Interview with Jennifer Hart
Q: Tell us about the Covenant of the League of Nations.
Hart: The Covenant of the League of Nations was Article 16, which provided "Should any member of the League resort to war and disregard covenants of articles this and that, it shall ipso facto be deemed to have committed an act of war against all other members of the League which hereby undertake immediately to subject it to the severance of all trade or financial relations, the prohibition of all intercourse between the nationals and the nationals of the Covenant breaking state and the prevention of all financial, commercial or personal intercourse between the nationals of the Covenant breaking state and the nationals of any other state, whether a member of the League or not."
Now there is already a problem there . Resort to war. Quite often in recent years -- in the thirties and in recent years -- one nation begins fighting aggressively without declaring war. So the problem immediately arose...was Italy at war with Abyssinia? She had never declared war on Abyssinia but there are many other problems connected with this. Article 16 goes on . "It will be the duty of the Council of the League in such case to recommend to the governments concerned, what effective military , naval or air force the members of the League shall severally contribute to the armed forces to be used to protect the covenants of the League."
Now there are all sorts of problems obviously there: Who are the governments? Several governments are concerned. The Council can recommend but it is left to each state to solve whether to act on it. So obviously military sanctions would never be automatic. But at the time when the Covenant was drafted, it couldn't have got away with anything more prescriptive, I should imagine.
Q: When you arrived in Geneva what was happening with the League of Nations at that time?
Hart: Well I arrived in Geneva in January 1932, shortly before the disarmament conference which took place in February of 1932. There had been very long preparations for the disarmament conference done by the Labor Government when the national government was in control and we all had great hopes of disarmament -- which means reduction of armaments, not total disarmament. We all had great hopes that there was going to be very substantial disarmament because the whole idea was that individual states didn't need massive armaments because there would be this collective movement to stop aggressors behaving badly, and Philip Noel Baker was a very prominent person in this sort of milieu.
I think I went to one of the opening sessions of the conference when people came from all over the world with petitions from a vast range of public bodies of one kind or another petitioning for disarmament. There was a massive build up of public opinion. After that I don't think I did attend because some of it became very technical and boring and of course it went on for a very long time. I think virtually nothing came of it in the end which was really very sad.
Q: Could you talk about why you were at a disarmament conference and when Japan invaded Manchuria. Perhaps give a sense of what people felt about that at the time.
Hart: Well while I was in Geneva, the Manchurian debate was going on. I don't remember exactly when Japan invaded Manchuria but the crisis was definitely on and we were still hopeful that the League might be able to sort it out through its various mechanisms of delay and perhaps arbitration.... We were still hopeful, I think, that something satisfactory was going to happen. In the end it didn't, and the people at Geneva in the Secretariat -- all the people that I knew -- were of course very critical of the British government, especially of John Symon. They thought that members of the British government had not got their heart into it at all and didn't wish to take any action. They saw it as a far away country where British interests weren't involved.
Q: Can you tell us from your own personal point of view how you felt about the disastrous year 1936. Why is that year so important in showing the League as an impotent force?
Hart: Well, Italy finally got hold of Abyssinia and the League had petered out on it. Sanctions were stopped; oil sanctions had never been put on, so that was very disheartening. Then Germany walked in to remilitarize the Rhineland which it shouldn't have done under the Treaty of Versailles. But that wasn't really a question suitable for the League to intervene. It wasn't one country invading another, it was Germany walking into its own back yard as it has often been said.... Of course it was all part of the distressing fact of the growth of Nazism and the great support it had in Germany. Then by the summer of 1936, when the Spanish civil war broke out and immediately the Germans went in and supported Franco, this was obviously extremely distressing for people who felt like I did. But there again, the Spanish civil war was regarded as a civil war and was not a classic case for the League to intervene. Spain was in fact discussed; the Spanish situation was discussed in Geneva for three years but most people regarded it as a civil war not suitable for League intervention.... Of course it was an extremely depressing time and one felt that war was very, very likely, if not inevitable.... One had to [believe] it was right to have this war because I and all my friends were tremendously anti-fascist, anti-Nazi; that was our predominant feeling....
Q: Can you describe how you stopped actively working for the League of Nations Union and why that was. Was it just a question of your time or did you feel it was less worthwhile perhaps?
Hart: I don't think I was at all active in the League of Nations Union probably after I went down from Oxford in 1935. I was concerned with a lot of other things. My political opinions had moved very much to the Left and I was working hard for a civil service exam. I don't think it was so much that I had given up belief in the League, I just didn't cling to it as perhaps lots of us did as the thing at which to aim.... It was becoming more impossible...to make it work, and one seemed rather ridiculous if one thought to use the League to stop, for instance, Germany going into Austria in 1938. It had become kind of inappropriate to the situation, unfortunately, but we still thought it was basically a good structure and a lot of League of Nations people did, too. Gilbert Murray, for instance, went on throughout the war keeping the L.N.U. alive and ultimately turning it into the United Nations Association.
Q: Can you tell us about your father's involvement with the League of Nations in the early years. How did he regard the Covenant after it was drawn up, whether he thought it would work, and also how he regarded the rather serious setbacks at the beginning such as the refusal of America to join the League.
Hart: My father was very interested in the Covenant and analyzed it extremely carefully. He didn't actually work in the League Secretariat but he had a lot of close connections with League people. He obviously was very shocked by America not coming in; everyone was shocked by this, but he didn't think this was going to be a fatal blow. He thought the Covenant was extremely well drafted by and large. Anyway it was the best thing that you could do at the time. I think he thought that a British draughts man would have done it rather differently. It would have been in rather tighter language. Some of it was ambiguous and a little repetitive but it was the best job that could be done. It was remarkable actually that it was created at all considering the atmosphere in 1918-19 when it was being put together. So basically I don't think he thought there was very much wrong with it. He saw there were difficulties, of course, because there were these ambiguities, but the general structure was really good, especially the arbitration -- the emphasis on the need for arbitration and delay in solving disputes. It is a long process -- you don't suddenly rush into sanctions. These were the aspects of the Covenant he was most keen on. In the twenties there were occasions when the League machinery worked quite well. I can't cite them myself but they are well known.
Q: What did you consider your role to be in the League of Nations Union? what were you actually interested in doing?
Hart: My role in the League of Nations Union was...to try and get members of the public to understand the ideas behind the League. Especially that it was a totally new thing. Especially this concept that when one was concerned that Nation A was attacking Nation B, you couldn't just stand on the sidelines. And get public opinion to bring pressure on government to use the machinery of the League. And it could be made to work if people really wanted to make it work."
Q: Can you comment on how the people in the Secretariat felt as the thirties went on and they, I assume, lost their jobs. They had worked so hard for this new ideal in international relations to see it crumble before their eyes.
Hart: Well obviously members of the Secretariat of the League of Nations were increasingly disappointed in the thirties. Again they didn't think there was anything much wrong with the League, they just thought it was particularly the fault of the great powers.... The Secretary General, Frank Walters, who had written a brilliant book on the League of Nations, makes it very clear that the small powers generally were anxious to make it work and it was the great powers who had failed them. That was the general attitude. But of course they became more and more depressed. Quite a number of them stayed; they got jobs there and I don't think they left until the League finally packed in, I suppose, in 1940. Some of them went to America with bits of the League which went on, like the I.L.O. (International Labor Office) and the anti drugs efforts and so on. But obviously they were depressed; they still thought the general idea of a League was a very good idea in a sense that the machinery was very good. Obviously there were defects in it.
One of the things my father was very keen on was the idea that international machinery should provide a method of change. One shouldn't just try and maintain the status quo since you couldn't preserve the peace by doing this. So he wrote quite a lot on international law and international change and how you could actually change treaties, not just enforce existing treaties. That was, I think, article 19 of the League deals..., but that was a fairly new idea amongst international lawyers....
Q: Could you explain why the League suffered setbacks in the thirties and what happened to the League once it became clear that Hitler's appetite for Lebensraum was insatiable.
Hart: Well the League suffered setbacks because the great powers didn't really want to make it work.... With the rise of Hitler and his desire for the Third Reich to spread itself everywhere, it appeared almost absurd to take, for instance, Germany's invasion of Austria and suggest that somehow the mechanism of the League had been put into operation to prevent this. Though technically I suppose he was -- Germany was no longer a member of the League at that point. Anyway, this adds to the confusion of the thing but I think one would have been rather absurd in 1938 to have gone around saying, "Look, this matter ought to be referred to the League of Nations." But again, one hadn't lost faith in the general ideas behind the League and the mechanisms that it had set up -- that they had to be used by States. The League is not a super state, it couldn't give orders to states to do things.
Q: Some countries left the League and Russia joined. Can you tell us about that.
Hart: Japan left the League at the time of the Manchuria crisis in, I suppose, 1932, which obviously was sad. I think my father thought she might rejoin later. Germany left the League in 1933.... Well at that time we didn't realize how serious the rise of Hitler was and what it would develop into. I don't know if we thought she might rejoin. Then Russia joined in 1934. Well, that was something. There had been a long debate about whether Russia should be admitted or not, and that was quite important in terms of size of the country. But there was still a great many members of the League, I don't know exactly, still about 55 members.
Q: What was it like in Geneva? How were the people and the atmosphere?
Hart: Well, the people in the Secretariat whom I met, which of course was only a tiny minority, were very internationally minded as probably were all members of the Secretariat. They didn't just think about the interest of their own country, they were mostly extremely cultured and interesting people, well read and not exactly Bohemian but extremely good fun. There was Conny Ziliarchos, for instance, who had been there since 1919, and I think was actually writing books at the time under the name 'Vigilante' on the policy of the British government, which he probably shouldn't have been doing, I suppose. The friend I stayed with, Felkin, had been a very close friend of Galsworthy Louis Dickinson and he had been at Kings. He was a very cultured and interesting man. They were obviously all committed very much to the idea of the League, but they weren't woolly idealists at all and they led a fairly amusing and cultured life.
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