Peace to War 1919-1939

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Tip: Compare this map of Europe in 1914, with the one in 1919. Make sure you are familiar with these territiorial changes. A good knowledge of these maps will help you greatly.

The League of Nations

The concept of a League of Nations to deal with international problems was the brainchild of Woodrow Wilson. In February 1918 he had put forward a proposal for peace known as the Fourteen Points. Wilson�s Fourteen Points proposed a fair deal for Germany and the establishment of a League of Nations. When Germany signed the Armstice in 1918, they believed that the peace deal would be based on the Fourteen points. As you will know Germany and Austria-Hungary were dealt with severely. However, the League of Nations did come into existence.

The League of Nations was established so that the Great Powers and other member countries could discuss issues rather than resort to war. The League also had other responsibilities e.g. a world health programme and an international court of justice.

But, the League had a number of fatal weaknesses. First, three important countries were not part of the League: USA, USSR and Germany. It may seem surprising that the USA was not in the League, but although Wilson wanted American membership, many leading American politicians wanted to keep out of international affairs. This policy of keeping to themselves was known as isolationism. In fact Wilson had had a lot of trouble getting the USA into the War in 1917; President Roosevelt faced a similar problem between 1939-1941. The USSR was not allowed to join until 1934 because its Bolshevik government was not recognised by the other Great Powers. Germany was not allowed to join initially as one of the punishments imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. (Germany was a member from 1926-1933). Japan left in 1933 and Italy in 1937.

A second fatal weakness was the fact that the League of Nations did not have an army. If a conflict arose, member states had to supply forces at their own expense. All were reluctant to do so, especially Britain and France who were effectively the only strong countries in the League. How could the League enforce its will? Economic sanctions were one method of control, but these were usually ineffective if non-League countries could supply goods instead.

A third weakness was to do with organisation. Each of the member countries sent delegates to the Assembly, but real power was concentrated in the hands of the Council, made up of permanent members Britain, France, Italy and Japan in 1920. Each member of the council had the right of veto, which meant that one vote against could stop action being agreed.


It is very easy to blame the blame the League for the failure of the Second World War, but it did achieve some successes. In 1920 the League successfully dealt with a feud between Sweden and Finland over the Aaland Isalnds and between Greece and Bulgaria in 1925. Nevertheless these were disputes between small and weak countries. When the Great Powers were involved e.g. Manchuria 1931 (Japan and China) and Abyssinia 1935 (Italy and Abyssinia), the League failed because the aggressor members did not want the League to prevent their actions.

The Manchurian Crisis 1931

In many ways Japan was a new nation in the early Twentieth Century. For three hundred years Japan had remained isolated and had resisted foreign intervention. Then in 1853 Japan was opened up by Commodore Perry on the behalf of the USA. The Japanese had no desire to become a Western colony and so modernised rapidly to catch up with the Great Powers. By the turn of the century Japan had fought successful wars with both China and Russia and had made it plain that Japan sought a sphere of influence in the Far East.

Japan fought with France, Britain and the USA in the First World War, but she felt poorly rewarded by the peace settlements of 1919. During the 1920s Japan faced considerable problems e.g. a rapidly growing population and a lack of land.

Japan had long had an economic interest in Manchuria, a part of Northern China. China was a complete mess by the 1920s; it was a country torn apart by warlords and extremist politicians. In 1931 the Japanese stage-managed an attack on the Japanese owned Manchurian railway by "Chinese bandits." To protect their interests the Japanese army took control of the whole region. Both China and Japan appealed to the League of Nations to arbitrate.

The significance of the Manchurian Incident is that it was the first real test of the League of Nation�s principle of collective security. Theoretically the League should have placed economic and military sanctions upon Japan as the aggressive member state. The problem was that the League was seriously weakened by the non-membership of the USA and Russia. In effect the League was comprised of only two Great Powers, Britain and France, and a host of lesser nations. Any act of collective security would call for the leadership of Britain and France, but this was virtually impossible as both countries were in depression. The result was that Japan was appeased and got away with adding Manchuria (later called Manchukuo) to its empire.

The League appeared to take action over the Manchurian Incident by sending Lord Lytton to the region. Lytton took a year to report back to the League. As each day passed the Japanese became increasingly entrenched in Manchuria. Perhaps this appeasement is understandable under the circumstances; it is very unlikely that the general public in Britain and France would have had the stomach for a major war with Japan in the Far East, literally thousands of miles from Europe, a region which meant very little to ordinary people. It is unlikely that the navies of Britain and France would have felt comfortable with or even have afforded such a conflict. The consequences of failure meant not only a loss of prestige, but also involved a direct threat to European colonies e.g. Singapore, in the Far East.

Japan left the League in 1933, and thus lost a powerful member state. This heighlighted the fact that the League could do nothing when dealing with a powerful country.

Japan acted as a role model for other aggressive nations e.g. Germany and Italy in the 1930s. After the Manchurian Incident, the threats of Britain and France through the League or otherwise, in relation to a whole series of crises in the 1930s, were perceived to be hollow indeed.

The Abyssinian Crisis 1935

Benito Mussolini was born the son of a village blacksmith and schoolmistress in 1883. He fled to Switzerland in 1902 to evade military service. His dramatically varied early career included activity as manual labourer, a teacher, and a journalist, before he finally served and was wounded in the First World War. In 1919 he founded the �fascisti di combattimento�, which in 1921 became the Italian Fascist party. Its backing and Mussolini's own tactics accounted for his rise to power between 1919 and 1922, when King Victor Emmanuel III appointed him Prime Minister.

Mussolini was the first fascist dictator to emerge in Europe after the First World War, and was a model for others, most notably Hitler who greatly admired him in the 1930s. Mussolini called himself �Il Duce�, the Duke, and had grand ambitions to make Italy great again. Mussolini liked to see himself as an heir to the Roman Emperors, like them he wished to build and maintain an Empire in the Mediterranean.

Italy gained some lands from Austria-Hungary in 1919, but generally the Italians felt snubbed at Versailles and were not treated as a Great Power as they had expected. The Italians were encouraged to think of themselves as a Great Power and yet their track record in military terms was poor. They had been defeated by native troops in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1896 and had suffered severe losses during the First World War. The Italian image of themselves did not match up to the reality.

Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia

The crisis over Abyssinia came to a head in the Autumn of 1935. Mussolini demanded extensive territories in Abyssinia. Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia appealed to the League of Nations for help. Through the League of Nations Britain gave the impression that it would stand up to any Italian aggression. Italy invaded Abyssinia and all eyes turned to the British, as a leading member of the League, to make good their promises of punishing Italy.

But Britain had no intention of going to war with Italy over Abyssinia, after all they could hardly prevent Italy�s aggression in Abyssinia. Unfortunately, the British public did not see it that way; all they saw was the British government giving in to aggression when only a few months before was upholding the League�s principle of collective security against aggressors.

The League of Nations was seriously undermined by Britain�s unwillingness to get tough,

Britain continued to support sanctions against Italy until July 1936, by which time Mussolini was thoroughly annoyed by Britain and the League which Italy, left in 1937. Mussolini completed the conquest of Abyssinia despite Britain and the League, but most seriously Mussolini began to lean towards an alliance with Hitler

British policy in 1935 should have been either to go to war with Mussolini and to have brought him down or to have agreed to Mussolini�s claims and brought Italy into an alliance with Britain and France. Neither policy was properly followed and disaster was the result.

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