by Jane Mumby, PhD in History, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Internationalism, Birkbeck, University of London
The League of Nations did not close its doors in 1939. Instead, the League Secretariat continued to function for another eight years, surviving the Second World War, and successfully handed over many of its features to the new United Nations.
The Secretariat’s structure during wartime originated in 1939 and remained in place until the organisation’s liquidation was finalised. Much of the Secretariat was rationalised into three departments: Department I comprised the remaining political functions, including Mandates and Treaty Registration, Department II was dominated by economic and financial questions, while Department III provided an umbrella for the Health Organisation, Drug Control Service, and Social Questions Section.
Jane Mumby 2022
In 1938, the League Assembly imbued the Secretary-General and the Supervisory Commission with the administrative and financial powers of the Assembly – in 1939 this was extended to include the same powers of the Council – ensuring that the Secretariat could function during a crisis, which arose only months later.
The outbreak of war in eastern Europe did not immediately have a significant impact on Secretariat operations, although the 20th Assembly in December 1939 was a more subdued affair than normal. The invasion of western Europe in May 1940 however changed things dramatically, as budgets dropped drastically and over 80% of Secretariat officials left their roles, some forced to go due to the circumstances, others willingly leaving Switzerland for safer shores.
Joseph Avenol (for more on the Secretary-Generals, see the article on Secretary-Generals in this research guide), Secretary-General since 1933, resigned his position in August 1940 under a cloud of controversy, leaving the Secretariat in the hands of his deputy Seán Lester. Lester became the League’s last Secretary-General, remaining in post until the organization’s final days.
Two of Lester’s first acts in his new position were crucial in ensuring the Secretariat’s survival: he proposed a budget for the upcoming year (1941) and oversaw the relocation of a number of Secretariat activities and officials to countries ostensibly outside the immediate sphere of war – a move echoed by the International Labour Organization when it relocated to Montréal. The Treasury moved to the London branch office, elements of the Economic and Financial Organization went to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, and the Secretariat of the Permanent Central Opium Board, as well as part of the Drug Control Service, relocated to Washington D.C.
Although Switzerland remained neutral throughout the war, the invasion of western Europe in 1940 and consequent surrounding of Geneva on three sides by Axis or Axis-friendly forces, led to genuine concern for the Secretariat officials’ safety for several years. While the sections remaining in Geneva had to contend with the limited resources available to them, the groups outside continental Europe, in particular the Economic and Financial Organization, were able to thrive.
Despite the wish of many of the League’s supporters, it became apparent by 1942-43 that the organization would not be revived in the post-war world: another intergovernmental organization would take its place, and much of what remained of the League would ‘live on’ in this new United Nations.
Jane Mumby 2022
The decision, made by the Allied powers, to create a new intergovernmental organization for the postwar world was the death knell for the League of Nations. Following the signing of the United Nations Charter in the summer of 1945, attention within the League Secretariat turned to thoughts of both liquidation and possible transfer to the United Nations.
A final Assembly of the League took place from 8-18 April 1946. Delegates from every member-state of the organization were present – 35 governments at that time – alongside representatives from the UN and ILO amongst others, with a final total of almost 200 official attendees. An Assembly of this size required a significant increase in the number of League employees in order to support it and numbers reached a temporary high of 397.
The Assembly was centered around committee meetings and plenary sessions, the latter of which focused on paying tribute to the League experiment, but some key decisions were agreed in regard to the organization’s liquidation. Seán Lester and the Secretariat were given instructions to dissolve the League as quickly as possible whilst also providing support to the United Nations as requested, and the organization was "officially" declared closed other than for the purpose of liquidation from 19 April 1946.
A major resolution of the 21st Assembly was the creation of a Board of Liquidation to oversee the dissolution of the League on members’ behalf. Similar in remit to the Supervisory Commission, it was made up of nine individuals:
* These individuals served on both the Board of Liquidation and the Supervisory Commission.
The Board, supported by a small Secretariat led by Chester Purves, met forty-two times between April 1946 and July 1947, acting as an oversight group for Lester and the Secretariat, and confining much of its decision-making to questions of a financial nature.
The United Nations agreed, in negotiation with the League, to effectively ‘buy’ the League’s remaining fixed assets from the latter organization’s 35 members. This, most significantly, included the 17,000m2 Palais des Nations – as well as its fixtures and fittings – at a final total of over 46m Swiss Francs.
The United Nations also agreed, whilst it established its own Secretariat, to take over management of most of the League Secretariat’s remaining activities and services. The transfer of the Palais des Nations to UN control in August 1946 understandably coincided with the transfer of the League’s central services, designed to provide support for the rest of the Secretariat. Also transferred to the United Nations or its associated agencies in August and September were the Secretariat’s so-called technical activities, including the Economic and Financial Organization, the Drug Control Service, and the Health Organization.
The majority of League officials associated with these activities and functions became UN officials at the time of transfer. Some members of staff moved onto positions either in different parts of the UN system or outside intergovernmental organizations altogether, but many stayed at their desks in the Palais des Nations as they had before. These transfers, taking place over four months from the end of July to the end of October 1946, saw the number of League employees drop drastically. By the start of 1947, only twenty officials were still employed by the Secretariat, almost exclusively working in positions within Department I, the Treasury, or the Secretary-General’s Office.
Although transfer of most of the League’s fixed assets and functions to the United Nations was complete by the autumn of 1946, there were still elements of the former organization to be discharged. As an example, the League of Nations owned or administered a number of funds that needed to be liquidated or transferred, including the Staff Pensions Fund of the League and the ILO, the International Press House Fund, and the Forstall Fund amongst others. Arrangements also had to be made for the future management of the League Archives, alongside other unresolved tasks such as the conclusion of a tax-related lawsuit in the United States and the opening of the new League Museum in the Palais des Nations Library.
The completion of this wide array of outstanding liquidation tasks was delayed until October 1947 for a number of reasons, often beyond the control of the League of Nations’ Secretariat. Progress was also hindered by a lack of resources; with only 20 officials left at the start of 1947 – a number which dwindled slowly across the first six months of the year – there was only so much work they were able to achieve.
The Board of Liquidation ultimately concluded its business in the summer of 1947, and officially dissolved itself after its 42nd meeting on 23 July. This almost immediately led to an exodus of the remaining Secretariat officials during August, including Seán Lester, who retired to his new home in Ireland after many years away.
Only three officials remained at the end of that month, led by Valentin Stencek, Director of Internal Administration. Their task, over September and October, was to wrap up the final pieces of work necessary, including the issuance of the Board of Liquidation’s Final Report to Members, overseeing the audit of accounts, and distributing the last of the organization’s liquid assets. On 25 October 1947, over eighteen months after the League of Nations was "officially" closed by the Assembly, Stencek and his colleagues concluded their work: the Secretariat was no more.
UN Archives Geneva
Seán Lester (b. John Ernest Lester, 1888 in Carrickfergus, Ireland) was the League’s Secretary-General from 1940 until the organization’s end in 1946. He was responsible for ensuring the League of Nations dissolved itself as efficiently and effectively as possible and, as a consequence, provided the link between the Secretariat and the Board of Liquidation during the dissolution process, liaising closely with the latter to agree the strategic direction of closure. Despite his quiet hope to move into an appropriate diplomatic role with the Irish Government after his departure from the League in August 1947, he ultimately retired, before passing away in 1959 at the age of 70.
UN Archives Geneva
Carl Joachim Hambro (b. 1885 in Bergen, Norway) was Chairman of both the Supervisory Commission during the Second World War, and the Board of Liquidation until its dissolution in July 1947. He had a longstanding relationship with the League of Nations, having acted as a Norwegian delegate to the Assembly on multiple occasions during both the 1920s and 1930s. Whilst circumstances and other commitments prevented him from being permanently present in Geneva during his tenure as Chairman of both bodies, he worked closely with Lester to ensure the League’s survival during the war, and later its tidy liquidation. He continued his intergovernmental work as a delegate to the UN from 1945 until 1963, retiring from the role only one year before his death in 1964.
Valentin Joseph Stencek (b. 1884 in Opava, then Austria-Hungary) was one of the longest-serving members of the League Secretariat, having joined in June 1921. Previously a civil servant within the Austro-Hungarian government, he worked for over a decade in the Economic and Financial Section before moving into Internal Administration. Stencek was effectively Lester’s deputy during the liquidation process and stood in for the Secretary-General when the latter was in the United States for the UN General Assembly in late 1946. He was ultimately the last Secretariat official to leave the organization, and responsible therefore for the final acts of dissolution in the autumn of 1947. He remained in Geneva once liquidation was complete and continued to work intermittently as a consultant for the World Health Organization for another twenty years, eventually retiring at the age of 82.
Percy Gill Watterson (b. 1887 in Leeds, England) was one of the earliest members of the Secretariat, joining the Treasury in July 1919. During the Second World War he accompanied members of the Economic and Financial Organization to Princeton, New Jersey, and acted as the Treasury representative to the League officials based in the United States until their transfer to UN management in 1946. He officially joined the Food and Agriculture Organization Secretariat in Washington D.C. in October 1946 but continued to act as an unofficial liaison for League affairs in North America into 1947. When it became clear an on-going legal case between the League of Nations and the United States Treasury would not be finished before the liquidation of the Secretariat, Watterson was appointed as the League’s Trustee and Liquidating Agent and, when the business was concluded, was responsible for sending the last official communication to the organization’s members in January 1948. Watterson continued to work for the FAO until his retirement, and moved back to Switzerland before passing away in 1970.
Chester Purves (b. Patrick John Chester Laidlaw Purves, 1890 in Surrey, England) was one of many Secretariat members forced to leave his position with the League of Nations in 1940. He initially joined the organization in 1922 – having previously served in the British Army during the First World War – and worked closely with Valentin Stencek in Internal Administration before being invited back to Geneva in April 1946 to act as the Secretary to the Board of Liquidation. He was the central point of contact between the rest of the Secretariat and the members of the Board and was thus a key figure during the liquidation process. He stayed in post until the end of August 1947, before moving to the World Health Organization in Geneva as the Acting Chief of the Conference and General Services Division.
Much of the archival documentation relating to the League of Nations in wartime and in liquidation is spread across section and registry files from all the constituent parts of the Secretariat; few files and / or boxes were specifically created for issues relating to either the war or closure. There are, however, a number of useful starting points from which to begin any research on this period.
The League during the Second World War
Closing the League of Nations
The United Nations Library and Archive in Geneva also holds the Diaries of Seán Lester which are a valuable resource for anyone studying this period in the League’s history, especially in regard to the early part of the Second World War.
Finally, numerous reports and pamphlets were published by the League of Nations during the war and in liquidation that provide an overview of events, however the following are a good place to start:
League of Nations, Board of Liquidation Final Report, presented to States Members of the League of Nations in accordance with the requirement of the Final Article of the Resolution for the Dissolution of the League of Nations adopted by the Assembly on April 18th, 1946, at its Twenty-First Ordinary Session (Geneva, 1947).
Barcroft, Stephen, ‘The International Civil Servant: the League of Nations Career of Sean Lester, 1929-1947’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, Trinity College Dublin, 1973).
Edwards, Emma Mary, ‘The Wartime Experience of the League of Nations, 1939-1947’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Ireland Maynooth, 2013).
Ghebali, Victor-Yves, ‘La Transition de la Société des Nations à l’Organisation des Nations Unies’ in United Nations Library (ed.), The League of Nations in retrospect: Proceedings of the Symposium. Organized by The United Nations Library and The Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, 6-9 November 1980 (Berlin, 1983).
Mumby, Victoria Jane, ‘The quiet death of the League of Nations, 1945-48’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, Birkbeck, University of London, 2022).