Forty-two countries declared themselves members of the League at its first Assembly at Geneva, in November-December 1920. 


The Growth of the League

During the 1920s, more countries joined the League.  The enemy powers were admitted (Austria and Bulgaria in 1920, Hungary in 1922 and Germany in 1926) when they were judged to be fit and responsible members of the global community.  The newly-created states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were admitted together in 1921.  Some other small states such as Albania and Costa Rica joined.  By the end of 1934 it had its greatest number of members: 58.

It is arguable that the membership of a huge number of nations gave the League a moral authority – it really could be said to be a ‘community’.  But did it make it a ‘Community of Power’?  It is doubtful that greater number meant greater power for the League – adding Costa Rica to your organisation does not make much of a difference.   Rather than the increase of membership adding to the League’s power, it is probably more the case that the League’s membership grew as a result of its successes in the 1920s.

The strength of the League lay not how many, but in WHO was a member.  And it must be remembered that at the start the League had four major world powers as members – Japan, Italy, France and the British Empire (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa as well as the United Kingdom).  These countries truly gave the League ‘clout’.

Only two admissions, therefore, can be said to have had any significance. 

The admission of the enemy powers – most especially Germany – was a major step forward in the idea of ‘collective security’, and Germany was genuinely a world power, so its admission really did strengthen the League. 

Secondly, the USSR joined the League in 1934, hoping that the League might be able to restrain Hitler.  The acceptance of the communist USSR into the international community was another huge step forward in international relations and the concept of ‘collective security’.  However, the Soviets lost interest as it became increasingly clear that the League could not stop Hitler, and in 1939 they made their own alliance with Hitler and were expelled from the League.


The Decline of the League

After 1934, the membership of the League fell. 

The first significant setback was in March 1933, when Japan withdrew from the League after the Manchurian crisis, followed in October 1933 by Hitler’s withdrawal of Germany from the League.  Gradually, the fascist powers left.  Italy withdrew in 1937 (after the Abyssinian crisis), and Spain in 1939.  Austria and Czechoslovakia dropped out when they were annexed by Hitler.

In addition, a number of central and South American states withdrew in the second half of the 1930s.  Again, this is probably more the result of the failure of the League, rather the cause of it.

Did the decline in membership reduce the power of the League?  Certainly, the withdrawal of Japan, Germany and Italy – key members of the Council and genuine world powers – can be said to mark the end of the idea of ‘collective security’.  Their departure marked the end of the League as a place where the nations worked together for peace.

Thereafter, it became an issue, not of community, but of authority – did the League have the power to impose decent behaviour on errant countries.  Here, rather than just membership numbers, the crucial factor was that Britain and France – the remaining world powers in the League – although they stayed members of the League, really ceased to treat it as a viable way of keeping the peace.