Rarely has a biography title been so fitting as Betrayal From Within, James Barros’ chronicle of Joseph Avenol’s performance as secretary-general of the League of Nations during the years between the world wars. Avenol drained the League of its political and moral authority through what historian Arthur W. Rovine described as his ‘consistent backing for British and French appeasement policy and sympathy for the dictators of the Right….[Avenol’s] weak commitment to democracy and growing appreciation of a ‘new order’ in Europe left little room for support of the League of Nations and its Covenant.’
Even worse, when Adolf Hitler attempted to master all of Europe, Avenol was ‘plotting for the enemies of his country [France] before an offer to lay down arms was accepted,’ recalled one of his own deputies. ‘He had plans to please them before the blood of his massacred countrymen was cold; he spoke with complacency of a new state when the glory of the old was being mangled under the tanks of the invaders; he conspired to betray the trust placed on him and to corrupt the honour of his associates in a debased self-interest.’
It is hard to imagine a more miscast actor for his historical role. With little interest and less skill in international affairs and diplomacy, Avenol was sent to the League from the French Treasury Department in 1922 to handle the organization’s finances. He moved up to the top spot in 1933 because the first secretary-general had been British and there had been a private agreement at Versailles that the next would be French. As Rovine pointed out, ‘Avenol worked to implement French foreign policy…rather than the ideals and obligations of the League.’
Even such an appeaser as Lord Halifax commented that Avenol’s ‘main object appeared to be to protect the League of Nations from having to decide any difficult questions of principle.’ With his reactionary politics and belief that the League should stick to nonpolitical humanitarian and technical issues, Avenol was ‘neither prophet, nor judge, nor apostle; a complete technocrat,’ as one French journalist described him.
Avenol took office in June 1933, four months after Japan walked out of the League because of its opposition–albeit ineffectual–to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Five months later Germany quit, then Italy left in 1937. Avenol worked to stifle criticism and action against these nations in an effort to lure them back. As Barros wrote in Betrayal From Within: ‘The continual hope of their return should at some point have been recognized as an illusion and failure admitted. This Avenol refused to do.’
Avenol had argued Japan’s side in the Manchurian crisis before he took office, and in the League’s decisive test–when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935–his concern was not to stop Benito Mussolini’s aggression but, rather, to keep Italy as a member of the League and an ally of France against Germany. British diplomat Anthony Eden recalled having to listen, annoyed, as Avenol’surpassed the French Ministers in excuses for Mussolini’s attitude.’ Eden would have been astounded had he seen a letter that Avenol wrote to a French Foreign Ministry official claiming that the crisis was really about Great Britain struggling with Italy for control of the Mediterranean, after which, he feared, Britain would reach an understanding with Germany that would weaken France.
Avenol favored the Hoare-Laval Pact–an attempt to appease Mussolini by recognizing some of his claims on Ethiopia while preserving some of the nation’s independence. He worked behind the scenes to weaken his own organization’s sanctions against Italy, not even disciplining Italian employees of the League who donated a gold bar to the war effort. After Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie fled, Avenol went to Rome, in what George W. Baer called ‘an extraordinary trip of dubious propriety,’ to try to arrange–unsuccessfully–for Ethiopia’s expulsion from the League.
When he returned, Avenol told two officials of the League’s International Labor Organization that ‘left-wing organizations like the ILO are finished’ and Europe ‘would be governed by Hitler, Mussolini, and…’ His sentence trailed off without ending, and both of the ILO officials were certain Avenol was about to add himself.
Finished politically by the Ethiopian fiasco, the League had to watch helplessly as its Free City of Danzig came under the control of the Nazi Party. (The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, had made formerly German-held land into an independent territory administered by the League of Nations, with Danzig as its capital.) The League’s only response to the unification of Germany and Austria in 1938 was to drop Austria from the dues list. And the League Assembly was a mere onlooker to the September 1939 signing of the Munich Pact, in which Britain and France permitted Hitler to take over the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. Spain’s foreign minister–who had angrily tangled with Avenol over German and Italian intervention in his nation’s civil war–noted with contempt how ‘the representatives of nearly fifty nations silently swallowed their indignation at being made the laughingstock of the whole world.’
Avenol brushed aside Albania’s appeal for an emergency meeting as Italy invaded that country in April 1939. And Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland never came up in Geneva. Respect for the League had fallen so far that the Gestapo invaded the home of the League high commissioner in Danzig the night before the war began, and when Britain and France sent in notifications of their declarations of war, they pointedly did not invoke the Covenant of the League of Nations–Part I of the Treaty of Versailles. Instead, they cited the Kellogg-Briand Pact–a 1928 treaty renouncing war that had been signed or ratified by every world power and almost all independent nations–and their guarantees to Poland.
By May 1940, the League’s deputy secretary-general, Sean Lester of Ireland, lamented: ‘The dearth of leadership and inspiration was unbelievable. The office seemed without soul. One who had known the Secretariat in the old days of glory would not have thought it could have sunk so low.’
The nadir was reached the next month, on the day the Germans marched into Paris. Avenol called in his Greek aide, Thanassis Aghnides, and announced, ‘That’s it, it is done.’ When Aghnides asked what Avenol meant, he was stunned by the reply from the secretary-general. ‘What the English prevented my country for three hundred years from doing, namely achieving hegemony over Europe,’ explained Avenol. ‘We must work hand-in-hand with Hitler in order to achieve the unity of Europe and expel England.’
In the next weeks Avenol praised Hitler and Mussolini, denounced Britain and the United States and declared: ‘It is the end of the world of the 19th century. We are at the beginning of a great revolution.’ He argued that, ‘except for the Germans and Italians who have a program, a doctrine, and a method, no one seems to have one….They contain things which one can no longer reject.’ He described ‘a new France, which was to be given a new soul to work in collaboration with Germany and Italy and keep the British out of Europe,’ and discussed how to use the League machinery for a new European League.
Avenol fired the last British employees and asked Aghnides and then another official, Carlos Pardo, to make contact with the German consul in Geneva. Both refused. He tried, again without success, to induce an Italian former League official, Pietro Stoppani, to open a pipeline to Rome. Avenol then made a hurried trip to Bern, Switzerland, where Lester and many others at the League were convinced he met the German and Italian ambassadors to offer to hand over the League, but Avenol later denied it.
In a final, characteristic act of self-abnegation, Avenol wrote to the Vichy government to affirm his loyalty to puppet leader Marshal Henri Pétain and offered to resign. Ordered out, he hung on in Geneva another month in a final drive to dismantle the League–firing more staff, then refusing to write a new budget and arguing that the League could not legally exist without one.
Finally, on August 31, 1940, Joseph Avenol left Geneva and the League of Nations for good. Spurned by the Vichy government, he had to flee back into Switzerland on New Year’s Eve 1943 to avoid arrest by the Germans he had praised and hoped to work with.
The job of salvaging the wreckage Avenol had left behind fell to the new secretary-general, Sean Lester, who was as principled and honorable as Avenol was corrupt. He had endured a frightening tour of duty in Danzig as high commissioner. His phones had been tapped. His butler had spied on him. Nighttime walks had been interrupted by Nazi victims, too scared to be seen at his office, appearing out of the dark to beg for help. Appointed Avenol’s deputy in 1936, he had been warned by Anthony Eden that he would probably be the next secretary-general. ‘If I thought so,’ Lester had replied, ‘you wouldn’t see my heels for the dust.’
Pressured by Avenol to resign, however, Lester dug in his heels. ‘I began my life politically in one ‘lost cause’ [Irish independence],’ he said, ‘and it seems likely I shall finish it in another.’ He gathered the League’s remaining 100 employees, counting the guards and janitors, of the original 700 into a few offices and managed to keep the League’s technical and humanitarian programs in drug control, economics, labor standards and refugee aid–which Avenol had earlier dispersed to Britain, the United States and Canada–in limited operation for the rest of the war.
Joseph Avenol outlived by six years the organization he subverted and tried to destroy. On April 18, 1946, the Assembly of the League of Nations voted to dissolve and transfer its building, assets, responsibilities and hopes to the new United Nations.
This article was written by John W. Osborn, Jr. and originally appeared in the July 1997 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!