The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, by Susan Pedersen

Niamh Gallagher on a body that, in chipping away at imperial rule, shaped the modern world

July 2, 2015
Book review: The Guardians The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire by Susan Pedersen

It is commonly accepted that some political principles must be extra-national if they are to be for the theoretical benefit of all. Internationalisation – the displacement of certain political aims and functions from the national into the international realm – is a hallmark of modernity, but how did this phenomenon arise?

Historian Susan Pedersen sheds light on this question via a perceptive and wide-ranging examination of the League of Nations. Set up in the aftermath of the First World War, the league was the “first great experiment in international government”. It was supposed to end war, but its tragic failure to do so would push it off the table of academic enquiry for decades. In recent years, scholars have returned to the subject, and here Pedersen investigates a neglected but important branch of the league whose efforts “to subject imperial rule to international control” had profound if unforeseen consequences.

Her focus is the league’s Permanent Mandates Commission, which was charged with reviewing the imperial powers’ administration of African, Pacific and Middle Eastern territories seized from Germany and the Ottoman Empire during the Great War. It carried out this function in line with Article 22 of the League Covenant, which stipulated that “advanced nations” would administer “peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world” and that the “development” of such peoples would “form a sacred trust of civilisation”. The commission was forged in an uneasy compromise among the partisans of imperial control, anti-imperialists and internationalists, and few expected it to be effective. Yet the eight men and one woman who comprised it took seriously its aim of bringing “the imperial powers to heel”. This objective, Pedersen argues, would make “imperial governance more burdensome” as it helped to bring “normative statehood” into being. The commission thus played an unacknowledged role in the demise of empire, causing many to ask if direct rule was really so desirable after all.

The Guardians’ breadth and depth is remarkable. Pedersen interweaves stories of imperial politicians, bureaucrats in Geneva and ordinary people with a critical analysis of concepts, debates and events as they occurred on the ground. This is a global study that attends to all seven mandatory powers and the 14 mandated territories from the commission’s foundation in 1920 to its demise in 1939, and it even illuminates the league’s influence on its Second World War successor, the United Nations Trusteeship Council. The result is a landmark study of a body that played a crucial role in interwar geopolitical transformation.

Pedersen is particularly illuminating on the work of bureaucrats such as Sir Eric Drummond, the league’s first secretary general, whose decision to break with convention and to structure the league by function rather than by nation allowed representatives of different countries to build allegiances on non-national issues. She also considers Sir Frederick Lugard, the respected British internationalist whose influence gave the league a distinctly “Lugardian” feel from 1923 to 1933. He believed that “native peoples” should be governed in their own interests, not those of the imperial powers, and was willing to criticise UK policy when appropriate, endearing him to the commission’s other representatives. Yet he was no anti-imperialist: he firmly believed in British indirect rule and championed “civilisational responsibility”.

One of the most fascinating, if disturbing, aspects of The Guardians is the extent to which racial hierarchy underpinned the commission’s logic and administration. The alleged “incapacity” of mandated populations was what had supposedly necessitated mandatory rule; and in the attempt to “uplift backward peoples” through “Western guidance”, mandated territories were often no better governed than colonies. In the event, some would be governed more oppressively, and Pedersen explores how the commission sanctioned repression in the name of “civilisation” in Syria, Palestine and elsewhere.

Commission members made their recommendations in Geneva, which became the “legitimate home” of international government, and the common purpose that knitted representatives together was a rigid adherence to the “original intent” of Article 22. At times this would prevent wayward powers from claiming sovereignty over their mandates, as when Belgium attempted to bring Rwanda and Burundi under its Congo administration and South Africa passed legislation entitling it to “full dominion” status over South West Africa. Yet the commission was also “constrained…by its deep textualism” and often failed to give due consideration to “real-world information”. While it debated the intricacies of a mandatory power’s administration, abuses occurred under its watch in Syria, Western Samoa and Iraq under the respective mandates of France, New Zealand and Britain.

Imperial powers also learned the language of Geneva, and in using the principle of “native interest” would exploit mandated territories for their own ends. When famine struck eastern Rwanda in 1928 and Belgium’s lax response drew the commission’s attention, the Belgian administration was forced to provide food aid. Its solution was to use native leaders to forcibly recruit local people to cultivate foodstuffs, with the commission’s Belgian representative claiming that forced labour was part of the native “tradition”, and its acceptance preserved the integrity of the “native interest”. When famine ended in 1930, 40,000 Rwandans had died and 100,000 more had fled. The commission members praised themselves for what appeared to be a sterling example of bringing an imperial power to heel, but a blind eye was conveniently turned to the darker side of this episode. Almost all native leaders were Tutsis while the forced labourers were Hutu, a situation largely engineered by the Belgian administration and a harbinger of much future suffering. Pedersen discovers an even more damning indictment of the Belgian response in the extensive road-building in eastern Rwanda during the famine years, suggesting that starving labourers were forced to work in exchange for food.

Nevertheless, internationalisation simultaneously inspired a grass-roots response, with ordinary people demonstrating their opposition to mandatory rule by sending written protests to Geneva. The commission was bombarded with petitions from Syrians, who highlighted “every detail of France’s wretched record in Syria and Lebanon”, and Western Samoa, where virtually the entire male population protested against New Zealand’s administration. Most petitions came from Palestine, where Arabs and Zionists put forward diametrically opposed views of British support for Jewish immigration. How the commission dealt with this mandate illuminates the clash between “deep textualism” and real-world developments, the troubling legacies of which are writ large today. Although petitions rarely won redress, Pedersen shows that they had other important effects. They generated publicity and mobilised diasporic populations, creating a new international arena in which to confront imperial rule, which occasionally “altered what the mandatory power not only could but wanted to do”.

The Guardians offers many important insights, not least in demonstrating how internationalism deepened when Germany became a commission member and how the UK’s governance of Iraq inspired today’s system of economic imperialism. The book’s primary revelation, however, relates to what the league did not do. Pedersen argues that self-determination, the concept that supposedly underpinned its creation, “was not what the Commission would serve”. Its failure to take seriously the demands of its mandated populations initiated a set of forces that would help to forge our unequal world of today. Pedersen’s study is nothing less than a groundbreaking account of how one organisation shaped the 20th century.

Niamh Gallagher is tutor in modern history, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.

The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire
By Susan Pedersen
Oxford University Press, 592pp, £22.99
ISBN 9780199570485
Published 9 July 2015

The author

Author Susan PedersenHistorian Susan Pedersen, James P. Shenton professor of the core curriculum at Columbia University, lives in New York, and is married to Tom Ertman, a historical sociologist at New York University

“I feel lucky to be with someone who understands my interests and commitments, and who is fun to talk to. We have two children, Saskia (17), who will start at Columbia in the fall, and Carl (16), who will be a junior at Saint Ann’s, a completely wacky no-grades school in Brooklyn. My kids are bilingual (German was their first language) and very close; they sort of raised each other.”

She was born in Japan to Lutheran missionary parents, and raised in Nagoya and Tokyo. 

“I had quite a strict religious upbringing. I think that upbringing gave me both strengths and weaknesses: a ferocious work ethic, but also a degree of inflexibility that I’ve tried hard to overcome. I do think my childhood in Japan (as opposed to my religious upbringing) was a huge benefit: it taught me that the world is complex, made up of people of many views, and if you insist on interpreting it only from your own narrow perspective, you’re likely to get things wrong.” 

She was “the classic child reading under the covers with a flashlight at night. I was really fortunate, because I went to an excellent school for much of elementary school and junior high (the American School in Japan), but was never pushed at all. My parents cared about faith, not learning, which was fairly traumatic on religious grounds (I’m not a believer) but very freeing intellectually. They also assumed their children could take care of themselves from a young age, so we could pretty much run around Tokyo unsupervised. I had a wonderful if strange childhood.”

Pedersen's undergraduate study was carried out at Radcliffe College and her postgraduate degrees at Harvard University. She recalls being “pretty driven. I went not knowing what I would study – possibly poetry, possibly biology – but Samuel Beer’s ‘Western Thought and Institutions’ really did change my life.”

“I majored in social studies; an interdisciplinary social science major with a social theory focus, which was perfect for me. I loved having a chance to read and write as much as I liked, and I loved being able to use Harvard’s incredible research libraries for my own projects. I also got quite involved in politics. I worked for a few years for an anti-apartheid organisation and was also involved with feminist issues, and a lot of my academic papers and projects grew out of those concerns.”

The luxury of delaying one’s choice of discipline as student is, Pedersen observes, “a major difference between the US and UK university systems, and it’s one of the reasons why I really like American liberal arts education. Students do specialise, but only after they’ve had a chance to experiment with lots of different disciplines. 

“That said, I do think students have been affected in really terrible ways by the poor job market and by (often) intense parental pressure and expectations. At least at Columbia University, the percentage of students doing double or even triple majors keeps climbing. Since there’s only so much time in a day or space in the schedule, this usually means a lot of overwork, stress, and corner-cutting. I’m really glad I went to school when I did, and that my parents were completely clueless about my college education. Coming from a lower middle class background was a huge advantage too, because my parents didn’t pay for my studies (Harvard did), and so they really had no say over anything I did. I also was used to working by the time I went to college and knew I could always support myself, if only as a waitress or typist.”

During one semester, Pedersen decided to take only courses taught by female academics – a rather tall order, given the paucity of female lecturers at Harvard at the time.

“I think I was, even at that stage, trying to imagine a possible future for myself,” she suggests. “One interesting thing about those courses – compared to now – is that a fair number of them were specifically about women. Those were the early days of women’s history and women’s studies as fields within the university curriculum, and the very few women faculty members at Harvard sort of went out of their way to teach those courses. 

“So, during that semester when I decided to see if I could take courses only with women faculty, four of the five courses I took ended up being not just by but also about women: American women short story writers, women’s issues in biology, the US women’s suffrage movement, and the first European women’s history course taught at Harvard, which was offered by Molly Nolan, who is now a professor at New York University

“Today, there are a lot more women faculty, and it probably is a sign of progress that five randomly selected women faculty members wouldn’t be teaching mostly women’s studies:  they’d be teaching anything and everything.” 

Asked if she finds marked differences in women’s experiences at institutions such as Harvard and Columbia between then and now, Pedersen cautions, “This is too complex a question to answer in any satisfactory way in a few lines.  

“Sociological studies continue to confirm that gender bias persists: in blind studies, both men and women ‘grade’ female professors and students more harshly than male students. That said, the academy is much more open than when I was a student. Much of the difficulties now have to do with what are euphemistically called ‘work-life’ issues. Motherhood still derails women’s careers much more than fatherhood derails men’s careers.  

“When I had the thankless job, after I achieved tenure, of running an investigation into conditions for junior faculty women in the humanities at Harvard, what I found most depressing was that most young women said: ‘If we want to get tenure, we can’t possibly have children.’ I actually waited to have kids until after I had tenure, but I was tenured quite young, and that isn’t an option for a lot of women. Probably the most heartening change I’ve seen in the academy is that even at institutions with fairly tough tenure tracks (like Harvard and Columbia), women are risking having children before tenure and are surviving tenure reviews.”

One of Pedersen’s earlier monographs, the award-winning Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience (2004), is a landmark work that considers the career of a woman often described as the most effective British female politician of the first half of the 20th century – and yet a figure who would arguably be little known in the years to follow.

“If Rathbone was forgotten – and I don’t think she entirely had been – it was partly because she tried to do good by stealth,” Pedersen observes. “She knew that a middle-aged female backbench politician wouldn’t carry much weight and tried to work through others; she was also very personally reticent. Most of her private correspondence – including her correspondence with Elizabeth Macadam, the social worker with whom she lived for most of her adult life – was destroyed, no doubt as both women would have wanted. 

“Through some assiduous digging, and with some help from a few Rathbone family members, I did manage to unearth some private material and to tell a story not only about what she accomplished but also about why she would have tried to hide how much she owed to Macadam, to her sister (who left her a great deal of money) and to other women. I wanted to give Rathbone the big doorstopper biography I felt she deserved, but also to show how the masculine conventions of the great public life worked to erase this female subtext from her story.”

Asked if she feels that female historians are making progress in addressing gaps in the literature, Pedersen says, “Yes, I do. But I also am very glad I and other women historians are not restricted to this ‘gap-filling’ role. As someone who wrote a first book on the gendered nature of the European welfare state and a second book on an important woman politician, I’m often asked how women come into the book about the mandates system I’ve just written. The answer is, not much. There was a woman member of the mandates commission, and there were women who petitioned the League about particular issues or problems in various territories, but women are not major players in this story, nor is gender a major theme.

“My test for what I write about is significance: I wrote about the way assumptions about female dependence structured welfare states because I had concluded that we couldn’t understand those welfare states properly unless we recognised how central gender was to their framing; I wrote about Rathbone because I felt she was really a towering figure in interwar politics and deserved a full biography. But while one could certainly write about the gendered dynamics of international politics (and there are people doing this), I didn’t feel this was how to write what is after all the first comprehensive history of the mandates system in 60 years.” 

Should the League of Nation’s efforts be seen as failures? Pedersen replies: “This isn’t the right way to see the League at all. First of all, the League did lots of things – yes, it was supposed to provide a framework and protocols for maintaining peace after the First World War, but it was also supposed to oversee various territorial settlements and also to deal with various cross-border traffics and risks, such as air traffic, infectious disease, refugees, prostitution, etc. The institutions and practices that were built under its aegis turned into things like the World Health Organization and Unesco and UNHCR, not to mention the European Union, and are still with us.

“The people who built those were mostly fairly pragmatic bureaucrats, not ‘enthusiasts’; sure they had ideals, but they were practical people. Their work survived to a considerable degree. In terms of the trickier question of peacekeeping, the League needs to be seen less as an institution than as a kind of arena: it was a space within which states negotiated and came to agreement (or not)."

Pedersen adds: “There were ways in which that ‘space’ was structured that proved counter-productive: the ‘publicness’ of the League sometimes led states to make promises they had no intention of keeping; too often states used the ‘megaphone’ of the League to play to audiences at home rather than to actually try to reach agreement. But the problems of the League reflected the tensions of interwar great-power politics and of mass politics in new democracies; the League didn’t cause those problems.”

Karen Shook


Article originally published as: The midwife to peoples’ power (2 July 2015)

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Reader's comments (1)

On November 2, Susan Pedersen won the Cundill Prize for historical literature (administered by McGill University in Montreal, Canada). It is the world's largest history prize - $75,000 US. She won for the Guardian