour-Féronce, Under-Secretary General, Director of the Section (1927-1932)
  • Richard Dupierreux, Chief of the Section for Artistic Relations of the Institute (1925-1929)
  • Julien Luchaire, Director of the Institute (1926-1930)
  • Jean-Jacques Mayoux, Director of the Institute (1945-1946)
  • Inazo Nitobe, Under-Secretary General, Director of the Section (1919-1927)
  • Georges Oprescu, Member of Section, Secretary of the ICIC (1923-1930)
  • Massimo Pilotti, Under-Secretary General, Director of the Section (1933-1936)
  • Alfred Zimmern, Vice-Director of the Institute (1926-1930)

ICIC members who have attended 5 or more sessions:

  • Masaharu Anesaki (1934-1938)
  • Henri Bergson, president of the Committee (1922-1925)
  • Kristine Bonnevie (1922-1931)
  • Jagadis Chandra Bose (1924-1931)
  • Julio Casares (1925-1931)
  • Jose Castillejo (1931-1939)
  • Aloysio de Castro (1922-1931)
  • Jules Destrée (1922-1932)
  • Albert Einstein (1922-1932)
  • Edouard Herriot (1934-1939)
  • Johan Huizinga (1935-1939)
  • Hendrik Lorentz, president of the Committee (1925-1928, member since 1923)
  • Gilbert Murray, president of the Committee (1928-1939, member since 1922)
  • Paul Painlevé (1926-1933)
  • Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1931-1939)
  • Gonzague de Reynold, secretary of the Committee (1922-1939)
  • Alfredo Rocco (1926-1935)
  • Francesco Ruffini (1922-1925)
  • Marie Sklodowska Curie (1922-1934)
  • Joseph Susta (1928-1939)
  • Aikitsu Tanakadate (1927-1934)

Further readings

United Nations Archives Geneva

Registry Files International Bureaux 1919-1927

Registry Files International Bureaux 1928-1932

Registry Files International Bureaux 1933-1946

Debates related to the creation of the Committee on Intellectual Cooperation R1029-R1038/13C/14297 

The Section files are few and of marginal interest.

UNESCO Archives

The archives of the International Institute on Intellectual Cooperation have been digitized by UNESCO and are also available online. It is a complementary collection to the archives of the League of Nations. It should be noted that a certain number of documents on both sides are copies. It is a complementary collection to the archives of the League of Nations. It should be noted that a certain number of documents on both sides are copies. A significant part (about 30%) of the Institute's archives were lost during the evacuation in 1940.

The website created for the centenary of intellectual cooperation, which contains the proceedings of the conference and a bibliography on intellectual cooperation (over 300 publications): http://www.intellectualcooperation.org

The research guide on the Institute, produced by the UNESCO archives : https://unesco.libguides.com/iici

The research guide on intellectual cooperation, produced by the UN archives: https://libraryresources.unog.ch/lonintellectualcooperation/