The League of Nations builds itself a custom-built headquarters in Geneva

I have been reading The Mighty Continent by John Terraine, which is a history of Europe from 1900 to the 1970s when it was published, being a spin-off book from a TV show.

On page 145 of my 1974 paperback edition, Terraine describes yet another example of the tendency of an organisation to lose its way at the very moment it constructs its custom-built headquarters. In this case, it’s the League of Nations, which collapsed into impotence when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and the League did nothing about this:

The organisation lingered on and, with a final irony, it was now that it assumed the outward shape that is generally associated with it. The Palace of Nations, begun in 1929, was finished in 1936, just in time to become a mausoleum. Here at last were the necessary offices, 700 of them, and the fitting conference rooms for the words that no longer meant anything. There was a floor of Finnish granite, walls and pillars faced with Swedish marble, enigmatic and forbidding murals, depicting Technical Progress, Medical Progress, Social Progress, the Abolition of War, and so on, by the Catalan artist Jose Maria Sert. Under their sombre painted sermons, the Assemblies still met a passed their resolutions; everyone was still very busy. But underneath it all the mainspring was broken.

This building, the Palais des Nations in Geneva, is now occupied by the UN, which has its own custom-built headquarters building in New York. This is also a very busy place.

4 thoughts on “The League of Nations builds itself a custom-built headquarters in Geneva”

  1. John Terraine is primarily known to me as a First World War historian. He wrote a (very positive) biography of Haig (The Educated Soldier) and was half of the team that wrote the Great War television series. This book you refer to was an example of his branching out. Another was a book about the RAF but Perry can tell you all about that.

    I have visited one of the world’s UN buildings; the one in Vienna. It’s not particularly impressive. Even so I don’t take this as a sign that the UN is getting its act together.

  2. Woodrow Wilson proposed that the League of Nations have its headquarters in Fiume (modern day Rijeka in Croatia) – an extremely important place when it was the only seaport of the Habsburg empire, but not a very important place when (as today) it is part of a country with many other ports that are easier to get to. Less pompous than Geneva, though.

  3. Yes, it was. My mistake Fiume was at one point the only port in the Kingdom of Hungary, though, which mattered for some reason. (Probably taxes).

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