The creation of an international elite in Geneva after 1919

Date: 1 September 2017, 09:00–03:30

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 307


Please note that there is a break from 12 pm - 1.30 pm.


The panel focuses on people brought together in Geneva after the end of the First World War, which as an exogenous event had had a severe impact on international relations, including public and private international institutions. After the Russian Revolution and the war’s end new developments began, while there was also continuity, given the multilateral experience of the 19th century. New institutions were set up, such as the League of Nations, International Labour Organization, High Commissioner for Refugees and other ‘specialized’ League agencies as well as private associations, such as the Save the Children Fund and other humanitarian NGOs. Existing institutions, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, took on new tasks. Within and around these institutions people with different national and cultural traditions were brought together. They had an open mind and distinctively international outlook and they mixed, with a rapprochement between ‘European’ and ‘non-Western’ diplomatic traditions. They managed to bridge linguistic, racial and gender differences to a larger extent than in most national societies. In Geneva, which soon had its International Club, they formed an elite with a cosmopolitan outlook. Work and private relations resulted in worldwide transnational networks and an international civil service that would grow with the increase of the number and size of public and private international organizations. This continued after the Second World War. Relevant questions are: Who were the people who became the nucleus of this new international elite? How were they selected within their countries of origin in various parts of the world? Which criteria were relevant for inviting or rejecting people to become engaged? How and to what extent did multilateral diplomacy and international institutions play roles in the creation of this elite? Were there differences between public and private institutions and how did the inter-relationship between public and private organizations evolve? What role did Geneva play in promoting itself as an ‘international city’, if it did so? Did other international cities, such as Paris, Brussels and London, show similar developments? Can we draw parallels, or not, between 1919 (revolutionary background) and 1945 (change of world hegemonial leadership) or other moments in history? What are the main characteristics of this elite, both when it emerged and later when it had evolved further (e.g. in 1945 or later)? And how should this international elite be assessed?

Convenor / commentator

Bob Reinalda (Radboud University Nijmegen)


Madeleine Herren-Oesch (University of Basel)


Karen Gram-Skjoldager (Aarhus University)
Martyn Housden (University of Bradford)
Klaas Dykmann (Roskilde University)
Tomoko Akami (Australian National University Canberra)
Daniel Gorman (University of Waterloo)
Benjamin Auberer (Heidelberg University)


Karen Gram-Skjoldager: Conceptualising the League of Nations’ international civil service: An adventurous journey

At present there is a rising research interest in the international civil services that emerged as an integral part of 20th-century international organizations. The paper discusses how we may conceptualize and analyse one of the first major experiments in international public administration: the international Secretariat of the League of Nations. With more than 700 employees from around 40 different countries managing the League’s diverse activities, ranging from international security to finance, economy and health, the League Secretariat was the first fully-fledged, professional international public administration. However, with no precedents to build on, the League Secretariat was also a dynamic and fluid entity that developed its tasks, procedures and external relations as it went along on ‘a uniquely adventurous journey into unexplored territory […] with no familiar landmarks, mapped charts or itineraries to direct the traveller’ (E.F. Ranshofen-Wertheimer, The International Secretariat: A Great Experiment in International Administration, Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1945: 81). Drawing on examples from the League Secretariat’s recruitment procedures, work practices and public self representation the paper discusses how historians may best approach and conceptualise this genuinely new bureaucratic entity: as an uploaded and updated version of national public administration?, as a particular ‘international’ variety of diplomacy?, or as something altogether different, more fluid and open, such as a field or network of social and political activity?

Martyn Housden: Intellectual transitions: Biographical approaches to the League of Nations’ organisation of peace

The founding of the League of Nations was a revolutionary event. It was a terrifically ambitious project supposed to re-shape entirely the pursuit of international relations around the globe. Key innovations included the creation of a Council of statesmen acting as an executive regulating international affairs in accordance with the stipulations of the Covenant, an Assembly of statesmen designed to debate and analyse the most pressing issues of the day, and the construction of an expert international cadre of officials to service the League’s multifarious needs. Also revolutionary was the hope that all of those who staffed the League’s different institutions would prioritise international interests above those of their home nation states. It follows that a staff was collected for the League which included individuals from remarkably heterogeneous backgrounds but who, nonetheless, were highly able and prone to idealistic belief in the ability of Mankind to find a common mission in the organisation of peace. So who were some of the less frequently discussed individuals who threw themselves into the League’s mission? The paper will look at the ideas and contributions of people such as Dame Rachel Crowdy, Gilbert Murray and Viscount Robert Cecil. In the process, it will shed light on: the atmosphere abroad in the League during its most optimistic period; how the participants in the League understood the workings of international relations and the needs of a peaceful world; how they wanted to use humanitarian projects as tools for the creation of international solidarity; and also some of the intellectual transitions that were underway as historical figures began to shift their concerns away from the interests of nation states and empires, and towards those associated with life that was genuinely international.

Klaas Dykmann: The League of Nations’ Latin American civil servants

The League of Nations as an organization and its staff as the corresponding civil servants were predominantly European. Sir Eric Drummond, the first Secretary-General of the League, was therefore eager to make the League more ‘international’, which was a tricky endeavor as many non-western societies still were not sovereign nations. Here, the Latin Americans played a special role, as they were considered familiar enough with the mostly European understanding of diplomacy and international cooperation, but at the same time they promised to present the new organization in a more globally representative light. But who were these Latin American officials at the League? Which roles did they play? Did they only deal with Latin American affairs, as some Europeans suggested? Could they ally with other non-Europeans and establish alternative policies, similar to the phase of tiersmondisme in the 1960s and 1970s? Or were they rather loyal supporters of an intra-western consensus in their role as hybrid (non-)westerners?

Tomoko Akami: Different dynamics of networks of experts in Asia in the interwar period

Since the mid-nineteenth century, experts of different fields in various regions of Asia (and elsewhere) have made contributions to the emergence of regionally and globally governing norms. Some of these experts had governmental positions, while others did not. Some worked in non-governmental organizations, but their works were done mainly in cooperation with the governments in the region, while others argued for the merit of a non-governmental status. Many experts had relations with what was going on in Geneva. The paper does not explore how this international elite of experts was formed, but explores the nature of their networks. It examines the different dynamics of experts in the fields of public health and international law in Asia (and beyond) in the interwar period. It also discusses the factors that made these differences. It ponders what potentials and obstacles these experts had in their international actions and relations.

Daniel Gorman: Interwar influences on post-1945 international civil servants

International service took on two forms after the Second World War. One was the international civil service, much of which was concentrated in the United Nations family of international organizations. The other was international civil society, comprised of both older voluntary organizations which adopted new international initiatives after the war, and new non-governmental organizations, which mirrored the work of international organizations but whose members were drawn from the general public. Many of the individuals who entered both of these political arenas were influenced by their early careers and experiences, especially as colonial officials, during the revolutionary interwar years. The paper studies the interwar influences on a selection of British nationals who entered the international civil service after 1945. It will examine how and why they found their way into international service, and compare and contrast their experiences with those of Britons who worked or volunteered for voluntary or international non-governmental organizations. British participation in international service merits historical attention for three reasons. First, alongside the United States, Great Britain was a key architect of the postwar international system, and British nationals held a disproportionately high number of positions in postwar international organizations. They were thus able to significantly influence the structure and policies of postwar international civil service. Second, the long history of British voluntary organizations meant that Britons were well-placed to take a leading role in the postwar international civil society arena. Third, many Britons’ widespread experience in wartime and/or colonial service made them particularly well-suited for postwar international service.

Benjamin Auberer: International careers and the League of Nations: "From the Australian Bush to the International Jungle"

Characterized by contemporaries as a cosmopolitan bureaucratic elite, the personnel of the League of Nations constituted a group, which modern social sciences would describe as prototype of today’s ‘transnational professionals’. They were highly mobile professionals who regularly moved across national, imperial, geographic, and even social and work-related barriers and borders. Between 1919 and 1945, about 3,800 employees from over 58 countries were working in the headquarters of the League. Clearly, they were a major part of the cosmopolitan character of interwar Geneva. Recent historiography has emphasized the role which Wilsonian internationalism played for the history of the British Empire in the first half of the 20th century. Focusing on the activities of the British Dominions within interwar internationalism broadens our understanding of the historical process of de-dominionization. Yet, existing scholarship has usually investigated official representation and the Dominions’ direct influences on the League’s policy, and neglected the international civil servants in Geneva. The paper focuses on the careers of international civil servants from the British Dominions New Zealand and Australia in the League of Nations’ Secretariat. By investigating how their participation in the ‘League experiment’ affected the careers of its employees, the paper looks at the networks of Dominion-based League officials in Geneva and their relations to their countries of origin. It asks about the set of skills that was required for working in the League Secretariat. Thereby, it shows how interwar internationalism provided new career opportunities outside established tracks of the British Empire.

Back to listing