ON March 8, 1926, the representatives of forty-eight nations met at Geneva for the express purpose of admitting Germany to the League of Nations. They had come to attend the Seventh Assembly specially summoned to consider the request of the German Government and "Council proposals, if any, in application of Article 4 of the Covenant" concerning the increase of the Council. On March 17, they adjourned after unanimously adopting the following resolution proposed by M. Briand, Prime Minister and first Delegate of France:

The Assembly regrets that the difficulties encountered have prevented the attainment of the purpose for which it was convened, and expresses the hope that between now and the ordinary September session, these difficulties may be surmounted so as to make it possible for Germany to enter the League of Nations on that occasion.

The Seventh Assembly had signally failed. Moreover a serious crisis had arisen, which threatened not only the future of the League but the cause of world conciliation as well. Germany, having been encouraged to approach the temple of peace by the unanimous wishes of the faithful within and having been coaxed up to its very threshold by the more and more insistent beckonings of its high priests, her principal former enemies, felt constrained to turn aside in mournful dignity when she found them unable to welcome her with becoming honors. The portals, standing ajar, revealed an unseemly scramble around the altar where, it had been generally understood, one place alone should be free, that reserved for the great penitent.

The political imbroglio, referred to as the Geneva tangle, was the immediate cause of Germany's failure to enter the League, or rather of the League's failure to admit Germany on terms satisfactory to both parties. And the present international crisis is the immediate effect of this failure. As the crisis will be successfully overcome only if and when Germany's admission is secured, the impending dangers can be averted only if it be found possible to unravel the Geneva tangle. The student can do no more than to seek to unravel it by historical and critical analysis. That is the only service he can render the statesman, who alone can effectively unravel it by action.

At the beginning of the present year it was apparent that four conditions would have to be fulfilled if Germany was to join the League and thereby give effect to the Locarno agreements, whose coming into force had been made contingent upon her entry. These conditions were the following:

1. Germany must apply for admission.

2. Two-thirds of the states represented at the Assembly must, in accordance with Article 1 of the Covenant, vote affirmatively upon her application.

3. In accordance with Article 4 of the Covenant, the Council must unanimously, and the Assembly by majority, comply with the request of Germany that her representative receive a permanent seat on the Council.

4. Nothing unforeseen must happen to upset the whole plan.

Although, as is generally known, the fourth condition alone proved the stumbling-block, it is not irrelevant to restate the general position as concerns the three others.

The relations between Germany and the League in the course of the last seven years have been as extraordinary as they have been unfortunate.

The armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, on the mutually binding understanding that the peace terms would conform to President Wilson's Fourteen Points. Of these the last, and that to which its author obviously attached the greatest importance, was worded as follows:

A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

When, on May 7, 1919, the German delegation received the draft treaty of Versailles, they discovered that the "association of nations" for which it provided in its Part I was anything but "general" and that in particular their country was, temporarily at least, excluded from it. In their Observations on the Conditions of Peace of May 19, 1919, they accordingly took exception to this ostracism and demanded that Germany be at once admitted to the League on equal terms with all other members.

The Allied and Associated Powers in their reply of June 16, 1919, sought to refute the German argument by quoting from President Wilson's speech of September 27, 1918, and, while "looking forward to the time when the League of Nations . . . shall extend its membership to all peoples," refused to accede to the request for immediate admission. The logic of the Allies, it must be admitted, was hardly convincing, but their resolve was firm and their power overwhelming. And so it came about that a league was formed which, at its juridical birth, on January 10, 1920, comprised only victors and former neutrals and not even all of these.

When the first Assembly of the League met in November, 1920, the feelings of its members as to the absence of Germany were clearly divided. On the one hand, all the former neutrals and at least some of the former belligerents frankly deplored it as impairing the usefulness of the League and retarding the pacification of the world. Of this group of states, the most insistent, if not the most outspoken, was the Argentine Republic whose representative and Foreign Minister, Señor Pueyrredon, moved the following resolution as an amendment to the Covenant:

That all sovereign states recognized by the community of nations be admitted to join the League of Nations, in such a manner that if they do not become members of the League of Nations, this can only be the result of a voluntary decision on their part.

When it was decided to postpone the discussion of this proposal, Señor Pueyrredon left the Assembly and no official representative of the Argentine Republic has been seen there since.

On the other hand, France and her continental allies absolutely rejected the idea of the immediate admission of Germany. While also recognizing the principle of universality as an ideal, they were vigorously opposed to the entry of a state which, in the language of the Covenant, had not given "effective guarantees of its sincere intention to observe its international obligations."

From 1920 onwards each successive Assembly showed that the friends of the early admission of Germany were growing more numerous and more impatient and that the resistance of their opponents was weakening. But as the League, the would-be host, was becoming more inviting and more pressing, Germany, the former would-be guest, seemed to grow ever more recalcitrant.

For over four years she showed no willingness whatever to renew her application of 1919. Had any of her successive governments sought to do so, the injured pride of the German people and the well-nigh universal bitterness against the Feindbund and the Versailler Diktat would have swept it away. Besides, the League, weakened by the absence of some of the largest and most powerful states of the world and not even assured of the wholehearted support of its chief members, was far from resembling the majestic political institution which it had promised to be at the beginning of 1919. Germany outside the League, in the company of the United States, Russia, Turkey, and the Argentine Republic, apparently felt more contentment than she anticipated from being within a league without those states.

Even if these considerations had not sufficed to hold her aloof, it was obvious, until the middle of 1924, that she would not be admitted to the League on a footing of equality with her chief former foes, that is, with permanent representation on the Council. As German public opinion would certainly not have accepted any other terms and as, according to the Covenant, such terms could only be proffered by an unanimous Council, on which were represented France, Belgium, and, since 1922, Czechoslovakia, everyone realized that Germany's day had not yet come.

It finally began to dawn in the summer of 1924. The elections in France had condemned Poincaré's ill-fated Ruhr adventure and brought into power a more conciliatory government. Great Britain was being ruled by a pacifist minority supported by an unstable but decidedly pro-League and anti-German parliamentary majority. The success of the London conference and the adoption of the Dawes plan seemed to open a new era of mutual confidence and coöperation.

When the Fifth Assembly met in September, 1924, it was generally felt that a great change had come over Europe. At one of its first sittings, on September 4th, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, Prime Minister and first Delegate of Great Britain, uttered the famous words about the "menacing vacant chair in our midst," which proved not only a willingness but an anxious desire to welcome Germany to the League. On the following day, M. Herriot, Prime Minister and first Delegate of France, more cautiously but not less firmly expressed similar sentiments

These public statements had, as has since transpired, been preceded by a letter from Mr. MacDonald to the German Government in which he deplored Germany's absence from the League and expressly urged her to apply for admission. It was to this letter, to these statements, and to the several unofficial messages sent from Geneva to Berlin in September, 1924, that Herr Stresemann referred in his speech before the Reichstag on March 22, 1926, when he declared that "Germany has twice been called to Geneva, the first time by the Assembly of 1924."

In reply to this first invitation, the German Cabinet decided in principle to adopt a favorable attitude towards the League. In consequence, on September 29, 1924, a memorandum was sent from Berlin to the ten states represented on the Council inquiring as to their views on certain points which the German Government wished to see favorably elucidated before applying for admission. Besides questions relating to war guilt, disarmament, sanctions under Article 16 of the Covenant, and mandates, the memorandum raised the matter of permanent representation on the Council in the following terms:

. . . The German Government has no intention of claiming special privileges for Germany. It recognizes that the full development of the League can only proceed along lines of absolute equality between the states of which it is composed. However, so long as the Covenant of the League of Nations assigns a privileged position to certain states, inasmuch as it grants them the right of permanent representation on the Council, which is primarily the executive organ of the League, the German Government must claim the same right for Germany.

All ten replies received to this memorandum were on this last point deemed satisfactory by the German Government. This is shown by the note Herr Stresemann addressed to the Secretary General of the League on December 12, 1924, in which it is said:

. . . The German Government has now received the answers to the memorandum. It notes with pleasure that its decision has been accorded full approval in the replies furnished by the Powers represented on the Council of the League. The German Government, moreover, believes the replies to justify it in concluding that its wish for Germany to have a seat on the Council of the League is being favorably considered by the Governments now represented on the Council (. . . prendront en considération son désir . . . according to the French translation supplied by the German Government, which seems more accurate that the English version which it also furnished).

As the ten states had not been able to satisfy Germany's desire for information as to the interpretation of what would be her obligations under Article 16 of the Covenant, the note ended by a request for more precise assurances by the League itself in that matter. In reply to this note, the Council, on March 13, 1925, dispatched to Berlin a memorandum in which, while not expressly releasing Germany from the obligations incumbent upon members under Article 16, it discreetly recalled that "a state member of the League, and of the Council, would always have a voice in deciding the application of the principles of the Covenant." These words clearly showed the intention of the Council to welcome Germany both to the League and to the Council itself.

In the meanwhile the negotiations which were to lead up to Locarno had begun between Berlin, Paris, and London. They had been initiated on February 9, 1925, by a German memorandum addressed to the Foreign Minister of France. The proposal of a mutual security pact outlined in this memorandum contained no allusion to the League except in the following final words:

. . . it would be worth considering whether it would not be advisable to so draft the security pact that it would prepare the way for a world convention to include all states along the lines of the "Protocole pour le Règlement pacifique des différends internationaux" drawn up by the League of Nations, and that in case such a world convention was achieved, it could be absorbed by it or worked into it.[i]

After much parleying between Paris and London, a reply was finally sent to Herr Stresemann on June 16, 1925, on behalf of the Allied governments, in which, as originally proposed by France, it was stated that the adoption of a security pact "can only be conceived if Germany herself enters the League of Nations under the conditions laid down in the note from the Council of the League of Nations dated the 13th March, 1925."

From the German reply, dated July 20, 1925, we would quote the following passage as peculiarly relevant to our subject:

According to the opinion of the German Government, the entrance of Germany into the League of Nations would not be a necessary condition for the realization of the fundamental ideas of the German memorandum. The Allied Governments, however, on their part, are of the opinion that the security pact as suggested in the German memorandum is only conceivable if Germany enters the League of Nations. In view of the great importance which the German Government attach to the solution of the security question, they will, in principle not raise any objection against the linking up of the two problems . . .

Perhaps not without regard to Washington, Germany wished her entrance into the League to be considered as a concession on her part rather than as a favor to be granted by her former enemies. The passage quoted also shows that membership in the League was in her opinion subordinate to the question of mutually guaranteed security. Expressed in terms of subsequent events and in complete opposition to the view taken by the Brazilian representative at the Assembly on March 17, 1926, Germany held from the outset that "the League of Nations should find place within the frame-work of the political constitution of Locarno" and not "that Locarno should find place within the frame-work of the League."

The Locarno agreements, signed in London on December 1, 1925, were the outcome of these negotiations. In accordance with the wish of the Allies, concurred in with such ostentatious reluctance by Germany, it was provided that they were to "enter into force as soon as all ratifications have been deposited and Germany has become a member of the League of Nations."

On February 8, 1926, Herr Stresemann wrote to the Secretary General of the League "to propose . . . in the name of the German Government the admission of Germany to the League of Nations," at the same time requesting him "to put this proposal on the agenda of the Assembly as soon as possible." The Council, informed in advance of the German intentions, met on February 12th and decided that the Assembly should be convened on March 8th to consider the German proposal and cognate questions.

Such, briefly summarized, were the principal incidents in the curious game of hide-and-seek in which Germany and the League had been engaged in the course of the last seven years. Germany had twice been invited to join the League and had accepted once, and she had twice sought admission and been once refused.

When the Assembly met, on March 8, 1926, three of the four conditions necessary for the final entry of Germany had been fulfilled: she had applied, she was assured of a favorable, perhaps of an unanimous welcome by the Assembly, and the ten states on whom the decision depended had acquiesced in her request for a permanent seat on the Council. Unfortunately the fourth condition remained unfulfilled. The unforeseen took place which was to prevent, or at least to postpone, the consummation of the long laid plan.

What had happened? When the German application was made, it became known, first, that three states, Brazil, Spain and Poland, demanded that they also should receive permanent representation on the Council; second, that Brazil made her vote on the German request contingent upon her own preferment; third, that all three of these states had been assured of the support of other members of the Council; fourth, that Sweden was opposed in principle to any enlargement of the Council beyond that necessitated by Germany's entry; fifth, that, finally, Germany would withdraw her application if the requests of the three other applicants were considered.

Such were the conflicting policies which constituted the elements of the Geneva tangle. In order to understand how this apparently inextricable situation had arisen, one must consider in turn the attitude of each of the most directly interested parties.

Germany's position had been made entirely clear before the meeting of the Assembly. She had regarded the assurances given by the ten Council Powers in their replies to her note of September 29, 1924, as satisfactory in the matter of her representation on the Council. Neither at Locarno, nor on any other occasion before the dispatch of her application, had she received any intimation of the Brazilian, Spanish or Polish ambitions. Her application had therefore been based on the tacit assumption that she was to enter the Council as it was constituted at the time of the signature of the Locarno agreements.

Shortly before the meeting of the Assembly the German Chancellor, Dr. Luther, had thus defined and explained the attitude of his government in a speech delivered at Hamburg on March 2, 1926:

. . . In all the discussions with regard to Germany's entry into the League it had been regarded . . . as self-evident that there would be no important alterations within the League before that entry took place. The other parties to the bargain, in explaining the connection between security and Germany's entry into the League, raised no consideration that could be inferred to mean the contrary. Obviously Germany would only enter the League if she was assigned a permanent seat on the Council. This also was recognized by all parties. It would be in conflict with these understandings if the assignment of a permanent seat on the Council to Germany should be preceded by an extension of the League in respect of the composition of the Council. If, as has been said, this extension has long been contemplated, then Germany should have been told of it in the course of last year's negotiations . . . Any alteration in the composition of the Council or in the organization of the League would result in Germany's being placed in an entirely impossible position.

As the accompanying table shows, Brazil, who had been appointed to the Council as a non-permanent member by the Peace Conference, had ever since 1921 been reëlected by the Assembly as the most favored candidate.

ELECTIONS TO THE LEAGUE COUNCIL

Main Results in Voting for Non-Permanent Membership at the First Six Assemblies

(Figures in italics relate to elected states.)

1920 1921 1922 1923 1924 1925
Number of states members of the League 42 48 51 54 55 55
Number of states voting 39 44 46 47 47 49
Absolute majority 20 23 24 24 24 25
Spain 35 37 40 30 36 35
Brazil 33 38 42 34 40 43
Belgium 24 31 36 32 34 32
China 21 31 27 10 14 26
Uruguay --- --- 40 40 43 40
Sweden 5 3 35 32 37 34
Czechoslovakia 2 --- 1 30 40 35
Rumania 7 11 1 --- 1 1
Portugal 3 --- 12 19 4 2
Jugoslavia 1 --- 15 --- --- 1
Persia --- 3 9 14 --- 9
Netherlands 1 1 1 4 15 8
Poland --- --- --- 17 2 2
   The only states mentioned in this table are those which in at least one of the elections obtained more than 5 votes.

When, in 1921, Spain demanded a permanent seat, Brazil raised a similar claim as the representative of Latin America. As Brazil's claim failed to receive the necessary support, it was her veto in the Council that prevented the satisfaction of Spain's ambitions. Her reply to Germany's note of September 29, 1924 was undoubtedly obscure. While agreeing in principle to the German request, it contained the following clause which the Brazilian representative at the Assembly recalled on March 17, 1926:

. . . The Government of Brazil is of opinion, however, that the secret questions resulting from the desires expressed by Germany belong to the nature of those that must not be treated from government to government, but that must by preference be exposed and discussed in their totality by the members of the League and within the League itself, so that the diverse aspects of the said questions and the point of view of the other members of the League may be better known. The German Government, however, may feel convinced that we shall examine impartially and in a spirit of conciliation her aspirations as contained in the memorandum of September 29, 1924, by keeping to the firm intention of finding adequate solutions for all the questions and all the just claims without any prejudice to engagements taken by Brazil or the good doctrine of international right as far as applicable to each separate case.

As drafted in Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian note had contained a more explicit statement in which Brazil's agreement to the German request was clearly made dependent upon her own elevation to a permanent post. This statement had, with the consent of the Brazilian Government, been deleted by its representative on the Council on the advice of his colleagues whom he had personally consulted before despatching the amended note to Berlin on December 1, 1924. When the Assembly met, it became known that Brazil maintained this position and that her claim was assured of the support of other states represented on the Council, notably of France.

From the very origin of the League, Spain had demanded a permanent seat, partly as a former great Power and more specially as the cultural head of the Spanish-speaking world. Her ambitions were thwarted in 1921 when the British Government had moved the acceptance of her claim and the French had supported it. Ever since she has consistently opposed the principle of rotation among the elected members of the Council, which has been insistently advocated by the overwhelming majority of the Assembly. Her obstructive attitude in this matter explains the loss of international popularity as shown by the electoral returns in the foregoing table.

In 1926 Spain's claim was supported by Paris, where her representative on the Council since 1920 has been accredited as Ambassador, and also by London, in the face of obvious popular and parliamentary opposition throughout the British Empire. Spain, having unequivocally endorsed the German memorandum in 1924, declared in 1926 that she would act in strict conformity with her pledge, but intimated that she would leave the League if her claim to a permanent seat on the Council were disregarded.

Poland's demand was the most recent. Since, in spite of her candidacy for an elected seat in 1923, she never has been able to poll more than 17 votes in the Assembly, her claim to a permanent post was at least unexpected. It was based on her population, her exposed geographic position between Germany and Russia, her constant appearance before the Council in matters concerning minorities, Danzig, and Upper Silesia, and her vital interest in the Locarno agreements. It was ardently supported by France, for obvious reasons, as well as by Italy, on grounds which hardly commend themselves to the friends of the League and of international conciliation. Sir Austen Chamberlain would doubtless also have been happy to be able to support the Polish claim. The opposition of British public opinion, crystallized in his instructions, prevented him from following freely his inclinations.

The consistent opposition to any change in the composition of the Council, beyond that necessitated by Germany's entry, was represented in the Council itself by Sweden alone. As early as a month before the Assembly she officially made known her views. Although prohibitive instructions of her representative, M. Undén, related only to the creation of new permanent seats, Sweden deprecated any immediate enlargement of the Council as disloyal to Germany and contrary to the interests of the League.

It is impossible within the limits of this article to tell the full story of the Geneva drama. But we may outline its plot, which naturally falls into five parts.

First, France and Great Britain urged upon Germany, at a meeting of the Locarno Powers held on Sunday, March 7th, and upon Sweden on the following days, the acceptance of the enlargement of the Council by the addition as permanent members of Spain, Poland, and Brazil. Germany forthwith announced her intention of withdrawing her application if this plan was carried out. Sweden, supported although feebly by Belgium and Uruguay, opposed it in the Council, while the Brazilian representative, after formulating his claim, offered to ask for further instructions.

After much secret parleying, Belgium, on March 12th, made a second proposal as a compromise, which France, Great Britain and Italy accepted as a final concession, to be content with the addition of one non-permanent seat for Poland. Sweden alone on the Council refused to concur in this suggestion, while the Germans again threatened the withdrawal of their application should it be accepted.

Thereupon Sweden, very hard pressed by the Great Powers and openly accused in their press of being a tool of Germany, spontaneously put forward as a third suggestion the idea of resigning her own seat, to which the Assembly would have been free to elect Poland. To this very generous and disinterested proposal, Germany objected after some hesitation. Its acceptance, in her eyes, would have changed completely the political composition of the Council by substituting for its one truly impartial and independent member, the only continental ally of France which, bordering on Germany, was not yet represented on it. Dr. Luther and Herr Stresemann obviously feared the revival in Germany of the phantom of a hostile encirclement which had so dangerously haunted the imagination of her people before the war.

In the course of the conversation between the German and the Swedish delegates on this subject, the suggestion was made that, if another more suitable resignation were tendered simultaneously with that of Sweden, it might present the possibility of a favorable solution. This led to the fourth and final proposal. Dr. Beneš, after securing the reluctant consent of his allies of the Little Entente, declared that Czechoslovakia was prepared to sacrifice her own seat if Sweden did likewise and if that would allow the admission of Germany. This offer proved just barely acceptable to France and to Germany on the understanding that the Assembly would be advised to replace Sweden on the Council by Holland or some other state of similar status, if Poland were elected to the post vacated by Czechoslovakia.

This compromise, "undignified and unsatisfactory" as it is styled in an unusually able article in the Saturday Review of March 27, 1926, seemed for a moment to provide the bridge over which Germany might finally be brought into the League citadel. It was reached on Monday, March 15th, but shortly afterward it became apparent that all was in vain. The Brazilian delegation in Geneva had failed to secure from their far-away government any instructions which would allow it, even after all the nine other Latin American delegations had unanimously begged it to do so, to vote for Germany's admission to the Council without Brazil. On Wednesday, March 17th, the Assembly met, heard from the Brazilian, British, French and Swedish delegates why and how the negotiations had broken down, expressed its regret and its consternation through the organs of the South American, Swiss, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish and Albanian representatives, and adjourned after adopting the resolution quoted at the beginning of this article.

The Assembly had, for a reason apparently foreign to European politics, failed to admit Germany to the League. But it had succeeded in avoiding the disappointment of Spain, Brazil and Poland, the sacrifice of Sweden and Czechoslovakia, and the difficulties which would have beset several governments, notably that of France, if the final compromise had been adopted. Above all, there had been no breach between the Locarno Powers, and Germany's application had not been withdrawn.

[i]English text from the British Cmd. paper 2435 on the Locarno negotiations.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • WILLIAM E. RAPPARD, Vice-Rector of the University of Geneva; former Chief of the Mandates Section of the League of Nations
  • More By William E. Rappard