League of Nations Secretariat

The Secretaries-General

by Karen Gram-Skjoldager PhD in History, Associate Professor and Research Program Director, Aarhus University

The League of Nations was headed by a Secretary-General. Throughout its existence, three individuals led the organization: the Scottish Sir Eric Drummond from 1919 to 1933, Joseph Avenol from France from 1933 to 1940 and Irishman Seán Lester from 1940 to 1946.

The Secretaries-General had a ‘dual personality’. On the one hand, he played an important external role, representing the organization in relation to member and non-member states as well as other actors on the international diplomatic stage. On the other hand, he ensured the internal bureaucratic coherence of the organization, serving as the administrative head of the League Secretariat.

External Role

The external role of the Secretary-General was defined in the League of Nations Covenant. According to the Covenant, the Secretary-General was to be present at all meetings of the League Assembly and the League Council (Art.6); he was authorized to convene meetings in the Council at the request of a member state (Art.11) and he was to accept reports from member states on conflicts that may threaten the peace (Art.15). Unlike today’s UN Secretaries-General, the Secretaries-General in the League had no right to take independent political initiatives.

This, however, did not keep them from playing substantial roles on the diplomatic scene. In the early, 1920s, Eric Drummond gradually established an external role for the office by insisting on the League’s authority to intervene in the many complicated and politically charged problems that had been left unresolved by the war and the peace treaties. An important achievement in this regard was his involvement in the successful settlement of the conflict between Sweden and Finland over the Åland Islands in 1921. Later, he also came to play key roles in the negotiation of Germany’s accession to the League in 1926 and the settlement of the Chaco dispute between Bolivia and Paraguay in 1928 and in other crises and conflicts.

When Joseph Avenol took over office, the Secretary-General’s diplomatic role was widely accepted. However, Avenol went further than Drummond had and his diplomatic endeavors eventually backlashed. When Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935, he worked behind the scenes against the sanctions that the members of the League had imposed on Italy and tried to have Abyssinia expelled from the organization. In the summer of 1940, he attempted to develop closer ties between the League, Nazi Germany and the Vichy regime, basically turning the organization into a pro-Axis body. These plans failed and Avenol resigned, leaving the League politically and morally debilitated.

Internal role

The Secretaries-General’s role as head of the League Secretariat was laid out in the Covenant’s Article VI, which stated that he held the authority to appoint Secretariat staff with the approval of the Council. Apart from this, there were no guidelines directing his work.

As the first administrative head of the Secretariat, Drummond skillfully used this latitude to create a smooth and efficient administration. As leader of the Secretariat, he knew how to delegate and gave Section Directors substantial room for independent policy development in areas such as the economy, finance, health and the mandate system. When Avenol took over the post, he took a personal interest in the Secretariat’s social and technical activities. He also initiated reforms that centralized administrative procedures and introduced a more clear-cut hierarchical organization that brought the Secretariat closer to French bureaucratic procedures.

During the war, the Secretary-General’s role radically changed. Seán Lester headed a small skeleton staff of around one hundred while maintaining contact with the League bodies that had been relocated to Canada and the US. In 1945, he handed over the remains of the League to the Allies, thereby by ensuring continuity between the League and the United Nations.

The three Secretary-Generals

UN Archives Geneva

Eric Drummond was Secretary-General from 1919-1933.

UN Archives Geneva

Joseph Avenol was Secretary-General from 1933-1940.

UN Archives Geneva

Sean Lester was Secretary-General from 1940-1946.

Further readings

Eric Drummond’s papers in Geneva were destroyed as the League staff feared a German invasion in 1940. However, Drummond had brought a small  number of files with him, which he later returned to the League of Nations’ Archive

Joseph Avenol’s papers in the League of Nations Archives can be accessed here. Some of his papers have been deposited with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs as: Fonds PA6 Joseph Avenol 1920-1958, Ministère des Affaires étrangères, Archives Privées, La Courneuve, France.

Seán Lester’s private papers are located in a number of archives. A large part of his diaries have been deposited as part of the United Nations Archives Geneva's collection of private papers. University College Dublin Archives hold a collection of Lester’s private papers dating from 1912 to 1958. Further volumes of Lester’s diaries are available as a special collection at Dublin City University Library in Ireland