The centennial of the League of Nations gives us an opportunity to look back at the organization, reflect on its notable figures, operations and activities, and review the rich philatelic legacy of this once-promising organization. In the first part of this centennial study (originally published in the January 2020 AP and available to read here), we looked at the stamps and mail generated by the League and how it handled postal affairs. This time, we look at the programs and activities it carried out, including refugee support and repatriation, conflict resolution, world health, hygiene, and oversight of the mandate system created as a result of WWI.
Here’s a look at just a few examples of how these have been documented through postal history.
Starting in 1922, the League maintained a High Commission for Refugees at the League headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, and several satellite offices throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East (Figure 1). These offices aided thousands of refugees and administered various resettlement programs throughout the regions, including distribution of passports for travel and repatriation of individuals.
Figure 1. Service cover from League Refugee Office in Athens, Greece, to Mr. Zwerner, who later became the League’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
Figure 2. Nansen passport issued to a Russian refugee. Bears a 5 Guilden tax stamp, 1937 series, for administrative fee costs. Paid by the refugee in cases where they were not indigent. Handwritten Manuscript reads: “3 February 1937”
The first League High Commissioner for Refugees was Fridtjof Nansen, an international explorer and Norwegian representative to the League. The first Nansen passports were issued following an international agreement reached at the Intergovernmental Conference on Identity Certificates for Russian Refugees. By 1942, they were honored by governments in 52 countries. Approximately 450,000 Nansen passports were provided to stateless people and refugees who needed travel documents but could not obtain them from a national authority (Figure 2).
The League High Commission for Refugees was renamed the Nansen High Commission for Refugees in 1930, following Nansen’s death. The Nansen office continued its work through 1938, at which point hostilities leading to World War II escalated and League activities in Geneva essentially ceased.
The League Mandate System
The mandate system was established under Article 22 of the Covenant of the League. The purpose of the system was to provide the victors of WWI with the control and governance of the former German and Ottoman Empire territories. The League decided the exact level of control by the mandatory power over each mandate on an individual basis.
The mandates were divided into three distinct groups based upon the level of development each population had achieved at that time. Class A mandates were territories formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire, and included Mesopotamia and Palestine under British control. Class B mandates were all former Schutzgebiete (German “protected territories”) in West and Central Africa, and included Tanganyika, Cameroon, and Togoland under British or French control. Class C mandates included South West Africa and certain South Pacific islands; New Guinea, Nauru, and Samoa.
Each of these mandated territories has postal operations that are the worthy of separate studies. For the League specialist, these areas offer considerable collecting material, including stamps and postal history (Figures 3, 4). With the dissolution of the League after World War II, it was stipulated at the Yalta Conference that the remaining mandates should be placed under the trusteeship of the United Nations, subject to future discussions and formal agreements.
Figure 3. Transjordan — Class A mandate International airmail printed matter letter, Amman, Transjordan to Karachi, India, Paid 20 Fils. Emir Abdullah issues tied by Amman ‘A’ CDS posted 06 April 1929.
Figure 4. British Cameroons — Class B mandate. International Surface letter British Cameroons to London, England, Paid 2.5d. Nigerian King George V definitives tied by special CDS “Victoria-Cameroons — Under British Mandate,” posted 8 January 1941. Nigerian censor label and censor 19 imprint affixed.
Conflict Resolution (Leticia and the SAAR Territory)
One of the main functions of the League was to encourage peaceful solutions to conflicts between nations. Fortunately, in some cases such activities are captured on surviving examples of postal activities conducted by the League in administration of this official business. Discussed below are two examples, one from a small land mass in South America called Leticia, and a second from the Saar region in Western Europe.
Figure 5. Leticia Commission Airmail service cover from Colonel Arthur Winton Brown, U.S. member of the Leticia Commission to his wife. The cover bears an office of origin handstamp from the commission, as well as a Pan American Union Postal Convention rectangular imprint.
In September 1932, an armed band of Peruvian soldiers crossed the Putumayo River and attacked a group of Columbian officials who had been in the process of establishing the Leticia Trapeze as a small port of trade. Upon word of the conflict, the Columbian government dispatched troops to take back control of the region. At the request of both governments, the League Council heard arguments regarding the conflict and decided to establish a commission to administer the area for a period of one year, after which control would be given back to Columbia if no other agreements had been reached.
Postal evidence of this commission exists in the form of service covers bearing special cancellations and other imprints denoting the League’s presence in the region (Figure 5). Some excellent research on these postal items has been documented in philatelic literature, and recently an entire book on the subject was published by Fran Adams, entitled The Leticia Incident: The League of Nations and the Colombian-Peruvian Border Conflict, 1932–1934.
As one of the provisions for establishing peace after WWI, France required that the territory of the Saar basin, a coal-rich region between France and Germany, be annexed away from Germany. Any monetary gains from the sale of the region’s natural resources were to be paid to France as part of the war reparations. In order to facilitate this and other activities in the Saar region, the League created the commission for the government of the Saar territory (Figure 6). The commission consisted of five members chosen by the League Council, including: a citizen of France, one native German inhabitant of the Saar region, and three residents of League member countries.
Figure 6. Registered (Einschreiben) service envelope from the League Commission in the Saar. It bears preprinted corner card and special imprint sent to the Mayor of Homburg. Pair of Saar commemoratives paid 1.60fr. Postage tied by Homburg CDS 24 October, 1934.
Figure 7. Private envelope from Italian soldier stationed in the Saar territory to a family member, bearing three strikes of the special Italian Forces CDS dated 13 January 1935.
The task of the League was three-fold: participate in the commission responsible for determining the boundaries; govern the region for a period of 15 years; and carry out a plebiscite, a direct vote, after that time. At the 78th Session of the Council in January 1934, a committee of three neutral members (Italy, Argentina, and Spain) known as the “Committee of Three” was created to deal with the upcoming plebiscite. In order to maintain the peace an International Police Force was established, comprised of some 1,500 British, 1,300 Italian, 250 Dutch, and 250 Swedish soldiers (Figure 7).
The International Hygiene Association was established in Paris in 1908 to gather and disseminate information from various health bureaus worldwide. Most of these functions were assumed by the League Health Organization, following its creation in 1922 in response to Article 23 of the Covenant. It was comprised of a health committee and a health section that acted as a vital link between various national health administrations. Some of the Health Organization’s major accomplishments included the following: establishing controls to reduce the spread of epidemics worldwide; establishing medical research facilities; and supporting the development of standardized vaccines.
In addition to providing an information service, the League Health Organization promoted technical assistance for member states and acted as an advisor to the Assembly and Council on health-related issues. The organization published their findings and through solicitation or via subscription, offered copies to libraries, institutions, physicians, and the general worldwide public (Figure 8). In February of 1925, the League convened the International Health Conference in Singapore. Shortly thereafter, the Eastern Epidemiological Intelligence Center was established and became the focal point for the Asian epidemic eradication campaign (Figure 9).
Figure 8. Solicitation card from the League Publications Section noting availability of the Final Report of the League’s International Commission on Human Trypanosomiasis. International surface mail printed matter rate 7.5c Geneva- Entebbe, Uganda, Africa. Returned to sender imprints applied as addressee had left the region.
Figure 9. Small Airmail service cover bearing League embossed seal on reverse flap, from the Eastern Epidemiology Office to Chief, at the League Epidemiology Intelligence Service, at the League’s headquarters. International airmail rate paid 42c by pair of Strait Settlements King George V definitives.
The War Years and the Demise of the League
As Switzerland became surrounded by war in late 1939, it became apparent that the League would be unable to sustain itself, as communication routes to and from Geneva became increasingly difficult to maintain. As the war escalated in Europe, the normal mail routes to Northern Europe and the Western Hemisphere were further restricted by the Axis powers. Three main postal offices (Geneva, Basel, and Chiasso) provided various services for outgoing mail (Figures 10, 11, 12).
Figure 10 (top). Outbound Airmail service cover to North America via Geneva with British censorship label affixed. International airmail rate paid 12.90 CHF. Dispatched 31 December 1941. Examined on Receipt by Bermuda censor No. 5230. Via Geneve Seulement handwritten manuscript. Geneva — France — Barcelona — Madrid — Lisbon — Bermuda — New York — Washington D.C.
Figure 11 (center). Outbound Airmail service cover to North America via Basel with censorship. International airmail rate paid 23.70 CHF. Examined in transit by German censor in Berlin then by Bermuda censor No. 4993. Standard PC 90 tape applied. Geneva — Basel — Stuttgart — Berlin — Lisbon — Bermuda — New York — Washington D.C.
Figure 12 (bottom). Outbound Airmail service cover to North America via Chiasso without censorship. International airmail rate paid 2.70 CHF, Chiasso 2 handwritten manuscript and Par Atlantic Clipper — PAA FAM — 18 imprint applied. Geneva — Chiasso — Rome — Lisbon — New York — Washington D.C.
Most mail destined for North America went via rail or truck from Geneva or Basel through Spain to Lisbon, Portugal. In Lisbon it was sent via American clipper, typically through Bermuda, where it was often censored by the British Intelligence, and dispatched via flights north to New York and then on to its final destination. Mail destined for Northern Europe was either returned to sender as undeliverable, or, after the armistice with France in late 1940, was sent via rail through France or Germany to its destination. In rare instances, mail was detained in occupied France for the duration of the war and then released to its final destination (Figure 13). Much of this mail was routed through Berlin or other large German cities, where it was censored by the German intelligence prior to being dispatched to its destination.
Figure 13. League service cover from the League headquarters, dispatched June 1940 to London via France. Detained in France for approximately 5 years during German Occupation. Note imprint applied. International surface letter rate paid 30c plus 30c registration surcharge. Geneva — France — London.
At the invitation of Great Britain, the United States, and Canada, most of the League’s activities were relocated on an interim basis. For those who stayed behind in Geneva, the Secretariat became a shadow of its past, with barely 100 staff remaining and few Council or Assembly activities. In June of 1940, Princeton University, New Jersey, and the Rockefeller Foundation invited the Secretariat to move its technical organizations to the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study. This became the focal point of much of the League’s economic, financial, and transit activities.
While at Princeton, the League staff continued to produce a very important series of studies on the vital questions regarding post-war reconstruction that later would serve as the foundation for the United Nations (Figure 14). Soon thereafter, in the fall of 1940, London became the new location of the League’s treasury, which joined the Nansen refugee organization that had reestablished itself in London sometime earlier. The treasury was relocated to 5 Hyde Park Square (Figure 15). Then in the spring of 1941, the League accepted an invitation to bring its actions on narcotic drugs to Washington D.C. When the League assets were transferred to the U.N., the work of the Narcotics organization continued in Washington, D.C., almost uninterrupted.
Figure 14. Wrapper from League Secretariat at Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Outbound 4th class book rate to Egypt with U.S. censorship. International 4th class book rate paid 3c. U.S. censor 6978 (New York) imprint applied. Only known example of this wrapper type.
Figure 15. Reverse of League Airmail service cover, while relocated to London, England, during WWII, bearing special origin cachet for the League Treasury at 5 Hyde Park. Only known example of this imprint.
Like the League, the International Labor Organization (ILO) moved much of its staff and activities out of Geneva during the war. McGill University in Montreal, Canada, became the de-facto home of the ILO, with more than 40 staff members taking up residence in and around the university grounds (Figure 16). The ILO continued its programs and activities at its pre-war level in Montreal and subsequently reestablished itself as a premier specialized agency of the United Nations in 1946. After the war, the ILO returned to Geneva where it remains to this day.
At the 1943 Tehran Conference, the Allied powers agreed to create a new international organization to replace the League. Many of the League’s agencies and commissions, such as the International Labor Organization, the Permanent Court of Justice, the mandate commission, and the refugee organization continued to function and eventually became affiliated with the U.N.
Figure 16. Small service envelope bearing pre-printed return address from the ILO while relocated to McGill University, Montreal, Canada, during WWII.
Figure 17. Mourning cover and cachet depicting the death of the League (SdN on the hat of the man) and the rebirth of Peace through the newly founded United Nations (ONU on the messages of the peace doves being released.) Local surface letter to Meyrin suburb of Geneva posted on 8 April 1946, the first day of the final League assembly. 10c Pestalozzi issue tied by special League assembly CDS.
On April 8, 1946, the final League Assembly convened at the Palais des Nations. The meeting was short and businesslike, lacking the enthusiasm which had consumed the Assembly some 26 years prior at the first meeting. On April 26, 1946, by unanimous vote of the remaining 43 members of the League in attendance, the League was dissolved and all remaining assets were handed over to the United Nations (Figure 17). At the close of the Assembly, the venerable old statesman, Lord Cecil of Great Britain, who had been so active in the creation of the League, took the podium and declared:
Let us boldly state that aggression wherever it occurs and however it may be defended, is an international crime, that it is the duty of every peace-loving state to resent it and employ whatever force is necessary to crush it, that the machinery of the Charter, no less than the machinery of the Covenant, is sufficient for this purpose if properly used, and that every well-disposed citizen of every state should be ready to undergo any sacrifice in order to maintain peace ... I venture to impress upon my hearers that the great work of peace is resting not only on the narrow interests of our own nations, but even more on those great principles of right and wrong which nations, like individuals, depend. The League is dead. Long live, the United Nations.
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Part one of “The League of Nations at 100” can be accessed here.
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