The League quickly proved its value by settling the Swedish-Finnish dispute over the Åland Islands (1920–21), guaranteeing the security of Albania (1921), rescuing Austria from economic disaster, settling the division of Upper Silesia (1922), and preventing the outbreak of war in the Balkans between Greece and Bulgaria (1925). In addition, the League extended considerable aid to refugees; it helped to suppress white slave and opium traffic; it did pioneering work in surveys of health; it extended financial aid to needy states; and it furthered international cooperation in labor relations and many other fields.
The problem of bringing its political influence to bear, especially on the great powers, soon made itself felt. Poland refused to abide by the League decision in the Vilnius dispute, and the League was forced to stand by powerlessly in the face of the French occupation of the Ruhr (1923) and Italy's occupation of Kérkira (1923). Failure to take action over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (1931) was a blow to the League's prestige, especially when followed by Japan's withdrawal from the League (1933). Another serious failure was the inability of the League to stop the Chaco War (1932–35; see under Gran Chaco) between Bolivia and Paraguay.
In 1935 the League completed its successful 15-year administration of the Saar territory (see Saarland) by conducting a plebiscite under the supervision of an international military force. But even this success was not sufficient to offset the failure of the Disarmament Conference, Germany's withdrawal from the League (1933), and Italy's successful attack on Ethiopia in defiance of the League's economic sanctions (1935). In 1936, Adolf Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland and denounced the Treaty of Versailles; in 1938 he seized Austria.
Faced by threats to international peace from all sides—the Spanish civil war, Japan's resumption of war against China (1937), and finally the appeasement of Hitler at Munich (1938)—the League collapsed. German claims on Danzig (see Gdańsk), where the League commissioner had been reduced to impotence, led to the outbreak of World War II. The last important act of the League came in Dec., 1939, when it expelled the USSR for its attack on Finland.
In 1940 the League secretariat in Geneva was reduced to a skeleton staff; some of the technical services were removed to the United States and Canada. The allied International Labor Organization continued to function and eventually became affiliated with the United Nations. In 1946 the League dissolved itself, and its services and real estate (notably the Palais des Nations in Geneva) were transferred to the United Nations. The League's chief success lay in providing the first pattern of permanent international organization, a pattern on which much of the United Nations was modeled. Its failures were due as much to the indifference of the great powers, which preferred to reserve important matters for their own decisions, as to weaknesses of organization.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.