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 League of Nations


Ananda V. Burra, JD/PhD (History), University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, aburra@umich.edu , November 2011

I spent two months of the summer of 2011 in the League’s Geneva archives, looking through materials on the League’s relationship with the colonial world. Most of my time was spent in the Mandates Section of the League, though I did take some time to look through files from the Minorities Section, the office of the Secretary-General, the Legal Section, the Political Section, and the Personnel Section. The experience, as a whole, was very rewarding—the League’s archives are housed in a lovely space and the people there are extremely helpful. The archival materials are extensive and largely underutilized. Unlike many official archives, the UN office in Geneva allows researchers to photograph their documents. That, taken along with the fact that none of the League’s documents are classified, means that even short research visits can yield vast quantities of material.

My advice for prospective researchers would be to lay the groundwork for their research project before showing up in Geneva. The archives are organized by administrative section and the files themselves are cataloged in the Repertoire Generale. The League’s archivists have the Repertoire in pdf format; researchers should get a hold of it before going to Geneva and develop a preliminary list of boxes numbers they want to look at. It also makes sense to track down the microfilm collection of the League’s official documents, several copies of which are available in American university collections (especially in law schools). Getting a sense of how the League cataloged its documents will make a trip to Geneva far more productive.

The League’s documents were, by and large, divided into three broad categories: official published documents (with references like C.P.M. 90(1) or A.2.1946), registry files (with file references like 15/40199/40199 and box numbers like R5256), and section files (with box references like S1613). The first type of document—official publications—can be found rather easily in the United States, either in the microfilm collection or in library collections. The second type—registry files—are harder to find outside of Geneva, but some departments (like the Mandates) had many of them copied and put into microfilm. Section files consisted of internal correspondence within the various administrative units that was not circulated. These are almost impossible to track down outside of Geneva. For researchers who do not have a lot of time in the archives, I would suggest focusing on this last category, at least to begin with.




Patricia Clavin, Oxford University

My understanding of the 1930s has been transformed by working in the League of Nations archives. Moving from the League’s published reports on the performance of the world economy to reading the letters, telegrams, minuted discussions and preparatory materials relating to its work on international finance, was for me akin to the move from a small black and white TV to 3-D, high-definition technicolour. But it’s also a wonderfully congenial place to work, once you make it past the new security arrangements front of house. The archivists are unfailingly knowledgeable and helpful. If one cart-load of boxes doesn’t bring the gem that you’re looking for, they’ll happily return to the stacks to search out more. The collections aren’t confined to specific time-frames, and the limits on boxes and files is not restrictive. I’ve even been offered medication when I once came down with a severe (and disgusting) illness.

The hour-long lunch break means you have time to visit the UN cafeteria, where you’ll be able to eat a good meal you can actually afford, and chat to other researchers. The view from the windows of the reading room (soon to be expanded to the former periodicals room of the library) is unrivalled. Most archives are consigned to dusty basements, but the League of Nations archives bask in afternoon Alpine sunshine on the third floor, and a clear day you can see Mont Blanc.



Dr. Alessandro Isoni, University of Salento, Italy, December 2011

The League of Nations Archives represent an outstanding resource for international administrative law scholars, especially because the League of Nations had been the first international organization with general political goals. During my research, I focused my attention both on Permanent Secretariat files and on Sir Eric Drummond’s personal files, in order to try to understand how Sir Eric Drummond, the first League of Nations Secretary General, shaped the new international administrative body on the model of British civil service.

It was a great adventure to discover the way Sir Eric Drummond managed to set up the Permanent Secretary, that in his opinion had to be independent vis-à-vis the member States and, internally, should give technical assistance to intergovernmental bodies. Analyzing the League of Nations files I also had the opportunity to understand the shift between how Sir Eric Drummond imagined the new League of Nations administration and the actual structure of the Permanent Secretariat, that very soon was weakened by France and United Kingdom. I managed to have a more complete idea about the Permanent Secretary thanks, on one hand, to the examination of folders with meeting minutes, resolutions, drafts and outlook about the institutional framework and, on the other hand, to the analysis of the League of Nations Official Journal and of the Permanent Secretary Yearly Report.

I also analyzed the Upper Silesia Mixed Commission and the Saar Governing Commission files to understand the new international cooperation inaugurated by the League of Nations. Settling these problems meant establishing a distinction between two different ways of settling international disputes: on one hand, an original court composed of independent persons and, on the other hand, the traditional zero-sum game between the Great Powers.

I consider the League of Nations Archives one of the most beautiful places to conduct research. Everything has been created to help students and researchers to work in an efficient way, without losing time and keeping concentration thanks to a friendly and quiet atmosphere. The staff was very kind and always ready to help researchers, particularly if there are linguistic issues for foreign scholars. In other word, it’s easy to say that, in the League of Nations Archives, the dream of the United Nations for easy and open access to information has been fulfilled.




Mira L. Siegelberg, Harvard University, December 2011

As many scholars are beginning to discover, the League of Nations archive in Geneva is an ideal entry point into the international and transnational history of the interwar period. When I visited the archive in summer 2009, and then for a more extended period in winter 2010, it was clear that increasing numbers of graduate students, professors, and private researchers were venturing into the archive, either to supplement their research or to focus on the history of the League and its agencies. Located in the Palais de Nations overlooking Lake Geneva and the Alps, the archive itself is a rather small room, somewhat airless in the summertime, and tight at the archive’s busiest hours. Yet the experience of working there is both informal—researchers are largely left to police themselves—and marked by a sense of the intimacy of a wide range of global developments after World War I. I had a number of different interests and questions when I arrived at the archive but was mainly concerned with the League’s response to the problem of statelessness and refugees after World War I. In fact, as I quickly discovered, even if I had set out to research a specific theme or individual, it was tempting to request other parts of the collection that testify to, among a grab-bag of other topics, the state of internationalism, rights protection, international law, state sovereignty, empire, and world health at a particular historical moment. Many of the other researchers that shared the archive with me were researching the organization’s technical organs—looking into, for instance, drug control, human trafficking, and health and labor statistics—rather than the history of the League’s efforts to regulate peace and war that characterized much of the earlier literature on the League. Leafing through boxes and files, I was struck by how much energy seems to have been expended during the height of League activity in fact-finding and information-gathering missions that are an invaluable resource for researchers looking into a wide array of historical questions, not just those directly related to the activities of the League itself. *

On a practical note, though there was more than enough to look at during my two-month stay, much can also be discovered in a shorter visit and many of the researchers seemed to be gathering masses of material in only a few days of work. It is not surprising that so many of the researchers I encountered were only spending a few days at the archive, since the cost of living in Geneva is famously high. I was lucky to find a room in a student home located in the heart of the old city that was far more affordable than any hotel, and more picturesque. On both occasions that I visited, the archivists were generous with their time and provided crucial insight into the complex structure of the League and the organization of its archival material. The indispensable three-volume guide to the archival collection provides an overview of how correspondence, reports, and printed documents were divided between the Secretariat division, which contains the vast majority of the archive, and other divisions such as Refugee and Mandates sections. Some of the richest source material I found, however, came to my attention after an archivist directed me to the name catalogue where I was able to search directly for the individuals I knew to be at the forefront of the statelessness question. The card catalogue, which is searchable by individual names and particular subjects, provides a cross-section view into the way in which individuals worked across League agencies and voluntary associations as well as the interconnections between what at first glance might seem to be separate organs like the Mandates and Minority Rights sections.

Each day I visited the archive, even after it had become routine, I was taken in by the features of the Palais des Nations that seemed to belong to a now distant past—the Art Deco architecture seemingly designed for comic book heroes, plumed peacocks wandering the grounds, and, of course, the “dreams of peace and freedom” that still seemed to linger across the city, which contains so many monuments to internationalism. ** This might, then, be the perfect setting for undertaking a rigorous historical study of the ideas and institutions that seem genetically related to our own, since the records of the League testify to the origins of our present international frameworks and structures, even while they still appear thrillingly unfamiliar.


* For me, and for new generation of researchers discovering the League, Susan Pedersen’s article “Back to the League of Nations” has been invaluable on this score. Susan Pedersen, "Review Essay: Back to the League of Nations," The American Historical Review, October 2007.

**I take this term from Jay Winter’s Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian Moments in the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press, 2008).