At the service of the League of Nations
Exploring the microcosm of the world’s first international civil service
30 Sep 2021

From the time, when in 1919 the first Secretary General, Sir Eric Drummond started working out of a small London office with a staff of only three, until the handover of the League of Nation’s assets to the United Nations, by Sean Leister in Geneva on 18 April 1946, over 4.000 people had been employed by the world’s first inter-governmental organization.

Diplomats and international experts had worked alongside a plethora of translators, shorthand typists, proof readers, librarians, and gardeners, forming a unique microcosm. Notwithstanding status or function, the Secretariat’s employees all shared a common point: each possessed a personnel file – of which exactly 3.994 are still currently preserved at the UN Library Archives in Geneva and have been digitized in the context of the Total Digital Access to the League of Nations Archives Project (LONTAD).

Sir Eric Drummond, First Secretary General of the League of Nations

Since the beginning, when the organization settled on the shores of Lake Leman, the body of employees took the shape of something radically new in world affairs – an international civil service. This ground breaking novelty was the brainchild of Sir Eric Drummond, who had been given “carte blanche” to organise the Secretariat and who, from the outset, had taken the decision that the fledgling global organization should be independent and international in its composition.

The realisation of Drummond’s vision was incremental, as the League’s personnel was at first largely dominated by the United Kingdom and France, both victorious powers of the First World War. But gradually, the diversity in the body of the permanent personnel grew from 15 nationalities in 1920 to 43 in 1938, raising, the overall membership of represented States from 36% to 62%.

Dame Rachel Crowdy, Chief of the Social Questions and Opium Traffic Section

For the sake of efficiency, the Secretariat aimed to maintain a high degree of institutional independence in which officials of members states would only serve the League and be in no way representative of their governments. This led to the institutionalised creation of an international civil service. In 1921, a provisional status was negotiated with the host state, Switzerland, followed, five years later, by a formal agreement on the diplomatic status of the League.

The League of Nations also took pioneering steps toward female representation by opening its doors to qualified women. Officially, no difference was made regarding hiring and promotion, and women roughly made up for almost half of the staff. In reality, the gender gap remained steep with an overall ratio of 213 male vs. 17 female section members (a senior positon) and only one women as Head of Section. Most female employees still worked in the field of secretarial support, health, social rights, women’s issues or library & archival work.

Regardless, during the heyday of the League in the 1920’s, the organization offered a whole new generation – alongside seasoned experts – the chance to serve international ideals and to take part in the establishment and development of the world’s first truly global organization. The League of Nations personnel files constitute a unique cultural heritage and a primary source used by historians and social scientists and are open for consultation at the UNOG Library, upon motivated request.

* Gudrun Beger is the Head of the Documentation Centre at Morges Castle and its Museums.
Read more articles about GLOBAL AFFAIRS